2nd Lt Jack Harrison VC MC

Rugby League

'Jack had it all, a great speed, a great swerving ability...'

Bill Dalton, Hull FC Historian

Submitted by Flight Lieutenant Damien Clayton MBE

John ‘Jack’ Harrison, a professional rugby league player for Hull F.C. won his Victoria Cross on 3 May 1917 at Oppy Wood in northern France.

Harrison was born on 12 November 1890 in Hull, the son of a shipyard worker. Rather than leaving school at the age of 12, he enrolled at St John’s College York to undertake teacher training. During his time at college, he played cricket, competed in swimming and captained the rugby side.

Harrison took work as a teacher at Lime Street School in Hull, but continued with his rugby, playing his first match for Hull F.C. as a right wing on 5 September 1912. His sporting career was extremely successful, scoring 106 tries in 116 matches including one try in Hull’s 1914 Challenge Cup victory over Wakefield Trinity.

Just after the outbreak of war Harrison married Lillian. Following the birth of their son Jackie in 1915, Harrison enlisted in the East Yorkshire Regiment, joining the 11th Battalion, otherwise known as the ‘Hull Tradesmen’. Hull battalions saw action defending the Suez Canal and in Northern France during the next months. Jack was commissioned as a Temporary Second Lieutenant.

Harrison was awarded the Military Cross after he led a patrol into no man’s land at Gommecourt on 25 February 1917. Quite incredibly the Battalion War diary records ‘His men, under his leadership, reached the fourth German line…he was able to lead all his men back to the British line without a single casualty’.

The citation in the London Gazette read:

‘Temp. 2nd Lt. John Harrison, E. York. R. for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. he handled his Platoon with great courage and skill, reached his objective under the most trying conditions, and captured a prisoner. he set a splendid example throughout.’

Only two months later Harrison took part in the action which earned him the highest award for gallantry but put an end to his life. On 3 May 1917 his party became trapped in a shell hole while undertaking a night-time attack at Oppy Wood north east of Arras. Harrison’s Victoria Cross citation describes the situation in detail:

For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice in an attack. Owing to darkness and to smoke from the enemy barrage, and from our own, and to the fact that our objective was in a dark wood, it was impossible to see when our barrage had lifted off the enemy front line.

Nevertheless, 2nd Lt. Harrison led his company against the enemy trench under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but was repulsed. Reorganising his command as best he could in No Man’s Land, he again attacked in darkness under terrific fire, but with no success.

Then, turning round, this gallant officer single-handed made a dash at the machine-gun, hoping to knock out the gun and so save the lives of many of his company. 

His self-sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all. (he is reported missing, believed killed.)’

Jack Harrison’s body was never found. King George V presented Jack’s Victoria Cross to Lillian Harrison in March 1918. An appeal in the city of Hull raised enough money to ensure young Jackie got a good education. However, tragedy was to strike Lillian a second time when her son was killed in the defence of Dunkirk on June 1 1940 as a member of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment.