Washington First World War soldier's battlefield poppies survive a century

Poignant gift from the trenches of Arras and Vimy to wife is used to mark major new interactive website on WW1

Poppy sent from the frontline by John Harkess to his wife Ann
Poppy sent from the frontline by John Harkess to his wife Ann

Amid the moonscape devastation of the First World War trenches in France, North East soldier John Harkess fashioned something of fragile beauty.

He pressed two poppies and on the petals wrote his initials and where he had served, including Arras and Vimy.

Lance-Corporal Harkess sent the poppies in 1917 to his wife Ann in Washington in County Durham, in an envelope marked “Poppies. Open Careful. JH”

Only months later, in March 1918, John was killed in action, aged 29.

The poppies survived not only the trenches, but also the journey back to the North East and then the next 97 years.

Now they have been given to Durham County Record Office by Ann’s great niece, Ruth Crofton.

One of the poppies has been used as the logo for a major new interactive website on the impact of the First World War.

The Durham at War website has been backed by a £475,100 award from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The black centre of the poppy represents the shape of the county.

Gill Parkes, principal archivist at Durham County Record Office, said: “We have never come across anything like this before.

“The beautiful fragility of the poppies took our breath away when we first saw them. It seemed absolutely fitting that one them should represent a project telling the story of County Durham and its people during the First World War.”

War Office communications were sent to his wife after his death to Wood Row in Washington.

But John must have had links with Birtley, as his name is recorded on a memorial plaque at Birtley Wesleyan Methodist Church.

Ruth, who lives in Durham, and her sister Pat, from Alston, decided to donate the poppies so that they could be looked after professionally.

“John and Ann had only been married for two years. I think they had been married when he came home on leave,” said Ruth.

After his death, Ann cared for her parents and eventually re-married, moving to Low Fell in Gateshead.

“She was part of my childhood. She was a lovely, gentle woman, very caring,” said Ruth.

“She would let us see the poppies and we thought they were fascinating.

“I don’t know how John managed to press them in the trenches.

“The poppies were hugely precious to Ann. She must have been bowled over by them.

“She was very creative and it must have been the perfect gift for her.

“It struck me as an act of creative love in the middle of all that awfulness - the human spirit creating something beautiful in the middle of something dreadful.

“They pre-date the use of the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, and it shows the significance that poppies had for the men in France.”

John Harkess and his wife Ann
John Harkess and his wife Ann

The website www.durhamatwar.org.uk will give the public online access to thousands of original documents, objects and real-life stories.

Featuring large-scale maps of County Durham today and as it was in 1914-18, the website will provide a base for volunteers to “pin” information about people and events in locations from the River Tyne to the Tees a century ago.

People will be able to search archive, museum and archaeology collections and upload details of what they have discovered.

They will also be able to publicise community events and activities commemorating the war, and contribute their own material.

The website project is a partnership between Durham County Record Office, the council’s archaeology service and the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery.

Neil Foster, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for economic regeneration, said: “This is a very exciting project that will give people unprecedented access to a wide range of original sources, enabling them to find out about the impact of the First World War on their community and possibly even their own family members.

“It’s a chance to share the stories we already know but also to discover the many as yet uncovered tales of real people from our area. Displaying the information on a map will make it easier to visualise the scale of the effects of the conflict on our industrial towns, mining villages and rural communities.

Ivor Crowther, head of the HLF North East, said: “The website and all its associated activities will help create a clear picture of the county’s wartime experience and produce a valuable and lasting resource for everyone.”

Revealed on the website are stories like that of DLI soldier Thomas Hughes, from Stockton, who while at sea wrote a message to his wife.

He placed the note in a ginger beer bottle and dropped it into the sea.

It would be 85 years before the note finally reached Thomas’s family.

The bottle was dredged from the Thames by a fishing boat in 1999 and the note sent to his daughter in New Zealand. The bottle and note are on display at the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery.

Also travelling with the battalion in September 1914 was Joseph Ditchburn, from Crook.

Joseph had already written his will and a last letter to his mother describing the emotion as soldiers rushed to see their wives and mothers before leaving.

His letter was uncovered last year when the Probate Office published its archive of First World War wills online.

The DLI arrived in France on September 10. Within 11 days, 41 soldiers had been killed and 98 wounded. Thomas Hughes was among the dead while Joseph Ditchburn only survived until October 14.

Only two brothers were awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War – George and Roland Bradford of Witton Park, County Durham. In 1910, aged 18, Roland Bradford joined the 5th (Territorial Force) Battalion DLI in Darlington, and in 1912 was commissioned in the 2nd Battalion DLI.

In September 1914, 2 DLI sailed for France, and within days had suffered, in a few hours, almost as many casualties as the entire DLI had lost in the Boer War. In D Company, the only officer to survive was Roland BradfordIn February 1915, Lieutenant Bradford, 24, was awarded the Military Cross and was rapidly promoted, taking command of the 9th Battalion DLI in August 1916 as a Temporary Lieutenant Colonel.In September 1916, he led 9 DLI in the fighting on the Somme, and then, on October 1 during an attack on the German trenches at Eaucourt l’Abbaye, took control of another battalion, 6 DLI, after its commanding office had been wounded.

For his leadership and bravery during the attack under heavy fire, Roland Bradford was awarded the VC.

He was given command of the 186th Infantry Brigade in early 1917 but was killed by a German shell just 20 days later at the age of 25.

Two of his brothers, Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford VC, Royal Navy, and Second Lieutenant James Barker Bradford MC Durham Light Infantry, both died in service.

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