The Three Johnson Brothers

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When I first started my genealogy studies in the mid-1990s I soon discovered that three of my great uncles died in World War One. Touched by that fact, and that their mother died in an insane asylum in 1957, I wanted to learn as much about them as possible. A cousin in England traveled to France to photograph their graves, but with the marvelous digitization of Battalion diaries and trench maps with the Centenary I was able to trace their movements and ultimate death place. Maps that I created for Alec and Alfred’s movements tell more. John’s is not yet completed as I do not have his battalion diaries.

               Second Lieutenant John Frederic Johnson was the second child of Frederick and Kate (Spicer) Johnson, preceded by sister Lena. He was born on June 6, 1896 at Bishop’s Caundle, Dorset and christened two months later in Yeovil, Somerset on the 4th of August. He volunteered into the army while he was working in Brazil on the Dumont coffee plantation. According to the curator of the Lancaster Regiment Museum he was commissioned into the 9th Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment on March 25, 1915. The Battalion embarked for the mid-East arriving in Gallipoli on the 6th of July 1915 where John was then attached to the 6th Battalion of the King’s Own. As part of the 13th Division his Battalion participated in the Turkish battles at Sari Bair in August of 1915 but eventually evacuated Gallipoli in December, arriving in Mesopotamia at the end of February, 1916. There they fought at Hanna and Fallahiya, and it was during the second attack on Sanniyat on April 9th that John was killed in action. While there is no known grave, he is memorialized on the Basra Memorial and, along with his brothers, on the Swanage Memorial, Swanage being where their parents lived during the war.

               When and where exactly Private Alec Cuthbert Johnson (Service number 29640) enlisted is not known. His military record shows that he resided at the time of his enlistment in Swanage. Born on August 20, 1898 in Yeovil and christened there the following month, he was the third child and second son of Frederick and Kate (Spicer) Johnson. He was stationed, perhaps trained, at Witley Camp just south of Godalming, Surrey. From Witley Camp the 14th Battalion of the Royal Hampshire Regiment trained to Southampton on the 5th of March, 1916 where they left for Le Havre the very same day, arriving at camp in Le Havre in a snow storm. The very next day they left by train for the fighting area some 17 miles from the front line where they were settled in some 15 miles southeast of Ypres. For the next several months the Battalion moved to different billets, training in trenches and trying to avoid snipers and bombs. While not involved in the July 1st ‘kick-off’ of the Battle of the Somme, the Battalion eventually moved south to the northern area of the Battle around Beaumont-Hamel. On September 3rd, from their billets in Mailly Wood, the Battalion was detailed to co-operate in the attack on the enemy’s trenches. From the Battalion diary with no attempt to edit:

“Btn detailed to co-operate in attack of the 116th Bgd on enemys trenches Q.18.b.1/2.2 and Q.18.a.0.4. Assembly complete at 4 a.m. Assault – barrage at 5.10 am. “A” Coy in front line with practically no casualties – strongly held. “B” Com into 2nd line – weakly held. “C” Coy advanced to wire, & there repulsed by rifle and M.G. fire. Had to retire, heavy casualties. 2nd line held until 1 p.m. At 11:15 AM an order to attack again, this was not successful. The C.O. CAPT SKINNER was killed. Enemy casualties heavy. Ours 18 officers & 400 O.R. (approx.).
Relieved by the 1/6th Cheshires, completed by
Battalion back to same wood – MAILLY –collecting party all night.”

In Ancre British Cemetery, just south of where this action took place, there are 179 men who died on September 3rd, including Alec Johnson. 28 of those dead are from the Royal Hampshire Regiment. A map of the Battalion’s movements can be found here

               When Private Alfred Andrew Johnson (Service number 14845) joined The Buffs, the East Kent Regiment is not known to me. Neither his nor his brother’s service records evidently survived. He was 15 years old when the war began and by the time he was 17 his two older brothers had died in the war. He was born in Bishop’s Caundle on November 30, 1899 and christened two weeks later at the same place. Whenever he joined the 1st Battalion of the Buffs, it is fair to assume he was with them by August of 1918. The map I created begins then.  By mid-September the Battalion was located just west of Saint-Quentin when, at dusk on September 18th they saw heavy action in and around Saint Quentin woods. After a brief rest the Battalion moved northeast seeing heavy action at Magny-la-Fosse on October 8th and 9th where 110 men were killed or wounded. Following this action they retired to Bancourt where Alfred was about 10 miles from where his brother Alec was buried. The Battalion then continued moving northeast on succeeding days and on the 25th of October, the day Alfred died, they were billeted in L’Eveque woods, the battalion headquarters established in the foresters house. The diary for that day indicates that there was a gas attack, but only records the casualties as 3 ordinary recruits killed and 15 wounded. He died 17 days before the armistice and 10 days before the famous poet, Wilfred Owen, would die on the 4th of November about a mile southeast at Ors.  St. Souplet British Cemetery, where Alfred is interred, is five miles southwest of  L’Eveque woods.

               There is a Virtual Cemetery for the brothers  where you will find pictures of the headstones of Alec and Alfred. Pictures of the Basra Memorial can be found at Find-a-Grave Basra Memorial.

The brothers were survived by their parents, a sister Lena, and younger brothers Alan and Leslie.

On April 7, 2016 the bells of St. Andrew’s in Finborough, Suffolk were rung in honor of John Frederic. One of the ringers was his grand nephew Nigel. 

On September 3, 2016 the bells of St. Mary in Buxhall, Suffolk were rung in honor of Alec. The conductor was Nigel, one of the ringers being his wife Astrid. 

Many thanks to Nigel Gale for the picture and other information about the family.

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