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William Henry Johnson - Part 2, A Great War story

Back in 2021 I wrote part one about my Great Uncle William Henry Johnson and his service in WW1 notably as one of JRR Tolkiens' signallers in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. That post is here

Part One ended in August 1914 after the destruction of the 11th Battalion at the end of May 1918 in the final German offensive in a lonely last stand on a hill near Montigny le Vesle. William was not probably not present at this sad end to the 11th battalion having likely been moved to 74th Brigade headquarters as a signaler as he certainly survived the demise of the 11th Battalion and appears later in the records as attached to 74th Brigade signals.

What happened next is somewhat mysterious. If you had not already guessed from the title William did not survive the war. He died on the 22nd October 1918 just 3 weeks from the end. He lies in the Roisel Community cemetery to the South East of Peronne. The mystery is about how and where exactly he died. In some ways there is no real mystery as like most 'other ranks' his death is not recorded by name within the War Diary of the 74th Brigade, unlike officers who are recorded by name when wounded or killed. So what we have is a detective story with many possibles and only one definite - he died in Casualty Clearing Station 53 based at Roisel. The records of the CCS shown below

Roisel had been chosen as a CCS due to its connections to the Light Railway system which was built in the area to service the advance along what is now the D932 towards Le Cateau. By the 22nd of October the date recorded for William's death the front was about 45 miles away from Roisel, near Le Cateau (famous site of the BEF's battle in 1914)

The distance now is about 40 minutes by car but obviously in 1914 Light Railway was faster for moving men, ammunition and casualties.

According to the War diary of 74th Brigade the brigade had advanced fairly rapidly by WW1 standards towards and beyond Le Cateau during October with only one battle of note near the railway cutting of Honnechy on the 9th when they had taken heavy casualties. Howvever after that they had gone into Billets in and around Honnechy awaiting the next attack.

This was scheduled for the 23rd of October on the axis Le Cateau - Landrecies through the intervening forest of Bois l'eveque as shown on the map below. Le Cateau had already been secured by 25th Division and 74 Brigade was to sequentially advance first capturing the red line position and then the green line with its 3 battalions each responsible for capturing a line whilst the following battalions passed through to the next line.

The orders for the attack display the professionalism and technological advances made by the British Army by this stage in the war. Air support with Ground to air signals at specified times and locations are written in as standard. Ditto the support of a section of 4 tanks. The initial attack was to have NO prior bombardment but officers were attached to each battalion should it be required. HQ with signals was to be at Moulin de Garde marked here with an orange dot.

On the 23rd the attack went in and was successful capturing all its objectives plus significant amounts of German artillery left behind in the retreat.

By this time William was dead. He was dead before the attack went in having been wounded on the 22nd and evacuated rapidly to the CCS where he died the same day. This is where the mystery begins. By using the cwgc site I discovered that William was not the only surviving member of the 11th battalion attached to no. 2 signals 74th Brigade HQ. There were at least 3 others, L/Cp Hilton, Pvt Hobbs and Pvt Smith. Presumably all had been moved to or attached before the end of the 11th Battalion in May1918. Some like William may have been the original signalers and runners under JRR Tolkien on the Somme in 1916. Unfortunately all were to die on or around the 22nd October.

Of the four, two died on the 22nd having been evacuated to the CCS, my great uncle William and Private Smith. This was the day before the attack. Private Hobbs died the following day presumably during the attack and was buried at Pommereuil war cemetery. The death of the fourth 11th battalion man L/Cp Hilton is a bit unclear. On this document it clearly says he died on the 17th however his CWGC certificate says the 22nd October.

As he is buried in Honnechy cemetery near the action of the 9th and 10th October I am inclined to believe that he was killed earlier on the 17th. Supporting this theory is that on William's medal record it says that at the time of his death he was Acting L/Cp so I assume he stepped briefly into Hilton's role. There were only 31 men in No.2 Signals at this point.

Additionally the casualty list below shows 3 killed in the period concerned from the signals unit. Sharp eyed readers will notice that this appendix to the war diary dates from the start of the battle on the 23rd but was compiled later in the month so there is a strong probability it includes those wounded and evacuated. This probably includes Johnson, Smith and Hobbs but not Hilton who would have been on an earlier list not included in the war diary for some reason.

Alternatively it could be that William and Smith were with Hilton when he was wounded/killed on the 17th and took some time to die in the CCS. This would not fit with William being made acting L/Cp and it stretches credibility that both men were wounded badly enough that they were sent to the CCS and survived 5 days but not so badly that they were not worth moving to a hospital.further back.

What were William, now L/Cp , and Private Smith doing that got them killed the day before the battle.. Were they out laying cables and signals in advance of the attack and hit by enemy fire? Only 2 other men from the entire Brigade are recorded as dying on that day and both were buried at Honnechy. These were from the Sherwood Foresters. Were they attached to the Sherwood Foresters sector? Were they setting up HQ as an advance party at the Moulin de Garde? Were they killed in a training accident as that is the only activity logged between the 20th and 22nd October?

There is nothing more in the records and no family memory to help. The only certainty is that something happened to Acting L/Cp William Henry Johnson and Pvt. Smith which lead them to die a long way from Liverpool.



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