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William Henry Johnson - The story of my great uncle during the Great War. Part I.

By October 1918 William (Billy) Johnson had been in the Army since almost the start of the war and was now acting Corporal of no. 2 Signals section of 74 Infantry Brigade. He had been an under age volunteer in 1914 and signed up to the 11th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, a New Army battalion. After training the Battalion was shipped out and received its baptism of fire on The Somme in 1916. It was not earmarked for the terrible first day but was in and out of the trenches throughout the battle.

William Johnson may well have been a company runner/signaller from this early stage and I have 3 reasons for this belief. Firstly he was certainly a signaller by the end of the war and had in fact been posted out of the 11th Battalion to be part of the signals unit at 74th Brigade Headquarters in 1918. For this to have happened it seems reasonable that he had been acting in this specialist role earlier in his career and so had both the experience and ability to do the same sort of job but at a higher level than battalion.

Secondly, as a runner / signaller he would have often been part of the cadre usually left out of going 'over the top' in major offensives to allow rebuilds of the unit after the inevitable casualties. Obviously specialists were harder to replace and train so were more frequently left behind when heavy casualties were expected. They would then catch up in the later waves. This would help to explain his survival as a private through The Somme battles of 1916, the battles of 1917 and the German offensives of 1918 culminating in the destruction of the entire 11th battalion in 1918. Unlike Tolkien who served only very briefly William was at the front throughout the war until a short break after the destruction of the Brigade in 1918 when it reformed in the UK (see later). It may well be that his upbringing in the slums of Liverpool made him and other private soldiers less vulnerable to disease than the officers.

Thirdly the genes and stamina required for running remain strong within the family, with my dad running for his regiment during his service days in the early 1950s and my own children being elite level distance runners. This is a bit tenuous but presumably this ability to run fast for long distances would have been noted in training. Sadly the loss of his army service record by fire during WW2 precludes any exact details of his Army career

If then as seems more than likely he was a runner/signaller, then he would have been one of the 16 battalion runners/signallers under the command of Lt. JRR Tolkien who was signals officer of the 11th battalion at the time of the Somme in 1916. He may even have been part of the composite of soldiers under his command that made up Samwise Gamgee. As Tolkien said of Samwise he “is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.” I sometimes think William (Billy) may even have been the inspiration for Bill the Pony as he would have spent much of his time loaded down with stores such as signals wire as described in many letters.

In his book 'Tolkien and the great War' John Garth describes Tolkiens' movements during the Somme Battles from the first involvement on 14th to16th July with the attack on Ovillers which finally took the village after more than two weeks of heavy fighting. Tolkien and the signallers were trying to maintain communications through telephone wiring parties and actual runners carrying messages.

Famous photograph of British troops in a captured German trench by Ovillers. A longer account of the earlier Ovillers fight here

Like all battalions involved in the Somme battles The 11th suffered many casualties culminating in the October / November battle for the Ancre Heights (including the Regina Trench battle alongside the Canadians) before being moved to the Ypres Salient in 1917. At first it was in the quiet but really muddy Ploegstreet section

but after a relatively quiet period it was again to suffer terribly again during the Battles of Messines with 25th division taking 3000+ casualties in what was a successful attack by Great War standards.

Lancashire Fusiliers opposite Messines

From Messines 11th battalion as part of 74 brigade 25th Division went on to fight at Pilkem Ridge as part of the larger 3rd Battle of Ypres on 10 August 1917. 74th Brigade took part in the the attack. In a successful action, Westhoek was captured, although at a severe cost: 47 officers and 1244 men killed, wounded or missing. Bearing in mind that by this point in the war average brigade strength was about 2000 men in 4 battalions this was clearly unsustainable and the brigade was moved to a static part of the line for the rest of 1917 before transfer back to what was an even quieter sector on the Somme to rebuild and recuperate..

. There is no memory within the family of him being wounded so he must have been remarkably lucky to get through both The Somme and 3rd Ypres unscathed. Or possibly it may have been that as a runner/signaller he was not committed to the 'over the top' style attacks. In addition by this point he would have been a veteran and held back from some attacks as part of the cadre which would be needed to rebuild the battalion should things go badly.

In 1918 the 25th division was transferred to the quiet sector south of the Somme alongside the French but from this point onwards things went really very badly for the 11th as they always seemed to be stationed right in front of the German Offensives of 1918.from March all the way through to June and by the 9th April the division of which they were a part had suffered nearly 70% casualties. By any standard this made them combat ineffective so at the start of May they were sent to the quiet Chemin des Dames area to replace some fresh French units that could be used elsewhere.

Inevitably at the end of May this area became ground Zero for a new German offensive and it was the last stand for the 11th Battalion who on the higher ground just NW of Montigny sur vesle were wiped out.

The following records the end in 74 Brigade War Diary WO 22 45 3 p34

So how had my great uncle survived this fate? How had he survived the whole of 1918 up to this point as few of the men who were left on the hills above Montigny were men of 1917 and fewer still from 1916. Given the casualty and replacement rates of well over 100% in 1918 alone I feel that he survived by dint of being a specialist, a signaler.

If he was not already attached to 74 Brigade HQ already before May 28th then in the disbandment of the survivors of the 11th Battalion who were not on the hill and their being struck off the roll ( visible by 3's and 4s in the War Diary throughout June and July) as they were parceled out to other units he must have been then. By July the 11th Battalion was disbanded. Some survivors returned to the UK to form a new 11th Battalion with troops returning from Italy but Bill was not amongst them. Instead he was now with 74 Brigade HQ as a signaler. 74 Brigade HQ returned to the UK in August and reformed with 3 new battalions before returning (with Bill) to France for the final stages of the war in 1918.

Part II to follow



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