12320 Corporal Alexander Frederick Johnson, Royal Engineers
Born 8th December 1888 in Hythe, Kent
Died 6th September 1915 in Little Gaddesden – of ‘neurasthenia’, a neurological disorder
Alexander was the 5th of the 10 children of Walter Johnson and Elizabeth (Bessie) née Hall.
His elder siblings were: Isabel Bessie Johnson, b. 1883; Mabel Mary Johnson, b. 1884; Walter Charles Patrick Johnson, b. 24th June 1885 and Gordon Patrick Johnson, b. 1st September 1886.
His younger siblings were: Archibald Stanley Johnson, b. 2nd February 1890; Florence Gertrude (Girlie) Johnson, b. 1894; Edmund Francis Henry John Johnson, b. 20th November 1896; Jessie Aileen Johnson, b. 1899 and Kathleen Rose Johnson, b. 3rd March 1902.
His brother Edmund was known as Frank or Francis and is recorded on the Rolls of Honour as Henry F Johnson.
Early Life in Kent 2
In the 1891 Census, Alexander’s family lived in Park Road, Hythe, Kent where his father was a Company Sergeant Major in the Royal Engineers. By 1901 they had moved to 20 Peacock Street, Milton, Gravesend, Kent and his father was recorded as “Clerk of Works, Royal Engineer.”
Moving to Little Gaddesden 3
In September 1902 the Johnson family moved to Little Gaddesden because their father Walter had been appointed Clerk of Works at Ashridge; Alexander’s Service Record suggests that they first lived at 32 Little Gaddesden before moving to No. 38.
On 24th September Alexander’s younger siblings Stanley, Gertrude and Francis were admitted to Little Gaddesden School, the Log Book entries noting that they had just come to live in the village. The following week there is an entry recording that the family were Roman Catholics and did not wish for any religious teaching at school.
Following in his Father’s Footsteps – joining the Royal Engineers 4
On 28th January 1903 Alexander enlisted into the Corps of Royal Engineers at Hemel Hempstead for a period of 12 years’ service; he was aged 14 years 1 month and was previously employed as a Telephonist. His Service Record shows that he was 5ft 5 inches tall (and subsequently grew to 5ft 10½ inches), weighed 108lbs and had an expanded chest measurements of 34 inches (subsequently 36 inches). He had a sallow complexion, hazel eyes and curly brown hair.
Alexander served in the United Kingdom as a Boy Soldier until 19th November 1903 and was then posted to Bermuda.
His two older brothers Walter Johnson and Gordon had also joined the Royal Engineers and their younger brother Archibald Stanley Johnson was to follow but their youngest brother Frank (Henry F) Johnson took a different path, becoming a Carpenter’s apprentice on the Ashridge Estate and later serving with Herts Yeomanry.
Appointed Bugler 5
Between 15th January 1904 and 27th December 1906, Alexander was a Bugler in 27th Company, Royal Engineers; he was awarded his first Good Conduct Badge on 25th August 1905. On 27th March 1906 he was awarded his First Class Certificate of Education and, on 17th May 1906, he was tested in the workshops of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Bermuda and proved himself a skilled Fitter.
27th Company, Royal Engineers had been in Bermuda since 1888, when they arrived to undertake submarine mining. Since 1900, they also had responsibility for operating the searchlights that were part of the harbour defences.
Service as a Sapper 6
Having returned from Bermuda and attained the age of 18, Alexander served as a Sapper, B1, Royal Engineers between 28th December 1906 and 27th December 1908. On 28th January 1908 he was awarded his second Good Conduct Badge. Then, on 17th December 1908, in a further Trade and Special Qualifications Test, he proved himself a superior Instrument Repairer.
Death of his Brother Gordon 7
On 12th August 1908, Alexander’s brother, Sapper 7332 Gordon Patrick Johnson, 45th Company Royal Engineers, died of a very severe attack of enteric fever, while serving with the regiment in Gibraltar. He had joined at Gibraltar on 3rd December 1900 aged 14, passed classes of instruction in swimming and engine driving (superior) and gained his 1st Class certificate of education. He was involved in the South Africa Campaign 1899 – 1902 (at St Helena). He had also been confined to barracks for 2 days in October 1907 for being ‘improperly dressed in town’.
Continued Service as a Sapper and promotion to Lance Corporal 8
Between 28th December 1908 and 2nd March 1909, Alexander served as a Sapper in 4th Company, Royal Engineers. Then, on 3rd March 1909 he was promoted to Lance Corporal, remaining in the 4th Company until 5th January 1910, when he transferred to the 28th Company in Malta. On 9th March 1911 he proved himself a very superior Instrument Repairer.
The 1911 Census 9
On Census night, 2nd April 1911, Lance Corporal Alexander Johnson, a single man of 22, was serving as an Instrument Repairer with 28th Company Royal Engineers at St Francis’ Barracks in Malta. His parents, and siblings Isabella (28), Gertrude (17), Frank (Henry F) Johnson (14) an Apprentice, Jessy (11) at School and Kathleen (9) at School were resident at 38 Little Gaddesden. His brother Archibald Johnson was a 21 year old Sapper in the Royal Engineers.
Re-engaging to complete 21 Years’ Service 10
On 27th June 1914, Alexander re-engaged for the Royal Engineers at Malta “for such period as shall complete 21 years’ service.”
War Service 11
Alexander was promoted Corporal on 1st August 1914 when stationed in Malta. He remained with the Expeditionary Force there until 29th December 1914 though, from 15th October, he was in Cottonea Hospital seriously ill with ‘neurasthenia’ (a then popular diagnosis for a neurological disorder) resulting from syphilis, for which he had been treated in 1910 and 1914.
Return to England and Discharge from the Royal Engineers 12
On 30th December 1914 Alexander returned to G Company Royal Engineers in England but, on 29th March 1915, he was admitted to Fort Pitt Hospital, Rochester, by then suffering from confusion and memory problems. He was discharged from the Royal Engineers on 31st July 1915 under Paragraph 392 (XVI) of the King’s Regulations, no longer physically fit for War Service. He was awarded the British War Medal.
Military Character Report at Discharge 13
Alexander’s discharge papers of 31st July 1915 report that he had served 12 years 185 days in the Royal Engineers. His military character was reported as “very good”, the entry adding: “A very good instrument repairer; Honest; Sober and a good worker.”
Returning to Little Gaddesden
Alexander’s intended address from 1st August 1915 was the home of his parents, 38 Little Gaddesden. After discharge from the army he lived for less than six weeks.
Death and Burial 14
He died on 6th September 1915. On 9th September 1915, Alexander Frederick Johnson, aged 26, of 38 Little Gaddesden, was buried in the old churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden. The service was conducted by Father Henry James Hardy, Roman Catholic Priest.
Alexander’s Grave 15
Alexander’s grave is located in the NE part of the old churchyard. Although it is listed by CWGC as a war grave, it does not have a CWGC headstone. The recumbent stone is inscribed:
Alexander Fredk. Johnson,
Died September 6. 1915,
Aged 27 years
Isabel Elizabeth Kirke,
Who died in Malta July 22. 1916,
Aged 32 years
Walter Robert Kirke,
Died December 15. 1916,
Aged 5 months
Isabel Elizabeth and Walter Robert Kirke 16
Isabel Elizabeth Kirke was Alexander’s eldest sister, who had married Wilfred Kirke of the Royal Engineers in Malta in 1914. Walter Robert Kirke was their son and Alexander’s nephew. As Robert W Kirke his birth in Malta in 1916 is recorded in the Armed Forces GRO Birth Index. His burial service took place at St Peter and St Paul, Little Gaddesden on 18th December 1916 and was conducted by Father Henry James Hardy, M.A., Roman Catholic Priest.
We will remember them
Alexander Johnson is commemorated on the War Memorials on the village green and in St Peter & St Paul’s Church Little Gaddesden. He is also named on the Roll of Honour in the church, together with his older brother Walter Johnson, and younger brothers Archibald Johnson and Henry F Johnson, who all survived the war.
3. Little Gaddesden School Log Books 1887-1906
4. https://www.findmypast.co.uk 1903 British Army Service Records (Burnt Documents) #12320 Alexander Frederick Johnson pp.1 & 2. The ‘burnt documents’ were First World War documents that survived a fire in a War Office store caused by an incendiary bomb in September 1940. Charred and water-damaged, they were unfit for consultation until microfilmed in a large programme started in 1996. See https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14567.
5. Ibid. p11
6. Ibid. p12
12. Ibid. p2
13. Ibid. p1
14. Little Gaddesden Burial Register 1813 – 1980
Research, text and (unless otherwise credited) photos: Jane Dickson