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 born in Hythe, Kent, the 5th of the 10 children of Walter Johnson and Elizabeth (Bessie) née Hall.
His siblings were:
- Isabel Bessie, born in 1883
- Mabel Mary, born in 1884
- Walter Charles Patrick Johnson, born 24th June 1885
- Gordon Patrick, born 1st September 1886
- Archibald Stanley Johnson, born 2nd February 1890
- Florence Gertrude (Girlie), born in 1894
- Edmund Henry Francis John Johnson, born 20th November 1896. Edmund was known as Frank or Francis and is recorded on the Rolls of Honour as Henry F Johnson
- Jessie Aileen, born in 1899
- Kathleen Rose, born 3rd March 1902
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. However, by 1901 they lived at 20 Peacock Street, Milton, Gravesend, Kent and his father was a “Clerk of Works, Royal Engineer.”
Moving to Little Gaddesden 3
Then, in September 1902 the Johnson family moved to Little Gaddesden because their father Walter was appointed Clerk of Works at Ashridge. Alexander’s Service Record suggests that they first lived at 32 Little Gaddesden before moving to No. 38.
Then, on 24th September Alexander’s younger siblings Stanley , Gertrude and Francis were admitted to Little Gaddesden School. The Little Gaddesden School Log Book entry notes that they had just come to live in the village. Then, the following week an entry records 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 then 14 years 1 month old 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.
Until 19th November 1903, Alexander served in the United Kingdom as a Boy Soldier. He was then posted to Bermuda.
His two older brothers Walter Johnson and Gordon also served in the Royal Engineers and their younger brother Archibald Stanley Johnson was to follow. However, their youngest brother Frank (Henry F) Johnson took a different path. He became a Carpenter’s apprentice on the Ashridge Estate and later served 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 and his First Class Certificate of Education on 27th March 1906. Then, 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 were also responsible for operating the searchlights that were part of the harbour defences.
Service as a Sapper 6
Between 28th December 1906 and 27th December 1908, on his return from Bermuda, Alexander served as a Sapper, B1, Royal Engineers. He was by then 18 years old and 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). Gordon 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.
- 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. However, his parents still lived at 38 Little Gaddesden, as did some of his siblings Isabella (28), Gertrude (17), Frank (Henry F) Johnson (14) an Apprentice, Jessy (11) and Kathleen (9) who were both at school. His brother Archibald Johnson was by then 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 then remained with the Expeditionary Force there until 29th December 1914. However, 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 was treated in 1910 and 1914.
Return to England and Discharge from the Royal Engineers 12
Then, on 30th December 1914, Alexander returned to G Company Royal Engineers in England. However, on 29th March 1915, he was admitted to Fort Pitt Hospital, Rochester, suffering from confusion and memory problems. He was therefore 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 his parents’ home, 38 Little Gaddesden. However, after discharge from the army he lived for less than six weeks.
Death and Burial 14
He died on 6th September 1915. Then, 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, two to the left of William Mayling.
On the following map, Alexander Johnson’s grave is marked in red. The other war graves in Little Gaddesden churchyard are marked in grey – click on the markers to see names.
To find out more about the others buried in the war graves, see the War Graves section of the main War Remembrance page. And to learn about those buried abroad but commemorated on family graves in the churchyard, see the section headed Family Graves Naming War Dead Buried Abroad.
The location of Alexander’s grave can also be found by the following three word address: ///victor.terminal.bloodshot.
This link opens in a new What3words tab. Location is easier if you use the aerial view rather than the map view. See here for an explanation of What3words.
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 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. Walter’s 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
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