29592 Private William James Johnson, 2nd & 3rd Battalions, Bedfordshire Regiment
Born on 8th June 1884 in Humbershoe, Bedfordshire
Died on 6th August 1960 in Ringshall
William James Johnson was born in the hamlet of Humbershoe, Bedfordshire, which later became part of the parish of Markyate, Herts. He was the second of the 8 children of Thomas Arthur Johnson and Jane Eliza, previously Smith, née Hembley. His father was a Wheelwright. He, together with his siblings Arthur John Johnson, Jane and Annie, was baptised at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Little Gaddesden on 1st May 1887.
His siblings were:
- Brother: Arthur John Johnson, born 4th November 1882
- Sister: Jane (Jenny), born in 1886
- Sister: Annie (Ann), born in 1887
- Brother: Thomas Andrew Johnson, born 30th May 1888
- Sister: Esther, born in 1890
- Sister: Helen (Ellen), born 22nd March 1891
- Brother: Frank Johnson, born 17th July 1894
William also had a step-brother, George Smith, born in 1874.
By 1886, when his sister Jane was born, the family lived at Ringshall; in the 1891 Census their address is given as 18 Ringshall. William was then a 6 year old school boy living with his parents Thomas and Jane, step brother George Smith,17, a Wheelwright’s Apprentice and siblings Arthur Johnson, 9, Jane, 5 and Ann, 4, who were all at school. The youngest members of the family were Thomas Johnson, 3, Esther, 1, and their unnamed, 14 day old baby sister, later named Helen (Ellen).
William was educated at Little Gaddesden School, where he started as an infant aged 3 years 11 months on 7th May 1888.
Little Gaddesden School had an annual Diocesan Inspection, during which the children were examined in Religious Knowledge. The children who distinguished themselves in this examination in January 1896 and January 1897 included William Johnson.
On April 12th 1897 William Johnson, aged 12 years 10 months, was one of seven children who left Little Gaddesden School with a Certificate of Proficiency. Others included Edward Hing, Edward Groom and Sydney Bunn.
In the 1901 Census, 16 year old William was a Stable Groom living at 18 Ringshall with his parents and his step-brother George, 26, a Wheelwright. Also at home were his siblings Arthur Johnson 18, a Plumber, Ann, 14, at home, and Thomas Johnson, 12, Esther, 11, Ellen, 10 and Frank Johnson, 6, who were all at school. 18 Ringshall was the only cottage to keep the same number when the row of cottages was re-numbered between 1891 and 1901.
The Little Gaddesden Brass Band 6
The Little Gaddesden Brass Band was formed in 1902 and a report and statement of accounts for 1902 – 1903 has survived. To obtain funds, entertainments were performed and donations sought. Each band member paid 3d per week (1¼p today) toward the cost of tuition. The report noted:
Our balance in hand is very low, but we again rely on our many kind friends to give us their support and stick to our motto: Nil Desperandum.
The report included a photograph on which William, aged about 18, is the trombonist, 3rd from the right in the front row. His brother Arthur Johnson, aged about 20, is standing with his tuba, 3rd from left in the middle row, while 16 year old Thomas Johnson is the cornet player 2nd from left in the back row. They must have had some very understanding neighbours!
Others in the Band with links to the Roll of Honour are:
- Back Row, L to R: 1. Archibald Johnson; 3. Frederick Cutler; 5. John Wibden; 6. Edward Hing; 7. Edward Pinnock (father of George Pinnock and Arthur Pinnock).
- Middle Row, L to R: 4. Sam Oakins; 6. Harry Wells (father of William Wells); 7. Walter Holland, 8. Herbert Fenn.
- Front Row, L to R: 1. Steve Oakins; 5. Sidney Rogers.
- Under the drum: Hubert Halsey
- Band members absent from the photo included William Fenn and Matthew Munden; the Band’s Secretary was Geoffrey Talbot.
William’s mother, 51 year old Jane Eliza Johnson of 18 Ringshall died in August 1902. Her funeral took at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Little Gaddesden on 21st August that year. Their father is last named on Electoral Registers for Ringshall in 1905, the year in which his step-brother George Smith died aged 31.
The Family Disperses 3
William is the only member of the Johnson family still living at Ringshall in the 1911 Census, when he was a Plumber and Painter boarding in the household of Mrs Sarah Ann Janes at 15 Ringshall. Thomas Johnson was then a Bandsman in the Royal Fusiliers in Ireland and 16 year old Frank Johnson an Under-Gardener, boarding at 17 Berkhamsted Common. Other members of the family have not been found.
On 1st October 1913, William James Johnson of 15 Ringshall, son of Thomas Johnson, Wheelwright, married 26 year old Elizabeth Marshall at Hope Hall, Berkhamsted. Elizabeth’s address was 80 Gossoms End, Berkhamsted and her father George Marshall was a Machinist in the Saw Mills. Hope Hall was then the Plymouth Brethren Chapel and the Marriage Certificate notes that the marriage was carried out “according to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Brethren”.
Brother Thomas taken Prisoner of War in 1915 12
William’s brother 11619 Private Thomas Johnson, Royal Fusiliers, was reported missing at Ypres on 24th May 1915. He was named on a German prisoners’ list of 31st July. A Red Cross letter of 22nd September reported him to be suffering from gas poisoning and a broken thigh resulting from a gunshot wound. He was taken prisoner and then hospitalised at Reserve Lazarett, Iseghem, Belgium until 6th December 1915, when he was released through a prisoner of war exchange. On his return to England, he was admitted to Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Millbank. His notes showed that the gunshot wound had fractured the shaft of his left femur, which had shortened his left leg by 3 inches and caused 50% permanent disablement. Thomas Johnson was discharged from the Army on 14th February 1916 before receiving further hospital treatment in Dublin until at least 28th July that year.
Brother Frank Killed in Action in 1916 13
William’s youngest brother 15603 Private Frank Johnson, 1st Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, was killed in action on the Somme on 13th November 1916. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France, Pier and Face 11D. The additional information on Frank Johnson’s Grave Registration Report, compiled during the 1920s, reads: “Brother of William Johnson, of 29, Ringshall, Berkhamsted, Herts”.
William’s Military Service 14
William’s Medal Records show that he served as a Private, Service Number 29592, in the Bedfordshire Regiment. A Soldier’s Medical Record entry for July 1917 notes that he was admitted to the 4th Stationary Hospital at St Omer, France, suffering from dental caries. It also states that he had by then completed 1 year 1 month of Service including 9 months with the Field Force, so he must have been called up in June 1916 and served overseas from October 1916. He served overseas with the 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment.
29592 Private William Johnson, D Company, 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment was captured unwounded on the Western Front at Etreillers on 22nd March 1918. His capture took place during the Battle of St Quentin, the first stage of the First Battles of the Somme 1918.
Battalion War Diary 21st March 1918 15
Enemy bombardment started at 4.45 a.m. The Battalion “Stood to” in Battle Zone between SAVY and ETREILLERS at 6 a.m. “A” and “C” Companies in Front. “B” Company in Counter Attack position, “D” Company and Battalion Hd.Qrs in STEVENS REDOUBT. Enemy broke through the Forward Zone and came in touch with “A” Company during the morning. A few Germans got into the right of “A” Coy’s position. “B” Company went up to reinforce “A” Company at Dusk but could not turn out the enemy, who had established themselves firmly on either side of the SAVY Road…
Battalion War Diary 22nd March 1918 15
Verlaines Early in the morning a few Germans worked into “C” Coys position, from a Sunken Road just in front of our wire. “A” and “C” Coys were heavily shelled all day and at about 2 p.m. the enemy attacked in large numbers. “C” Coys position was taken and some of our men taken prisoner. The remnants of “A” and “B” Coy hung on till surrounded by large numbers of enemy. They fought very well and only a few got back. By 4 p.m. the enemy could be seen advancing on either side of STEVENS REDOUBT. At 5 p.m. Orders were received to withdraw. The withdrawal was carried out at once, but there were a number of casualties as the withdrawal had to be made across open country and the enemy machine gun and shrapnel fire was very heavy…
Having been captured, William was then held in Germany at Cassel, where he is recorded on 5th June 1918, at Zwickau, recorded on 12th June and at Chemnitz, recorded on 5th July 1918. Although his date of birth is given as 1886 rather than 1884, the other information recorded clearly fits William. His release date is not known but his Autumn 1918 Absent Voters’ List entry notes that he was a Prisoner of War and that his home address was then Bridgewater Lodge, Ashridge Park.
William’s Spring 1919 Absent Voters’ list entry shows that, on his return to England, he was transferred to the 3rd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, a Reserve Battalion engaged in Home Service. It also shows that his home address was by then 29 Ringshall, to which he returned by Autumn 1919, once he had been demobilised. For his War Service, William was awarded the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal.
Men who have answered their country’s call in defence of a “Scrap of Paper”
William Johnson is named on the Roll of Honour, which hangs in St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Little Gaddesden and lists 119 men from Little Gaddesden, Ringshall and Hudnall who served in the 1914 – 1918 War. His entry on the original Roll shows him in the Bedfordshire Regiment. On the Centenary Revision of the Roll, the Battalion in which he served overseas has been added. William’s brothers Arthur Johnson, Frank Johnson and Thomas Johnson are also named on both Rolls.
Rolls of Honour photos: Jane Dickson, Michael Carver
Electoral Registers and the 1939 Register show William and Elizabeth living at 29 Ringshall. In 1923, William, together with Joe Hing and Steve Oakins, helped to establish the Little Gaddesden Branch of the British Legion (now the Royal British Legion) out of the Old Comrades Association. It was then only the seventh British Legion Branch in the whole country.
In the 1939 Register, William’s year of birth is again given as 1886 rather than 1884. He was then recorded as a House Painter and also an A.R.P. Warden, while Elizabeth had “Unpaid Domestic Duties”.
William lived at 29 Ringshall until his death, aged 76, on 6th August 1960. His widow Elizabeth then remained at that address until her death aged 89, on 15th June 1976.
2. Little Gaddesden Baptism Register 1813 – 1947
5. Little Gaddesden School Log Books 1887 – 1906
6. Report and Statement of Accounts of the Little Gaddesden Brass Band 1902 – 1903
8. Little Gaddesden Burial Register 1902
17. 1918-21 Absent Voters’ Lists Parliamentary County of Hertford, Hemel Hempstead Division, Little Gaddesden
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Research, text and (unless otherwise credited) photos: Jane Dickson