The Johnson Brothers

Rfn Richard Fisher Johnson

The Johnson Brothers

C/12452 Rifleman Richard Fisher Johnson
B Company, 21st Battalion (Yeoman Rifles) The King's Royal Rifle Corps

42191 Private Frank Johnson1st Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment

Rifleman Richard Fisher Johnson:

Richard Fisher Johnson was the third boy of the five children then born to Edmond and Agnes Jane Johnson who lived and worked on Lower Barnbow Farm between Scholes and Barwick. Edmond and Agnes had married in the Howden District, in the East Riding, in late 1884. They were both born in Holme-upon-Spalding Moor, and as Agnes’ maiden name was also Johnson, it may be that they were related before they married. The 1891 census shows they were living at Lock Farm in Holme and had two sons and two daughters: Adelaide (b. 1885), Ernest Leopold (b. 1887), Charles William (b. 1889), and Lilian (b. 1890). Such was the size of the farm that five farm labourers were employed as well as two domestic servants, one of whom was employed as a nurse maid for the 7 month old Lilian. Bulmer’s 1892 Directory for Holme shows another farm in the area, Holme Landing Farm, being worked by one Fisher Johnson, and given that Edmond and Agnes gave their son, Richard, Fisher as his middle name, it seems likely that this was the Johnson family that Agnes came from.

In the ten years between the census of 1891 and that of 1901, further children had been born, these being: Richard Fisher (b. 1893), Edmond (b. 1896), Frank (b. 1898) and Hilda (b. 1900). The family had also moved to Skipwith, with Hilda being born there. Richard was born in Cranswick, Edmond in Holme and Frank in Bubwith. The family is shown on the 1911 census to be complete with the birth of the ninth and tenth children, John Andrew (b. 1904), and Lizzie Mildred (b. 1906). We also learn from the 1911 census that one of the older children had died, and it appears that Edmond died in 1906 at the age of 11.

The 1911 census also shows us that the Johnson family had taken up the tenancy of Lower Barnbow Farm, which they rented from the Gascoigne family of Lotherton Hall in Aberford. Richard had left home and was working as a waggoner on the nearby Throstle Nest Farm, another of the Gascoigne farms, run by Joseph Helm.

The grave of the Earl of Feversham

Richard Johnson was not caught up in the great rush to arms which swept the country. In 1914 he was 21 years old and would have been a valuable asset to any farm. When he did enlist he chose to join a battalion which had been specifically raised to take men from the farming communities from the North of England. The 21st (Yeoman Rifles)(Service) Battalion, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps was raised and commanded by Lt Col Charles Duncombe, 2nd Earl Feversham. He attested in York on 25th November 1915 and he eventually found himself in B Company of the battalion which was predominantly made up of men from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Colonel Gascoigne and the Earl of Feversham had served together in the Yorkshire Hussars Yeomanry during the South African war of 1899 – 1902, and when the Earl was raising the battalion it is likely that he will have made contact with land owners in the catchment areas for the battalion to suggest to employees and tenant farmers that the battalion would be a good option for them.

Richard Fisher Johnson was wounded in action on 15th September 1916, when his battalion was involved in heavy fighting close to the village of Flers on the Somme in Northern France. An extract from the ‘Annals of the KRRC Vol. V, The Great War by Major-General Sir Steuart Hare’ describes the fighting in the following terms:

15 September, 1916

"Next to the left of the 14th Division came the 41st. It attacked with the 124th Brigade on the right with two battalions in the front line--10th Queen's on the right, 21st KRRC on the left; the 122nd Brigade was on the left, with the 15th Hampshire on the right, the 18th KRRC on the left. The dividing line between the two brigades passed through the middle of the village of Flers. The 18th Battalion made an unfortunate start, which might well have affected the whole operation. Just as the attack was about to commence, the Commanding Officer (Lieut.-Colonel C. P. Marten, West Yorkshire Regiment), the Adjutant (Captain F. Walton), the Signalling Officer (Lieutenant W. S. Mathews), and the Trench Mortar Officer (Lieutenant D. S. D. Clark) were all killed by one shell. It speaks volumes for the training and discipline of the Battalion that, after this catastrophe, the attack was carried to a successful conclusion. At 6.20 a.m. the infantry advanced behind the barrage, and the first objective was taken at about 6.45. The Germans did not stand except for the machine-gun detachments, which, as usual, stuck it out manfully, and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers, especially among the officers. Seven out of ten tanks had crossed the front line, and reached the objective two minutes ahead of the infantry. Consolidation was begun at once, and at 7.20 a.m. the attack was continued behind the barrage, four tanks being still in action. The infantry got ahead of the tanks, but there was little opposition. The enemy's barrage, however, was very heavy. In one place the troops were stopped by uncut wire, but two tanks came up and made gaps in it. By 8 a.m. the second objective, a trench running through the extreme southern end of Flers, had been taken, and consolidation begun. At 8.10 a.m. 4 tanks entered Flers, followed by the infantry. The tanks did most effective work hunting out machine-gun nests. The village was cleared by 10 a.m., but there was much disorganization and mixing of units owing to the heavy casualties among the officers. The village was very heavily shelled, and at one time it looked as if the troops would be shelled out of it. At 10.20 a.m. a party of about 100 men and 2 machine guns, led by Captain R. Baskett, 18th KRRC, reached the third objective, and established themselves in two works, called Box and Cox, just north of the village, in touch with the New Zealanders on their left.

At this time the 124th Brigade had got out of touch to the east of the village, but in touch with the 14th Division. Lieut.-Colonel the Earl of Feversham, Commanding the 21st KRRC, and Lieut.-Colonel Oakley,10th Queen's, with as many men as they could collect, advanced against the third objective, the same trench which, farther along, had been the limit of the advance of the 9th Rifle Brigade, captured it and held it for some time against more than one counter-attack. During this time Lord Faversham was killed. This party was in the end obliged to fall back east of the village. However, by the end of the day a line was established by the Division running round the north side of the village and connecting up with the 14th Division on the right and the New Zealanders on the left. This was the greatest advance made by any division in the course of the day.

The casualties of our two battalions were: 18th Battalion: officers--killed, in addition to those already named, Major P. G. Sadd, Captain J. B. Lester, Lieutenant C. N. Curwen, 2nd Lieutenant J. J. Langford; wounded 7; other ranks--killed 57, wounded 227, died of wounds 3, missing 59. Total of all ranks, 360.

21st Battalion: officers--killed, Lieutenant-Colonel the Earl of Feversham, 2nd Lieutenants T. P. A. Hervey, R. B. Nivison,; wounded 10; other ranks--killed 54, wounded 256, missing 70. Total of all ranks, 394.

The 21st Battalion was relieved at 3 a.m. the next day by the 11th Queen's; the 18th Battalion was not relieved till September 18."
Richard Johnsons's Grave at All Saints Church

A couple of weeks later, the Rothwell Courier and Times, a local weekly newspaper reported that Rifleman Johnson had been wounded and was in hospital in Netley. On 7th October 1916 it published the following article:

"A Soldier's Death”
“We regret to announce the death of Private Richard Johnson, of the King's Royal Rifles, who was reported in our last issue as having been seriously wounded. Deceased, whose father is a farmer at Barnbow, was wounded in the fight in which Lord Feversham was killed, and was brought to England, receiving treatment at Netley Hospital. His injuries, however, were so serious that there was little hope of his recovery, and the gallant lad died on Saturday.

Prior to enlisting he resided at Osbaldwick, near York, and he greatly appreciated the kindness of the vicar of the parish, who, on hearing of his being wounded, went to Netley and spent two days with him. The body was conveyed to Scholes on Tuesday morning, and taken home, the interment taking place later in the day. Colonel Benson, of Oswaldkirk, sent a beautiful wreath to place upon the hero's grave. Private Johnson was very brave, for although he was wounded in the neck, he refused to fall out, and went on until he received the wound which caused his death."

The Oswaldkirk estate owned by Colonel Benson bordered the Helmsley estate, making him a neighbour of the Earl of Feversham.

Richard Fisher Johnson lies buried in the churchyard at All Saints’ parish church in Barwick in Elmet. His gravestone is not a Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone. He was 23 years old.

Lower Barnbow Farm (National Library of Scotland)

Private Frank Johnson:

Frank Johnson was the seventh child in the Johnson family, and was born in Bubwith in late 1897.

Being five years younger than his brother, Richard, Frank didn’t leave home to work on other people’s farms, and it was from Lower Barnbow Farm that he left to join the army as a conscript in June 1918.

Like many men who were joining the army at this point of the war, the regiment a man was initially posted to, was often simply a steppingstone in a string of different regiments he might wear the cap badge of during his training and early service, prior to being sent to the British Expeditionary Force in France, via one of the huge Infantry Base Depots that formed in clusters along the northern French coast. In the case of Frank Johnson, and those who joined at around the same time as he did, the men were, firstly, posted to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, which was a training battalion based in Sunderland as part of the Tyne Garrison. Within a few days of joining the army, he was attached to 3/4th Bn the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, which was also a training battalion in nearby Seaton Delaval.

At the end of their initial recruit training, some of the men with Frank Johnson were nominally transferred to the 13th (Service) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment prior to their departure for France. This battalion had been raised at the very beginning of the war as one of the Barnsley Pals battalions, and belonged to 31st Division. It had served in Egypt, protecting the Suez Canal from December 1915, but was soon transferred to the Western Front, where it suffered terrible casualties at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. By October 1918 when Frank Johnson and his cohort were due to be posted overseas, many of those ‘Pals’ battalions that had been raised by local committees as a way of encouraging men to volunteer to serve alongside men from their own areas had lost their ‘local’ feel as men were sent to them in drafts from all parts of the country. The mantra of the recruiting committees for these locally raised battalions was that men could join with their friends, train with their friends, and fight with their friends, but as well as those aspects, when the battles went against them, they also died with their friends, and in large numbers. This localised focus of the battalions gave a somewhat false impression of how the war was progressing to those at home, and if the Barnsley Pals had suffered large numbers of casualties in an action, the people of Barnsley would see long lists of casualties in their local newspapers and think that the same heavy toll was being borne by every part of the country. It is partly due to this phenomenon that the myth of an entire generation being wiped out gained such traction.

Despite Frank Johnson being posted to the 13th Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment on the same day as he went abroad, only three days later, while he was still in the Infantry Base Depot, he was transferred to the 1st Battalion, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. This was entirely normal practice, and it was common for men to arrive at the Infantry Base Depots wearing the badges of one regiment, and expecting to be posted to that regiment, only for them to be loaded on to a draft to an entirely different regiment altogether. From 20th October 1918, Frank Johnson served as a Private with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

Map Reference 57b.X.16.a.5.1 where Frank Johnson's body was found in 1920. (National Library of Scotland)

Since August 1918, the Allied armies on the Western Front had been pursuing the retreating German army in a war of movement not seen there since the very earliest days of the war. Momentum was maintained by the Allies, but it came at a cost in lives that was more expensive than during any other period of the war. It was clear that the German army was beaten on the Western Front and that an Allied victory was inevitable, but the Germans still stood on a deep cushion of occupied territory, and throughout their retreat across northern France, the Germans turned and fought desperate, vicious, and costly ‘stopping actions’ to disrupt the momentum of the Allies. Though the Allies prevailed all along their front, the casualties inflicted upon them by the Germans, and the speed at which they were now chasing the Germans meant that the demand for fresh men was as high as it had ever been during the war.

Highland Cemetery, Le Cateau, with wreath transferred from Scholes War Memorial in 2014

Frank Johnson had been with his battalion for only 14 days when he was killed on 3rd November 1918, aged 21. His battalion was moving into position for a planned action the following day which would see it cross the Sambre Canal as part of an advance across a thirty-mile front from Valenciennes in the north to Oisy in the south, close to the point where 1st Bn Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was to fight. The battalion moved off from its start point at 19:20 in the evening of 3rd November 1918. The battalion’s war diary records the incident in which Frank Johnson was killed in the following terms: “During the march a short distance from the Ferme de Ribeaucourt, the Bn came under shellfire and six casualties were sustained – 1 man killed, 1 CSM, 1 Sgt, 1 Cpl, and 2 men wounded”.

Because the battalion was on the move, and because the pursuit of the German army in its retreat was of paramount importance, the body of Frank Johnson was left where he was killed. It was discovered in the summer of 1920 by one of the travelling exhumation squads that searched the former battlefields after the war was over. Frank Johnson’s remains were identified and reburied in Highland Cemetery on the outskirts of Le Cateau, about 5 miles away.