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George Johnson

Private George Johnson, 18859, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 9th Battalion

George Johnson born Ossett in 1889 or possibly 1890. In 1891, George, the fourth born child of George and Laura (nee Norbury) was living with his parents at Wakefield Road, Ossett. By 1901, George’s father had died and George junior and his three siblings were living with their widowed mother In Alverthorpe. In 1911, George and his brother were living in Wakefield with their stepfather, mother and step siblings. George was aged 21 and a labourer.

George Johnson’s army service record has not survived but it is known that he enlisted at Wakefield and embarked for France on the 11th September 1915. He was posthumously awarded the British and Victory medals and also the 1914/15 Star in recognition of his service overseas before 31st December 1915.

George is not remembered on any Ossett Memorial or Roll of Honour suggesting the possibility that he may have left Ossett sometime before the start of WW1 in August 1914. He is remembered in this 2014 biography and Roll of Honour because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and/or the U.K. Soldiers who Died in the Great War 1914-1918 listing records him as born or residing in Ossett.

Unfortunately none of the above records give details of George Johnson’s age or the names of his next of kin. There were four men called George Johnson born in Ossett at a time which suggests that any one of them may have volunteered for army service in the Great War. George embarked for France in September 1915 so he must have been a volunteer.

The 9th Battalion, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was raised at Pontefract in September 1914 as part of Kitchener's Third New Army and joined 64th Brigade, 21st Division. After initial training close to home they moved to Berkhamsted and then to Halton Park in October. They spent the winter in billets in Maidenhead from November and returned to Halton Park in April 1915. They moved to Witley for final training in August and proceeded to France in September 1915 whereupon their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel C.W.D. Lynch had made himself extremely unpopular by ordering the whole of the Battalion to shave their heads, following a report that there had been a number of head wounds which had become fatal, due to infection in the victims hair.1

They marched across France and went straight into action in reserve of the British assault at Loos on the 26th of September, suffering heavy casualties. In 1916 they were in action in the Battles of The Somme, including The Battle of Morval in which the Division captured Geudecourt. In 1917, they were in action during The German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, the Arras offensive, the Third Battles of Ypres and The Cambrai Operations. In 1918 they fought on The Somme then moved north and were in action during the Battles of the Lys, the Battle of the Aisne, The Somme, the Battles of the Hindenburg Line and the Final Advance in Picardy. At the Armistice the Division were around Berlaimont, on the 12th they moved to Beaufort, then in mid December they moved west of Amiens and demobilisation began being completed by the 19th of May 1919.

Since the deceased soldier enlisted at Wakefield this suggests that George may have left Ossett by the time he volunteered. His absence from any Ossett Memorial suggests that he may have left Ossett by the time he enlisted.

The 9th Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 64th Brigade, 21st Division was almost wiped out on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916, in their attack at Gird Trench to the north of Fricourt.

The northern Brigade in the 21st Division consisted of the 9th and 10th Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) in the front line. Prior to Zero Hour (07:30) on the 1st July 1916, the men from the KOYLI battalions crawled out into No Man’s Land in readiness for their assault. The 9th Battalion went over the top in an attack on Fricourt (Gird Trench). The unit advanced in good order under heavy machine gun and mortar fire over a distance of 1,500 yards.

At just 50 yards from the objective the battered survivors from this initial assault took cover in pre-existing shell holes. The losses during these first few minutes from machine gun fire and shrapnel were catastrophic. The men who had taken shelter in these craters maintained their post ion all day and were not withdrawn until nightfall.

To their left the 34th Division’s attempt at taking La Boisselle had been repulsed with enormous loss to its Tyneside Brigades. As the 34th Division attempted to remedy the situation, the KOYLI found themselves in the unenviable situation of maintaining a position surrounded on three sides. The total of dead, wounded and missing in the 9th KOYLI amounted to 455, including Private George Johnson. The battalion that had left its trenches earlier that morning had all but ceased to exist.

Somme Trenches

Above: Trench warfare at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Private George Johnson died on the 1st July 1916 and is buried at grave reference IV. R. 9. at the Gordon Dump Cemetery, Ovillers-La Boiselle,2 Somme, France. Gordon Dump Cemetery is 2 kilometres north-east of Albert, on the right hand side of D929 Albert-Bapaume. At Y junction (102nd Infantry Brigade Memorial) nearby the Routiers restaurant, turn right onto D20 and follow through Ovillers/La Boisselle. After 2 kilometres the Cemetery is signposted onto a 300 metre grass track.

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 8th Division attacked Ovillers and the 34th Division La Boisselle. The villages were not captured, but ground was won between them and to the south of La Boisselle. On 4 July, the 19th (Western) Division cleared La Boisselle and on 7 July the 12th (Eastern) and 25th Divisions gained part of Ovillers, the village being cleared by the 48th (South Midland) Division on 17 July. The two villages were lost during the German advance in March 1918, but they were retaken on the following 24 August by the 38th (Welsh) Division.

Plot I of the Cemetery was made by fighting units after 10 July 1916 and closed in September when it contained the graves of 95 soldiers, mainly Australian. It was called variously Gordon (or Gordon's) Dump Cemetery or Sausage Valley Cemetery, from the name given to the broad, shallow valley that runs down from it to Becourt. The remainder of the cemetery was formed after the Armistice when graves were brought in from the 1916 battlefields immediately surrounding the cemetery.

There are now 1,676 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 1,053 of the burials are unidentified but there are special memorials to 34 casualties known or believed to be buried among them.

References:

1. "The Bloody Battle of the Somme 1916" (from the book "Neath a Foreign Sky" by Paul Allen)

2. Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site