William James (‘Bill’) Johnson, Private, Service Number 3827, died on 30 July 1916 in the No 24 General Hospital, Etaples, France, a few days after being wounded at the Battle of Pozieres. He had sustained a fractured skull and other facial wounds as the result of an exploding shell. He left behind his wife of twenty seven years, Martha Ellen, two children, Lachlan and Ivy, who was just 14 years of age, and an adopted son, Eric Edward Travis.
According to his war record, William was 44 years and 7 months when he enlisted at Holsworthy on 29 August 1915. Because he was also the Mayor of Auburn at the time, his enlistment was widely reported in the newspapers. He gave the reason for enlisting as wanting to be an example to the younger men who were hesitating to join the AIF.
William James Johnson was born in Yass in 1867. His parents were William James and Susan Johnson, who moved to Orange just after his birth. Siblings Eleanor, Joseph, Clara, Alfred and Luke were all born in Orange between 1869 and 1880. His military papers give his trade as a coachman, stating he was an apprentice to coachbuilder Michael Kinealy in Orange for five years.
Despite his trade as a coachbuilder, William Johnson leaned towards a career in politics. He became involved in local politics as a member of the Auburn Council, and in 1910 he was elected to the House of Representatives as the Labour Member for Robertson. He was elected as Mayor of Auburn in February 1914 and very soon afterwards was seen to be campaigning for the seat of Calare but was unsuccessful against Mr Pigott MHR.
Bill Johnson’s political connections also extended to the battlefield. The Leader on Monday 12 June 1916, page 2, reports:
The idea was Private Billy Johnson’s, and Captain Bean had told us how he fired it at Mr Hughes when parade state was broken a moment by General Birdwood to allow the Prime Minister and Mr Fisher to shake hands with the soldier who used to be Mr WJ Johnson, MHR. (formerly of Orange, and latterly Mayor of Auburn). That was Labor Bill Johnson, not Liberal Bill Elliott Johnson, Labour Bill was as short and as stocky and as humorous as Liberal Bill is long and lathy and lugubrious. ‘Have they made you a Doctor of Divinity yet, Bill?’ asked Private Johnson of the Prime Minister, and Mr Hughes grinned appreciation. Bill Johnson ever showed a blatant disrespect for the established Order.
The personal effects of Private WJ Johnson, 2nd Battalion, were signed for by his wife, Martha Ellen Johnson, on 30 June 1917. They included his disc, letters, wallet, cards, photographs and a diary, Testament and Hymn Book, which had returned to Australia via Beltana under registered post. His son, Lachlan William Johnson, received his Memorial Plaque and other military honours accorded a deceased soldier. William’s Memorial Plaque is now held in the Auburn Library Local Studies Collection.
Martha Ellen Johnson, Bill’s wife, died on 5 July 1919 from a severe bout of influenza. She was laid to rest in the Methodist Section of Rookwood Cemetery.
Private William James Johnson, soldier and politician, was laid to rest in the Etaples Cemetery in France on 30 July 1916.
On 25 April 1917 the second ever Anzac Day service in Orange was held at the Orange Public School. Mayoress McNeilly placed a laurel wreath on the Union Jack for each fallen soldier who had attended the school, including William Johnson.
In July 1917 a tree was planted at Orange Public School in William’s memory. It was one of 26 trees planted in honour of fallen soldiers who had attended the school.
In 1923 the Anzac Memorial Avenue of trees was planted along Bathurst Road to commemorate fallen WWI soldiers. A tree was planted in honour of “Pte WJ Johnson”; it was donated by HT Albon. Very few of the trees are still standing today.
William is commemorated on the World War I Roll of Honour on the southern face of the Orange Cenotaph and on the Honour Rolls at Auburn Methodist Church, Auburn RSL Club and Orange RSL Club.
On 9 August 1917 the Wellington Times published the following letter from official war correspondent, Captain CEW Bean, to William’s widow:
Headquarters, 1st Anzac Corps, B.E.F., France, Nov 27 1917 [sic].
Dear Mrs Johnson – I have been asked by Mrs Caldwell to obtain any particulars I could as to the manner of your brave husband’s death. I am told that he went over a little after midnight with his company at the first attack on Pozieres. All the afternoon they had been watching our guns tearing the branches out of the trees, and the dust from the trenches and the villages across the short green space in front of their parapet. All that evening after dark the skyline was lit up by the red bursts and the dazzling flashes of one of the heaviest bombardments ever known.
At 12.30 our lighter guns suddenly burst out into a regular necklace of fire, and the companies went out over the parapet and got as close as they could behind our own shells, and when the shelling lifted and went further they dashed at once for the German trench. All that night your husband with the rest was digging an old German trench, filling sandbags and bolstering up the shell-torn trench-sides with them. By morning the fire had largely subsided. They were in a trench just inside a small wood (or, rather, what had been a wood, or wooded field, on the south side of the few broken brick walls which were the remains of the village). The morning was pretty quiet, Some of the men had been routing Germans out of the cellars in the village, but they had come back, and the digging and improving of the line was going on fairly well without interruption.
Your husband was in the trench, when about midday a shell, which burst a good way from him (there was always a good many scattered shells after these battles, which do wonderfully little harm so long as the enemy cannot see from anywhere what his guns are aiming at) sent its fragments flying at random over the ground, and one of these hit your husband in the head. It is not quite clear whether this fragment did not explode a hand-bomb lying near, and one of the pieces of the bomb hit him. It is often difficult to tell in the suddenness of the shell burst exactly what follows. Anyway he was hit in the head, but not rendered unconscious; and like the good man he was, he walked down himself, with the help of the stretcher-bearer down the deadly road to the ‘Chalk Pit’, near which was a dressing station.
At the Chalk Pit he was pretty well done up, and his mate had him put on a stretcher and carried the rest of the way to the dressing station. As his mate left him there and asked him how he felt, he said ‘Not too good.” He died at Etaples on July 30, just a week later (he was wounded on July 23 at Pozieres). He was always a splendid, cheery man- too old for the wild work of a soldier, but making up for his age by his perpetual cheeriness. On marches he stuck to it cheerily, although most men of his age do not march well. He was never known to grumble.
He died as he lived, a good, straight, fine, single-minded man – a very fine example to younger Australians of the way in which trials can be faced by a man determined to conquer them by sheer spirit, even if his strength is not really equal to them. He was buried at Etaples, and the number of his grave is No H 375. I will try to have a photograph taken of it and send it to you. The British authorities, who have care of the graveyards, have kindly arranged to do this if possible.
Assuring you of my deep sympathy in your loss of a husband whom every one that knew him respected and was fond of, I am, yours sincerely, C E W Bean.
Leader, 9 August 1916, p. 1.
Corporal WJ Johnson
Leader, 11 August 1916, p. 5.
Corporal Johnson’s Last Letter
* Sharon Jameson, 2016