JOHNSON Cyril Ben Hamlyn 3333
6 B KIA 14/5/18
Cyril Johnson was the son of Ben Percival Johnson, local solicitor, and arguably the most high profile and outspoken Imperial Loyalist in the Shire. Previous posts have detailed the extent of his involvement – and more importantly, leadership – in all areas to do with support for the War, including recruiting and the drive for conscription. He was also closely identified with support for the men returning from the War.
The father also played a prominent role in many other areas of local life. In his younger years he had been heavily involved in local sport – football, cricket, tennis – and local drama and arts initiatives – Yarram Amateur Minstrels, Yarram Choral & Orchestral Society – and he was an active member of the local Church of England (Holy Trinity). He was also involved with the ANA and the local Masonic Lodge.
In addition, Cyril’s mother – Emily Kate Johnson (McKenzie) – was a daughter of Donald Thomson and Mary Ann McKenzie. D T McKenzie, of ‘Calrossie’, was one of the leading graziers in the district. The McKenzie family was very well known. Cyril’s grandmother – Mary Ann Mckenzie – died about 3 weeks after he was killed. A detailed in memoriam published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 12/6/18, noted that the news of her death … had the effect of casting a gloom over the whole district, as there is no family better known in this portion of the State.
Cyril grew up in the local area and attended both Devon North and Yarram state schools and his name is the honor rolls for both schools. He then attended Sale Agricultural High School and his name is also recorded there, in the school’s Honour Book. Lastly, he went to Wesley College in Melbourne. When he enlisted (July 1915) he was a student (Law) at Melbourne University. He was, presumably, intending to take up his father’s profession. Despite studying and living as a young man in Melbourne he maintained close contact with Yarram. In fact, he even attended the first meeting of the Yarram Recruiting Committee in June 1915. This was just before his own enlistment.
Private Johnson enlisted in Melbourne as reinforcements for 6 Battalion in July 1915 (5/7/15). At the time he was 20 yo which meant that he needed his parents’ permission. The permission, in his service file, is dated July 3, 1915 and typed on the official note paper of B. P. Johnson, Barrister and Solicitor, Yarram Yarram.
We the undersigned the parents of C. B. H. Johnson hereby consent to his enlisting in the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Forces.
His religion was given as Church of England. He was single and gave his ‘trade or calling’ as ‘student’.
Based on information from the (National) Roll of Honour and his enlistment papers, it appears that Cyril had served 4 years in the Senior Cadets and 2 years in the Melbourne University Rifles prior to enlistment. His father indicated that he had held the rank of corporal in the Melbourne University Rifles.
On his enlistment papers, Private Johnson had replied in the negative to the question, Have you ever been rejected as unfit for His Majesty’s Services? However, on the information form for the (National) Roll of Honour, his father stated, … enlisted June 1915 after having been twice rejected. Presumably Cyril had not drawn attention to previous rejections for fear of compromising the latest attempt. There is nothing in his medical notes that suggests any ground for rejection.
There was a formal farewell from Yarram on 24/9/15 which was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 29/9/15. People there spoke of early memories of Sergeant Johnson. At the time, he was referred to as holding the rank of sergeant.
Mr. Lalor said he felt sorry it was necessary our boys should have to go to fight, but the was confident they would give a good account of themselves. His first recollection of Sergeant Johnson was, when a little fellow of about eight years of age, he had handed him a Bride rose. It seemed like yesterday, yet today we were farewelling him as soldier.
B P Johnson, as both the father and one of organisers of such functions, gave his usual line on duty:
Mr. Johnson … said Cyril expressed a wish to go, and his mother felt she was doing her duty not to stop him. (Applause.)
Sergeant Johnson gave a typical response:
Sergeant Johnson thanked them for the kind words uttered, and remarked that he felt he had the best wishes of all of Yarram and district. He was confident that all who were going away to fight would keep up the honour of Gippsland. (Applause.) The thoughts of the farewell behind them, and a welcome in front, would help them fight a jolly side better. (Applause.)
Private Johnson left Australia in October 1915. The details of his service in Egypt are sketchy. It appears that he left Alexandria in May 1916 and then, once in England, he was attached for a while to the Army Postal Corps where he was in the Finance Section. While he was in this position he received extra duty pay and also had the rank of corporal. This work came to an end in late 1916 and he was sent to France in January 1917. At this point he was again given administrative responsibility and again attracted extra duty pay and also the rank of acting corporal. A complication with this short-term appointment was that it appears he had the rank of sergeant but with the pay of corporal. He finally joined 6 Battalion in the field, as a private, in April 1917.
From April 1917, when he joined his unit, right through to January 1918 Private Johnson suffered from repeated scabies infections, and was hospitalised 5 times: in April for one week; in May for two weeks; in July for three weeks; in late December for one week; and in January 1918 for one week.
There was a two-week period of leave to London in February 1918 and, like many others in the AIF, Private Johnson was charged for 2 days absent without leave because he failed to report back on time. The punishment – again, fairly standard – handed down by the CO 6 Battalion was confinement to camp for 7 days and the forfeiture of 3 days pay.
Private Johnson was killed on 14 May 1918. The cable advising of his death was dated 27 May 1918. At the time 6 Battalion was in the front line near Strazeele about 5Km from Hazebrouck, and 30Km from Ypres. On 13 May they had relieved 10 Battalion. The war diary of the battalion has 14 May as a relatively quiet day and there is no mention of casualties.
Dull morning. Enemy remained very quiet during the day. During the night our men patrolled the front actively; the enemy were found to be very alert.
There is nothing in the diary about the shell that killed at least 3 men, one of them Private Johnson.
There were many witness statements included in the Red Cross report of Private Johnson’s death. They make it clear that he was killed by shell fire. One was by Private Alexander John Lewis (3842) who enlisted about the same time as Private Johnson and who came from Port Albert. He had been a motor driver. He survived the War and returned to Australia in December 1918.
I knew him well he came from Yarrim (sic) same place as myself. Private J. Miller, S/Bearer, C. Coy. told me he was killed by a shell in front of Merris. He was carried out & buried behind the lines. His father is a solicitor at Yarrim. (28/8/18) [Merris is about 5 Km south of Strazeele]
The statement from Private J. Miller (3406), referred to by Private Lewis, suggests that enemy shelling meant the bodies of those killed were not buried for several days.
C.B.H. Johnson was well known to me as he was of the same reinforcement as myself. He was a machine gunner. He was killed in the trenches outside Frazielle [Strazeele]. I helped to bury him and three others who had been dead about 4 days. We were under heavy shelling at the time, but a cross was put up later this was about 200 yards from the trenches.
Private Johnson was finally buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery Extension, Bailleul, about 2 Km from Merris.
One witness described Pte Johnson as ‘tall, dark, a fine fellow’ and another as ‘tall, well built and well educated. He was called ‘CBH”. The most personal statement came from Private M. J. Cahill (7471) from West Rochster near Echuca.
I knew him very well. He was a very good fellow, all round decent chap. Very helpful to his comrades, thorough gentleman. On night before his death he told me he had seen Brig. General. He was expected to go to England to take his commission, and the general promised him that he should go at once. He said “I expect this will be my last turn on the line for a few months. This was on or about May 14th in front of Strazeele Station, Flanders. We were in front line trenches and he was asleep at the time. A shell fell (one of two only) and dropped close to him and killed him and two others. I was about three yards away and buried by the explosion. It was a lovely death, as he knew nothing of it. We buried him near [?] The ground was held.
There is nothing in the service file to back up the story about officer training back in England. However, when the father gave information for the (National) Roll of Honour he also noted that his son, Had been strongly recommended for a commission and warned that he was to go to England to the O.T.C. immediately. There is no way of knowing the timing being referred to here. It is reasonable to believe that someone with Johnson’s background – his time in the Melbourne University Rifles as a corporal, the series of acting promotions in the UK and France, and also the social background – would have been keen to secure a commission.
There is some additional evidence that Private Johnson was pursuing a commission. In the son’s service file, there is an extensive collection of correspondence between the father – B P Johnson – and Base Records in Melbourne. The exchange began in June 1916 and went through to March 1917. At some point it also appears that Johnson even wrote to the secretary for Defence on the same topic. The basic issue was to do with pay. Essentially, Johnson’s version of the situation was that his son was not being paid at the proper rate for his particular duties. According to Johnson, his son left Australia as a sergeant. Then when he reached Egypt he undertook training for non commissioned officers at Leitoun and gained a first-class instructor’s certificate. He was later appointed acting sergeant major. Clearly, in Johnson’s mind, the son was moving quickly through the ranks. However, in a letter dated 27/6/16, he detailed how his son’s fortunes slipped:
Sometime in February , his arm got bad and the Doctor said he would have to take a ‘soft job’ till he became well, and he was placed in the Army Pay Corps where he was, at least, in April. I have since heard that he has arrived in England but have no particulars as to how he is, and what he is doing. I shall be much obliged if you will inform me as to whether he is still in the Pay Office, or has rejoined his unit, and if you have any information as to how his arm is. I shall also be glad to know if he received his Sergeants pay, as I understand a man passing through above school retains his stripes, and that men in the Pay Office rank as Staff Sergeants. His allotment of Special Duty pay has been received up to February, and I have been wondering why more has not come to hand.
The detailed correspondence continued. According to Johnson the extra pay for his son’s rank as sergeant had not been paid after 8 February 1916. He seemed particularly upset because … my son (who is well educated & has had office experience) has, since his injury, been doing work that is paid for [in Australia] at the rate of 10/- to 12/6 per day.
Base Records assured him that the matter was being investigated. As the time dragged on, Johnson’s tone became more critical. Then in January 1917 (17/1/17) he made a direct comparison between the shameful way his ‘patriotic’ son had been treated and the easy life of the ‘shirker’ back in Australia. The moral weakness of the ‘shirker’ was a favourite theme that Johnson used commonly in his public speaking in the Shire. Again, Johnson refers to the commission for which his son strives:
A little while ago I had a letter from my son saying that all the time he has been in the Pay Office he has been only getting 6/- a day. This seems to me an encouragement to shirk. A man enlists to fight – he is unable to do so & as a clerk (though of experience) gets 6/- a day while a man who will not fight gets 10/- to 12/6 a day & overtime. My son gave up his career to serve his country got to acting S. M. recommended for a commission & that is how he is treated. He is bitterly disappointed at being unfit to fight thro’ an old dislocated elbow troubling him & it does not ease matters that he has been underpaid.
Finally, in February (27/2/17) after receiving information from England, Base Records gave the formal reply to Johnson. It pointed out, in a rather abrupt manner, that Private Johnson had … never held any substantive rank higher then “Private”. It acknowledge that when he left Australia (11/10/15) until 18/2/16 he had held the temporary rank of sergeant and been paid ‘extra duty pay’; and then for 2 months between 1/9/16 and 1/11/16, when he was attached to 1 Australian Army Pay Corps, he was given the rank of ‘temporary 2nd corporal’ and the relevant higher pay. This version of the service record was less impressive than the father’s version. When he replied in March 1917 Johnson thanked Base Records for their ‘courtesy in the matter’ but he was not prepared to give up his criticism of the shirker or ‘stay at home’:
My objection chiefly was that an educated man who had really given up his career to go & fight for his country was only paid 6/- a day for work for which any stay at home gets a minimum of 10/- a day & extra for overtime.
Post 147 noted that at one of the welcome home meetings (July 1917) Johnson had had to defend himself from disparaging comments about his son having gained a safe appointment in the UK, away from the front. The claim was that Johnson had used his influence to take care of his son. Presumably, people like Johnson – the local solicitor – set themselves up for criticism because of the high moral tone they adopted.
There was further correspondence (14/1/19) after the son’s death. This time it involved the kit returned. The kit was returned in January 1919 and consisted of – 2 Discs, Photos, Letters, Wallet, Notecase, 2 Fountain Pens, Metal Cigarette Case, 2 Lodge Invitations, Ship’s Paper, Paper Cuttings. The problem was that a particular item– a Savage automatic pistol – was missing, one with which the father was very familiar and equally keen to recover:
I notice that my son’s automatic was not included in his parcel although one of his comrades wrote me that he had seen it taken from his dead body and wrapped up with his other effects by his O.C. I shall be much obliged if you will have enquiries made as this automatic was prized by my boy and if it does not come to hand we shall be forced to the conclusion that someone in the forces or the department has been guilty of the most contemptible act of robbing the dead. Such a rotter should be found out and dealt with promptly.
Base Records replied (20/1/19) with the usual slight hope that the missing item might turn up – In the event of your son’s revolver coming to hand later, it will be promptly forwarded to you – but it did not address the morality of the situation.
Later in the year, in November (15//11/20), the father wrote again seeking any further advice re the missing automatic and pointing out:
Someone must have robbed a dead man or else the parcel is amongst the unclaimed articles. May I ask that a search be made. We have lost our boy and do prize his belongings, they are all we have.
Base Records (23/11/20) replied that essentially there was nowhere to search because the items returned to the family matched the inventory of the effects forwarded from 6 Battalion two weeks after the death. The implication was that if something was missing it was taken back at the battalion. The reply concluded that – In view of the length of time that has elapsed since the soldier’s demise. It is considered improbable that any other articles will now be received in his name.
On 13/5/18, the day before his son was killed, Johnson as chair of the local recruiting committee, spoke at a formal welcome to an AIF unit, accompanied by a 16-member military band, which had arrived in Yarram as part of a state-wide recruiting drive. Johnson had organised a reception for them. The men arrived by train and were to tour Gippsland as part of the recruiting campaign.
In the account reported in the local paper on 15/5/18, Johnson cited the patriotic example of Port Albert and wished success for the campaign:
He [Johnson] had been informed that in Port Albert there was not one eligible man left. It was up to the rest of the district to do likewise. He hoped the soldiers would obtain a record number of recruits.
News of the death of Private Cyril Johnson was published in the local paper on 29/5/18. In the report, the date on which the cable reached the family was given as 25/5/18.
The very sad and regretful news was conveyed to Mr. B. P. Johnson, of Yarram, on Saturday last that his son, Cyril B. H. had been killed in action. Although a hero’s death, it came as a severe blow to Mr. Johnson and family. He was about 24 years of age, and sailed for Europe in October 1915, thus he has served his King and Country for two and a half years. We mourn the loss of men of his stamp, whose long-continued service marks them as men possessed of true British blood. The last letter received from Private Johnson, who was a Lewis machine gunner, was from Ypres. The death of the hero is further saddened by the fact that his mother is at present under treatment for illness in Melbourne.
Johnson withdrew, temporarily, from public life after his son’s death. He did not attend a welcome home held on 29/5/18, and in the report in the local paper (31/5/18) one of the other committee members of the group organising such welcomes extended the community’s sympathy:
Mr. G. F. Sauer said he regretted the circumstance that cause Mr. B. P. Johnson being absent, and he thought all would sympathise with Mr. Johnson in his sad bereavement. He mentioned the fact as Mr. Johnson was one of the leaders at the farewell and welcome functions and he thought the gathering was a fitting place to express the sympathy of the public.
The name of Cyril Johnson is probably the most commemorated in the Shire of Alberton. It appears on the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor and the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. It appears on the honor rolls for both Yarram and Devon North state schools, as well as on the honor roll of Devon North District. Additionally, it appears on the honor rolls for the local Lodge (207), the Yarram Club and the local branch of the ANA. Lastly, there is a stained glass window in Holy Trinity Church (Yarram) to his memory.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 2, The Alberton Project
National Archives file for Johnson Cyril Ben Hamlyn
Roll of Honour: Cyril Ben Hamlyn Johnson
First World War Embarkation Roll: Cyril Ben Hamlyn Johnson
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Cyril Ben Hamlyn Johnson