Posted by: michaeldaybath | October 3, 2018

Sergeant William Henry Johnson, V.C., 1/5th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters

Sgt William Henry Johnson, VC.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson, V.C. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1918, 306122 Sergeant William Henry Johnson of the 1/5th Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions at Ramicourt on the 3rd October 1918. Johnson was also a bellringer at Worksop Priory (Nottinghamshire), and is the only bellringer known to have been awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. His citation, published in the London Gazette of the 13th December 1918, reads [1]:

No. 306122 Sjt. William Henry Johnson, 1/5th Bn., Notts. & Derby. R. (T.F.) (Worksop).
For most conspicuous bravery at Ramicourt on the 3rd of October, 1918.
When his platoon was held up by a nest of enemy machine guns at very close range, Sjt. Johnson worked his way forward under very heavy fire, and single-handed charged the post, bayoneting several gunners and capturing two machine guns. During this attack he was severely wounded by a bomb, but continued to lead forward his men.
Shortly afterwards the line was once more held up by machine guns. Again he rushed forward and attacked the post single-handed. With wonderful courage he bombed the garrison, put the guns out of action, and captured the teams.
He showed throughout the most exceptional gallantry and devotion to duty.

Ramicourt. Detail from Trench Map 62B.NW

Ramicourt. Detail from Trench Map 62B.NW; Scale: 1:20000; Edition: 5B; Published: March 1918; Trenches corrected to 19 September 1918: https://maps.nls.uk/view/101465254 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The 1/5th Sherwood Foresters War Diary for the 3rd October simply noted [2]:

Attack made by the Division (in connection with operation of ANZACS on left and FRENCH Corps on right) on the villages of RAMICOURT and MONTBREHAIN. 5th Bn Sherwood Foresters one of the leading Battns.

The history of the 46th Division notes that the fighting at Ramicourt was very tough [3]

On this occasion there was no such providential fog as that to which in great measure was due the successful breaching of the Hindenburg Line at its strongest point. At Ramicourt the 46th Division met, on more equal terms, and defeated in a pitched battle by stark and straight fighting, the 241st, 221st, 119th, and 34th Divisions of the German Army.
[…]
The Battles of Bellenglise and Ramicourt may be contrasted in a single sentence: Bellenglise was a miracle; Ramicourt was a victory; therein lies the essential difference between them.

The attack was made on an uncompleted line of defences known as the Beaurevoir-Fonsomme line [4]:

The unexpected strength of the line lay in two principal things. The first was the stout heart of the garrison which held it, properly imbued, as the men were, with a sense of its importance as the last of the German outlying lines of defence. The second source of strength was the presence at fifty-yard intervals of strong, well-constructed concrete shelters, where machine-gun crews could obtain immunity from our barrage, to reappear immediately it had passed and mow down our attacking Infantry if they lagged behind it.

fonsomme

Ramicourt. Detail from Trench Map 62B.NW; Scale: 1:20000; Edition: 5B; Published: March 1918; Trenches corrected to 19 September 1918: https://maps.nls.uk/view/101465254 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The attack commenced at 6.50 am [5].

The Left Brigade (139th Infantry Brigade) had a straightforward if difficult task allotted to it – the task of advancing against the Fonsomme line at its strongest point and then overrunning and mopping up in succession the villages of Ramicourt and Montbrehain. From the first, the attack met with strong resistance, the German troops in the Fonsomme line putting up a very stout fight indeed. There had been no preliminary bombardment, and paths through the wire had to be ploughed by the tanks. The Infantry, pouring through these gaps, or making their way independently through the wire belts, then rushed the trenches with the bayonet, carrying all before them, and utterly destroying the garrison, who, to do them justice, made no attempt to escape their fate by flight.

Just behind the Fonsomme line, however, machine-gun sections were dug-in in isolated gun-pits, and it is here that Sergeant Johnson earned his Victoria Cross [6]:

This N.C.O., when his platoon was held up by such a nest of enemy machine guns, worked his way forward single-handed under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire and charged the post, bayoneting several gunners, and capturing the two machine guns which had been delaying the advance. During the attack, he was severely wounded by a bomb, but nethertheless continued to lead his men forward until, a similar situation occurring, he again rushed forward alone and attacked the post. This time, taking a leaf out of the enemy’s book, he made his attack with bombs and, putting both guns out of action, captured the crews, thus again enabling the troops to advance and preventing them from falling dangerously far behind the barrage.

Sergeant Johnson would be presented with his Victoria Cross by HM King George V at Buckingham Palace on the 29th March 1919 [7]. After the war, he joined the team of bellringers at St Paul’s Church, Daybrook (Nottinghamshire). He died on the 25th April 1945, aged 54, with his funeral held at St Paul’s a few days later  He was buried at Redhill Cemetery, Nottingham, where his bellringing colleagues rang a short touch on handbells at the graveside.

Battle of St. Quentin Canal. Men of the 137th Brigade (46th Division) on the slope of the St. Quentin Canal, near Bellenglise, which they crossed on 29 September; photograph taken on 2 October 1918

IWM Q 9538: Battle of St. Quentin Canal. Men of the 137th Brigade (46th Division) on the slope of the St. Quentin Canal, near Bellenglise, which they crossed on 29 September; photograph taken on 2 October 1918. Source: Imperial War Museums. Copyright © IWM. Original Source: www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205245285

On the 29th September, during what to become known as the Battle of St Quentin Canal, the 46th Division had helped to break the Hindenburg Line and capture the village of Bellenglise. This was a remarkable achievement because the deep cutting of the canal itself represented a formidable obstacle for an attacking force. The divisional history commented that the “St. Quentin Canal on the front to be attacked by the 46th Division was in itself an obstacle which might easily have proved insuperable in the face of a determined enemy” [8].

All that the 1/5th Sherwood Foresters War Diary for the 29th September comments is [9]:

46th (North Midland) Division attacked and captured portion of ST QUENTIN Canal & HINDENBURG LINE (SIEGFRIED LINE) North of ST QUENTIN

The accompanying report on operations appears not to be in the digitised war diary made available by the National Archives, but am attached map shows the 139th Brigade operating to the south of 138th Brigade on the far side of the canal.

The  plan was for the 137th Brigade to lead the initial assault on the canal. The 138th and 139th Brigades would then pass through and capture further objectives. Following the capture of these, the units would then consolidate and let the 32nd Division pass through them in pursuit of further gains. The plan worked well, and the Division’s battle was over by early in the afternoon [10]:

As far as the eye could see, our troops were pushing forward; batteries were crossing the Canal and coming into action; Engineers everywhere were at work; large bodies of prisoners were coming in from all sides; and the men of 32nd Division were advancing fast. The enemy were shelling the line of the Canal and Bellenglise, but no one seemed to mind.
It was indeed a break-through.
Thus the battle ended early in the afternoon with the complete attainment of all objectives, and, at 5.30 p.m., the advanced troops of the 32nd Division passed through our front line in pursuit of the retreating enemy.

During the initial assault, the 1/6th North Staffordshire Regiment (in 137th Brigade) had managed to capture the still-intact bridge over the canal at Riqueval. Units from 137th Brigade were famously photographed on the 2nd October 1918, perched on the banks of the St. Quentin Canal at Riqueval, being addressed by Brigadier-General John Vaughan Campbell, V.C.

Fonsomme Line. Detail from Trench Map 62B.NW

Fonsomme Line. Detail from Trench Map 62B.NW; Scale: 1:20000; Edition: 5B; Published: March 1918; Trenches corrected to 19 September 1918: https://maps.nls.uk/view/101465254 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland (Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A more detailed account of Sergeant Johnson’s life and service career has been published today by David Underdown in a post on the blog of the National Archives:
https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/tommys-war-w-h-johnson-bellringer-vc/

Peals were also rung today in honour of Sergeant Johnson at both Worksop Priory (5,100 Ramicourt Surprise Major) and St Paul’s Church, Daybrook (5,040 Stedman Triples):
https://bb.ringingworld.co.uk/view.php?id=1248532
https://bb.ringingworld.co.uk/view.php?id=1248538

References:

[1] London Gazette, Supplement, No. 31067, 13th December 1918, p. 14776:
https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/31067/supplement/14776

[2] WO 95/2695/1, 1/5th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) War Diary, The National Archives, Kew.

[3] R. E. Priestley, Breaking the Hindenburg Line: the story of the 46th (North Midland) Division (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919), p. 81.

[4] Ibid., pp. 87-88.

[5] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[6] Ibid, p. 98.

[7] Gerald Gliddon, VCs of the First World War: the final days, 1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), pp. 106-110.

[8] Priestley, op cit., p. 31.

[9] WO 95/2695/1

[10] Priestley, op cit., p. 73.

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Responses

  1. […] through the Hindenburg Line near Saint-Quentin on the 29th September in what became known as the Battle of St Quentin Canal. Attention could then turn to the capture of the city of […]


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