Bert's War
Bert Johnston, a farmer's son from Katikati, served in World War One, losing an arm – and almost a leg. He returned home in 1919. Unable to take over the family farm he moved to Tauranga, eventually taking over a plumbing and building supply company. Rohan Greenland is Bert's grandson. This is Chapter 4 of a family history written by Rohan and reproduced here with permission.

It was Adam’s son, Albert Johnston, who along with nearly half the nation’s eligible men, answered the call to fight for King and Country during the course of the Great War. Bert was already a member of the territorial force, the 6th Hauraki Regiment, when he signed up for France just before Christmas 1916. Dr Bucknill did his medical in Tauranga - height 5' 10", weight 10 stone 11 pounds, complexion ruddy, eyes grey, hair sandy, occupation farmer. For the next two years and 237 days he was to be Private Johnston serial number 46354, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. After training in New Zealand with the 25th reinforcements, he boarded the troopship SS Tofua, leaving Wellington in April 1917 and disembarking in England three months later. But the fighting started early for Bert, as his son, Donald Johnston, tells.
 
Dad never spoke much about the War, but he did tell me that he went over to the UK on the Troop Ship SS Tofua, of the Union Line. At one time I was 2nd Engineer of the second Tofua. Dad came down and had a look over her, including the Engine Room, which he said was greatly different to the one he trimmed coal in, from Capetown to England, having been caught up in a pub brawl, ably assisted by a team of Aussie mates.
Donald Johnston, December 2004
 
Disembarking in Devonport, the 25th reinforcements made their way to ‘Sling’, the New Zealand military camp at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. They arrived in late July and commenced further training. But they weren’t here long. On the 5 September they were hurried off to France, marching in to the NZ infantry depot at Etaples, south of Boulogne, four days later. A frightening number were never to return. After another four weeks of intensive training at Etaples, they were marched out to the front to join the New Zealand Division in the Ypres Salient. Here, in early October, Bert joined the 6th (Hauraki) Company of the 3rd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment.

There were three battalions in all. The 1st and 2nd had been there from the start. But the 3rd was formed early in 1917 aty Codford in England as a stand-alone unit within the New Zealand Division. It was something of a grab-bag mob, pulled together from surplus personnel from assorted bits and pieces of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. It wore a patch with vertical stripes of red, black and red.

When Bert arrived in France, replacements were in high demand. The NZ Division had been engaged in the Third Battle of Ypres, a massive offensive that had raged since late July in an attempt to take the heavily fortified high ground east of Ypres and push through, the generals naively hoped, to the Belgian coast. That offensive is better known by the name of the village where the bloody campaign was finally called to a halt - Passchendaele.

Some progress was made in the first three months through ‘bite and hold’ tactics, small advances to capture and defend enemy ground. By October, however, the weather had deteriorated and the conditions were horrendous, the battleground chewed to bits by incessant shelling, the drainage system literally blown away.
 
All the beautiful woods were dead, horribly dead. There was no grass or pleasant herb. The streams that once made glad the smiling valleys were horrible bogs. Over all the wide area no bird sang. For mile after mile shell-hole touched shell-hole, with here and there a great, gaping crater torn by a mine explosion. As far as the eye could see was a wide expanse of full and dreary brown. Everywhere there is desolation, destruction, and the visible signs of death and decay.
History of the Auckland Regiment, Ormond Burton
 
When Bert arrived, the 3rd Battalion had already been in the thick of it. It played a key role in the successful but costly advance and capture of Broodseinde, Abraham Heights and Gravenstafel on 4 October. But, the worst was yet to come for the young Kiwi army. On 12 October, the New Zealanders and the Australian 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions advanced on well-entrenched German positions just outside Passchendaele.

The final objectives were in sight and the generals were impatient to push on. But the heaviest rains for 30 years made the appalling conditions even worse. The attack on the 12th should have been called off. But the generals, believing the Germans heavily demoralised, ordered it to proceed.

It was never going to work. Struggling through deep mud with inadequate artillery cover and against uncut wire, the troops moved forward into a bloody and inevitable massacre. In just four hours, 2,700 New Zealanders alone were killed or wounded, a 60 per cent casualty rate. Recovering the wounded from the field of battle took two and a half days, even with an informal truce in place to protect stretcher-bearers from both sides. The assault was a complete and costly failure that, some say, broke the spirit of the New Zealand Division.

But as luck would have it, Bert’s battalion wasn’t there.

The Ypres Salient 1917
Between October 1917 and January 1918, Bert Johnston was in the Ypres Salient with the New Zealand Division. He was in the frontline at Bellevue, Abraham Heights and Noordenhoek. He was shelled and badly wounded at Westhoek on 29 January 1918.
 
3rd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment

1917
4 Oct Battle of Gravenstafel, Abraham Heights and Broodseinde
5 Oct Relieved - back to Goldfish Chateau (camp nr Vlamertinghe, 1m west of Ypres)
9 Oct  Pte Johnston joins 3rd Auckland Battalion
14 Oct To Frontline at Bellevue Spur
18 Oct To support trenches at Abraham Heights
19 Oct Relieved, back to Old British Front Line
22 Oct Proceed to Alquines
12 Nov Entrain for Ypres
15 Nov To Forrester Camp
16 Nov To Frontline at Noordenhoek Sector Zillebeke
21 Nov Relieved and proceed to Railway Dugouts at Zillebeke
25 Nov To Halfway House
1 Dec To Howe Camp
5 Dec To Walker Camp
15 Dec To Frontline at Noordenhoek
22 Dec Relieved and proceed to Railway Dugouts
27 Dec To Frontline at Noordenhoek Sub Sector
1918
2 Jan To Support Area, Halfway House
18 Jan Pte Johnston posted to 1st Australian Tunnelling Company
29 Jan Pte Johnston shelled and severely wounded at Westhoek
8 Feb 3rd Auckland becomes Auckland Works Battalion

The Auckland Regiment didn’t take part in this horrendous blunder. The Regiment’s three battalions were being rested after taking part in the advance on Abraham Heights, Gravenstafel and Broodseinde eight days earlier. (It was during this engagement that Sergeant Dave Gallagher – the Kati Kati boy who became an All Black legend – was to lose his life. He was 43.) The 3rd Battalion’s casualties on this occasion were not ‘considered’ heavy. But they were still shocking. Some 28 per cent – more than one in four – had been killed, wounded or were missing. The battalion had been relieved on 5 October and was standing down at the shattered remains of ‘Goldfish Chateau’ near Ypres when reinforcements  – Bert included – arrived on 9 October. Bert’s battalion remained at the Chateau for another five days. It was then rushed back to the frontline on the night of 14/15 October, relieving the battered survivors of the great debacle that had taken place at Passchendaele two days earlier. This was to be Bert’s first taste of life and death on the frontline.

The battalion moved forward under the cover of darkness, along the dangerous duckboards and communication trenches up to the frontline at Bellevue Spur. It held positions there for four days. These would have been difficult times, the Germans committed to a policy of vigorous counter-attacks and relentless shelling. After four days, the battalion was relieved and pulled back to support trenches at nearby Abraham Heights. They were fully relieved the following day, retiring to the comparative safety of the Old British Frontline, close to Ypres, on 19 October. It was the Canadians who were called on to take their place and make the final push on Passchendaele. This they did on 6 November, again at enormous human cost. The casualty rate was a predicted 60 per cent. The whole bloody affair came to an end four days later after the last pockets of resistance were cleared off Passchendaele Ridge. All told, 310,000 Allied troops had been killed or wounded since the Passchendaele offensive began in late July. The Germans fared little better with 260,000 casualties.
 
Bert, you would have to say, had luck on his side. He had experienced the horrors of Passchendaele, but was spared the suicidal assault ordered by the High Command in the dark days of October. And these were dark days, as Ormond Burton wrote in his history of the Auckland Regiment:
 
There is a limit to human endurance, and during the winter of 1917-18 this limit was very nearly reached. At no other time was the morale of the British Army so low. At no time was the war so nearly lost. The terrible disaster before Passchendaele, and the fearful price which had finally to be paid for it, had disheartened many. Then, too, it was obvious that, despite the tactical success, the strategic objective had not been reached. After three years of war, men everywhere were sick of the slaughter, home-sick, weary, worn out with labour, disgusted with the sordidness and the naked, dirty horror of the bloody business. Mentally, morally, physically, the ordinary man was done.
 
During the winter, the Allies set about re-fortifying the shattered defences of Passchendaele Ridge. With an armistice signed between Germany and Russia, a major enemy offensive was expected in the coming spring as hundreds of thousands of German troops were released from the eastern front. Some 25,000 men from tunneling companies and 50,000 attached infantry were assigned to the task. They built almost 200 separate underground defensive works. Each ‘dugout’ accommodated between 50 and 2,000 men. Against this background, the New Zealand and Australian Divisions were to winter around Polygon Wood, to the south of Passchendaele. Here, life followed a standard pattern: a week in the front line, a week in reserve. But the time spent in reserve was time spent in working parties, often in areas of extreme danger, moving supplies, burying the dead, carrying rations, constructing trenches, erecting barbed wire entanglements in no man’s land, or digging defensive positions for artillery and mortar batteries.
 
The 3rd Battalion was in and out of the frontline on three more occasions between November and January, occupying forward positions around the tiny hamlet of Noordenhoek, to the east of Polygon Wood on each occasion.

These were described as “quiet” months. But, by the time the NZ Division was relieved on 24 February 1918, its three “quiet” months had come at a cost of 3,000 casualties. Bert’s military records don’t tell us what horrors he faced he while in the trenches – and he didn’t tell his family or friends what he felt or feared. But we know he survived the ordeal when so many of his countrymen did not. Survive he did – but only just. On 18 January 1918, while the battalion was standing down at a place called Halfway House, Bert was detached to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company. Large numbers of men were detailed to work with the tunnelling companies, which by this stage of the war, had ceased tunnelling and mining and instead were acting as general engineering companies, hastily preparing defensive works ahead of the German offensive. Needless to say, there was always a demand for more manpower and there was plenty of it to hand. Life with the tunnelling company was far from safe, much of it carried out in hazardous areas. When Bert joined it, the Tunnelling Company was constructing a series of dugouts and dressing stations at Westhoek and nearby Anzac Ridge and were re-fortifying the Muhle defensive ‘system’ on high ground near Polygon Wood.
 
In a quiet understatement, Captain OH Woodward, in his privately published recollections of his time with the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, said he was pleased to be working on the higher ground and out of the mud. “It was rather a change to work on elevated land which was reasonably dry,” he wrote, noting fine views back towards Ypres where newly positioned heavy batteries opened up on the German lines. There were few casualties among his sappers in the first two months of 1918. Woodward noted that in these months “matters at Anzac and Muhle went along smoothly”.

But matters weren’t at all smooth for Bert when, on 29 January – a Tuesday - he was shelled and severely wounded, his left arm and right leg shattered. The war diary entry for the 1st Tunnelling Company simply says: “29 January – one killed two OR [other ranks] wounded, enemy shellfire on Westhoek, stairway crumpled and repaired”. We don’t know exactly what happened, but Bert’s daughter believes a shell forced him and his colleagues out of their position and out into the open, where they were hit. It was his best mate (later to become his best man) Ian Hutchison, who saw Bert, picked him out of the mud and carried him to safety.

Bert’s military records reveal his evacuation down a well-trodden, but well-oiled pathway.
 

30 January:
admitted to casualty clearing station No 4 – ‘gunshot wounds’ to left arm, right lower leg
2 February:
NZ Field Ambulance - admitted casualty clearing station No 10
14 February:
admitted St John’s Ambulance Brigade Hospital, Etaples
7 March:
transferred to hospital ship – Ville de Liege
 
On arrival in England, he was transferred to No 1 New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst with 'severe gunshot wound right leg, compound fracture, left arm'. (The term ‘gunshot wounds’ was often erroneously applied to shrapnel wounds.) Bert’s records note that on 7 March 1918 there had been an ‘amputation – left arm’. Most likely, his arm was amputated at St John’s Ambulance Hospital at Etaples, the fight to save it having been lost.

At Brockenhurst, Bert began another long journey as he and his doctors worked to pull his battered body back together. He was in good hands. Brockenhurst was, by all accounts, a model hospital. Set deep in the heart of Hampshire’s New Forest, the hospital was a series of prefabricated wards and operating theatres - ‘Tin Town’ - built around a comfortable country home in an idyllic rural setting.

More than 21,000 New Zealand casualties were treated at Brockenhurst. It’s a tribute to the medical and nursing staff that just 93 men died in their care. Their graves are beautifully maintained to this day in a nearby churchyard, their sacrifice remembered at special services held on ANZAC Day each year.

Letters sent home by the troops praised the doctors and nursing staff, reporting on the remarkably happy disposition of the patients. Bert remained at Brockenhurst until early July, when he was transferred to the No 2 New Zealand General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames where he spent time at its Oatlands convalescent home. Walton appears to have been another exceptionally well-run establishment. Contemporary photographs suggest a comfortable, relaxed riverside facility with a heavy emphasis on patient care.
 
Life at Walton-on-Thames
 
“ … the policy of our Government has been sound in providing our own General Hospitals at Walton-on-Thames, at Codford and at Brockenhurst. I have a firm belief in the policy of mixing together men from all parts of the Empire; apart from other things, it is for our benefit coming from an island in the Antipodes. But I hold the opinion that when a man is wounded he requires moral assistance as well as medical skill and nursing. The injury is a shock to his nerve and mentality, and he wants petting and spoiling to help him up again. And this is what we get in our own Hospitals. My arrival at Walton on the 3rd December, to me, was a home-coming. I was amongst my own people again, familiar faces, familiar talk and kindness indescribable. The curious medley of horror and happiness in my memory of the months in Hospital contains a deep and sincere gratitude for the care I received at Walton.
Lt Col CH Weston, Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion Auckland Regiment
Wounded at Passchendaele 4 October 1917: From ‘Three Years with the New Zealanders’
 
By autumn, Bert was well enough to run absent without leave. He was docked a day’s pay on 4 September 1918 for being AWOL from Walton from 8.30pm on 2 September to 12 noon the following day. No mention – I might add – of any Australian involvement here. Longer periods of leave followed.

Bert was still at Walton and in need of care when the Armistice finally came on 11 November 1918. But he was well enough to be granted a month’s leave over Christmas. And more leave from Walton followed – a fortnight on 12 April 1919 to report back 30 April 1919. It was on one of these periods of leave that Bert rocked along to the local railway station, determined to take advantage of his newfound freedom. He was asked where he’d like to go and replied, “How far can you go?” The answer was Aberdeen. And so, Aberdeen it was.

By the time he got there, however, he was had been laid low with a severe bout of influenza, a virulent strain that killed millions across the world during the winter of 1918-19. Bert fronted up to the Aberdeen YMCA at 198 Union Grove. The YMCA across the country had swung into action at the beginning of the war to provide services for the troops. In Aberdeen, the YMCA was open daily, serving hundreds of meals each day, providing laundry and postal facilities, putting on concerts and conducting regular religious services. All services were by the YMCA’s own small army of volunteers. When Bert struggled in, the manager had to tell him that they had no hostel accommodation. Not wanting to turn the sick soldier away, he asked one of the volunteers if she would take the New Zealander home to her family home a few doors away at 108 Union Grove. The volunteer, one Edith Thom, reluctantly agreed, sure her mother, a widow, would be horrified at the suggestion of taking in an unknown soldier, and a sick one at that. Edith was worried that her mother would turn the man away at the door. She didn’t, and Bert was nursed back to health at the Thom’s residence in Aberdeen.

Edith was single at the time, though she had a fiancé, John Wilson, a reporter with the Aberdeen paper, Bon Accord, at the outbreak of war. John was the son of Mary Wilson and had grown up in the 1890s almost next door to the Thoms, John’s family residing at No. 14 Craigie Street and the Thoms over the road at No. 17. John signed up with the Gordon Highlanders and joined its 1st Batallion. He served as a despatch rider, a job, Edith thought, that would keep him out of harm’s way. It didn’t. He was killed by a shell on 10 May 1915 and now lies buried at the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery in Plot VIII Grave C23. He was 22. While Edith had been deeply attached to John, new romance was to blossom with the arrival of the one-armed Kiwi. And, after more leave expeditions to Aberdeen, Bert proposed to Edith and persuaded her join him in the antipodes. Bert was to make another trip during his long recuperation, and that was to Ireland to spend time with the Ulster Johnstons. But Bert was taken aback with the frosty reception he received from his relatives. These were pious Presbyterians who urged Bert not to wear his uniform in public as these were troubled times and republican terrorists were burning protestant farms. Bert moved on to visit his mother’s family – the Lockingtons of County Cavan. Here he was welcomed with open arms and given the rousing reception he had expected from the Johnstons. Back in England, Bert’s rehabilitation was complete and he was now deemed fit enough to be sent home. Bert embarked from Southampton on the New Zealand Hospital Ship Marama on 9 June 1919, arriving home on 17 July. His formal discharge came a month later, on 14 August. The Victory Medal and the British War Medal were both issued to Bert and a generous war pension was granted for life from a grateful nation. Edith followed him out to New Zealand in 1920 and they were married the following year. Her move to the other side of the world would have been a dramatic one for the Scottish lass. But an early postcard home – probably to her sister Jean Thom - indicates that she was quick to feel at ease in her new home.
 

In another week, Bertie will be home again. The people here are more than kind to me and give me of their very best, but I am always glad when Bertie is with me. Tomorrow afternoon, Mrs Johnston and I are calling at the manse for afternoon tea. The minister is a very nice man and came from Scotland only five years ago, so he is very, very kind and nice to me and asks me along any day for a talk of home. How often do I wish Ma was with me – she would like it all right. However, you will all be good to her. With all my love – yours Edie.
 
Despite his injuries, Bert went on to lead a full and active life. Though no longer farming at Kati Kati as he had before the war, he initially took up residence at his parent’s home, ‘Braemar’ in Tauranga and found work in a plumbing supply business – Tauranga Plumbing and Hardware. When the depression came in the early 1930s, Bert bought the business. It was a sound move and the company provided for the housing needs of Tauranga and the surrounding district as the city grew and prospered, particularly in the years following the Second World War. During this time, Bert remained true to his Ulster roots, playing a key role in the local Orange Lodge. A letter despatched to his brother-in-law, John Thom, in 1925 reflects the lingering loyalist sentiments of the Kati Kati settlers rekindled, no doubt, by the continued tensions in their Irish homeland, home-rule occurring in the south of Ireland in 1922, rapidly followed by a short and bloody civil war.
 
I have just asked Edie if she had told you that I am a member of the Orange Lodge in Tauranga. I have been a member for about 2 years now and have my lecture Masters Certificate, which gives me authority to raise a brother in the Ro AP Degree. We have a good little Lodge and are flourishing, and members joining all the time. They have also given me the job of treasurer and so I am right in amongst it. On March 3rd we are having an installation of offices for the ensuing year, the installing offices are coming from Auckland. Members of the other Lodges will also be present and we are going to have a great night. The Loyal Orange Lodge is fairly strong in this country and have a sobering effect upon those who are disloyal.
 
Bert’s business provided a comfortable living for the Johnstons and their two children, Mary and Donald, at their home at 40 Seventh Avenue. Mary and Donald were schooled at Tauranga Primary School and later at the Tauranga District High School. They spent much of their holidays at the farm of an uncle and aunt – Arthur and Muriel Jensen - in the country above the town.
Mary took up nursing and trained at Hamilton while Donald’s career took him to sea, as a marine engineer. Edith made one trip back to her family in Scotland, in 1938, a trip truncated by the threat of war. In his later years, Bert contributed to a booklet printed for a 1971 reunion of the Lockington and Johnston families at Kati Kati. His recollections centred not on the war – though he laments the loss of his best mate and school chum Otto Diggleman, who died of wounds seven days before the Armistice. No, Bert’s recollections focused on his carefree school days, his love of music, and his memories of his early days at Kati Kati.
 
The Digglemans and the Johnstons grew up at Kati Kati as one big happy family, and have remained so ever since. What grand times Otto and I had together, fishing, boating, swimming and collecting birds’ eggs. He was a great pal. Little did we know then that each of us had an appointment with destiny, and that my friend was to give his life for his country while I just managed to survive.

On the 15th of July 1896 in a cottage on Cameron Road Tauranga, beside what was Messrs Gilmore’s store, I first saw the light of day – my mother had made the trip from Kati Kati a few days previously. I was the firstborn of a marriage between a Lockington and a Johnston, but as the years rolled by, there were to be more. These two early families played a worthy part in the development of the district, as their descendants are still doing today, after 96 years of progress. There is no doubt whatever that my father was the first white boy from the Carisbrook Castle to set eyes on the ‘promised land’ when only eight or nine years of age. He was indeed a worthy son of the original pioneer, both of whom were noted as men of justice and truth.

In Arthur Gray’s book, An Ulster Plantation, he records that he was told by an old pioneer that he dug in one day, between morning and evening milkings, 40 sacks of potatoes, each weighing two hundredweight. The potato digger was my father and until just a few years ago, the late Thomas Mulgrew, told of how he was one of the gatherers on that momentous occasion. Away up what is now Lockington’s Road, lived my Uncle Jimmie, then a single man and all on his own. When I was a schoolboy, I sometimes spent a holiday on his farm. Just he and I, no neighbours within miles. I do not remember the cooking, nor how I spent the days, but oh what singing sessions we had in the evenings. He was musical and so was I. Entertainment was not too plentiful in those days … One night, Jimmie got me behind him on his great little mare Myrtle, and away we went one night to pictures in the hall. The pictures concerned the American civil war – we saw a mother clasping her only son and later by the fireside dreaming that they would meet again. But it was not to be, for admist the campfires gleaming lay a little boy called Taps. How the song lingered in my memory, as did the picture.