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Published by Mr H. Dalton in the 4th Edition of the NZ Army Journal 2018.

This is the story of Henry Johnson and his three sons James, Herbert and Henry, all of who served in WWI. Their story has been interpreted and retold 100 years later though the eyes of a proud great-grandson and serving soldier.

Henry Johnson, who was commonly known as Harry, was of English and Scandinavian descent. He was a fisherman, a ship’s captain, an adventurer and a likable rogue. His reputation as an expert horseman was well known. Harry bred and trained horses for both general use and racing. One of Harry’s horses won the Auckland Cup.

Harry lived most of his life in the Bay of Islands where Māori knew him as Tupu Johnson. Harry married Emerina Kaire, the daughter of Ngāpuhi Chief Wi Kaire. Emerina was well known to both Māori and Pākehā in the Northland area. Historical recollections from the area described Emerina as a woman of substance and standing within the local community. An image of Emerina Johnson appears on the wall of the modern-day Hukerenui museum.

Together Emerina and Harry raised 12 children on their family farm that Harry had cut from the bush near Hukerenui. Family accounts of the family’s war service identify that four of Harry’s sons served in WW1, but it is unclear who the fourth son was.

Mr H Dalton and family visiting their relative, Rifleman H. G. Johnson’s headstone at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, West Flanders, Belgium.

Henry Johnson Jnr was 20 years old when he appeared before a magistrate in the Whangarei District Court in October 1916. He was charged with what was described as “a slight judicial problem”, otherwise known as drinking and fighting in public.The judge hearing the charges decided to dismiss the case conditionally on Henry’s enlistment into the Army. Unfortunately for Henry this decision was ultimately a death sentence.

On the 12th of October 1917, 38540 Rifleman Henry George Johnson while serving with the 4th (Auckland) Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Bde was wounded on the battlefield of Passchendaele. He lay on the battlefield for two days before being evacuated by a NZ Field Ambulance unit to the No. 2 Canadian casualty clearing station where he died. He was just 21 years old and is buried at Ligssenchoek near Poperinghe in Belgium. Henry had served for 1 year and 1 month.

Henry’s two medals were sent home to a devastated Emerina. Henry had been a favourite son and Emerina had openly resisted his enlistment. At the time of his death, Emerina was running the farm and looking after several children on her own.

Barely a month after Henry died, Harry Johnson at the official age of 46, but in reality a man at least 56 years old, had joined the NZ Mounted Rifles. Harry’s expertise as a horseman and sense of adventure landed him a job looking after horses on active service as a member of the NZ Veterinary Corps in Palestine.

After almost two years of service Harry suffered a serious injury to his right leg and with this, his adventure over, he embarked for New Zealand on the 29th of August 1918 and was medically discharged in Whangarei on the 13th of January 1919. Harry had served 2 years and 36 days of continuous service.

James Johnson was a bushman, horseman and keen deerstalker. James enlisted into A Squadron, 9th Reinforcements, Auckland Mounted Rifles on the 9th of October 1915. A portrait of James shows that at one stage of his service he belonged to the Wellington East Coast Mounted Rifles, now a part of modern day QAMR.James deployed to Egypt on the 12th of February 1916 and less than a month later was transferred to 8 Battery, 1st Bde, NZ Field Artillery and immediately sent to the Western Front. James saw active service in both France and Belgium between 27 January 1917 and 13 April 1918. James was wounded in action during the Spring Offensive in January 1918 and spent time recovering from his wounds in England before re-joining his unit in France in April 1918. By the end of the war James was awarded two campaign medals and had served 3 years and 232 days of continuous service. He ended the war as a cook and lived to a ripe old age.

After the war James returned to Hukerenui where he took over his father’s farm until 1949. After farming, James returned to work in the bush until he died. Several of the younger Johnson brothers were part of a large group of Ngāpuhi Bushmen who were sent down to the East Coast of the North Island to heal old tribal differences and to log and clear the East Coast forests for farming.A branch of the Johnson family resides on the East Coast to this day. Herbert (Bert) Arthur Johnson DCM, MM, enlisted on the 3rd of May 1915 at Waihi, where he was working in the bush.

Bert Johnson was a man of action and a warrior, he was rough and tough and like his father he was a bit of a rogue.Whether or not he was a likable rogue is a matter of mixed opinion. His service records are littered with disciplinary hearings, arrests and punishments.

It is hard not to smile when reading through Bert’s service records and at times a smile turns to astonishment, followed by gut-shaking laughter.Bert was a hard-drinking brawler with little respect for authority and a habit of taking leave when and wherever he felt like it. He was also partial to firing off the odd shot or two in public, after fighting and drinking of course.

These days Bert would be described by commanders as a ‘leadership challenge’. My suspicions are that Bert was in the company of a large group of like-minded young men who were suffering from the depravations of war.Bert served at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium on the Western Front.Bert’s bravery was as legendary as his behaviour. On the 27th of September 1916 he was awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry when he attacked a German trench known as Grid Trench.His citation reads: “at a critical juncture in the battle he ran along the parapet and shot several of the enemy as they were preparing to resist”. Bert had stopped a group of Germans preparing to conduct a counter attack.

Later on the 6th of February 1918, Bert was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. His citation reads: “after the capture of the enemy’s position, two enemy machine guns were causing casualties during the consolidation. With two others he crept forward, shot the gunners and captured the guns. He showed splendid courage and initiative.”

Bert served 3 years and 333 days of continuous service. Bert was wounded four times, gassed once, contracted measles and suffered through diarrhoea. The effects of the gas stayed with him well after the war. 12/3062 Pte Herbert Arthur Johnson DCM, MM, served with the 1st NZ Expeditionary Force in the following units:

  • »NZ Machinegun Battalion;
  • »1st Battalion, Auckland Regiment;
  • »3rd Battalion, Auckland Regiment.

As well as his bravery awards, Bert was also awarded the British war medal 1914–1918, 1914–15 Star, and Victory Medal 1914–1918. Bert lived a full life on returning to New Zealand. Bert’s behaviour never really changed. Although it is doubtful whether Bert would understand or admit it, he exhibited obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder to the day he died. On the 12th of October 2017 accompanied by family members, I will travel to Belgium to attend the Commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. As a family we will visit Henry Johnson’s grave and mourn the loss of a beloved family member. At the same time we will honour so many other New Zealand and Commonwealth soldiers who died in a battle that will forever be known as New Zealand’s darkest day. The telling of this story has been made possible through whanau whakapapa, books recounting family exploits and the soldiers’ official war records. The portraits of these soldiers hang with other family members at both Whakapara Marae and Parawhenua Marae in Northland. Alongside those portraits are the portraits of generations of soldiers and servicemen who continue to inspire young people and visitors to this day.

The true meaning of Whakapapa is that through the act of reciting a person’s name… that person will never be forgotten. Their story has now been told, so when you think of them you will know something of their lives. It is a New Zealand story of a significant time in our history when young men endured extreme hardship and loss, 11,000 miles from home. Many never to return. Sadly the loss and sacrifice experienced by this family 100 years ago was repeated in hundreds of households throughout New Zealand. This was truly our darkest day.

“We will remember them.”

Note: All family portraits were supplied by the author.