Topic: Herbert Haigh Johnston

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Herbert Johnston (Service no. 51531) was a First World War soldier with links to the Wharenui School and Riccarton area

Herbert was born in Christchurch on 20 October 1894. His parents John Johnston of Scotland and Jane Sophia Johnston (nee Cox), a dressmaker from Goole, Yorkshire, married in Christchurch New Zealand on 14 February 1876. Before Herbert's first birthday his father passed away at their home in 33 Shakespeare Road on 23 August 1895. By that time there were already several older brothers and sisters; James (b. 23 October 1878), Joseph Henry (b. 5 December 1880), Lilian Ruby (b. 17 February 1883), George Harold (b. 6 January 1885 but died 29 July 1886), Helen or 'Ellen' Victoria (b. 1886 but died 11 November 1889), Ernest (b. 14 September 1890) and finally Herbert Haigh.

In subsequent years the family moved to the Riccarton area and Jane had to provide for her family as a dressmaker. The Wharenui School register lists Herbert attending Waltham School before he was enrolled at Wharenui School on 25 November 1907at standard 3 level. He attained standard 4 in December 1908 and finally left the school in July 1909. The register does not specify his intended destination.

Herbert began his working life as a labourer/farm hand with Barker Brothers in Loburn. This was a large concern that produced sheep, wool, cattle, horses and apples. Herbert's brother Ernest enlisted in the very early days after war was declared (his service no. was 2/322) and likewise Herbert presented himself for a medical examination in Christchurch (17 November 1914) and opted to join the Engineers. Confusingly, he  then reported to the army medical officer at Rangiora, Captain F A Will for a medical examination on 27th November 1914. He was described as 143lb., 5' 71/2 inches, fair hair with blue eyes and a Methodist. He had a scar on the right front forearm and the toe on his "right foot (was) not quite right" but he was declared fit and this time opted to join the 11th Canterbury Mounted Rifles. On his first medical history sheet  from Christchurch it is proposed he be discharged from Trentham because he was medically unfit.

Undeterred, he re-enlisted and there is an attestation form dated 15 December 1915 at Trentham in his personnel file on which he denied he had ever been rejected as unfit for military service. It also states that he had to be sworn-in again after he was sworn-in as 'Herbert Haigh'. He may have also tried to keep his enlistment secret from his mother because his history sheet from that date declared his next of kin was his cousin T G Haigh of Armagh Street, Christchurch. On 11 March 1916 he was transferred to the 2nd Reserve and finally on 5 April 1916 to the 12th Mounted Rifles before being discharged again on 29 April 1916 from Featherston Camp.  

Herbert next found employment in Wellington as a tram conductor for the Tramway Corporation of Wellington and he resided at 6 Bayliss (Bayview) Terrace. He enlisted in Wellington again on 14 March 1917 and this time stated that he had previously been rejected for military service because of a bad foot. His medical notes a scar on the sole of his right foot where a corn had been removed three weeks prior to his enlistment a scold mark on the inner side of his right forearm.

He was made a private and put into the 4th (D Co.) Company, 1st Battalion Otago Infantry Regiment and was sent to Tauherenikau Camp for training. He would be among the 26th contingency of reinforcements to be sent from New Zealand to Europe. On the 13 April 1917 he was given three days confinement to barracks for using 'threatening language'. After a short stint at Tauherenikau D Company was moved to Trentham where on 31 July 1917 Herbert was given another five days confinement to barracks plus 2 days forfeiture of pay for being absent for one extra day without leave.The straggler's echo : an unreliable record of the 26th Reinforcements on board H.M. Troopship 85 'The Willochra'

Herbert's company embarked Troopship 85 "Willochra" at Wellington with the 26th Reinforcements on 9 June 1917 bound for Devonport,A magazine titled 'The Straggler's Echo' was published on board the Willochra and on page 13 a ship's roll lists all who embarked on the ship, including Herbert. During the voyage he was again 'confined to barracks' for hesitancy to obey an order ("to parade under hose") on 31 July 1917. This was immediately followed by another 3 days confinement on 2 August for failing to attend roll call at 5.55!

The Willochra disembarked all her reinforcements at Devonport, England on 16 August 1917 and the Otago reinforcements marched straight into Sling training camp for five weeks of intensive training. They departed for France on 23 September 1917 and arrived at Etaples on 26 September for further training before being attached to strength of the 1st Battalion Otago Infantry in the field on 9 October 1917. It was at this time that the 2nd Brigade (which the 1st Otago Battalion was part of at this time) of the New Zealand Division was preparing for its part in the renewed British attack on the Bellevue Spur of the Passchendaele Ridge. Herbert was sent to hospital suffering from trenchfoot on 12 October 1917, the day the attack started.

Herbert arrived at No. 3 General Hospital at Le Treport on 18 October and was to remain there for ten days. Meanwhile, the attack on the Bellevue Spur had begun disastrously with the 1st Otago battalion suffering 80% casualties. When Herbert rejoined D Company on 11 November they had already been rested and reinforced before they proceded to Brewery Camp near Ypres. Another attack was planned involving 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury spearheading an attack on Polderhoek Chateau on 3 December 1917. The 1st Otago Battalion moved from Brewery Camp to nearby Walker Camp on 25 November and on 30 November a practice attack was held on ground similar to that of the Polderhoek sector.

The attack on Polderhoek was launched at 12 noon on 3 Dec along a narrow front with Herbert's 4th Company leading the left front of the advance. The artillery barrage just preceeding the attack was supposed to commence 150 yards in front of the attack line and creep forward ahead of the advance. However it fell short and landed right on top of the attacking Otago and Canterbury companies causing severe casualties. The only way to escape this terrible friendly fire was to launch the attack immmediately. The German artillery and machine gun fire had free reign to inflict heavy casualties and the attack lost momentum. Despite this setback by evening of 4 December the New Zealanders had managed to attain and hold the significant high ground overlooking the Polderhoek Chateau in the face of determined counter-attacks. They were relieved from their newly won position on the night of 4/5 December as snow began to fall.

Herbert survived this baptism of fire only to be admitted to hospital suffering from trench foot again on 8 December. He was discharged to the 2nd NZ Brigade School for one week on 29 December but trenchfoot forced him to return to hospital on 9 January 1918. He rejoined his unit which had just returned to front line positions in the Polygonveld (just east of Polygon Wood) on 12 February. Attrocious weather had turned the soil into deep glutinous mud and filled the trenches with water. Herbert survived a barrage of mustard gas shells on the night of the 18 February but was sent to hospital the next day with trenchfoot. He remained in convalescence until 20 March when he was sent on to Etaples Camp before rejoining his unit in the field on 28 April 1918.

During the short time he was at Etaples Herbert volunteered (in the words recorded on his personnel file) to

"undergo an operation for transfusion of blood to save the life of a comrade...The General Officer Commanding 4th Army forwarded a certificate of appreciation...handed to him at the NZ Infantry and General Base Depot, Etaples, in the presence of his comrades on 13.4.18"

The certificate presented to Herbert read as follows:

"To No 51531 Private H. H. Johnston,
1stBn. Otago Regiment

I have been informed of your devotion and self-sacrifice in giving your blood to save the life of a wounded comrade, and wish to express my appreciation of your noble act.

(Sgd.) Rawlinson,
Commanding Fourth Army"

The 4th Company 1st Otago battalion was manning the right frontage of trench in front of La Signy farm for a brief time when Herbert rejoined them before they went into Divisional reserve at Rossignol Farm on 30 April. Herbert was attached to the Headquarters 2nd Infantry Brigade on 6 May and rejoined 1st Otago now stationed in the front line near Hebuterne on 17 May. During this period the battalion had experienced a relatively uneventful period of front line duties alternated by time in reserve. Herbert's 4th Company successfully fought off an enemy raid on their trench just opposite La Signy Farm on 29 May. The following week was spent strengthening trenches before 1st battalion was relieved and sent to a long period of rest and training along with the rest of the New Zealand Division. The Division was ordered back to the front sector of Hebuterne with 1st Otago manning the stretch around Sailly-au-Bois on 2 July.

The New Zealand Division made a short advance towards Rossignol Wood on 15 July which the Germans decided to vacate. The Wood was quickly occupied by the New Zealanders. The 1st Otago battalion was involved in the continued advance beyond the Wood in very hot weather and ultimately the new front line was consolidated on high ground overlooking Puisieux-sur-Mont by 24 July. On 25 July the 1st Otago battalion endured three severe artillery bombardments followed by a determined German counterattack which was eventually beaten off. The Otago regiment was then relieved, the 1st battalion going into reserve at Couin Wood. On 3 August Herbert was admitted to No 2 Field Ambulance sick but his file does not reveal the cause. When he rejoined his company on 17 August the 1st battalion had just distinguished itself in the New Zealand Division push to advance their line to Puisieux-sur-Mont. Just prior to this attack the three battalions of the Otago Regiment had each received around 100 American troops from the American Expeditionary Force to allow the newly arrived Americans to learn the techniques of trench warfare from the experienced Otago men. The New Zealand Division also found themselves fighting alongside the U.S. 317th Regiment.

On 23 August a big offensive was launched with the objective of capturing the village of Bapaume. The 1st Otago battalion marched through the villages it recently helped capture (Hebuterne and Puisieux-sur-Mont) to Bucquoy, enduring some gas shelling on the way. On 25 August 1st Otago assembled around Biefvillers where it was subjected to a brief high-explosive artillery and gas shell barrage.The assault on Bapaume commenced at 5am with Herbert's 4th Company part of the vanguard. A heavy fog afforded the Otagos a surprise advance right up to the numerous machine guns of the first German trenches to capture or destroy most of them. They immediately continued advancing to their next objective, the Bapaume Arras highway. In this advance they were met with intense machine gun fire and the 4th Company suffered 50% casualties. But their success had ensured the ultimate capture of Bapaume by other units a short while later. General Sir Andrew Russell, commander of the New Zealand Division visited Headquarters of the 1st Otago battalion on 26 August to give his personal congratulations.

It was during the advance of 25 August that Herbert was killed in action. His file does not state the cause of death although by all accounts it was likely either machine gun fire or artillery shelling.His body was found next to the Fauberg d' Arras just north of Bapaume A death certificate was issued on 31 August. He was buried in L'Homme Mort British Cemetery, Ecoust-St Mein, Pas-de-Calais, France (II. C. 13). His mother received advice of his death a few weeks later and published a notice in both the 'Star' and 'Sun' newspapers. The Wellington 'Evening Post' featured two very heart felt death notices placed by a family whom Herbert must have grown close to during his brief time in Wellington. The first was "inserted by his sorrowing friends, Mrs. Ryan and family" while the second " devotedly inserted by Alice Ryan" reads "he died as he lived - for others". In the following year (again in the 'Evening Post') his death was again marked by a moving epitaph

"I will ever feel the loss of a loving heart now silent, 'neath a wooden cross.
Though death divides, fond memory clings.
Sadly mourned by his loving friend, Alice Ryan."

Enduring what no mother could ever contemplate, the death of her own son, Herbert's mother passed away in June 1920. By the time the administrative wheels of military bureaucracy endeavoured to send on Herbert's scroll and medals of service his mother had long since been buried and these were despatched to either one of his older brothers William or Ernest.

 Herbert is remembered on the Wharenui School Memorial Gates and the Wharenui School, Roll of Honour.


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Herbert Haigh Johnston

First Names:Herbert Haigh
Last Name:Johnston
Place of Birth:Christchurch, New Zealand