Although a few months late, as I originally started this post in November of last year, I decided to finally post the work I’ve done related to one of my first cousins. I have collected the files of every WWI serviceman in my family that I have so far identified and this is but one of those stories.
Robert P. Johnston was born on December 15th, 1885 to parents William John Johnston (1861-) and Martha Ann Johnston (1854-1933) in Renfrew, Ontario, Canada. The medical history sheet from his war file reveals he was born in Forester Falls which makes perfect sense as this is where the Johnston clan settled in the area.
Robert can be found in the 1891 census living in the township of Ross with his parents and four siblings, James P. (1884-), John Samuel (1887-1978), William Andrew (1889-1971), and Noah Thomas (1890-). Interestingly enough, I believe his brother James was named after his maternal grandfather, James Patrick Johnston (1827-1905) and who is the first of the Johnston line to immigrate to Canada.
Another interesting tid-bit is that Robert’s middle initial is listed as ‘P’ in one census record while the other is listed as ‘B.’
I found the family in the 1901 census where they’ve made a substantial move west now living in Westbourne, Manitoba. This was a distance of over 1,600km. I’m curious as to whether or not the move was made so that Robert’s father could work and own a farm of his own rather than work as a labourer in Ontario. I was able to find a Western Land Grant for William Johnston Jr. which may be Robert’s brother but I am unable to confirm at this time.
There are some inaccuracies when it comes to birth years of the children between the census records and they are as follows:
|James P.||1884 vs. 1882||2 years|
|Robert P/B.||1885 vs. 1883||2 years|
|John Samuel||1887 vs. 1885||2 years|
|William Andrew||1889 vs. 1888||1 year|
|Noah Thomas||1890 vs. 1889||1 year|
The children’s birthdates are a few years off, but I’m more inclined to believe the dates themselves are correct as Robert’s birthdate December 15th matches what is found on his attestation paper.
I’ve been stalling on writing this piece because I’ve had difficulty locating certain family member’s records. For instance, I don’t have James’ birth record; the same can be said of his younger brother John. This frustrates me as I’ve found the birth records for Robert, William, and Noah.
Furthermore, I’m unable to find the family in any census records for 1911 or 1916. I’ve located a few family members in the 1921 census, but a lot has happened in that 20 year period. For now, I will continue to focus on Robert, before I touch on some of the other family members.
Sometime between the 1901 census and the birth of his daughter, Grace Loretta Johnston (1915-2014), Robert married Eleanore Loretta Schneider (1895-1991).
Eleanore, also known as Ella, lived with her family in Edrans, where she is found with her parents and her six siblings in the 1911 census.
The date of their marriage can be narrowed to sometime between 1911 and 1915 yet I have not been able to locate it. The distance between the two communities is 40km, so I imagine the Johnstons might have moved closer to Edrans or the Schneiders towards Westbourne. I am leaning a bit more towards the latter since I found Eleanore’s parents and siblings living in Westbourne in the 1916 census.
I would like to search the census records a little closer to Edrans based on some other locations mentioned in other documents including Keyes, Wellwood, and Austin. These locations are mentioned as later residences for Robert’s wife and mother. All of these locations are further west than Westbourne.
On September 11th, 1915, Robert travelled south-west to Hughes Camp, previously known as Sewell Camp, and attested. He enlisted as a private and his regimental number was 623165. Robert is described as thirty years and nine months old, 5 foot 9 1/2 inches with brown hair and eyes. Some 48 days later, Robert arrived in England on October 30th, 1915, after travelling on the SS Lapland from Halifax.
The next of kin listed is Robert’s wife under a PO Box in Wellwood, Manitoba. There are some additional notations on the attestation paper which appear as though Robert original next-of-kin listed was going to be his mother but he apparently changed his mind. An “A” was originally written but was crossed out and replaced with an “R.” There is also the start of what I believe to be the word “mother” but was replaced with the word “wife.”
From Robert’s pay book, signed March 30th, 1916, he indicates in his Will that everything should go to his wife, Ella, living in Edrans. The time between when Robert attested and when he signed his Will was 6 months while it was some 15 days before he was sent to France.
Another address lists Robert’s wife living in Keyes dated August 12th, 1918. Additionally, Robert’s mother, Martha Ann, is listed as living in Keyes as well.
Yet another document list’s Ella as living in Austin with a stamp on the reverse dated October 25th, 1922. This same address is found on a second card.
After Robert landed in Europe in October, he contracted influenza which he sought treatment for on November 18th, 1915. He was treated at the Bramshott Military Hospital and discharged on November 30th, 1915. This would not be the last time Robert would seek treatment at a medical centre.
Robert was originally assigned to the 61st Battalion but was transferred to the 44th Battalion on October 16th, 1915. This information can be found on Robert’s casualty form which also states Robert embarked and arrived overseas with the 27th Battalion on April 15th, 1916. He left the Canadian Base Depot (CBD) with his unit on May 4th and arrived in the field on May 6th, 1916.
A month later, on the 6th of June, Robert was wounded in action at the battle of St. Eloi. He was thrown onto a stake hurting his ribs on the right pectoral region. Below are excerpts from the 27th Battalion war diaries.
F CAMP. JUNE 6, 1916.
Battalion in Brigade reserve at F Camp. Weather, heavy rain in early morning clearing towards noon. Wind fresh westerly. At 3:50PM received message to fall in and move at once to the Asylum past west of Ypres H12d central.
A CAMP. JUNE 6, 1916.
4:15PM. Battalion moved as ordered. [Diving] to shelling of road battalion moved by platoons at 100 yard intervals. Met by guides and proceeded at once to the Ramparts in Ypres at I14b24 ref sheet 28.
6:30PM. Arrived at Ramparts where Battalion headquarters were established along with Brigade headquarters. Brigade front was held by 28th Battalion in left sub-sector and 31st Battalion in right sub-sector. After an intense bombardment lasting some hours the enemy blew up four mines at Hooge covering a frontage of 200 yards and then attacked and made some ground. Sent “C” Company and 100 men of “D” boy to occupy Zillebeke Switch in I16 in support of 31st Battalion. Furnished carrying parties of 150 men for front line at night. Men not in trenches were quartered in Infantry Barracks in Ypres.
On June 23rd, 1916, Robert was transferred to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre (CCAC) via the HS Newhaven and was admitted to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London. He was transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Bromley on July 5th, 1916, and later to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital at Epsom (also known as Woodcote Park) on July 7th, 1916.
It was during an exam on July 5th that the doctor recounts how Robert was injured and the severity of those injuries. Robert’s ribs had healed but with some irregularity on the third rib in addition to pain on coughing and breathing.
On August 21st, 1916, Robert was transferred from the CCAC to the 11th Reserve Battalion in Shroncliffe. He was taken on strength by the Battalion on August 22nd, 1916, where he remained until a little after 1917. In September 1916, Robert sought treatment for an ailment at the Military Hospital in Shorncliffe and was transferred to the special Canadian Hospital in Etchinghill.
Robert was transferred to the 27th Battalion overseas on March 6th, 1917. He landed and was taken on strength in France where he fought with his unit. Seven months later, on September 11th, 1917, Robert was awarded a good conduct badge during training exercises. Below is a copy of the training schedule from the war diaries.
ESTREE CAUCHIE. SEPTEMBER 11, 1917.
Battalion in rest ESTREE CAUCHIE. Weather fair. Wind S.W. Remainder of Battalion bathed. Training as per Syllabus.
|Time||Schedule 1||Schedule 2|
|9:10AM to 10:00AM||Physical Training Section and Platoon Drill.||Bayonet Fighting. Rifle exercises.|
|10:00AM to 10:30AM||Interval.||Interval.|
|10:30AM to 12:30PM||Musketry. Company in Attack.||Rifle Grenades. Bombing, Lewis Gun. Musketry.|
Communication Section and Company Signallers 9:10AM to 10:00AM instructed by Bomb Officer. 10:30AM to 12:30PM – Signalling.
Company Scouts and Snipers will report to Scout Sgt. after C.Os. parade on days in which their Companies have Bombing.
Sixteen men per Coy. will report to wiring instructor during Bombing period.
All Companies will practice attack as well as Bombing and musketry with Gas Respirators on.
“A” and “B” Companies will follow Schedule 1, “C” and “D” Coys. will follow Schedule 2 September 11th and will alternate following days.
Company Officers will spend one hour each afternoon on map reading and Compass work. Opportunity should be given Senior N.C.Os. to take advantage of this work.
Nearly two months later, Robert is reported missing on Nov 6th, 1917. This date is particularly interesting as it appears he was likely killed by a shell during the Battalion’s assault on the village of Passchendaele.
I have transcribed the following page from the Battalion’s war diaries.
PASSCHENDAELE. NOVEMBER 6, 1917.
Battalion in front line in front of PASSCHENDAELE. Weather dull. Wind N.E. Battalion assembled for the assault and all in position at 4AM. Zero hour was at 6AM. Battalion attacked the village of PASSCHENDAELE with the 31st Battalion on the left and the 26th Battalion on the right. All objectives captured at 7:40AM.
Day spent in consolidating position. 9 Machine Guns and 76 prisoners were captured. Approximate casualties were: 13 Officers and 240 O.Rs. Operation Orders No. 197 for move from HILL 37 to Assembly Position attached.
There were two Victoria Cross recipients for this date and their participation in the fighting on Nov 6th, 1917. One of the recipients was James Peter Robertson who was part of the 27th Battalion and was awarded the cross posthumously. I wonder whether the two men knew each other, and how many of their friends died alongside them that day.
On June 28th, 1918, Robert is reported as having been killed in action and his name can be found on the Ypres Memorial. He was 31 years old.
An interesting remark on one of the forms in his file indicates that Robert’s wife married his brother, William, only 32 days after he was declared dead.
On July 30th, 1918, Ella married William Andrew and on September 26th, 1918, Robert William Johnston (1918-2018) was born. Based on his date of birth, Robert William was likely conceived sometime in December 1917 or January 1918 only a few months after Robert went missing in France. I wonder then, whether anything was going on between Ella and William before Robert’s disappearance or if their relationship developed suddenly when it appeared Robert would not return.
Both explanations are plausible, but with a piece of information I received from two researchers in Ontario who work with WWI records I’m leaning more to the first scenario. If a soldier required treatment or hospitalization for venereal disease their pay home would be stopped for that period. In turn, this would lead to family questioning why pay was stopped which might serve as a catalyst for a new relationship. Robert was in hospital receiving treatment from October 11th to December 18th, 1016 which meant his pay would have been stopped for two months – a substantial amount of time.
Two more children would be born to Ella and William, Anne Louise Johnston (1920-2004) and Vernon Andrew Johnston (1923-1944).
Ella and her three children, Grace, Robert, and Anne can be found living with Ella’s brother, Albert Schneider in the 1921 census. I don’t know where William is, though I suspect he is working somewhere on another farm. The full family of William, Ella, Grace, Robert, Anne, and Vernon can be found in the 1926 census split between two pages.
Both Robert and Vernon served in the second world war although only one would return home. Vernon rose to the rank of Corporal with the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) and was killed September 13, 1944. He was buried at the Calais Canadian Military Cemetery in St. Inglevert, France.
Robert was injured in 1942 and 1944, with the second injury being severe enough to have him sent back to Canada where he convalesced at Deer Lodge Hospital in Winnipeg.
Based on the information above, I believe the only child born to Robert and Ella was their daughter, Grace. Grace married Norman George Bowden Hay (1898-1958), who was 17 years her senior, on October 19, 1940. She had met him while working on the Hay family farm. They would have 7 children before Norman passed away on March 19, 1958.
Grace passed away in 2014 while her brother, Robert, passed away in 2018.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do a write-up of Robert is not because of anything specific to him, but because of the following doodle I found in his file. It amused me to see this little smiling pumpkin and I bet you the person who drew it likely never thought it would see the light of day.