BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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Hugh Johnston – One of the Last Local Men who Served on the Somme.
The adjacent small notice probably went largely unnoticed in the local press, of real interest only to family and a few close neighbours.  Even fewer of the Cullybackey village community knew the man, for he was a quiet man, or the origins of the scars he bore to his dying day.

Hugh was born on the 1 January 1895, his parents' first child. They were James Johnston, son of Hugh Johnston of the Craigs, Cullybackey, and Isabella Johnston. She was born Isabella Magowan, daughter of John Magowan, a labourer of Dundrum, and the couple had married in St Donard’s Church, Co Down on the 15 November 1893.  The Johnstons lived in Harperstown and Hillmount in the Craigs area of Cullybackey.

The 1911 Irish census records them living there. James was then 42 years old and a bleacher by trade, actually a foreman bleacher employed in the bleaching house of Frazer and Haughton’s Bleaching and Finishing Mill at Hillmount; his wife was 37. The couple recorded that they had been married for seventeen years and that all seven children born of the marriage were still alive.  They listed Hugh (16), John (14), Martha (11), Alice (8), Rebecca (6), Francis (3) and Annie (2). Some sources suggest that they eventually had eight children, three boys and five girls, though I find no further registered births.

Hugh, named after his grandfather, followed his father into the bleaching part of the textile industry, obtaining an apprenticeship in Frazer and Haughton’s Bleaching and Finishing Mill at Hillmount when he left school, the Craigs Parochial School, at 13 and after about six years of education. It is said amongst his family that he got a £5 completion bonus when his apprentice ended. He was 19 and then earned 2/6d (12.5p) for his 60 hour week!
Hugh Johnston’s life, much like many of the Cullybackey textile workers, was inextricably linked with that of his employers, especially with young Thomas Greenwood Haughton, son of Mr Thomas Haughton J. P., and Catherine Isabel Haughton, Hillmount. He was educated at Edgbaston Preparatory School, Birmingham, and St. Edmund’s School, Oxford, and education and family background led him to be an active participant in the troubled politics of pre-Great War Ireland.  The Ballymena Observer, in an obituary of the 7th July 1916, for he like many others in this area was killed on the first day of the Somme Offensive, says he had been ‘a popular and enthusiastic officer in connection with the Ulster Volunteers’ and that he was ‘commander of ‘E’ Company, 1st Battalion, North Antrim Regiment’. It was at least partly through him that Hugh was drawn into military life, for Hugh had been involved with him and the UVF prior to the war, though one family source says he was not in the UVF.  This seems inaccurate as his name appears on a 1913 UVF list and his UVF badge number is recorded on the same page as ‘T G Haughton, Company Commander’.

Left: Lt Thomas Greenwood Haughton.

Photograph courtesy of Our Heroes, South Dublin Libraries & D Power.

Haughton got a commission and went to the war with the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, landing in France in late 1915 with the 36th Ulster Division. Many Cullybackey men, former UVF or merely employees of the family, went with him, some influenced by a patriotic call to arms that he had made on the factory premises in 1914. Hugh was one of them and he had apparently ‘signed up’ with his father’s approval in the recruiting office in Ballymena. Two days thereafter he clambered aboard a train crowded with ‘would be’ soldiers at Cullybackey Railway Station and made his way via Belfast to Clandeboye Camp, Bangor.

Hugh, fit and tough, nevertheless found camp life difficult and does not appear to have enjoyed training.  He apparently returned to his family on leave at one point to try and dissuade, albeit without success, his brother Jack (John) from enlisting. The Ballymena Observer, August 24, 1917, says Jack joined ‘the army in October 1917’ and that he was ‘admitted to hospital suffering from wounds’ in 1918. His wounds were slight and he recovered, though without one of his thumbs. Jack had trained as a gardener at Craigdun Castle, though he was possibly working as a postman immediately prior to his enlistment.

Rifleman Hugh Johnston went to England, completed his training, and then went onward via Folkestone and Boulogne to the war zone in ‘France and Flanders’ with the rest of the 36th Division in October 1915. He was in the area around the Somme and was part of the build up of troops, men of the 1914 ‘rush to the colours’, volunteers to a man, who would be thrown into battle for the first time in 1916.

The synoptic chart for 1st July 1916 at 0700, just 30 minutes before the first allied soldiers went 'over the top', shows a ridge of high pressure over Europe bringing warm temperatures, south westerly winds and generally good weather. The glorious weather and the prospect of victory must have encouraged the men as they waited. They knew that during the previous week, 250,000 Allied shells had pulverized German positions near the Somme in an unparalleled barrage. At 7:30 a.m., ‘Zero Hour’, 100,000 British soldiers flowed out of their trenches and into 'no-man’s-land', expecting to find the advance a ‘walk over’. However, German machine guns, stored safely in deep bunkers, had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were mown down. At day’s end, about 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of losses in British military history.

The trench map above kindly provided by 'Croonaert' from the Great War Forum.

The swampy nature of the terrain is clear in the bottom right corner of the map. The little bluff just ahead of the 'British Front Line' is just visible to the left of the valley bottom and about an inch from the bottom centre of the image.

Many men from the 12th Battalion were amongst the killed and wounded, for the 12th had a particularly difficult position, their unit straddling the Ancre River valley. 'B' Company was in the valley bottom and 'A', 'B' and 'D' Companies were to their left towards Beaumont Hamel but separated from them by the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers. All of them were subject to withering machinegun fire from St Pierre Divion.
See -
Hugh was designated a stretcher-bearer on the 1st July 1916 and worked with his friend a fellow Cullybackey man Ben Millar. At some point during the day and as they scurried around that ‘no man’s land’ with their stretcher, a shell burst close to them. Both were thrown down by the blast. A Ballymena Observer report of 1917 say Ben Millar suffered ‘shell shock on 1st July 1916 but soon recovered’ (18/627, Rifleman Ben Millar, 12th Royal Irish Rifles, was again wounded in 1917 and was killed in action on the 21st May 1918.) but Hugh was struck around the face and head by shrapnel. He said he had little idea of what had happened to him at the time – he was disoriented, concussed and later had his head swathed in bandages - and it was not until he was at hospitals in Boulogne and Portsmouth that things became clearer. Severe blood loss, blood loss which doctors found difficult to staunch, was the key problem, though damage to his face also included the loss of part of his nose and damage to his left tear duct.  Doctors thought he would die and his father, notified by telegram, travelled to Portsmouth to be with him. Hugh, however, survived, though facial scars, a weeping eye and headaches were to be his lot during his remaining life.  

He never returned to combat. He was sent after release from hospital to convalesce and to work on the farm of a Mr Hobbs of Bude, Cornwall.  He came home at one point and his then girlfriend came to Cullybackey Railway Station to greet him.  She allegedly saw his disfigured face, left the platform and never had anything to do with him again. War is cruel. He returned to Cornwall, remained there until the armistice, and was eventually discharged from the forces, his record showing he was ‘medically unfit’.

Hugh did eventually marry and he and Agnes lived quietly in the village of their birth.  That day in July 1916 had impacted on his entire life and it was somehow fitting that he should die on Remembrance Sunday.

Thanks to Wilkinson Family for additional material.