The re­mark­able Dud­ley John­son, the brave Cotswold sol­dier awarded the VC

From the Boer War to Dunkirk, this Cotswolds re­cip­i­ent of the Vic­to­ria Cross led a re­mark­able ca­reer

Cotswold Life - - INSIDE - WORDS: Stephen Roberts

The at­tack foundered in the face of mur­der­ous en­emy fire. It looked as though the planned cross­ing of the Sam­bre Oise Canal would fail as sol­diers took cover 100 yards from the wa­ter. It was in such sit­u­a­tions that men re­quired lead­ers: Act­ing Lieu­tenant Colonel Dud­ley Gra­ham John­son was just such a man.

Born near Bour­ton-on-the-wa­ter, the pic­ture post­card Cotswolds vil­lage that at­tracts coachloads by the score, Dud­ley John­son would choose a mil­i­tary life that was at odds with the charm of the place that gave him life. The Vic­to­ria Cross, this na­tion’s great­est award for val­our, is hard to come by. Dud­ley John­son’s VC would be the most pres­ti­gious of a line-up of dec­o­ra­tions, which in­cluded the CB (Com­pan­ion of the Or­der of the Bath), DSO (Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Or­der) & Bar, MC (Mil­i­tary Cross) and three times Men­tioned in Despatches. But who ex­actly was this man?

Born in Fe­bru­ary 1884, the son of for­mer Army of­fi­cer Cap­tain Wil­liam John­son and his wife Rosina Arnott, Dud­ley would grow up in a large fam­ily, with seven broth­ers and one sis­ter. He was born at Rock­cliffe, close to Up­per Slaugh­ter, and in 1891 the fam­ily moved to Fern­bank at Od­ding­ton. He was ed­u­cated at Brad­field Col­lege, in Berk­shire, a pri­vate school es­tab­lished in 1850. No­table Old Brad­fel­dians in­clude not just Dud­ley John­son and five of his broth­ers, but many other mil­i­tary fig­ures, in­clud­ing an Ad­mi­ral of the Fleet, a Mar­shal of the RAF, and a Bri­tish Army Gen­eral. For a young man con­tem­plat­ing a mil­i­tary ca­reer, this was clearly no bad alma mater.

In 1901, by which time John­son

was aged 17, he em­barked on a mil­i­tary ca­reer. He served as a Sec­ond Lieu­tenant with the Wilt­shire Mili­tia in the Boer War, dur­ing which he was de­ployed to St He­lena, to guard Boer POWS (the vol­canic is­land had pre­vi­ously been the fi­nal place of ex­ile of Napoleon Bon­a­parte). John­son was sub­se­quently awarded a reg­u­lar com­mis­sion when he trans­ferred to the South Wales Border­ers in 1903.

John­son found him­self serv­ing with his in­fantry bat­tal­ion in China when WW1 com­menced in Au­gust 1914. Later that year (Novem­ber 5/6, 1914), he was awarded the first of his two DSOS, for ac­tions in the de­feat of the Ger­man gar­ri­son at Ts­ing-tao. Six months later he was in ac­tion again fac­ing the Turks at Gal­lipoli (1915), where he was wounded on April 25, on ‘S Beach’, dur­ing the land­ings at Cape Helles, part of the al­lied in­va­sion of the Gal­lipoli penin­sula by Bri­tish, French, Aus­tralian and New Zealand forces.

By 1917 he was serv­ing on the Western Front, and in early 1918 he was ap­pointed as an act­ing Lieu­tenant Colonel to com­mand the 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Royal Sus­sex Reg­i­ment. John­son would be wounded a sec­ond time, this time on the Somme, on May 27, 1918. He was awarded the MC in Jan­uary 1918 and a sec­ond DSO for ac­tions at Pon­truet (France) in Septem­ber 1918.

The war was en­ter­ing its end-game, but John­son’s brush with des­tiny was also ap­proach­ing. He was aged 34 when the ac­tions oc­curred that led to him re­ceiv­ing the Vic­to­ria Cross. As part of the last ma­jor of­fen­sive op­er­a­tion on the Western Front, John­son found him­self com­mand­ing his bat­tal­ion as the Al­lied ad­vance reached the line of the Sam­bre Oise Canal in North­ern France on Novem­ber 4, 1918, just one week prior to the Ar­mistice.

The bat­tal­ion had been or­dered to cross the canal by a lock south of Catil­lon but had come un­der in­tense ar­tillery and ma­chine gun fire, pre­vent­ing any such cross­ing. In dire cir­cum­stances, such as these, it is the un­der­stand­able in­stinct of men to hun­ker down, take cover, and await or­ders.

They will look for some­one to in­spire them, a man with an al­most sui­ci­dal dis­re­gard for dan­ger, who will lead them where they didn’t think they could go. We think of it as ‘the right stuff’, the French term it ‘elan’: maybe it was some­thing drummed into John­son at Brad­field. As the at­tack wa­vered and the men hes­i­tated, it was Dud­ley John­son who, armed with noth­ing more than his walk­ing stick due to his re­cent wound hav­ing not yet healed, took com­mand in these cru­cial mo­ments, per­son­ally lead­ing the as­sault on the canal. Beaten back by heavy fire, John­son or­dered the men to re­group, then led an­other at­tack, which this time car­ried the canal, thereby ef­fect­ing a cross­ing. The suc­cess of the op­er­a­tion was due en­tirely to the lead­er­ship of one man, who com­pletely dis­re­garded his own safety to se­cure the bat­tal­ion’s ob­jec­tive.

John­son would hold var­i­ous in­struc­tion and staff posts be­tween the wars, and com­mand­ing of­fi­cer ap­point­ments be­tween 1928 and 1940. By Septem­ber 1939 this coun­try was at war for the sec­ond time in a gen­er­a­tion. He was by then a Ma­jor Gen­eral and

‘Dud­ley John­son, armed with noth­ing more than his walk­ing stick, per­son­ally led the as­sault on the canal’

Gen­eral Of­fi­cer Com­mand­ing (GOC) of 4th In­fantry Divi­sion be­tween 1938 and 1940. His divi­sion played a front-line role in the BEF (Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force) cam­paign in France, in­clud­ing the evac­u­a­tion from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Af­ter Dunkirk, John­son was ap­pointed GOC Alder­shot Com­mand and then In­spec­tor of In­fantry. He re­tired from ac­tive mil­i­tary ser­vice in 1944, aged 60, but re­mained reg­u­larly in uni­form as Colonel of the South Wales Border­ers un­til 1948.

In 1912 Dud­ley John­son had mar­ried Mar­jorie Grise­wood, daugh­ter of the Rev Arthur Grise­wood, who was for many years the vicar of Dayles­ford. The cou­ple had three chil­dren and Mar­jorie died in 1950. With her loss, he would spend the last quar­ter-cen­tury of his life a wid­ower.

John­son died him­self in De­cem­ber 1975, at the grand age of 91.

He is buried in the church­yard of Christ Church, Church Crookham, in Hamp­shire, where his grave­stone fea­tures the badge of the South Wales Border­ers (he was an Act­ing Lt. Col. with the S.W.B. at the time of his VC ac­tion).

In­side the church is a framed me­mo­rial to John­son, fea­tur­ing, two pho­to­graphs of him, one in mil­i­tary uni­form, and one in later life when he was a church­war­den at Christ Church (1948-68), plus a replica of his VC.

John­son is also hon­oured in Bour­ton mean­while, where not only does he have a new road named af­ter him (‘Dud­ley John­son Close’), but where there will also be a plaque un­veiled at the vil­lage’s war me­mo­rial, at 11am on Satur­day, Novem­ber 10, com­mem­o­rat­ing the lo­cal lad who went on to win the VC.

Photo courtesy of An­drew Lar­pent

Dud­ley John­son

The Reg­i­men­tal Mu­seum of the Royal Welsh, www.roy­al­welsh.org.uk

Dud­ley John­son’s VC, the date on the medal’s re­verse is 4th Novem­ber 1918, the date of the ac­tion at the Sam­bre Oise Canal

Courtesy of Bax­ters Bat­tle­field Tours, www.bax­ters-bat­tle­field­tours.com, @BBTLLP on Twit­ter

Me­mo­rial in­side the church at Church Crookham to Dud­ley John­son

Photo: An­drew Lar­pent

The Bour­ton-on-the­wa­ter war me­mo­rial along­side which the plaque will be placed on Novem­ber 10, 2018

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