Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Remembering a Veteran: A Moving Obituary Appears in Punch, May 1916


A brother-officer attached to the King's Shropshire Light Infantry writes from the Front:—"I thought you would like to hear some details of the death in action of Lieutenant Alec Johnston, who used to write 'At the Front' in Punch. I knew him well and we were rather especial friends.

"On the night of the 21st of April the Battalion, which was resting at the time, was suddenly ordered to attack some six hundred yards of trenches which the enemy had taken two nights previously. Johnston's Company was in the centre, and, after the O.C. had been severely wounded just before we attacked, Johnston led the Company and captured the position most gallantly with the bayonet. He then went on himself and personally reconnoitred the ground up to the German line. He found them massing for a counter-attack and came back and gave warning. When the enemy attacked they were driven off with heavy loss. He was indefatigable all night consolidating the recaptured position, exposing himself on top all the time in order to move about more quickly.

Above and Stronger Than His Wish to Live — His Wish to Do His Duty
Lt. Johnston's Grave at Essex Farm Cemetery, Ypres

"At dawn, he sent the only other officer then remaining unwounded to the safest part of the trench, saying that when it got too light to stay on top he himself would get into 'the first old crump hole.' He stayed up too long, and was shot through the heart by a German sniper.

"He was a general favourite and loved by his men. He had done more dangerous patrol work than any two other officers in the battalion, and the hotter the situation the cooler he got.

"The way he used to write his articles was very characteristic of the man. I have seen him lying flat on his face in a tiny dug-out no bigger or higher than the underneath of a small dinner-table, in the front line trench, dashing off the first half of one of his quaint articles to Punch. He would have to stop in the middle and crawl out on patrol up to the German wire, have a scrap out there with a Bosch patrol at a few yards' range, stay out for two or three hours, and crawl back, soaked to the skin and covered with mud, to finish his article in time for the post.

"His name had already gone in for distinction, and if he had lived he certainly would have had a decoration conferred for his work in this last show.

"As you probably know, his articles were awfully appreciated by every one out here, and in his quaintly witty way he caught perfectly the spirit 'at the Front.'"

Punch, 17 May 1916


  1. Where can we find samples of his writing?

  2. Other men were awarded Victoria Crosses for actions such as this. But of course it was impossible to honour everyone who deserved it; sometimes the account just did not get through to the General Staff. Even if a lesser award was considered appropriate, only the VC could be awarded posthumously in those days so many such acts could not be recognised (this didn't change until the 1990s).
    At least in Lt Johnston's case, a friend was able to leave an account of his last days for posterity.