6872 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment who died on 13 January 1916
James Hall Johnstone was born on 17 May 1884, the eldest son of Maxwell and Martha (nee Hall) Johnstone. Maxwell, a gardener, was born in Dumfries, Scotland and worked in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire before moving to Leicestershire with his family. James had six brothers (see Other Family Members) and a sister. In 1901 he was a shoe clicker, living with his family at 1 Regent Street, Oadby.
By 1903 James was working as a gardener and on 2 March, aged 18, he enlisted in the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment for seven years with the colours and three years in the reserves. He was described as 5’ 6”, of fresh complexion, with blue eyes and brown hair and gave his religion as Wesleyan. James was posted to India where he was awarded a Good Conduct Badge in 1908 but also spent a number of occasions in hospital: an accidental gunshot wound, blistered feet, gonorrhoea and, most seriously, two cases of enteric fever (typhoid).
Details of James Johnstone’s typhoid inoculation in 1909. Battlefield conditions often resulted in poor hygiene and a lack of sanitation. Ten million typhoid vaccines were produced to immunise British soldiers during the war.
Photograph of James Hall Johnstone taken whilst serving in India
On 1 March 1911 James returned to Oadby to serve in the Reserves and on 2 April 1911 the census described him as a jobbing gardener, living at Greatford Villas, Spencer Street (above) with his parents and siblings, most of whom were employed as either shoe or hosiery hands.
St Peter’s Parish Church, Oadby
On 4 August 1914, the day that war broke out, James married Margaret Alice Gilbert at St. Peter’s Church, Oadby. Their daughter Norah was born later that year. Married life was short lived for James was mobilized on 5 August and re-joined the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment.
James left for France on the 8 September 1914 as part of the Britsih Expeditionary Force. He saw action at the River Aisne and Ypres. Trench warfare set in following 1st Ypres and the men had to endure a truly terrible winter in the trenches. The trenches were knee deep in near freezing mud and water. To compound these hardships the Germans kept up constant shelling and sniper fire. During the ‘quiet period’ of November and December 1914 there were 25 officers and men killed and another 26 officers and men wounded. A number of men were hospitalised having suffered from frostbite. Along with the other Oadby men of the 1st Leicesters, James took part in the 1914 Christmas Truce at Armentieres.
Following the dreadful winter of 1914 James was hospitalised in February 1915 with bronchitis. Once recovered he was transferred to the 2nd Leicesters and saw action at the Battle of Festubert and the Battle of Loos.
In November 1915 the 2nd Leicesters were transferred to the 28th Brigade which along with the 51st and 53rd Sikh Regiments and 56th Punjabi Rifles formed part of the Tigris Corps or Kut Relief Force. This was a hastily assembled force whose mission was to relieve Major-General Townsend’s 9,000 strong force currently besieged by Turkish, Arab and German troops at Kut al Amara on the River Tigris in Mesopotamia (now modern day Iraq).
The Tigris Corps left Marseilles for Alexandria on SS Clan MacGillivray (above) on 10 November 1915. From Port Suez they sailed on to Basra.
The Brigade landed at Basra on 6 December 1915 from where it travelled up the Tigris towards Kut. Making camp at Amara (below) and Ali- Gharbi.
Because of the lack of roads the only way to reach Kut was to progress up the River Tigris in the flat- bottomed river steamer The Medijihet (above)
Map showing the progress of the troops up the River Tigris from Basra towards Kut-al-Amara.
The locations which the troops passed on their journey up river would have been familiar to many men from the Bible and the Quran. Pt W Elliot recorded in his diary 10 December 1915: “Anchored at Qurna, reported site of the Garden of Eden for evidence we shown (sic) the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The 2nd night we moved by Ezra’s tomb. Passed through Amara the largest town between Basra and Baghdad. Above Amara the country becomes even more barren and desolate. Not a single tree between Amara and Ali-Gharbi”.
Qurna in 1915, reputedly the location of the Garden of Eden showing river boats of troops moving up the River Tigris
Ezra’s Tomb on the banks of the Tigris
Journeying up the River Tigris, the 28th Brigade saw their first action at the Battle of Sheikh Sa’ad. After the Battle over 3000 British and Indian wounded lay at the tiny casualty post without blankets or dressings and sheltered only by hastily erected Red Cross flags. One officer described the conditions “It rained heavily and was freezing cold and the mud was awful. Medical arrangements had completely failed and the sufferings of the wounded were horrible. At times men lay out all night in pitiless, icy rain, dying from exposure….with wounds which for eight days….remained unattended- wounds which were gangrenous and full of maggots”. In the absence of field ambulances the “lucky” ones were evacuated by river steamer to Amara.
On 13 January 1916 the war diary of the 2nd Leicesters records that daylight patrols reported enemy parties at the Wadi, a small tributary off the main river. As the battalion advanced the “Enemy opened fire at about 1100 yards range. The line continued steadily to advance…..firing was kept up on the enemy’s trenches which could now be seen extending along the whole length of the Wadi.” The advancing troops were subjected to machine gun and rifle fire. The 2nd Battalion lost 3 officers and 197 other ranks in the attack including James Hall Johnstone.
Private James Hall Johnstone was awarded the 1914 Star and the British War and Victory medals. He is Remembered with Honour on the Basra Memorial, Iraq. The original Memorial (above) was moved by presidential decree in 1997 and re-erected on the road to Nasiriyah.
The members of The Oadby Urban District Council recognise James’ death in their minutes. (Leicester Daily Post)
Other Family Members
After her marriage to James, Margaret remained at her parent’s home, Woodbine Cottage, 27 Regent Street, Oadby. James and Margaret’s daughter Nora was born in December 1915 and was baptised at St Peter’s Parish Church 16 April 1916. Margaret received a weekly pension of 15 shillings in recognition of James’ 12 years and 318 days service.
Notification of Margaret’s Widow’s Pension
Announcement of Norah Johnstone’s baptism in the Oadby Parish Magazine 1916
Norah Johnstone with her grandmother Martha
James’ daughter Norah Johnstone as a young woman
Four of James Johnstone’s five brothers served during the war.
James’ mother Martha Johnstone
James’ father Maxwell Johnstone (with bird)
We are grateful to members of the Johnstone family for their assistance in our research