100 Years ago – by Lyn Dyson

March 1915

Our men were in the thick of it in March 1915. The 1st Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment were still taking turns in the trenches at Kemmel, and although it was largely quiet, they were involved in some serious action on 12th March, resulting in the loss of several officers, including Captain Viner Johnson of Market Lavington, and 29 other ranks were killed, including John Burgess of Easterton.

The 2nd Battalion were also heavily engaged near Neuve Chappelle. At the beginning of the month they were billeted at Estaires, and at 1pm on 10th March they received orders to advance and clear some German trenches. At first all went well and they took 108 prisoners and gained control of the trenches. However at 5.30am on 12th March, just as rations were arriving, the Germans carried out a bomb attack along the trench. It was here that William Nugent Comyn from West Lavington was killed, along with two officers and 18 other men.

On 26th March the battalion received a letter from the Divisional Headquarters. It read: “The Divisional General has received the report of the fighting near Neuve Chappelle, between the 10th and 14th March. He commends the conduct of the 2nd Bn Wiltshire Regt in the stubborn fighting in difficult trench country and much deplores the losses sustained by this Battalion.”

William Nugent Comyn  killed in action 11th March 1915

William was born in Upton Park, London on 27th February 1881, the son of retired mariner Francis Sarsfield Comyn, and his wife Eliza Jane Barber. He grew up in Birmingham with an older sister, Sophia.

He was educated privately in Birmingham and then trained as an engineer. In 1903 he went to South Africa where he stayed for two years.

He married Elizabeth May Clements in 1906, and the couple settled in Kings Norton, where William worked as a commercial traveller.

Shortly after 1911 William and his wife moved to West Lavington where they lived at a property called Engadine.

William volunteered at the outbreak of war, enlisting in the Wiltshire Regiment at Lavington on 8th September 1914. He trained at Weymouth and within a couple of months he was promoted to Lance Corporal. He went to France on 12th December 1914 with the 2nd battalion of the Wiltshires. He was killed in action at Neuve Chapelle on 12th March 1915, and is buried at the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery at Souchez. The 2nd Wiltshires were in the trenches, receiving their rations at 5.30am when they suffered a German bombing raid along the length of the trench.

William and Eliza had no children, but William’s older sister Sophia married Walter Edmund Packwood in 1902, and she has grandchildren living in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.

Private John Burgess 10525 Killed in Action 12th March 1915

John Burgess was born around 1891, the son of John, a farm carter originally from Bristol, and Eliza who was from Easterton.  They had 13 children altogether, John being one of the youngest. In 1901 they were living at Piplers Farm in Edington.

John went to work on the farm and in 1911 he was an under carter.

At the outbreak of war, John volunteered into Kitchener’s army, and joined the 1st battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment. He arrived on the Western Front on 4th January, along with William Plank who was killed in January.

John spent long spells in the trenches in and around Kemmel, with occasional respite breaks in Locre, just two miles down the road. On 12th March, the battalion returned to the trenches from one such break in Locre, arriving in position at dawn about 5.30a.m. The morning was dull and very misty, so that the Artillery bombardment which was to precede the planned assault on Spanbroek Molen had to be delayed. The whole morning remained misty and except for a certain amount of sniping and desultory gun fire was quiet. At 1p.m. the mist began to clear and by 2.30p.m. it was clear and the Artillery bombardment began and continued with a slight pause till 4.10p.m. It consisted of field guns firing shrapnel to cut the hostile wire, and large quantities of heavy explosives to beat down the German parapets and blow in his trenches, in this it appeared to be fairly successful, but, it was afterwards observed that the enemy’s front line trenches were almost intact. At 4.10 the Infantry assault was launched but the enemy opened a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire on them, and only a few small isolated parties succeeded in getting up to the enemy’s wire, a distance of about 200 yds. Gradually, starting about 5p.m. the troops began to fall back suffering considerably in doing so. At about 7p.m., the Battalion withdrew. It was observed that the enemy were holding this position very strongly and did not seem unduly shaken by our Artillery fire.

The Battalion returned to billets at Locre. Casualties killed included Captain Viner Johnson, and several other officers, along with 29 other ranks killed, 45 wounded and 12 missing. John was killed in action on this day. He is remembered on the Menin Gate at Ypres and on the war memorial at Edington. He has no known grave.

Captain Percy Joseph Viner-Johnson Killed in Action 12th March 1915.

Percy was born on 13th October 1875 in the St George Hanover Square district of London, the son of Joseph Viner-Johnson and his wife Clara. Joseph served in the Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1872. He later served as a Captain in the Imperial Yeomanry and saw service in the Boer War from 1900 to 1902.

In 1881 five year old Percy was living with his family living at Boundary Cottage in Hanwell. His father was working as an outfitter, as his father had been before him. The family comprised Joseph, his wife Clara, aged 28, and their children: Hugh, the oldest son was six and Percy was five. They had a sister, Elsie, who was one year of age.

In 1891 the family lived at 7 Craven Villas, Uxbridge Road in Ealing. Percy was not included on the census return, but was probably at boarding school or college.

Percy was educated at St Pauls School and then he served from 1898 to 1902 in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps in South Africa.

In 1901 48 year old Clara Johnson lived at Coney Croft, Selbourne, Hampshire. With her were children, Percy Viner Johnson, aged 25 and born in London, St George’s, Hanover Square. Also present were Edith (23), Elsie (21) and Gladys (19). There was also a servant. Captain Viner Johnson was serving in South Africa at the time of this census.

The 1911 census shows Joseph Viner Johnson living at Beech House in White Street in Market Lavington with his wife and daughter Edith. Percy had carved out a career for himself in South Africa, and was serving as a magistrate in the Orange Free State.  He was at home on leave when war broke out, and he quickly sought permission from the South African government to join the British Army. This was received and he was awarded a commission as Captain in the 3rd Wiltshire on 18th September 1914.

Percy left for France on Christmas Eve and on his arrival he was attached to the 1st Wiltshires. He fell in the same action as John Burgess and was buried near Spanbroek Molen. His commanding officer wrote the following:

“He fell most gallantly, leading his men. His conduct was so gallant and brave that although he is now dead, I have recommended him for the D.S.O. In addition to being a very gallant and brave man, he was a most valuable officer, and his death is a very great loss to the regiment. As a comrade he has endeared himself to all his brother officers and men, and his death is deeply deplored by us all.”

He was mentioned in despatches on 31st May 1915.

Percy has no known grave. He is commemorated on his father’s grave, in Market Lavington and also on the Market Lavington War Memorial. His official memorial is on the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Clara Johnson is also buried in the churchyard at Market Lavington. She was buried on 3rd July 1924 from her home in Exmouth, Devon.

If you have any further information, please contact Lyn Dyson 01380 8143943 e-mail: lyndadyson@yahoo.co.uk

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