Artillery Lieutenant

Alfred Forbes Johnson MC is a Lieutenant in the artillery who keeps himself sane in the war with a mixture of humour, letter writing and prodigious reading while on duty at the often hazy observation point - OB.

An academic librarian, he had worked at the British Museum where he returned after the war and became deputy keeper of books.


No tunics?

Letter from Alfred Johnson to his wife Essie:

May 22nd 1918. We are having gorgeous weather and are walking about without tunics. I expect some superior officer will shortly object and we shall have an order. "It has been brought to notice that officers are going about without tunics. This practice must cease forthwith."


Answering the blessed telephone

May 23 1918 Lieut Alfred Johnson to wife Essie:

I am on the telephone to-night, a job I don't like. One feels afraid to go really sound asleep. I see you had a pretty big raid on Sunday. He dropped a few round here last night but I was tired after a long day and never woke up.

In April he wrote: I wonder what they would do in this war without telephones. I have answered the blessed thing about 10 times in the last hour. It is very annoying to be rung up by H.Q to know why you have only fired 30 rounds, which they then discover to be the correct amount.



15/6/18 Ltr from Alfred Johnson to wife Essie:

I have had a letter to say I have been promoted to First Class, which means I get £300 a year, or £24 per month. There will be another soon as I am now a full Lieutenant. Reading The Egoist by George Meredith (1879)



June 22 1918 Lieut Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie:

If you are not for OP [observation point] you are on night duty or taking the early morning parade at 7 o’clock, or starting an aeroplane shoot at 5 am. I seem to get about one full night a week in bed

Reading: 'The Amateur Gentleman', John Jeffery Farnol, (1916)



24th June 1918 Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Effie:

As to the books I know I should not look a gift horse in the mouth, but really are you trying to get rid of the rubbish off the shelves?



June 30 1918 Letter from Alfred Johnson to his wife Effie:

Reading: Edmond de Goncourt. I generally manage to read a book every time I am at the O.P. [Observation Post] as there are generally many hours in the early part of the day when it is too hazy to see anything



Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie, 8th July 1918.

The land is covered in poppies and corn flowers and all sorts of wild flowers. It is very different from what it was like in the winter.

I went down to some sports yesterday. They tried to get me to run an officers obstacle race but when I saw the first obstacle, climbing up a 20ft rope to get over a pole, I decided my running days were over.



8th July 1918 - Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie:

I wish I could have as many baths as I liked in a day. All our water has to be carried in petrol tins about a mile, so there is little to spare for baths


German guns

August 9 1918 Letter from Alfred Johnson to wife Essie

You will know by now where we are from the news in the papers. We have been taking part in a very successful affair.

As far as we are concerned it has been an affair of very hard work to get ready in time and nothing else at present we are in a captured Hun battery with some idea of using his own guns. We are miles from our supplies and it is difficult to get any rations.


The Band plays on

16 Aug 1918 letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to Effie

This is a weird state of affairs. The Hun is shelling something about a quarter of a mile on the left, and on the right there is a band playing.

Reading Emma by Jane Austen. It was a queer sort of society of those days, but I suppose it is not much different now in quiet parts of the country.



20 Aug 1918 letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to Effie

I’m 2nd in line for leave if the present rate keeps up and the Hun does nothing desperate. I have had a days work translating German papers relating to their guns. Reading: The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith, (1766)


Miles from Civilisation

September 2nd 1918 #OTD Alfred Forbes Johnson - letter to wife Essie

We have moved on again and are miles and miles from civilisation



September 6th 1918 Telegram to Mrs Essie Johnson, Haverstock Hill, London from Folkestone Pier.

“Due Victoria 2/32. Second train, Alfred”



Tuesday 24th September 1918 Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie

..we are still living the same kind of life under tarpaulins in any holes we can find. Reading: Chance by Joseph Conrad


Open air life

September 28th 1918 Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to wife Essie

It is getting rather late in the year for this open air life, but perhaps it won't last much longer. Reading: Joan and Peter, by H. G. Wells, (1918)

[The book, which blames England's stagnating education system for the suffering in WW1, and reflects on the impact of the war on society, was praised by Thomas Hardy who read it aloud to his wife in the evening.]


Walk with the Major

Sat 5th Oct Letter from from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie

Yesterday I walked about 10 miles with the Major to see the war.

I divide my days into a walk, reading and playing bridge in the evening.

Reading: The Adventures of Roderick Random, Tobias Smollett (1824)



Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie, 9th October 1918 We have been pushing the Hun back again, but still there is a general air of fedupness due to lack of all the comforts of life..


In Hospital

Oct 15 1918 letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to wife Essie.

What do you think of the news now? I really think the end is not far off. I see the Daily Mail tries to make out that these negotiations won't come to anything chiefly because they don’t wish it.

Writing from hospital. Having ankle massaged and expect to be here about three weeks. I have finished Roderick Random (Tobias Smollett 1748) and shall soon have to search the hospital for literature.



26.10.1918 Letter from Alfred Johnson to his wife Essie:

What do you think of the news now? I am still inclined to think that an Armistice will be signed in a few weeks time, which I take it will mean the end of the fighting. Reading: Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope


Update from colleague

Oct 21st 1918 Update to Alfred Johnson from a battery colleague. We pushed off straight into action the day after you left, had another ‘do’ and are now in delightful billets in beds & and untouched houses with glass in the windows - all the furniture and ornaments intact.

The liberated inhabitants are weeping on our necks, gardens filled with vegetables of all kinds. In the words of the poet we are quids in. The only trouble is trying to keep Lee & Gregson in order where the two Mademoiselles of the house are concerned



74th General Hospital BEF lettter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie 29 October 1918:

I am glad to see the MG [Manchester Guardian] after a spell of the Daily Mail. I don't think one need be despondent about peace. There is a strong rumour that Austria has given in. I don't know what it is worth

Reading A Change in the Cabinet by Hillaire Belloc


War as good as over

Friday 8th Nov 1918 Letter from Lieut Alfred Johnson to Essie: A couple of days ago I was Orderly Officer in all the rain starting with a parade at 5.30 am. I am going back on to the battery to-night...I think the war is as good as over


I Believe the war is over

Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to Essie, 11th November 1918

I believe the war is over. You will know for certain by the time you get this. I don’t think I shall see any more shelling and I am not at all sorry.


Liberated Civilians

November 14th 1918 Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to Essie.

We are in a village where there are liberated French civilians. I was talking to one of them yesterday. They have certainly had a difficult time


To Germany

16.11.18 Letter from Alfred Johnson to Essie:

We are going on to Germany with the army of occupation and I am looking forward to an interesting time. I found the battery billeted in a village and all very comfortable. I am glad we have finished the tarpaulin life.

We have been drilling this morning. I think the men are rather fed up with it and you hear some of them say they would rather be in action. I suppose we ought to look as smart as possible in Germany.


Voting papers

Alfred Johnson, letter to Essie 16.12.1918

We have at length received voting papers, so after all the government seems to be making an effort to give us a vote. From what Lloyd George says it seems that the Government is going to get all it can out of Germany and go back on what they have asserted in the past.

Civilians here are very grieved at our departure. Last night there was the devil of a row in the street among the gunners who’d had too much cognac. There were several fights and the chief offender finished up in the guard room.


Happy Christmas

Printed Christmas card from 69th Siege-Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.

Albert Johnson to wife Essie I seem to remember that you did not get a vote. How was that? I voted for the Labour man but I don't know if my vote will arrive in time.


Unfit for civilian life

29.12.1918 Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to Essie

I am sure the war has been bad for us in many ways, unfitted us for civil life.

I feel quite a stranger to him [son Christopher] and expect I shall little use as a father. That is the fault of the war.

Reading: Twixt Land and Sea, Joseph Conrad, 1914.


German Coaching

Letter from Alfred Forbes Johnson to his wife Essie 15 January 1919

I have had quite a busy day to-day, a football match and coaching two fellows in German. March is educational officer and has all sorts of schemes on. He has started a course of lectures once a week to the men and I have let myself in for one on the stars.

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