Clive Johns was a man who ‘lived twice’. He was alive and well when his ‘death’ in the Great War was announced in his local newspaper in New Zealand. Here, I look back at that extraordinary moment in June 1917 – and how he cheated death on the front line just a new months later. I also reflect on the letters Clive – who was connected to my family – wrote about his visits to relatives in West Putford, Holsworthy.
‘On June 7, killed in action’.
This was how the tragic death of Clive Johns in the Great War was announced in his local newspaper in New Zealand in 1917.
The words ‘he answered duty’s call, he gave his life, his all,’ were included in the death notice, published by his parents, John and Martha.
But Clive, who had been fighting as a corporal in the 1st Battalion of the Wellington Infantry Regiment, had not died that day.
He had suffered a slight wound to his shoulder in France when the trench he was in was heavily shelled.
He helped to carry another soldier – a Private Arthur Blair, who had serious leg injuries – to a nearby dressing station.
Clive had his own wound dressed there before being transferred to the No 2 Stationary Hospital in Abbeville.
Twenty days later he was shocked to discover that he had been listed as killed in action – and got a message to his family to say he was ‘quite well’.
In a letter to his sister Ada, he wrote: ‘Had the wound been at all serious I would have cabled at first opportunity but being slight I didn’t think it necessary.’
Just a few months later, Clive was wounded in the Third Battle of Ypres – and this time seriously.
He received multiple wounds to his chest, right arm, thigh and leg when a shell exploded near him.
After an emergency life-saving operation, he was put on a stretcher for a 30-hour train journey to a military hospital at Camiers in France.
Clive was later evacuated to Southwark Military Hospital in London where he spent many months in intensive care.
His injuries prevented him from returning to the front line.
He sailed back to New Zealand in the spring of 1918 and was discharged from Army service on August 27 that year.
Auckland-born Clive enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in May 1916. He arrived in Plymouth from Wellington in New Zealand on December 29, 1916.
Based at the Sling Camp on Salisbury Plain, he was promoted to corporal before going to France on February 11, 1917.
Diaries he kept and letters he sent to his family are held by the Alexander Turnbull Library and the Auckland War Museum in New Zealand.
They provide a detailed account of his journey to England and of his service in the 9th Company of the 1st Battalion of the Wellington Infantry Regiment.
In letters to his parents, sent while he was on leave in the Westcountry, Clive told how he had visited aunties and uncles and paid a visit to Bude early in 1917 when the canal there was frozen over.
He told how he had received ‘a very warm welcome and was literally bombarded with relations, who were all evidently forewarned of my presence in England.
‘They were all kindness personified, and till midnight I was listening to family news, and the origin and whereabouts of the Johns family, until in the end I was as wise as when I started.’
He stayed with his Aunt Tillie – Matilda Johns (1843-1933), his father’s younger sister – in West Putford, near Holsworthy, and she cooked eggs and bacon and fried bread for him every morning.
‘We ended up with an argument on the last morning as to who should clean my boots and I blush when I admit that I was easily beaten, and had to sit on a chair while my Aunt Tillie, 74 years old, cleaned my boots.
‘For shame: but it was either that or a fight,’ Clive wrote.
He went on a car journey to Stratton and Kilkhampton in Cornwall with Aunt Tillie and his Aunt Emma – Emma Johns (1856-1944), his father’s youngest sister.
‘Aunt Emma was like a cat on hot bricks and literally poured information in my ear,’ wrote Clive.
‘Some remains, but some (a lot I fancy) found a passage out the other ear. Never before has my memory been so taxed.’
He also visited his family’s nearest churchyard and saw the graves of his ancestors.
Clive was seriously injured on October 19, 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres. Just 12 days later, his 25-year-old brother, William ‘Willie’ Henwood Johns, lost his life in Palestine. Official records show that William, a lieutenant in the Auckland Mounted Rifles of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, was ‘killed in action’. One family member said he bled to death on a train after being wounded.
Clive was a nephew of Caroline Roberts (1847-1921), who was the youngest sister of my great-great grandfather, John Roberts (1829-1919). Clive was the son of John Johns (1836-1919), of West Putford, Holsworthy – who emigrated to New Zealand in 1866 – and Martha Henwood (1851-1942).
Born on September 28, 1893 in Pukekohe, Auckland, Clive married Natalie Jean Slade (1900-1946) on July 1, 1924 in New Zealand. Educated at Pukekohe High School and Auckland Grammar School, he studied commerce at Auckland University College (AUC) in 1914 and 1915.
He was a great sportsman. A member of the Mount Eden Hockey Club, he became secretary of the Auckland Hockey Association and part of the 1914 Auckland representative hockey team. He captained the 1922 New Zealand Hockey team which beat the first Australian team to tour New Zealand. A keen tennis player, he helped establish the Ngatira Tennis Club in Epsom during the 1920s and the New Zealand Tennis Umpires Association in 1935. He was president of Auckland Lawn Tennis Association, the Auckland Tennis Umpires Association and Auckland Hockey Association.
In 1920, Clive and his elder brother, Victor established Johns Ltd, selling radio and electrical equipment and sports goods. He served on the Mount Eden Borough Council for 21 years and was its mayor from 1950-1959. Clive was also a Justice of the Peace and the recipient of a Queen’s Service Order in 1976. He died in Tauranga on March 20, 1985 aged 91.
Clive Johns. Picture used with the permission of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections (31-J1872).