Looking for Descendants of The Laphroaig Johnstons

Below is quite a moving story about WWI, originally from someone named Michelle, who is looking into the family tree of the Johnstons who founded Laphroaig. The story was forwarded by Roger McWee, who manages the Islay Cultural Database of the Finlaggan website. Perhaps some of the readers of this blog are able to help Michelle, she would appreciate it very much. You can find her email address at the end of the article.

Michelle: On July 19th 1916 during WWI a battle took place in the village of Fromelles between the German and Allied troops - it was actually more of an Attack than a battle as it was basically a diversion tactic. Fromelles was 50 miles away from the Somme where a great battle was raging at that point in time and the British commanders, in their infinite wisdom, decided that it would be a great idea to attack the Germans at Fromelles in order to prevent them from sending reinforcements out to the Somme. The problem was that the Germans had been occupying the area in Fromelles for a lot longer than the Allied troops, had the high ground (an area called the SugarLoaf), knew the terrain like the back of their hands and basically had every advantage. To attack them was tantamount to suicide - add in the fact that the troops to carry out the attack comprised in the main of a large group of Australians who had just arrived and never seen any sort of battle before and a smaller group of British who likewise were green recruits just sent over the channel at the end of May and you get an idea of the utter lunacy of the decision. In any case it was sanctioned, went ahead and, highly predictably, was an unmitigated disaster and slaughter. It also did not prevent the German troops from heading off to the Somme at all. Continue reading....

The Battle of Fromelles began 19 days after the opening of the Somme campaign and was the first major battle involving Australian and British troops on the Western Front. The 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, of which 1,780 were killed, and the 61st British Division suffered losses of 1,547 men of which 503 were killed. It is an infamous day and battle in Australia and on the war memorial there the 19th July 1916 is called the "worst day in Australian history" - not Australian military history just Australian history period.

For health and sanitary reasons the Germans had to bury some of the enemy troops who had died in close proximity to their own trenches. Several mass graves were found in the area after the war and the men reinterred in newly built WWI military cemeteries of which France and Belgium are strewn. There had always been a rumour, however, that a large mass grave pertaining to the battle of Fromelles had been missed and was out there somewhere. A retired Australian schoolteacher made it his life's mission to find it and eventually he did - after pinpointing the location on military maps of the time a special expedition went to the spot and in May 2008 found the missing mass grave in a small field on the outskirts of the village of Fromelles in Northern France; it is about 10 miles from the city of Lille and has 962 inhabitants who have unwittingly shared their town with hundreds of dead soldiers for 94 years. The field was named Bois de Faisant (Pheasant Wood in English) and the mass grave contained 8 pits each capable of holding 50 bodies. The bodies of over 1,300 Australians and 350 Brits were never recovered after the battle and the mass grave was found in an area that would have been predominantly Australian so the majority of the men found would turn out to be Australian.

A decision was made to do something groundbreaking that has never been done before in these sort of situations - usually when bodies of WWI soldiers are discovered, and this happens with frequency in the countryside in France, they would be reinterred in an individual grave with the inscription "Known Unto God" - basically they would be an unknown soldier. Due to the advancements in DNA technology, however, and the fact that both the Australian and British MoDs had a list of all of the men who died on the 19th July 1916 whose bodies were never found they decided to run a DNA program to see if any of the men could be identified and given a named grave. The idea being the modern-day descendents of the men would give DNA samples and DNA would be taken from the bodies and if any matches were found that man could be given a named grave.

When the list of missing was initially released by the MoD it became clear to several people discussing things on the Great War Forum that publicity alone, while excellent, was in this case not going to be enough to bring forward the modern-day relatives of the majority of the men on the list. As you can imagine, even if people are aware of the project through the media, they still may not associate it with their relatives since it was so long ago. They realised that not many relatives would come forward of their own accord as they simply wouldn't realise their great-uncle or second cousin could be on the list so they decided to be proactive and set up the Fromelles Genealogy Project totally independent of the MoD - a volunteer genealogical research project with the objective being to establish contact with as many relatives of the missing soldiers as possible in order to encourage them to participate in the MoD/CWGC DNA testing programme to identify the remains of the soldiers. We have 332 separate family trees that have been worked tirelessly on – our tree is on Ancestry and Genes Reunited in the hope of catching the most possible relatives. In Australia other researchers set up silimar endeavours.

I was one such person; I was shocked to find that my second cousin Andrew Allan is one of the men on the list who may be buried at Fromelles and I would never have known about it but for a volunteer researcher who contacted me after seeing that I had my cousin's name on my tree via a GR hot match. While talking to the man who set up the volunteer group it became clear that all of the volunteers are based in England and while they are very knowledgeable about genealogy they did not know as much about Scottish records as I do so I joined the team and volunteered to do the research on behalf of all of the Scottish soldiers myself. I've been immersed in it ever since - not only Scottish trees but English ones and Aussie ones too.

An archeological team excavated the site from May 2009 to Sept 2009 - all of the bodies were carefully and respectfully moved to a temporary mortuary and DNA samples were taken from their bones if possible. It turned out that there were exactly 250 men buried in the mass grave and only 6 of them have not yielded viable DNA.The first war cemetery in 50 years has now been built in Fromelles as near to where the men have lain all these years as possible and all of the men were re-buried there in individual graves during February bar one who will be buried during a ceremony on the 19th of July to mark the anniversary of the battle and officially open the cemetery.

After an ID Board sat in March to go over the DNA findings that have come through so far an announcement was made that 75 Australian men out of the 250 have been identified. It is really amazing that so many will be getting a named grave. It was a little disappointing on the British side as none were identified but as the overwhelming majority of these men were bound to be Australians due to the sheer number of Australians who died it is hardly surprising.

One of the Australian soldiers identified was a boy by the name of Private Cyril Donald Johnston - here is a photograph of Cyril. He was 23 years old when he died. His father was Ronald Johnston (b 9 Apr 1849 Broulee NSW died 17 Nov 1911 Delungra, NSW) and mother was Elizabeth Coates (b 1861) and his grandparents were Alexander Johnston and Flora McTaggart who emigrated to Australian on board the bounty ship Portland arriving 3rd December 1837. The very same Alexander who founded Laphroaig with his brother Donald.

Here is Cyril's service record - it is amazingly detailed as all of the Australian records are and even contains some heart-breaking letters from his mother. It was quite some time before the family knew he was dead as initially he was only reported as missing. The heartbreak was compounded by the fact that Ronald and Elizabeth only had two children - both boys - and their other child Osborne William Johnston also died during WWI at Bathsheba. Here are some more details about Cyril and I really like this site for Australian war dead.

I was contacted a few months ago by Janice Sutherland a documentary filmmaker who has been commissioned by the CWGC to produce the official documentary on the Fromelles project. She is looking for great stories to feature in the film and Cyril is one of those she would dearly love to feature. His story is powerful in itself but the connection to Laphroaig and the interesting history of the Johnston family make it even more appealing.

She has asked me to try to get in touch with modern-day Johnston descendents particularly any based in Scotland as it would be nice to bring both sides of the Johnston family together. I have been searching for Johnston descendents who may still live here in Scotland and was wondering if you know of any? I have traced all of the lines from Donald Johnston as best I could over the last few days and am now in contact with some descendents in the US and I have brought many of the lines forward to nearly modern day but I will have to visit the Archives in Edinburgh to get any further with them.

If you can help Michelle you can contact her by email.

Tag: genealogy laphroaig