Articles from the Thoroton Society Newsletter

Seeking a better life: The story of Pvt. 138615 Stanley Frederick Johnson (1890-1918)

By Kevin Powell

At the end of the ‘Great War’ in 1918, many families were thankful that their loved ones had returned home safe, although many lived with terrible injuries and were mentally scarred forever. By 2013, fifty three civil parishes throughout England and Wales were declared as ‘Thankful Villages’ (none were listed in Scotland or Ireland). The term was popularised by the writer Arthur Mee in his book Enchanted Land (1936) where he wrote that ‘a Thankful Village was one which had lost no men in the Great War because all those who left to serve came home again’. In Nottinghamshire, there were four ‘Thankful Villages’, Cromwell, Maplebeck, Wigsley, and Wysall. But across the United Kingdom and ‘the Empire’, as it was once known, many families were thankful and none more so than the Johnson family who lived on Albert Grove, Lenton Sands in Nottingham, for their son came home on leave prior to the armistice being signed on 11 November 1918.

This was a joyous event for the family because this was only the second time that they had seen Stanley since he had left for Canada in 1908. Stanley Frederick Johnson was born on 2nd November 1890 to Frederick Sewell Johnson and his wife Alice Sills Johnson at their home on Burford Road, Forest Fields. His father was a manager in a lace warehouse and his mother was listed as a housewife in the 1901 Census. Stanley had two sisters, Nellie and Maggie, and two brothers, Harold and Leslie (Nellie and Harold were the eldest boy and girl). Stanley went to local schools but there is no information as to the type of work he did after finishing his education. By the time of the 1911 census, the family had moved to Albert Grove. However, Stanley was not listed in the census because, two years earlier, at the age of eighteen, he decided to emigrate to Canada. He sailed on the Canadian Pacific Line steamship Corsican. The ship docked at Quebec on 25 July 1909 and Stanley started his new life in Canada. The reason for leaving England is unknown. However, approximately half of the Canadians who enlisted in the ‘Great War’ were first generation from the United Kingdom and many came to Canada to find work during a recession.

Stanley moved to the Toronto area and lived there for the next six years, starting work as a butcher. It was whilst living there that he met Cora Corrigan, who was born in Canada; her parents were of Irish descent.

On 4th August 1914, England declared war on Germany. It was a war that many thought would be over by Christmas, but this war was going to be different. As news came back to England of the fighting and the casualties, two new words began to appear - ‘trench warfare’ - warfare in which opposing armed forces attacked, counterattacked, and defended from a permanent system of trenches dug into the ground. Between August and December 1914, the British Expeditionary Forces losses totalled 95,654. The British army could not sustain these losses and so the call went out to the nation. Lord Kitchener’s campaign, promoted by his famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster, encouraged over one million men to enlist by January 1915. But this was not enough to keep pace with mounting casualties and so the call went out across the seas to the Empire. Britain’s colonies went on to contribute over two and a half million men to fight for Britain during the war. This meant that Britain had soldiers fighting from all five continents: Europe, America, Australasia, Asia, and Africa. Although the Canadians had been in the war since the start, it was the Second Battle of Ypres, fought from 22 April-25 May 1915, which brought the war home to the people of Canada, as it was the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in the ‘Great War’. The untested Canadians distinguished themselves as a determined fighting force, resisting the horrors of the first large-scale poison gas attack in modern history. More than 6,500 Canadians were killed, wounded, or captured in the battle. In 1915, these initial losses shocked the Canadian people and so the call to enlist was heard. Some 630,000 Canadians signed up during World War One; of these, some 425,000 went overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and an estimated 8,000 served in the Canadian navy.

On 30 July 1915, a 24-year-old man would step into a Toronto recruiting office and sign up. He was Stanley Frederick Johnson. He was described as 5 feet 8% inches tall, of fair complexion, with blue eyes and brown hair. He had a 38-inch chest when fully expanded (with an expansion of 5 inches). He gave his next of kin as Alice Sills Johnson (his mother) of 7 Albert Grove, Lenton Sands, Nottingham, England. Pronouncing him ‘FIT’ for service, he was now Pvt. 138615 Stanley F. Johnson and was part of 7th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.

He was sent to Niagara Camp at Niagara-on-the-Lake for training. It was whilst here that Stanley suffered his first injury, a bruised knee which required medical treatment. On 29 March 1916, the battalion was sent to France and Stanley was promoted to acting lance corporal. He sailed from Halifax in Canada to Liverpool aboard His Majesty’s Transport Ship Empress of Britain, arriving on 4 April 1916 and transferring to Bramshott Military Camp in Hampshire. In early June 1916, his unit was sent to France and, by the end of the month, he was transferred to the 3rd Infantry Battalion, Toronto Regiment. This was the regiment in which he was to serve for the duration of the war. However, this transfer would see him reduced to the rank of ‘private’ again. During the war, the 3rd Infantry Battalion saw action in many areas of France and Belgium, including Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and Amiens. These names became all too familiar to the ‘British Tommy’ and their families back home. It is likely that Stanley saw action in many of these battles and, like many of the soldiers, the war took its toll and he did not survive unscathed. On 9 September 1916, Stanley was admitted to hospital, suffering from shell shock, concussion, and the effects of gas. He re-joined his unit on 22 October 1916. The following month, an outbreak of respiratory infection (termed purulent bronchitis) began to appear amongst the armed forces and Stanley contracted it; he was sent to a British army convalescent hospital at Etaples in Northern France. Many soldiers were admitted to the hospital, suffering from the infection, with high temperature and coughs, and were diagnosed with influenza. Stanley was again diagnosed with shell shock, influenza, and myalgia, and remained in hospital from 25 November-12 December 1916. Once again, he was pronounced ‘fit’ and re-joined his unit. On 13 October 1917, Stanley was granted ten days leave and returned to the family home on Albert Grove in Nottingham. On his return to duty, he went back to the front line. The 3rd Battalion ‘D’ Company, the unit Stanley served with, was involved in various battles and skirmishes; however, there is no evidence in his army or medical records to indicate that Stanley ever received an injury by gunshot or shrapnel which would require medical treatment.

And so the war passed into 1918. Stanley had continued his relationship with Cora Corrigan. From the time he joined up, twenty dollars each month was stopped from his pay and sent by bank draft to Cora in Canada; in mid-1918, these payments began to be returned. Stanley never went back to Canada, after leaving in March 1916, and Cora went on to marry William Bridge on 13 August 1918. As the war entered its closing stages, Stanley was granted fourteen days leave commencing 27 October 1918 and, once again, he returned home - except this time, he would return to a very different Nottingham. In November 1918, Nottingham was in the grip of an influenza epidemic; 884 deaths were recorded during November alone. At the height of the disease’s second wave, the City became the second most afflicted borough in Great Britain. The schools were closed for three weeks and men returning from the war were employed as grave diggers. With Nottingham as it was, and with Stanley’s poor state of health, both malnourished and suffering fatigue, it is understandable that he quickly contracted influenza. Sadly, this in turn led to pneumonia. Stanley died surrounded by his family at 7 Albert Grove on 12 November 1918, the day after the armistice was signed. His funeral took place in the Church (Rock) Cemetery the following Saturday, 16 November, with his grave marked by a white marble tablet. Stanley was one of 1,396 people killed in Nottingham during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, whilst in London over 23,000 deaths were recorded. Around the world, an estimated 50 million people died. During and after the war, family members could elect to provide their own memorial for their loved ones, but for those who had fought in the ‘Great War’ and were designated as ‘war dead’, the Imperial War Graves Commission (instigated in 1917), provided a Portland stone memorial for the fallen. Family members could add a small sentiment at the bottom of the memorial, consisting of no more than 66 letters: each letter cost 3% pence. However, Stanley’s family did not need to do this, as his comrades in arms stepped in and provided a fitting memorial.

The restored grave plaque of Stanley Frederick Johnson.

This reads: ‘This tablet was placed here by the Officers, NCOs and Men of the D - Company, 3rd Canadian Battalion, Toronto Regiment as a mark of affection for Pvt S.F. Johnson. Died on 12th November 1918 whilst on leave from France’.

Sadly, for Stanley, the better life he had been seeking in Canada, when he left Britain in 1909, only lasted a few years, before he was thrown into the horrors of war on the Western Front. Thankfully, he has a grave which commemorates his life and his passing in an area of Nottingham he would have known as a boy and as a young man. So it is that, in the words of Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember him’.

My personal involvement with Stanley started in 2012, whilst doing research in the Church (Rock) Cemetery for a guided walk on behalf of Nottingham Civic Society. At that time, his grave was just another war grave in the cemetery, but I was intrigued by the fact that he died the day after the armistice was signed whilst home on leave. My investigations led me to write to Major (Ret) John Stephens, Curator, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada Regimental Museum and Archives (, the name of the 3rd Canadian Battalion today. We were able to piece together Stanley’s life and army service to the extent that Stanley is now not just a name on the Roll of Honour but has a web page telling his story: own/johnson-stanley-frederick/.

For a number of years, a small Canadian flag has flown beside the tablet marking his grave, but over the years the tablet had begun to sink into the ground and become discoloured. So, in 2018, to mark the centenary of his death, I paid my own tribute by restoring the grave and having the tablet cleaned and raised on a plinth. On 12 November 2018, I placed a wreath of poppies and a new flag at his final resting place.

Stanley’s comrades in the 3rd Battalion returned to Canada from England on the steamship Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic, arriving in Halifax on 21 April 1919, then travelling to Toronto by train. They demobilized on the afternoon of 23 April 1919.


I am grateful to Major (Ret) John Stephens, Curator, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada Regimental Museum and Archives, for his help and assistance in connection with this article.