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Johnston, George Jameson (1868–1949)

by Phyllis Ashworth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Jameson Johnston (1868-1949), soldier, administrator and businessman, was born on 24 October 1868 in East Melbourne, son of Charles Johnston from Cork, Ireland, and his English-born wife Elizabeth, née Jameson. He was educated at the Model School and entered the family firm of Charles Johnston & Co., furniture manufacturers and warehousemen, Fitzroy. In 1887 he joined the militia as a gunner in the Victorian Field Artillery, was commissioned lieutenant in 1889 and promoted captain in 1895. His love of horses was an integral part of his life: he always kept good stables, played polo and rode to hounds until his sixties. On 24 October 1894, at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne, he married Margaret Hobson, a granddaughter of Dr Edmund Hobson. He was a member of the Fitzroy City Council in 1896-99.

Johnston volunteered for active service in the South African War and was attached to the 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery, as a special service officer. He left Australia in November 1899 as a captain and was promoted major in March 1900. He served at Modder River, did regimental duty with the 62nd Battery as a section commander, and saw action at Klip Drift, Paardeberg and Osfontein before the march on Bloemfontein; he was then attached to a howitzer brigade with the Royal Field Artillery before being invalided home with fever in July 1900. He re-enlisted in March 1902 as a temporary lieutenant-colonel commanding the 4th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse, but by the time he reached South Africa peace negotiations had begun and his unit returned without seeing active service. His brother Lieutenant Alfred Gresham Johnston was killed in action at Rhenoster Kop. Johnston resumed his business activities in Melbourne, was promoted lieutenant-colonel, Australian Military Forces, in 1910 and commanded the Victorian Brigade, Australian Field Artillery.

On 18 August 1914 Johnston was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as lieutenant-colonel commanding the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, 1st Australian Division. His 4th Battery landed the first 18-pounder field-gun at Anzac on 25 April 1915. The guns of 'Johnston's Jolly', situated near Lone Pine, were used, in the current slang of the troops, to 'jolly up' the Turks. Johnston remained at Anzac until the evacuation; he was temporary commander of the 1st Divisional Artillery from August to October and from then until late November commanded the 3rd Infantry Brigade; he was promoted colonel and temporary brigadier general in December. In January 1916, in Egypt, he was appointed commander of the 2nd Divisional Artillery and sailed for France in March. From 27 April, when his artillery placed its first barrage on the enemy parapet near Armentières, the division's infantry felt 'a sure reliance' upon its own gunners. Johnston commanded the 2nd Divisional Artillery in all its engagements from 1916 until late 1917, including the battles of Pozières, Bullecourt and 3rd Ypres. He relinquished command on 1 November 1917 and returned to Australia to attend to urgent commercial affairs. For distinguished war service he was appointed C.B. and C.M.G. and was mentioned in dispatches four times.

Early in 1918 Johnston's wife died after a riding accident and on 16 March he was appointed military administrator of German New Guinea. During his term several of the outlying parts of the Territory were brought under more effective control, and he was the first administrator to propose a training scheme for New Guinea district officers. His administration received some public criticism and his appointment was terminated in May 1920 but he was appointed C.B.E. in recognition of his work. The Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea (1972) states that he 'conscientiously did his best in an appointment for which he was suited by neither temperament nor training'. On returning to Melbourne he resumed his position of governing director of Johnston's Pty Ltd and continued his service with the citizen forces, commanding the 3rd Division in 1922-27 with the rank of major general from 1 October 1923. Survived by two sons and a daughter, he died on 23 May 1949 and was buried in Brighton cemetery after a military funeral. His estate was sworn for probate at £81,363.

Select Bibliography

  • W. T. Reay, Australians in War: with the Australian Regiment from Melbourne to Bloemfontein (Melb, 1900)
  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • S. S. Mackenzie, The Australians at Rabaul (Syd, 1927)
  • C. D. Rowley, The Australians in German New Guinea 1914-1921 (Melb, 1958)
  • Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea, vol I (Melb, 1972)
  • London Gazette, 5 Nov 1915, 2 Jan, 1 June, 25 Dec 1917
  • Brisbane Courier, 26 Feb 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6, 9 Nov 1915, 4 June 1917, 18 Mar 1918, 9 Aug 1919, 17 Mar, 15 May, 16 Oct 1920
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 May 1949
  • G. Johnston papers (war records section, Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Phyllis Ashworth, 'Johnston, George Jameson (1868–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-george-jameson-6861/text11885, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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