Monday, May 29, 2017

A Bungendore Boy - James Wells Hopkins & The South African War (Boer War) 1899-1902.

Company Sergeant Major
James Wells Hopkins
At 10am on Wednesday, 31 May 2017, an important ceremony will be held at a memorial site on Anzac Parade in Canberra, our nation's capital.

Anzac Parade holds a prominent place in the recording and commemoration of Australia's military history. It is here, on the approaches to the Australian War Memorial, that an impressive array of memorials have been constructed in honour of Australia's military campaigns and those units and individuals who served in them. Yet, our very first campaign has never had a memorial! This will be corrected on May 31 when a memorial to Australia's involvement in the South African War (or Boer War) will finally be unveiled. This event will be the culmination of many years of dedicated effort by the National Boer War Memorial Association (Australia) and a preview of the memorial may be seen here.

In recognition of this event, it seems appropriate to honour the memory of one of the early participants in that conflict.

James Wells Hopkins was born in Bungendore, NSW, just down the road from Canberra. He is a local lad and also a relative, being the much loved uncle of my paternal grandmother. I had no idea he had served in the Boer War until as recently as 2012. It was while assisting with a country football team that I spotted his name on the Bungendore War Memorial adjacent to the football field.

The Bungendore War Memorial committee commissioned an excellent document describing and honouring those local gentlemen  who served in the South African campaign. The full document can be found here and I would recommend it those who would like a greater understanding of the times and the people. I have borrowed from this document to tell Hopkins' story. I do hope they don't mind.

Bungendore & District War Memorial South Africa (Boer)War Roll of Honour

HOPKINS James Wells (William) 1st NSW Mounted Rifles, A Squadron , Private No. 43 1st Battalion Australian Commonwealth Horse (NSW), Sergeant-Major No.54
Born on 19 May 1876, the ninth of George and Elizabeth (née Sladen) Hopkins’ eleven children. He married Eva Gertrude Aspinall and they had three children, Doris, Elma and Frank. Later he married his cousin, Gladys Hopkins and they had two children.
He volunteered for service on 1 November 1899 and was interviewed by Captain Antill. He enlisted as James Hopkins Private No. 43 in “A” Squadron NSW Mounted Rifles.
The Queanbeyan Age 28 April 1900 published the following letter from James, forwarded from Orange Free State, Bloemfontein, dated: 17 March 1900:
“Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and kicking, although many thousands of miles from the old home. I am in the city of Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. Long before this letter reaches you, you will know, by the papers, how Generals French and Roberts captured it. It was a wonderful piece of a work, and done in such a short time. The Boers seem to have lost all heart, for they will not stand against our artillery. If they gain a good position they cannot hold it, for once our artillery begins to play they leave their - guns and supplies and every thing, bar their horses, and go like hunted deers to the next cover. If it was not for the Boers leaving their supplies behind them we would very nearly starve, for we capture all their supplies when, they leave them .The rations we get are 1lb dry biscuits, 6 to the lb, 1lb of beef, 1oz. of tea, 1oz. of sugar, and a bit of rice and jam occasionally. For the last month we have been on half rations; on account of our forced march, our transports could not keep up with us, but today we are on full rations again. Since the 1st February the Mounted Rifles have been constantly on the go. They have been in about 12 engagements, 5 of which are big affairs and worthy of a bar. I was in the battle, of Raham, Paardeburg (that is where General Cronje surrendered along with 4000 Boers), the Relief of Kimberley; and the capture of Bloemfontein, It is of no use telling you every little incident that happened during that time, because if I did I would have to start a book, but I have seen some very trying scenes that I will not forget until my dying day. I suppose you read in the papers about the capture of Cronje in the laager on the Modder River - well, I must say that the Mounted Rifles took a particular part in that affair. It was in this way, The Mounted Rifles were the advance party for General Roberts’ columns that day; we were about 4 miles in advance of the other troops, and we rode right on to Cronje’s camp before we were aware of it. The Boers opened fire on us from all quarters from 100yds range up to 2,000. Of course we retired, and, marvelous to say, only one of our men got shot through the thigh--but all the rest got clean away without a scratch either to them selves or horses, but for all that the bullets fell like hail around us, and the shells bursted in amongst us. Well, after that, the artillery came up and started shelling the camp. The British then completely surrounded them, and shelled them with shrapnel and lyddite day and night for a week. At the end of that time Cronje surrendered, and the Mounted Rifles had to go to the Boer camp to see if everything
was right. When we got there the Boers were just filing out with their little bundles on their shoulders and a stick and a water bag in their hands. They put me in mind of the unemployed that hangs around Sydney. When we got to the camp a frightful sight met our eyes-dead and dying Boers, dead horses and mules lay around in all directions, and piles of rifles and ammunition lay in heaps all over the ground. The Boers burnt everything they had before they left, so when we went in there was only a mass of ruins and filth.”
The Queanbeyan Age 7 January 1900 reported that after returning to Sydney from South Africa James Hopkins along with Robert Swan, was given a big welcome reception at Byrnes’ Royal Hotel, Queanbeyan, by the people of Queanbeyan. He brought with him a Boer Mauser rifle which had belonged to Captain F.B. Wessels of Strachan’s Scouts who was later sentenced to death for shooting prisoners.
On 1 June 1901, he joined a number of other men from the Queanbeyan-Braidwood region at Government House in Sydney to receive the Queen’s Medal with six Clasps from the Duke of York.
He later re-enlisted with the 1st Battalion Australian Commonwealth Horse, leaving Sydney on 19 February 1902 as a Sergeant-Major for a second term of duty. At that time, he was twenty-four years and seven months, employed as a soldier and living at Victoria Barracks in Sydney. In that instance he nominated his father ,George Hopkins of Hoskinstown , as his next-of-kin. His Service Record indicated that he had previously served for 15 months in the 1st Mounted Rifles in South Africa. The AWM Nominal Roll for No. 54 records the name of James William Hopkins.
NSW Births Deaths and Marriages records the death of James Wells Hopkins as 70273/1971, being the son of George Wells and Elizabeth A and was registered in Blacktown, Sydney. In this matter it is therefore assumed that the recording of Hopkins name as James William and not James Wells on the AWM Nominal Roll is incorrect.
Notes: 1.It is suggested that James Hopkins is not the Hopkins J. commemorated on the Bungendore Great War Roll of Honour. 2. James Hopkins ‘ son, Stanley James by his second marriage, died in Thailand as a Prisoner-of-War during World War II. He is commemorated on the Bungendore Memorial Roll of Honour as Hopkins S.J.

Another of Hopkins' letters was published in the Goulburn Evening Penny Post in 1900. It is quoted below, courtesy of the National Library's Trove collection:
Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW : 1881 - 1940), Tuesday 16 October 1900, page 4

LETTERS FROM THE FRONT. PRIVATE J. HOPKINS. Mr. A. W. Daniel, of Hoskinstown, has re ceived a lengthy letter from Private James Hopkins, who took part in many of the leading events of the war. The particulars of the engagements have already been published. Private Hopkins was present at the attack by 5000 Mounted Infantry on about 1000 Boers who were holding the main pass to Magersfontein. The Boere were hid ing behind rocks on the hills, and the British had to advance across an open plain. A hot fire was poured into the attacking force, who were forced to lie down and get behind any bit of shelter they could find. The place where Private Hopkins was lying was as flat as a table, so he got his bayonet to work and in a short time had built a nice little breastwork. The day was very hot, and the men lay for six solid hours under fire. When they got the order to retire at the double the lack of food and water had its affect, and the writer felt so weak after going 100 yards that he had to lie down and wait until he got his breath. The casualties for the day were very few. Subseqently Private Hopkins was present at the capture of General Cronje, the Battles of Osfontein, Poplar Grove, and Abraham's Kraal, the entry into Bloemfontein, the Battles of Karce, Brandfort, and the Vet River. Captain George Osborne, of Foxlowe, and once Captain of the Mounted Rifles at Queanbeyan, joined the regiment at Bloomfontein, and was put in charge of the company Hopkins was in. The writer was present at the engagement at Klip River and the entry into Johannesburg. At Johannesburg Captain Osborne had to leave through sickness. The entry into Pretoria was the next event, and then Private Hopkins assisted in the engagement at Diamond Hills. Afterwards Private Hopkins' Company was engaged in the pursuit of De Wet, and in an engagement with that Commandant's troops the writer's corps had more casualties than in any of the previous engagements. At the time of despatching the letter the force was still after De Wet. Private Hopkins mentions that out of 100 Mounted Rifles that left Sydney in the first contingent only 35 at the time of writing remained at the front.

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