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Private 5009 Harry James, 4th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment 1 month 19 hours ago #85449

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The 19th June 1915 edition of the Smethwick Telephone carried an amusing article. 61, give or take a year, year old William James of 85 Halford Street, Smethwick inspired by his six sons and son-in-law already serving in WW1, had enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment, giving his age as 39, and been accepted. Three days later the colonel had called him into his office and asked him how old he was “Don’t rightly know sir” was the probably true reply. The colonel told him to go home and William was skulking there when the Smethwick Telephone reporter arrived and was dealt with by Mrs James who started out life as Hannah Moore (an important piece of information as you will learn). Mrs James, ambiguously, told the reporter she wished the army would keep him and gave details of the six sons and brother-in-law. Two of the sons, Thomas & Henry, had already served in the Boer War.

Investigation shows the tale was entirely true as William’s WW1 Service Records, consisting of just two pages, have survived. His Army career lasted just 8 days before he was discharged under King’s Regulation 392iii – “considered unlikely to make an efficient soldier”. I have been able to trace the lives of the son-in-law and five of the sons – the sixth I will need to consult QSAMIKE about because he allegedly served in the “Canadian Victoria Warwicks”.

There is a tragic side to the story – Hannah related to the reporter that one of her sons called Joseph was serving with the “Australian contingent”. What she did not know was that Joseph had already been dead for 2 months – he died at sea two days after being wounded on Anzac Day. The Australian authorities took a long time tracking his wife down because, just before Joseph had died, she had returned home to live with her parents in Birmingham.

But this is a Forum regarding the Boer War and below is Henry’s story – that of Thomas, a winner of the DCM in South Africa, will appear after I return from a week’s holiday. Whilst Hannah told the reporter he was called Henry, on every other piece of paperwork relating to him he is called Harry. So I should have said here is Harry’s story:

No record of Harry’s birth is apparent and the first record for him is the 1881 Census return for Hill Street, Smethwick where he was living with his parents and siblings. This gives his age as 4 and his place of birth as Tipton, Staffordshire.

The family cannot be found on the 1891 Census and by the time of the 1901 Census they were living at 29 New Street, Smethwick but Harry was “missing”. This was because he had joined the Army and at the time of the Census he was in South Africa fighting in the Boer War of 1899-1902.

His attestation papers for when he enlisted in the 4th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment have survived but not his full service records. When he attested in Birmingham on 13th November 1899, a month after the war had started, it would have been with little expectation of going to war as the 4th South Staffs were a militia battalion intended to give home back up as other units went overseas. He was allocated the regimental service number of 5009.

His attestation papers show he gave his age as 18 years and 1 month and his birthplace as Dudley Port. His given age is rather curious as he was actually 22 years old but there is no conflict in his place of birth with the 1881 Census. Dudley Port, despite its name, lay within the boundaries of Tipton – it was an off- loading point on the Birmingham Canal for goods destined for nearby Dudley. He was only 5 ft 3¼ inches tall (about 2 inches less than average height at the time) and weighed in at a very skinny 7 stone 6 lbs. Perhaps he was a bit ashamed of his diminutive physique and felt that by pretending to be younger than he was, would save him from some ridicule.

So how did Harry come to be fighting in South Africa when his battalion, consisting mainly of inexperienced volunteers like himself, was meant to be providing home back up? Shortly after Harry joined them they were sent to Ireland to relieve the front line 1st South Staffs for duty in South Africa. For reasons unknown the 1st South Staffs were sent to Gibraltar. The commanding officer of the 4th, Colonel F Charrington, presumably concerned about the honour of the Regiment unrepresented in South Africa, asked his men if they would forgo their attestations to only serve at home and the majority agreed. The War Office said thank you and the lowly 4th South Staffs, untrained and ill-equipped, became the first battalion in the Regiment to actively take part in the Boer War.

After some “weeding out” which diminutive Harry survived, we have to assume he was a tough little so and so, they set sail on 11th February 1900 from Queenstown in Ireland, six hundred and fifty strong, aboard the requisitioned SS Arundel Castle. On 18th February they stopped at St Vincent to take on coal and on 6th March arrived at Capetown. By 24th March 1900 they had reached the town of Kimberley, just over a month after it had been relieved by troops under Lord Methuen’s command concluding its 124 day siege by the Boers. On the 10th May they underwent a 40 mile march to Boshof in the Orange Free State to join Lord Methuen and his troops. Some 3 weeks later and after 250 miles of marching they were dropped off at Lindley, a strategically important town to help garrison and protect it from marauding Boers. In the following month the town came under frequent attack by sniping Boers and there was some shelling. Whilst the Boers were effective snipers, well-armed with their German Mauser Rifles, their artillery left a lot to be desired. On 26th June several hundred Boers swooped down on the town from the east. The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) took the brunt of the attack with two dozen casualties of which 6 were killed in action, the 4th South Staffs defending the southern side of the town came off relatively lightly and only had one man badly wounded. Shortly afterwards reinforcements arrived including mounted troops who swept the surrounding country clear of Boers. In doing this they received some help from the 4th South Staffs maxim guns who took out some Boers on a ridge just within range of the town.

On 3rd July 1900 the 4th South Staffs left Lindley as part of a convoy heading to Bethlehem – the battalion were given the job of guarding the baggage at the rear of the convoy but even so came under shellfire at times. They were then involved in escorting another convoy to Winburg a distance of 80 miles covered in 4 days. Whilst returning to Bethlehem news was received that General Prinsloo, one of the Boer leaders, had surrendered with 4,000 men. The 4th South Staffs were then involved in escorting some of these prisoners to the railhead at Winburg. They then had a welcome break from marching when they were detailed to guard the Boer prisoners on their train journey to Capetown – none of their prisoners escaped. Whilst at Capetown they received some reinforcements from England but about an equal number of men were transferred to the 1st South Staffs, who by now had been in South Africa for just over 3 months.


The 4th South Staffs returned to Winburg at the start of August 1900 where they formed part of the town garrison and their commanding officer was put in charge of the garrison. Throughout August they had to be on constant watch as Boers were present in the surrounding countryside. In late August the Boers attempted to attack the town but an unnoticed detachment of Manchesters and one Company of the 4th South Staffs, stationed on a kopje outside the town took them by surprise and they melted away as was their want. September was much the same but the rest of the year was quieter.

In January 1901 renewed activity by the Boers, including some sabotaging of the railway line, caused half the battalion to be moved 25 miles north to Doornberg where a skirmish with Boers resulted in three members of the battalion being taken prisoner. On 6th April members of a small party of the battalion guarding the railway line were attacked by a party of Boers and again three men were taken prisoner. All six men were released by the Boers in early May and returned to the battalion. In June a party of one sergeant and nine men were taken prisoner whilst guarding some cattle but were released 11 days later.

On 15th July 1901 the battalion was relieved by the 5th Manchesters and they proceeded the next day by train to Capetown. They set sail for England on 19th July aboard the SS Lake Erie and arrived back at the South Staffordshire Regiment home, the City of Lichfield, on 12th August to receive a civic reception at 7 o’clock in the morning. A parade through the City and a lavish meal followed before they marched to the Lichfield Barracks for disembodiment after having spent nearly 16 months on active service in South Africa. It would not have taken Harry long to get back home in nearby Smethwick. On 30th November 1901, in Walsall Drill Hall the battalion were presented with their medals and their Commanding Officer, Colonel Charrington, read out extracts from letters he had received praising the work of the battalion in South Africa, including one from Lord Methuen. On New Years Day 1902, Harry once again reported to Lichfield Barracks to receive a £5 War Gratuity.

The battalion medal rolls show Harry was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with three clasps – Wittebergen, Cape Colony and South Africa 1901. The roll for the Wittebergen & Cape Colony clasps was drawn up in Winburg on 4th July 1901 and these two clasps would have been attached to the medal he received at Walsall. The roll for the other clasp was drawn up in Lichfield on 1st February 1903, whether this third clasp would have been posted to him or he had to make another trip to Lichfield is not known. The Wittebergen clasp was for the work they did handling prisoners resulting from the surrender of General Prinsloo. Most of the operations of the battalion occurred in Cape Colony and the South Africa 1901 clasp could be viewed as a consolation for missing out on the plethora of clasps associated with the early stages of the war before Ladysmith, Kimberley & Mafeking were relieved. The battalion did stray into the Orange Free State and the fact that Harry did not receive that clasp could signify he was hospitalised at the time of the long march to Boshof – it is reckoned that 90% of the Imperial soldiers spent some time hospitalised during their stay in South Africa with the commonest cause being dysentery.

Harry did not qualify for the second campaign medal of the Boer War known as the King’s South Africa Medal although his active service in South Africa did intrude into the reign of King Edward VII. To qualify for this medal you had to have spent 18 months on active service in South Africa, as already stated Harry did not quite manage 16 months.


It is reckoned that when the Battalion returned home they were about 100 lighter in numbers than when they arrived. Over half of these returned home early for one of three reasons – invalided home due to wounds, invalided home due to sickness or, as volunteers, they had only signed up for one year of active service. Harry had actually signed up for six years of active service unless Her Majesty no longer required his services.

Just over 40 of the 4th South Staffs never returned home because they died in South Africa. All but three of them died of enteric fever (typhoid) and of the three - one accidently drowned in a river, one was accidently shot and the third as a result of enemy action, dying from wounds received in battle.

Overall the non-return rate at about 6% was above average – of the half a million Imperial soldiers who served in the conflict 22,000 were not to return home – a non-return rate of about 4%. Only one death due to enemy action was very low and reflects two things, firstly they arrived in South Africa after the early bloodbaths when the Imperial Army were trying to relieve the three towns, secondly as a volunteer battalion of inexperienced soldiers the tasks they were given were less critical and hazardous. For example, I suspect when they helped defend Lindley they were given the least vulnerable part of the town to defend and the experienced regulars and reservists of the KOYLI consequently took the brunt.

On the other hand the 4th South Staffs suffered a very high rate of non-return due to disease. This may have been due to the fact that of their 16 months in South Africa 13 were spent garrisoning the towns of Kimberley, Lindley and Winburg. Disease spreads much more easily through town populations than amongst soldiers out on the open veldt.

As far as we know Harry returned home physically unscathed but his 16 months in South Africa would have been no picnic. The very long marches have already been mentioned and although some occurred in the early hours to avoid the heat of the day marching across the rock strewn veldt in the dark could be a painful experience. The extended and mobile nature of the conflict meant the Imperial Army had a major supply problem and food was usually short for the soldiers and there are tales of soldiers marching with rags wrapped round their feet as their boots had worn out and they still awaited replacements. Also the enemy, being exclusively horse mounted, were extremely mobile and apt to appear out of nowhere and then disappear as quickly. So even when marching through apparently unoccupied territory Harry would have had a worrisome itch in the back of his neck.

Harry’s service details that have survived show that after his time in South Africa he was assigned to the Army Reserve and in 1905 completed his six years of service. Rather than enjoying becoming a totally free man he signed for a further period in the Army Reserve and when he attested for WW1 he claimed his previous military experience as being 8 years in the 4th South Staffs.

Harry did not remain in Smethwick for long and emigrated to Canada and a Harry James can be found on the 1911 Canada Census born in England in July 1877 which tallies with previous records but his year of arrival in Canada of 1903 does not tally with his being 8 years in 4th South Staffs – perhaps the enumerator misread an “8” in his notes for a “3”. If it is him on the census , he was still unmarried and living in a boarding house in the State of Ontario. Unfortunately the town and his occupation are illegible.

On 22nd July 1915 Harry attested at Winnipeg in the State of Manitoba for service in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. We can be 100% certain it is “our” Harry because he gave his mother, Mrs Hannah James of 85 Halford Street, Smethwick, England, as his next of kin. He also gave his place of birth as Dudley Port and once again lied regarding his age by giving his date of birth as 27th July 1881 and pretending to be 33 years and 11 months old rather than his actual 37 years 11 months years old. Why he felt the need to do this is a puzzle as the upper recruitment age limit for the Canadian Army was 45. His 1919 discharge papers show he maintained this deception throughout the war. I think we can now conclude his exact date of birth was 27th July 1877 and this makes it more likely that the Harry James found on the Canadian 1911 Census is “our” Harry.

The attestation papers tell us he was still unmarried and indicate he had grown a quarter of an inch since 1899 – actually probably just a measurement “error”. They do not tell us his weight but tell us he was a “Brass Polisher”. They also do not tell us what unit he was assigned to or his service number. Fortunately an index card repeating most of the information given on the attestation papers, including the details of next of kin, shows he was allocated the service number 475114. This in turn produces another three dozen records for Harry, a mixture of index cards and forms with a many of the latter dealing with financial matters – the Canadian Army record keepers were busy beavers during WW1. This is my attempt at extracting the information of interest they hold in chronological order:

22/07/1915 Attested in Winnipeg, Manitoba (see above). The report of an April 1919 Medical Examination just prior to him returning to Canada shows that when he enlisted the terminal phalanx of his left index finger had been amputated and this was caused by an accident in 1910.
26/08/1915 Embarked at Montreal, Canada
05/09/1915 Disembarked at Plymouth, England (The index card this is on has the date as 1916 but this is obviously a mistake).
06/09/1915 Assigned to 11th Battalion based at Shorncliffe, Kent as acting Sergeant.
24/01/1916 Handwritten WILL: “In the event of my Death I give the whole of my Property and effects to Hannah James, 85 Halford Street Smethwick Staff, England.”
26/05/1917 Received medical attention at Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe, Kent suffering from an “infection” to the left ear.
02/06/1917 Received further medical attention for his left ear. It turned out to be cyst which by this time was growing at an alarming rate. It was removed and that seemed to sort the problem out.
07/09/1917 “Reverts to Ranks” and transferred to 27th Battalion overseas.
19/09/1918 Admitted to the No.3 Canadian General Hospital, Boulogne suffering from a wound to the thigh and right thumb. Rank Lance Sergeant and serving in the 11th Canadian Reserve Battalion. This information appears on several cards/forms and the cause seems to vary between shrapnel (“Shr Wound”) and gunshot (“GS Wound). Which thigh is never specified.
26/09/1918 Transferred to No. 7 Convalescent Depot at Boulogne
28/09/1918 Transferred to No.10 Convalescent Depot at Ecault
02/10/1918 Discharged to No.5 Rest Camp located at St Martin’s.
13/03/1919 Seems to have suffered some sort of mishap at Namur resulting in him being parted from his unit but rejoined them 5 days later.
29/03/1919 Promoted to Sergeant in 27th Battalion.
12/04/1919 Proceeded to England as part of 27th Battalion.
16/04/1919 His teeth were examined by the Canadian Dental Corps and found to be “Fit”. Rank: Sergeant; Unit: 27th Battalion. Location: somewhere in England.
09/05/1919 Absent without leave. Reprimanded and docked 4 days’ pay.
13/05/1919 Embarked on the HMT “Northland” at Liverpool
23/05/1919 Disembarked at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
26/09/1919 Discharged from the Army having been enlisted into the 90th Battalion and having served in the 27th Battalion in France. Rank: Sergeant. Location: Dispersal Station “M”, Military District No.10, somewhere in Canada.

The final record for Harry:



Definitely “our” Harry as the maiden name of his mother was Hannah Moore.

His age of 67 at death on 15th March 1945 tallies with a birth date of 17th July 1877.

He obviously married at some time but his wife pre-deceased him and giving his mother as next of kin indicates he had no children.

He appears to at some time have taken Canadian Citizenship.

The rest you can decipher for yourself.

Seeing her name on this form reminds me that Harry named his mother as his next of kin when he attested in 1915 and left his belongings exclusively to her in his 1916 Will. His father did not die until 1937, so there is a suggestion that Harry and his father may not have got on too well. When his mother died is not known but she would have been 89 if still alive in 1945.

Acknowledgements:

David West, Harry’s great-great nephew, for the information contained in the Family Tree he has created on Ancestry. David was unaware his great-great uncle had fought in the Boer War and this write up was originally done for him – so I apologise if any Forum members feel I am trying to teach my grandma to sucks eggs.

Jeffrey Elson author of “The South Staffordshire Regiment. South Africa 1899-1902 The Second Boer War”, self-published, 2011. Jeffrey is "responsible" for the doings of the 4th South Staffs in South Africa although I have tried to avoid direct plagiarism.

The opinions on non-returns rates are entirely my own and I would be grateful to hear from anybody who feels I am wide of the mark.
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