Monday, 25 July 2011

A Soldiers Life For Me - The Story Of Joshua Thomas Ropkins

November 1918 and The Great War has ended, as many rejoice that 4 long years of heartache and loss are over and thousands of hero’s begin returning home, one such hero has lost his fight for life, a hero who’s service to his country saw him taken prisoner of war, action in the trenches and spanned nearly 20 years, now ended alone, unmarried and childless.
Joshua Thomas Ropkins was the 5th Child of George Ropkins a London jeweller and Elizabeth Becckon, born in January 1881; he grew up in an area of Islington described by Charles Booth in his 1898/99 poverty maps as ‘Fairly Comfortable’.
Unlike his siblings, his father’s trade was clearly not for Joshua.  His brothers and sisters had seemed content to follow their father and to work in the Jewellery trade, but Joshua’s destiny lied elsewhere and he wouldn’t have to wait long to begin his journey. 
On the 11th October 1899 war was declared in South Africa for the second time, by December the British forces has suffered numerous defeats to the Boers. In 6 days of battles between the 10th-17th December, British forces has incurred terrible loses.  The public’s opinion back home was one of gloom and embarrassment, not since the Napoleonic wars had Britain experienced such defeats.  This was not a feeling that lasted long, by the 18th December the government had relented to mounting pressure of volunteers trying to sign up for service that they finally relented.  It was realised that a need for mounted infantry was a necessity and the government called upon the volunteer force of the Yeomanry.  A Royal warrant was issued on the 24th December 1899 for existing volunteer County Yeomanry regiments to form new companies of around 115 men each, to be known as the Imperial Yeomanry.
The Royal Warrant stated:-

1. Her Majesty's Government have decided to raise for active service in South Africa a mounted
infantry force, to be named "The Imperial Yeomanry".

2.  The force will be recruited from the Yeomanry, but Volunteers and civilians who possess the
requisite qualifications will be specially enlisted in the Yeomanry for this purpose.

3.    The force will be organized in companies of 115 rank and file, 1 one captain and four subalterns to each company, preferably Yeomanry officers.

4.     The term of enlistment for officers and men will be for one year, or not less than the period of the war.

5.    Officers and men will bring their own horses, clothing, saddlery and accoutrements. Arms,
ammunition, camp equipment and transport will be provided by the government.

6.    The men to be dressed in Norfolk jackets, of woollen material of neutral colour, breeches and
gaiters, lace boots, and felt hats. Strict uniformity of pattern will not be insisted on.

7.    Pay to be at Cavalry rates, with a capitation grant for horses, clothing, etc.

8.   Applications for enrolment should be addressed to colonels commanding Yeomanry regiments, or
to general officers commanding districts, to whom instructions will be issued.

9.    Qualifications are: Candidates to be from 20 to 35 years of age, and of good character. Volunteers or civilian candidates must satisfy the Colonel of the regiment through which they enlist that they are good riders and marksmen, according to the Yeomanry standard
This was a call that Joshua could only aspire to. The early contingents of the Imperial Yeomanry were made up mainly of socially superior, ‘well to do’ gentleman, who gave their wages to the Imperial War Fund, paid for their own passage and equipment and were even willing to buy their own horse.
By Early February the ‘New’ Imperial Yeomanry began arriving in South Africa and began to make its mark.  This success was short lived.  Along with the decision to send home a contingent of the volunteer force, the educated men of the yeomanry being snapped up for officers positions in the regular forces and mounting  casualties and medically unfit men, the Yeomanry numbers began to drop alarmingly. A second contingent of Imperial Yeomanry would need to be recruited.  
Recruitment began in 1901, this time Gone were the Patriotically motivated educated men and in  was new force of working class men, encouraged  by a 5 shilling a day wage (as opposed to one shilling per day in the infantry).
This was Joshua’s chance, perhaps it was the wages or his patriotism that made him sign up, but whatever the reason a new challenge in a faraway land was now a reality. By the time of the 1901 census on the 31st March, Joshua was marking his occupation as Imperial Yeomanry.  The 1901 recruits had been hastily trained in Aldershot, between January and February, with the idea the real training would begin when they arrived in South Africa.
Joshua was assigned to the 94th company. 24th Metropolitan Mounted Rifles, when they formed in March 1901 in London.  They left for South Africa on the 11th April.  Shortly after arriving Joshua was assigned to the 2nd Battalion 103rd (Warwickshire) Company.  The medal roll for the 2nd Boer war shows that by the 9th September 1901 Joshua was entitled to three medal clasps after already seeing action in Orange Free State, Cape Colony and Transvaal regions, but there would be one moment during Joshua’s time in South Africa that would stand out amongst the rest.
In the Autumn of 1901 Joshua’s company were under the control of Lt-Col W B Hickie in the western Transvaal, about 870 men were engaged in covering the construction of Blockhouses(a small, isolated fort in the form of a single building) to secure supply routes and to cut off enemy movement, along the Schoonspruit river.  On the 13th November 1901 Joshua‘s unit was camped at a Farm, Brakspruit, north east of Klerksop.  Sent out on reconnaissance with 84 other officers and men Joshua’s unit came under attack by a 300 strong Boer force. Ten men were killed, eleven wounded and 64 were taken prisoner to the Boers 4 men killed and eight wounded.  Amongst those captured was Joshua.  Although it is unclear how long he was held captive, many prisoners escaped or were simply released due to the lack of holding facilities, we can be sure that the fear experienced during this time would have stayed with Joshua his entire life. Perhaps the only part of this experience that he could be thankful for was that his treatment may have been better than the Boers themselves experienced if captured in the so called “British concentration camps”.
The war ended on the 31st may 1902 and Joshua returned home.  The Government had learned some valuable lessons through the contribution of the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa, that volunteers could server alongside regulars with few problems.  This would become vital in just over a decade when a new threat arose and a huge volunteer force left the UK to fight overseas.
Upon his return Joshua soon began life working in the family trade and by 1911 was working as a self-employed “dealer in Common Jewelry”, living alone at Rowton House Lodging House in Hammersmith, a hostel built by the Victorian Philanthropist Lord Rowton to provide decent accommodation for working men, and just 3 years later he had left the Jewellery trade and found himself still unmarried and working as a Barman.  These circumstances may have played a vital role in the decisions Joshua made next.
On the 4th August 1914 the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, just two weeks later on the 18th August, Joshua Ropkins once again was volunteering for active service.  Described on his service record as 5ft 4 1/2, Grey hair and Hazel eyes, Joshua was now 33 years old, although listed on his service record as having the appearance of 29. 
Joshua enlisted for The Hussars of the Line and was assigned to the 11th Reserve Cavalry on the 24th August 1914 and then in June, the 3rd (reserve) battalion Hampshire Regiment, based in Winchester as a depot and training unit. Joshua remained on home soil until he set sail for France from Southampton on the 27th July 1915 as part of the British Expeditionary Force where he joined the 1st Hampshire Regiment.
After just 3 months on the front line, the conditions took their toll on Joshua.  He was taken sick with Bronchitis on 9th November and transferred to the 19th Combat Service and Support Battalion away from the front line where his condition worsened.  He was eventually transferred to the No 5 General Hospital in Rouen’s where he made no improvement and was transported back home to England on the 24th November 1915.  He remained hospitalized until February 1916, where the introduction by Sir Alfred Keogh (director of army medical services) of Command Depots saw him transferred once again.  These command depots were large convalescent camps, setup to try and free up hospital beds, they were designed for rehabilitative training of soldiers not yet fit enough to return to their unit but not in need of hospital care.
Joshua’s condition never improved and finally on the 27th June 1916 he was discharged medically unfit and began receiving his Chelsea pension as an outpatient.
His discharge records show he was suffering from Chronic Bronchitis. The condition was not credited to his service and it is stated that it originated in civil life, however aggravated by his active service through constant exposure to cold and wet an insight into the horrendous condition on the front line. Although this statement appears to be a contradiction to his attestation records which showed him “fit” for service.

Joshua spent the next two years alone in East Ham before his condition finally ended his life, aged just 37, on the 17th November 1918, just 6 days after the end of “The Great War”. Perhaps he found comfort in knowing he had survived long enough to see the end of the war, his second in such a short life.  He had done his part; he had served His Queen, His King and his country and with this knowledge could finally rest in peace.

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