Researched and written by Anne Wright
Pte J F Hopkins
1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
Died of wounds, 31.01.1915
Joseph “Joe” Frank Hopkins became a soldier in 1913, intending to serve for 12 years, but before his death less than two years later had experienced some of the most desperate and determined combat of the First World War. He was born in Weybridge on 7 October 1893 to William James and Sarah Stone (nee Steptoe) Hopkins. Joe was baptised at St. James’ Church on 15 December 1893, the same church records the baptisms of all his siblings. He was the third of eight children: Thomas, Percy, Joe, Rose, Charles (d.1897), George, Emily and Frederick. The family lived at 31, Radnor Road; William James was a pressman at local oil mills, probably A. Whittet & Company. He hailed from Shepperton and his wife from Horsell. Joe started his working life as a butcher’s assistant but on 6 August 1913 enlisted in the East Surrey Special Reserve (7399) and was based at their depot where he was reported to be ‘…..very hard working and intelligent.’
On 9 January 1914 he was posted to the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment; he stood five four inches tall, had a fresh complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. When war broke out later that year the battalion was based in Dublin. On 10 August they paraded in Phoenix Park and the on the 13th embarked on SS Botanist, arriving at Le Havre on the 15th as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). They immediately experienced conditions that would become all too familiar, marching to camp in ‘…soaking rain. The roads near the camp and the camp itself soon [becoming] a quagmire……’ They arrived at Le Cateau (27 km east-south-east of Cambrai) at 4am on the 17th and sustained their first casualty the next day when Private Walters drowned whilst swimming in the canal. Many more casualties would soon follow as they crossed the Belgian frontier on 22 August and arrived at the Mons-Conde Canal at 3pm.
Ahead lay the Battle of Mons (23 August), the Battle of Le Cateau (26 August), the sapping retreat from Mons, the Battles of the Marne and the Aisne (7-10 September) and the Battle of La Bassee (10 October-2 November). When they reached the Mons-Conde Canal they had already completed a march of 18 miles in hot conditions along cobbled roads. The BEF was spread along 30 miles of the Mons-Conde Canal; Joe’s battalion held the right-hand part of the line from the Canal Railway Bridge to the Ville Pommeroeul Road. On the 23rd, the Germans advanced at 1pm, the East Surreys were ordered to give as much resistance as possible. They kept up a steady fire and the machine gunners on the railway bridge did an excellent job. This was the first battle between the British and the Germans; the enemy advance was held up for 24 hours and then the battalion began the long retreat to the Marne in the early evening. The East Surreys were part of the Divisional rear-guard over the next two days. They had already paid a price at Mons: 2 killed, 6 wounded and 131 missing. The odds had been against them as 70,000 men of the BEF had faced 160,000 Germans.
On 26 August they were unable to withdraw through Le Cateau because of enemy action and withdrew south across the railway line. Conditions remained difficult as counter attacks by two East Surrey companies and one Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry company failed to dislodge the enemy from their wooded position. Over the next two weeks the retreat continued with Joe’s battalion often contributing to the Division’s rear-guard; on 1 September they reached a ridge south of Crepy, 57.8 km north-east of the centre of Paris. On 7 September they had finally arrived at the R. Marne where they spent the night at Colommiers. The next day they were ordered to attack Chateau-St-Ouen. The terrain was difficult – thick woods and steep slopes but they sustained the advance. On 9 September they came under heavy artillery fire followed by rifle fire, however, even though the enemy was still in position at nightfall the battalion soon witnessed the cheering sight of them on the run at last. This was the first full-scale battle of the war in which the Germans were driven back. Once again there was a heavy cost to the East Surreys on this day: 100 wounded and 20 killed. Over the next few days the Germans withdrew behind the R. Aisne; their advance had been halted and they had not succeeded in sweeping around to the north-west of Paris – the capital remained free.
Joe and his comrades crossed the R. Aisne by raft on the 13 September. They were soon in contact with the Germans once again at Missy where the enemy had a strong position on a wooded spur above the village. Several days of attritional fighting followed with the battalion sustaining a steady stream of casualties. They crossed back over the Aisne again on 25 September without dislodging the Germans. By 11 October the East Surreys were on the west bank of the La Basse Canal where they were struck by the number of refugees coming from northern France. The next day they crossed the Canal and advanced. The line was held.
By 2 December they were back in Belgium in billets at St Jans Cappel close to Wulverghem (13 km south of Ypres). They were inspected by Sir John French their Corps Commander who told them ‘……you have crowded into four months of this campaign enough fighting to fill the Battle Honours of any Corps….’ The next day King George V inspected them. They remained in the trenches or in billets in the Wulverghem area throughout December and January. Joe must have experienced some of the worst conditions during these months: trenches which became nothing more than wide open drains with water and mud at waist height, the appearance of diseases such as enteric fever and bitter cold and frosts in January 1915. Life was now more routine and static than it had been in the early stages of the war but casualties continued to be sustained. The 17th, 18th, 20th, 22nd and 29th saw a total of 21 wounded. Joe was one of them.
He sustained four injuries from a shrapnel shell; a broken thigh, a wounded thigh, chest and groin wounds. He was transferred by ambulance train and car to 13 Stationary Hospital in Boulogne arriving on the 31st. The car was driven by Captain Macalister RN (retd.) while his wife, a nurse tended to Joe and his fellow patient. She later wrote a letter to his mother recording his courage. As they drove over cobbled streets she heard him humming the ‘bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond,’ she asked him if he was a Scot, he replied, “No, but it helps to bear the agony.” Mrs Macalister went on to write that she had seen many men who bore their pain bravely but ‘….. I have never had one so wonderfully plucky as your son…..I shall never forget him.’ She was greatly saddened when she heard that he had died of heavy bleeding; his nurses told her that he always sang when his dressings were changed. Shrapnel was fired at ‘D’ Company in the fire trench on the 20th which is very likely to have been when Joe sustained his injuries.
He was buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (III. B. 80) in the District of St Martin. The headstones are laid flat because of the sandy soil so it has the appearance of a quiet garden. At least two of Joe’s brothers served in the war: Percy in the Army Service Corps and George in the Bedfordshire Regiment; both survived. William and Sarah Hopkins remained in Weybridge until their deaths in 1939 and 1946 respectively.
The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1919. The Long, Long Trail – 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, www.longlongtrail.co.uk
British Army WW1 Service Records, 1914-1920, www.ancestry.co.uk
Hopkins’ Family Tree, www.ancestry.co.uk
‘Plucky Weybridge Soldier’, Surrey Advertiser, Sat., 6 February, 1915. The British Newspaper Archive, https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms 1813-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1962, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey Recruitment Registers 1908 – 1933, www.findmypast.co.uk