JAMES ALEXANDER WILSON
Regimental No. 11/1869
19 March 1986 - 14 December 1917
James Alexander WILSON was teaching at Roseneath School before he enlisted for active service on the 23rd August 1915. He was only 19 years old when he enlisted, but advanced his age by one year, claiming he was born on the 19th March 1895, rather than 19th March 1896. His parents, Robert and Elizabeth, who lived in Dannevirke, may not have been pleased that their bright young son was so keen to sign up and set off for adventures on the other side of the world.
James’ parent’s property in Dannevirke was called Glenlee. He had at least four sisters - when Jessie Barbara Wilson married at Glenlee in November 1906 the Dannevirke Advocate reported that her three sisters – Lizzie, Mina and Marion – were bridesmaids. James had at least two brothers – Hugh and John. Tracing the family is not easy as the surname is one of the most common in the English speaking world, as are the parent’s names.
James’s primary schooling was at Dannevirke North School, and from there in 1908 he went to Dannevirke High School, which was a little unusual for its time in that it was co-educational. James was an able student passing higher level national exams, excelling in sports (cricket and rugby) and in his last year, 1914, he was Dux. He had been a prefect since 1911, also played tennis and was a good swimmer, and he enjoyed roles in school plays. All this information was recorded in the school’s magazine published annually, and these show how he competed for top academic and other spots with Dorothy Bingham, who entered the school at the same time as James.
In early 1914 James moved to Wellington to begin a BA degree at Victoria University College, as well as taking up a teaching position at Roseneath. Presumably he was a “pupil teacher” as he would have been only 18 years old at the time, and had no formal training. At the time of enlistment James gave his address as 15 Ellice Street which is close to the Basin Reserve and about equidistant from both Roseneath School and the University.
By August 1915 James was 19 years old, and he decided to enlist, signing his attestation papers at Trentham on 23rd August that year. James was assigned the regimental number 11/1869, and became a Trooper with the Wellington Mounted Rifles. The physical description from his medical examination in June 1915 records that he was 5 ft. 8 inches tall, had light brown hair, blue eyes and fair complexion. He also had a broken nose which was noted as a distinctive feature. His age was noted as being 20 years and 2 months, his birthdate having been advanced by one year. He was passed as fit for active service.
After only seven weeks training James was despatched with the rest of the 7th Reinforcements on the 9th October 1915, and disembarked at Suez on the 18th November. Further training ensued and in January 1916 James was transferred to the Divisional Signalling Company (part of the Engineers) at Ismailia. On the 30th March he was admitted to the NZ General Hospital with pleurisy and was only discharged six weeks later on the 25th April, after a couple of weeks at the NZ Convalescent Home.
Training resumed until on 10th May 1916 he embarked for Marseilles and on to Etaples with the NZ Infantry Brigade. By 12 July he was detached to the Royal Engineers Depot at Abbeville, rejoining the Unit on the 31st of the same month.
James was promoted to Lance Corporal on the 21st July 1917, and promoted again on 12th October to the rank of 2nd Corporal. Eight days later James was awarded the Military Medal for Acts of Gallantry in the Field, this being reported in the London Gazette of 14 January 1918, on page 847
“MM Lance Corporal NZ Engineers
For bravery in the field.”
This is a typically brief citation providing no detail of the events and action which gave rise to the award.
He was still only 21 years old.
According to The Spike: or, Victoria College Review War Memorial Number (http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-VUW1920War_Spik-t1-body-d5.html#name-462853-mention)
“He was with his unit through all the fighting in 1916-1917, being present at Armentières, Somme 1916, Fleurbaix, Ploegsteert, Messines, Passchendaele. In this last engagement he was made Lance-Corporal and received the Military Medal for gallantry. Shortly afterwards he was promoted to Corporal and was present at the fighting round about Polygon Wood. It was near that place, at Birr Cross Roads, on the Menin Road, that he received the wounds from which he died on December 14th 1917.”
His death at the Wellington Infantry Regiment Field Hospital was reported by Reverend K S Whitehead two days later. He had been on active service for 844 days, and was buried at Menin Road South Military Cemetery, Ypres, not far from Audley Millar who had died two months earlier. There are now 1,657 servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 118 of the burials are unidentified but special memorials are erected to 24 casualties known or believed to be buried among them.
In Memoriam notices were published in the Evening Post and other provincial newspapers for the next year or two, inserted particularly by his brothers Hugh and John, and his sister Jessie and her husband.