James Meldrum Marchbank was born on 14th June 1900 in Dalkeith Midlothian, he was one of a large family (7 children) and the son of a miner.
In 1913 he joined the local Scout troop in Buccleuch Street, Dalkeith and due to the influence of his Scoutmaster, an ex Indian Army officer, he joined the local territorial company of the Royal Scots, the 8th as a drummer and bugler. Despite his tender years and slight build he took to soldiering and enjoyed his time with the Territorial Force.
One year on having just turned 14 he left school and began a job delivering rolls and a paper round in the evening.
James’ life would soon change for ever, on the continent the storm clouds of war were gathering, at the 8th Royal Scots camp at Stobs near Hawick, rumours of war abounded, every man was ready to do their bit.
On the 4th of August, 1914 war was declared and James was served with his embodiment notice to join, it read
“Embodiment notice to join 4585 Boy J M Marchbank, 8th Royal Scots. The Army Council, in pursuance of His Majesty’s Proclamation, has directed you to attend for enlistment immediately. Bring rations and fuel light to last 24 hours. Here is the actual notice.
And with that James was off to France with the rest of the battalion to fight the Germans, or so they thought. Instead they went to Haddington to undertake further training and recruit more men. None the less on the 4th November, 1914 the 8th Royal Scots set foot on French soil.They had the honour of being the first Scottish Territorial battalion to land in France to join the 7th Division of the British Expeditionary Force.
For James his first experience of the French was far from favourable. At the docks a young French boy offered him the services of his sister, James declined but gave the boy 2/6d (12 1/2p) which an old lady in Southampton had given him as a gift. The boy was to get him bread with the money, instead poor James saw the boy thumb his nose at the corner and he was gone. Welcome to France.
The first casualties were not long in coming. Sgt David Grieve, who had played for Newtongrange Star, was killed by a sniper in their first stint in the trenches at Bois Grenier on 15th November,1914. He was followed by Sgt Dick Peacock from Newtongrange on 20th November, who also fell at the hands of a German sniper.
The lads got their first taste of battle on the 18th of December when they supported an attack by the Warwickshire Regiment and lost Lt Andrew Burt and three men killed. On Christmas Day 1914, the legendary truce took place when the Germans and British met in no mans land as brothers.
In the case of the 8th Royal Scots it appears that fraternisation was minimal, a few men went out and shook hands, and fags changed hands, James’s diary merely records “Christmas very quiet”. At any rate most men confirm that by lunchtime the shooting had started again. New Year’s Day was very different however, the pipes were played and the men in billets at Rue Batelle had a “Merry evening.”
The winter of 1914 was a bitter one, the main focus went away from fighting to just keeping warm and staying alive, many men were sent home with frostbite or trench foot, painful and debilitating conditions. This picture taken by Captain James Tait from Penicuik gives an idea of the dreadful conditions the men lived in.
For James at least, the war was still a bit of a Boys Own adventure, as the picture below, taken at Armentieres shows, he just looks like a wee boy, which is of course is exactly what he was.
Early in 1915 he went back under fire to recover his bugle. The bugle remains in his family to this day.
In doing so however James picked up slight wound from a shrapnel ball and was sent home for a short while to recover.
You may be wondering what on earth was the recruiting Sgt thinking allowing James to go to France, clearly even if he lied about his age, it would be pointless, looking as young as he did.
The reality is the Territorials were allowed to recruit a number of boys into their ranks at the age of 14. There was no need to lie, everyone knew their age and young Master Marchbank when with the full blessing of his parents, indeed he suggested when interviewed in the 1970’s, just before his death, that they might have been happy to have one less mouth to feed.
However James did blot his copybook on one occasion though. One very cold and frosty evening James was on sentry duty in the front line trench. The Germans were very close, less than a hundred yards away, and in the still of the night James began to whistle the first bar of the Lorelei, a popular German folk song. In the distance his German counterpart whistled the second bar and James joined in. His Sgt got wind of this and he was severely reprimanded, despite his age.
And so ended the first 6 months of World War One, I will bring you more of ‘Marchbank’s War’ soon.
You can listen to James Marchbank talk about his war on my website.