As the winter of 1914 / 15 drew to a close the time came for the British to take the battle to the Germans. Plans were drawn up and in March of Neuve Chapelle took place, it was not a pleasant experience for the lads of the 8th, they spent most of the battle holding the line and being shelled. One of those killed was Private James Kitching,(21) a married man with a young child from Penicuik.
He was in possession of a watch once owned by the late Sgt Dick Peacock from Newtongrange, it would appear that the watch was cursed, as James fell in action on 14th March, shot dead by a sniper, just as Dick Peacock had been. The watch was sent home!
James Marchbank however was spared the worst of the fighting, he was part of the Brigade transport, and befriended a pit pony from Newtongrange named Ginger.
In May though, during the Battle of Aubers Ridge, James moved in to the front line and saw at first hand the carnage of the modern battlefield, this was surpassed by the Battle of Festubert, when the 8th Royal Scots took heavy casualties, James had good luck and escaped uninjured, that is until late in May, when a shell burst overhead and hit him twice in the hand and once on the side.
James was sent home to recuperate and he became quite a local celebrity with tales of his adventures appearing in the local newspaper, the Dalkeith Advertiser.
James was home in Dalkeith on 9 days leave, when he returned he found that the Battalion had been transferred over to the famous 51st Highland Division and that they were to be their Divisional Pioneers.
This in modern terms would be a combat engineer, working in, and in front of the trenches, repairing wire, digging dugouts and a 101 other jobs.
The opening day of the Somme offensive ,on 1st of July,1916, was the blackest day in history of the British fortunately the 8th were not directly involved in the fighting, evidence of the fighting was everywhere and James recorded in his diary, that on a ration run there were “plenty dead”.
In the middle of all this, James bumped into his older brother William, a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, near Mametz, where his guns were in action. Given the number of men involved in the battle, it was quite a coincidence.
In November 1916 James took part in the attack on the seemingly impregnable Beaumont Hamel, which had proved impossible to take previously. However by clever use of new tactics and great courage, it was taken by the 51st Highland Division, sealing their reputation as first class assault troops.
Christmas 1916 was spent in the Arras area, it was James’ third Christmas away from home, it was a dull and driech affair, a bit like the weather.
On April, 9th 1917 a major offensive was launched by the British and Canadians at Arras, they made huge advances on the first couple of days before being ground to a halt with massive casualties.
It was during this battle that a telegram arrived for James, it brought bad news, his father had been killed in an accident in the Lady Victoria pit in Newtongrange. James went to see his Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill, he was sympathetic but unfortunately could not spare a single man. James sent home his reply, it read “Not coming”. It would have been hard for anybody, but for a 16 boy, it must have been doubly hard.
James for a brief spell left the 8th Royal Scots, and spent his fourth Christmas of the war in Italy, the British sent troops they could ill afford to lose to bolster their allies, who had suffered a series of defeats. The threat averted, James returned to his own battalion where he was met by Sgt Felix McNamara from Dalkeith. Felix was a postman and a keen footballer before the war in Dalkeith, he had recently been awarded the Military Medal, and liked to keep a fatherly eye over James.
In March of 1918 the Germans launched a massive offensive against the allies in the west using reserves of men freed up following the surrender of Russia. The 8th Royal Scots were caught up the thick of battle around the River Lys, making a series of heroic stands which delayed the German advance, taking many casualties in the process. Communications were vital and James was appointed a battalion runner, a dangerous and difficult job, with a low survival rate. In the space of 36 hours James carried important messages to and fro between Battalion and Brigade Headquarters, by my reckoning he ran about 30 miles / 45 km often under fire, as a result he was awarded the Military Medal and promoted to Lance Corporal, he was still only 17 at the time.
The Germans were stopped but at great cost, James’ mentor Felix MacNamara was killed, as was Peter Cornwall from Gorebridge, Willie Scott from Bonnyrigg and many more.
It seemed that James had a charmed life, to survive from 1914 to 1918 but an unexpected foe almost killed him, Spanish Flu. James was hospitalised in September 1918 and sent to the Military Hospital in Barnet, he was still there recovering when the Armistice was signed on 11th November, 1918.
James was one of the lucky ones and recovered from the flu, he was sent back to France but never made it there, he was processed around various camps and sent home just before Christmas 1918, he was sent back to Barnet and on 23rd February 1919 he proudly recorded in his diary “The Day I put my civvy suit on.” He was 18 years, 8 months and 1 week old, he had spent 4 years and 7 months on active service, he had earned his right to put his suit on.
James lived the rest of his life in the area, and died just short of 76th birthday in Dalkeith, where he is buried.
His story may form part of the BBC Centenary programme on Boy Soldiers, it’s quite a story, I hope it does.
If you would like to hear James Marchbank talking about his war, just before his death, you can do so on my website.