Serving God, King and Country
John Willey ("Johnny") JAMES was born 3 July 1895 at Torbanlea, Queensland, Australia. He was the first of ten children born to David W JAMES (1873-1950), coal miner, and Margaret Ann JAMES nee WILLEY (1873-1951). David JAMES arrived in Queensland from South Wales with his family in 1883 per Ravenscrag. Margaret WILLEY arrived with her family from Durham, England about 1875.
Here is a list of Johnny's known ancestors:
In 1898, when he was 3 years old, Johnny's family moved from Torbanlea to Mount Morgan, Queensland. Johnny's father, David JAMES, made the move to take advantage of newly developing mines. About 1903 or 1904, they then moved to Abermain, New South Wales. The Abermain No. 1 Colliery had only just opened. By then, David and Margaret had five children, three of school age. David JAMES's name appears on a petition dated 16 September 1904 for the establishment of a public school at Abermain. He stated that his school age children were John 9 years, Daisy 7 years and Lily 6 years, and that the family was living a quarter of a mile from the proposed school, but four and a half miles from the nearest established school. Johnny probably spent a few years at the new Abermain Public School before starting work at Abermain No. 1 Colliery, probably in his early teens. This was a period of rapid growth and progress in the new township of Abermain.
In June 1914, when the Austrian Archduke was murdered in Serbia, Australia was still very much a part of the British Empire. This incident sparked what is now known as the First World War. Australia responded to Britain's call to arms by pledging a force of 20,000 men initially, and made a commitment to support Britain in the war. As these events were unfolding, Johnny was only 18 or 19 years old. Recruitment in Australia began in August 1914, and the idea of serving God, King and Country would have been prominent in the thoughts of many young men like Johnny. The events that occurred at Gallipoli in April 1915 resulted in a dramatic increase in the numbers enlisting in Australia in the months following. In July 1915, the federal government made it compulsory for all Australian men, aged 18 to 60 years, to fill out a questionnaire about themselves, their job, dependents and income. Johnny would have been required to answer this controversial questionnaire.
These events were enough to induce Johnny to enlist. He completed his attestation paper at West Maitland on 28 August 1915. He was 20 years 2 months old, and working as a mechanic at the time. The medical officer reported that Johnny was 5 feet 3 inches tall, 130 pounds in weight, with chest measurements of 33 inches to 36 inches, dark complexion, brown eyes, and brown hair. On 11 September, 1915, he made the following oath:
After receiving his uniform, it was time for some photographs.
On the Western Front
On 18 January 1916, Johnny was appointed to the 15th Reinforcements in the 3rd Battalion, by Lt Gardner at Liverpool. Less than two months later, on 8 March 1916, he embarked at Sydney per Star of England for the trip to Europe. On arriving in England, he was transferred to the 55th Battalion (20 April 1916), and two months later, on 19 June 1916, he embarked per H T Caledonian for France. He disembarked at Marseilles, France in late June 1916, and proceeded to the Western Front.
About three weeks after arriving at the Front, Johnny was admitted, on 20 July 1916, to the 8th Stationary Hospital at Wimereux, France, with a mild gunshot wound to the hand or wrist. The next day, he was moved to Boulogne, where he embarked per H S St Denis for England. He was quickly transferred to the 2nd N General Hospital, Becketts Park, Leeds. Early in August, he was moved to the No 1 Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Harefield, Middlesex, England, and on 6 August 1916, a telegram was sent to his father:
This was followed four days later by a letter:
Johnny was discharged from hospital on 22 August 1916, and sent to Woodcote Park Council Hospital, Epsom, for convalescence. He spent about three weeks there, and was then granted three weeks furlough at Perham Downs No 1 Com Depot.
Back to France and Wounded Again
On 6 October, 1916, Johnny reported back from furlough to No 1 Com Depot at Perham Downs, and one week later marched via various depots to Perham Downs, and then embarked from Folkstone, on 7 February 1917 per SS Invicta for France, to rejoin the 55th Battalion at Etaples. He remained with this Battalion for three months, when he was again wounded, on 14 May 1917. He was admitted to 2 S. Hospital at Abbeville, Cayeux, apparently with another gun shot wound to the hand. Once again, Johnny's father was informed:
News of Johnny's wounding was published in the Newcastle Morning Herald of 11 June 1917 (page 6, column 2):
(It seems that his battalion was reported incorrectly - it should have been 55th.)
Major Lean's letter did not really convey the nature of the injury, and so Johnny's father wrote to Major Lean:
While this correspondence was taking place in Australia, Johnny was transferred (on 26 June 1917) from hospital at Cayeux to the 5th Australian Divisional Base Depot at le Havre, France. Major Lean's reply to David James was dated the next day:
Whether David James received any further details from Base Records is not known, but on 1 August 1917, Johnny rejoined his battalion in the field.
Leave in London
The next six months appear to be uneventful as far as the official records are concerned, but Johnny was no doubt experiencing all of the horrors of war in the trenches in France. He was granted two weeks leave on 13 February 1918. He spent at least some of this leave in London, and forfeited twenty days pay (£5) for overstaying his leave there from 7:30 am on 28 February 1918 to 7:30 am on 5 March 1918. It could have been at this time that he visited his relatives in South Wales:
Wounded Third Time
He rejoined his unit again on 9 March 1918 but only three days later was poisoned by a gassed shell. He was admitted to the 15th Field Ambulance but was discharged a couple of days later, back to his unit. Once again, David James was informed by letter:
The End of the War
In July, 1918, General Monash made his assault on Hamel, and by August, he was convinced that the Germans were in full scale chaotic rout. The Australian force was continually used as shock troops in these offensives. The Hindenburg Line was smashed by the Allies in October, and following the beginning of peace negotiations with the German forces, the five Australian divisions were withdrawn from the front lines. Four days after the German surrender (11 November 1918), Johnny was assigned to brigade duties (YMCA), and later rejoined his battalion on 28 February 1919. By 7 March 1919, Johnny was on his way home. He returned from the field to le Havre on 15 March 1919, and back in England, was granted two weeks leave at the end of April 1919. On 8 May 1919, he embarked per HT Devanha to return to Australia. His family in Australia received the news that he was on his way home on 3 June 1919, and he arrived in Sydney on 26 June 1919. After debriefing, he was finally discharged from the 55th Battalion on 10 August 1919, and he returned to Abermain.
Johnny was not eligible for the 1914/15 Star (issued to those who served in New Guinea, Egypt and Gallipoli in 1914 and 1915), but was later issued with the silver British War Medal (No.34491) and the bronze Victory Medal (No.34048). These medals were issued in February 1935 but their location now is not known. His name appears on the Honour Roll now found in Abermain Public School.
Marriage, Work and Home
Soon after returning from France, in 1920, Johnny was married at Newtown, New South Wales, to Ivy Evelyn SCOTT, who was born about 1897 (hence about two years younger that Johnny). He was about 25 years, she was about 23 years, when they married. Johnny and Ivy never had any children.
In 1922, Johnny was listed in the electoral roll as a labourer living at Hay Street, Abermain. By 1928, he was living at 153 Tudor Street, Hamilton, and working as an electrical mechanic.
On 29 August 1928, the War Service Homes Commission conveyed a property at Abermain to Johnny. It was at 295 Abermain Street (now Cessnock Road), Abermain, Section 1, Lot 14. This block had previously been owned by Ebenezer Andrews, but was acquired by the WSHC to pass on to a returned serviceman. Johnny immediately took out a mortgage on this property with the Kurri Kurri District Starr Bowkett Building Co-operative Society No 3 Ltd. This block of land was improved by a wooden house, and the property's value was assessed by the Hunter District Water Board at this time at £50 (unimproved capital) and £35 (annual). It appears that Johnny rented this property out. About 1937, William and Agnes James (Johnny's aunt and uncle) moved in as tenants. In 1942, the mortgage was discharged and the property was sold to John and Jane Eliza Baus. This would have been when William and Agnes James moved to Sydney.
In the electoral rolls of 1943 and 1944, Johnny and Ivy were living at 37 Hebburn Street, Hamilton, and Johnny was working as an electrician. When Johnny's parents died in 1950 and 1951, he and his wife were living at 31 Day Street, East Maitland.
Johnny died on 28 May 1955, aged just 59 years, at Belmont, New South Wales. His residence at the time was 33 Henry Street, Belmont. His remains were cremated at Beresfield Crematorium (memorial location Drive Wall AM/137). His widow lived on for another 16 years. Ivy died on 5 November 1971 at Newcastle. Her residence at the time was 29 Henry Street, Belmont. Her remains were also cremated at Beresfield Crematorium (Drive Wall AM/138).
Today, not many people remember Johnny James and the story of his life. He was an ordinary man from a hard working coal mining family. We can never know what terrors he encounted while serving God, King and Country on the Western Front during the Great War, but he returned to Australia, and resumed his life as a working man, quietly earning his living, looking after his wife, and remaining close to his extended family. The quality of our lives today is the result of the sense of duty felt by and acted upon by men like Johnny James.
© May 2000, Peter J Williams
BOX, Allan - A Soldier in the Family: A Source Book for
Australian Military Genealogy: The First Fleet to the Gulf War
(1994, Monash University, ISBN 0-646-14222-4).
WILLIAMS, Agnes Madaleine - "Reconstructing the Neighbourhood" (paper presented to Northumberland History Group, August 1998).
New South Wales Land Titles Office, Vol 2046 Fol 195.
Hunter District Water Board Charges and Rates, Newcastle Public Library, Local History Archives.