b. 30/11/1888 Ladywood, Birmingham. d. 15/08/1958 London.
Walter Herbert James (1888-1958), the first member of the Worcestershire Regiment to receive a VC for actions in the Great War, was born on 13th November 1888 in Ladywood, Birmingham, the son of Mr and Mrs Walter James. His father ran a jewellery engraving business in Warstone Lane. Herbert as he preferred to be known, was educated at Smethwick Central School, and appeared destined for the teaching profession. After leaving school he worked as a teacher’s assistant and primary teacher at the Bearwood Road and Brasshouse Lane schools, but “being of a roving disposition” and wishing to travel abroad, he decided to join the Army. This was against the wishes of his father.
He enlisted on a short service enlistment as a trooper in the 21st Lancers on 13th April 1909. He joined the Regiment the following month and went with it to Egypt in 1910 for a two-year tour of duty followed by a spell in India.
James was promoted to Lance Corporal on the 14th July 1911, and despite being in the Army, he continued with his studies, and his talent for languages won him many prizes. He intended to make a career in the Civil Service after his Army days were completed, but, like with so many young men’s plans, it was overtaken by the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.
By the autumn of 1914 the War Office, faced with the task of recruiting a New Army, found it necessary to increase the number of commissions offered to Regular Army NCOs. James was a prime candidate and on 9th November 1914, after having spent five years in the ranks, Lance Corporal James became 2nd Lieutenant James of the 4th Worcestershire Regiment. He returned to England to join his unit largely consisting of men from his home city of Birmingham, and embarked with the Battalion on 22nd March 1915 for the Dardanelles.
The main body of the 4th Worcesters landed at W Beach on 25th April and the unit played a key role in effecting the link-up with the troops on V Beach the following day. It was during this fierce fighting that he was severely wounded in the head. He was evacuated to Malta for treatment. After a short period of recuperation, he returned to his unit on the Gallipoli peninsula.
On 28th June 1915 in the southern zone of Gallipoli, when the advance of part of the regiment had been checked, Second-Lieutenant James, from a neighbouring unit, gathered together a body of men and led them forward under heavy fire. He then returned, organised a second party and again advanced, putting fresh life into the attack. On 3rd July he headed a party of bomb throwers up a Turkish communication trench and when all his party had been killed or wounded, he remained alone, under murderous fire and kept back the enemy until a barrier had been built behind him and the trench secured.
James was wounded again, and forced to be evacuated from the peninsula for a second time, in September 1915. He was then transferred to the 1st Worcestershire Regiment where he was given command of B Company. He went to France in March 1916 and served with the battalion on the Somme in July 1916. During the fighting around the village of Contalmaison, Lieutenant James was wounded again. His injuries led him to be evacuated to a hospital on the Isle of Wight and were of such severity that a metal plate had to be inserted in his head. He was then moved to the mainland to continue his recovery, and two months later, on 5th September 1916, he married Gladys Beatrice Lillicrap at Stoke Damerel parish church, Devonport.
Little more is known of his war service. He finally returned to duty on 18th August 1917 as a general staff officer, grade three, with the rank of emergency Captain. On 1st April 1918 he was promoted to the rank of Brigade-Major. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre on 1st May 1917 and the Military Cross on 15th October 1918 for an action some months earlier, when he rode forward under heavy fire to collect valuable information. He then reorganised the line and led forward parties of men and formed a defensive flank where a gap had occurred, exposing himself for many hours to heavy fire.
He also received two mentioned in despatches, gazetted on 20th May and 20th December 1918, and the honorary award of the Panamanian Medal de la Solidaridad, which was only approved on 17th February 1920. Captain James VC, MC remained in the Army after the war, his Civil Service ambitions apparently forgotten. On 21st December 1920 he transferred to the East Lancashire Regiment with the rank of Captain and Brevet Major. He served in the West Indies before entering the Staff College. He then took up a post as a staff captain at the War Office. He had a stint as Brigade Major in the Aldershot Command from October 1927 to November 1928 and it was during this spell that he transferred to the York and Lancaster Regiment with the rank of Major.
At this time, he separated from his first wife, and married Jessy Amy England in London on 26th November 1929. The following March, the London Gazette announced that Major James was retiring from the Army due to ill health. This is thought to have been connected to problems with the head wound he had suffered years before on the Somme.
Not much is known of what happened to Major James after his Army service. By the 1950s, he had separated from his second wife and was living in a rented bedsit in Brunswick Gardens, Kensington. He lived there for the last 15 months of his life as a virtual recluse sadly, buying and selling paintings. In August 1958 he suffered a heart attack and, according to newspapers at the time, was found five days later by his landlord lying on the floor. He was taken to hospital, but sadly passed away on 15th August. In a very sad story, the landlord’s sister said “My brother picked up a book in the room. It was a complete list of VCs and it fell open at a page marked in pencil. The line was against Major James’ name, and that was the first we knew of his award.”
James was cremated and his ashes were interred at Kensal Green Cemetery in the Garden of Remembrance. His medals were held in family ownership before in 2008 they came up for auction. The medals sold for £211,725, at that time the second highest figure ever paid for a Victoria Cross group. They are now displayed in the Maryborough Military Museum, Queensland, Australia.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MARYBOROUGH MUSEUM, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA.
BURIAL PLACE: KENSAL GREEN CEMETERY, LONDON. ASHES INTERRED AFTER CREMATION
Herbert James' medal group courtesy of John Meyers of the Maryborough Museum, Queensland, Australia.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
Hall of Memory, Birmingham (Feb 2016)
War Illustrated, 9th October 1915
Bearwood Primary School, Smethwick (Paul Lee)