Death of a Forward

The Tragic First World War tale of Sunderland Rugby Football Club’s James Harry Edwards (1894 -1917) puts the First World War into sharp focus

james-harry-edwards

James Harry Edwards (arms folded white vest)

One hundred years ago on 7 January 1917 James Harry Edwards was shot by a sniper on the Western Front.  He was 22 years old and had played in the forwards for Sunderland RFC as a teenager in the season before the war. His story is a tragic one and, as former England rugby player Lewis Moody notes on more than one occasion in a series of recent First World War rugby related films, stories like this truly bring home the tragedy of war.

There is little doubt that James (if this was how he was known to his family) was a first team player. His picture appears as a member of the 1913/14 1st XV and there are numerous references to him in team lists published in the Newcastle Journal and Sunderland Echo. In January 1915 while in training for the forces his name was posted in the Bucks Herald as part of an army side (his name published with Sunderland RFC beside it). Although he played for Sunderland James Harry Edwards was more of a ‘general north easterner’. He was born in the Heaton Suburb of Newcastle in July 1894 (and would thus have been only 18 or 19 when he first appeared for the 1st XV). His father was a ship repairer and employer and the family later moved to the Harton area of South Shields. He attended the South Shields Grammar Technical High School until he was in his mid-teens when he went to finish off his education at Uppingham School in Rutland. His name appears there in the 1911 census – a boarder age 16. His father was Managing Director of the Middle Dock in South Shields and after leaving school James started an engineering apprenticeship in Southwick, Sunderland. His days at a rugby playing public school plus his work placement in Sunderland might have been reasons for his attachment to rugby and the Sunderland club.

According to the Army lists James joined the 14th (Service) Battalion of the DLI as a temporary 2nd lieutenant on 22 September 1914 – weeks out of his teenage years. The battalion trained for months in the south (including Buckinghamshire which explains the Bucks Herald reference) and in June 1915 he was made a temporary full lieutenant. The men embarked for France on 11 September 1915 and within two weeks disaster struck the entire battalion at Loos. James officer’s record takes up the young man’s individual tale.  According to his record on 25 September ‘he was buried in a trench near Hill 70’ and ‘ was unconscious for 24 hours’. The trench had taken a direct hit from a shell. On the next day he was said to be suffering from ‘shock’ and within a few days was in hospital. The Medical Board decided that he was ‘unfit for service’ and he was given eight weeks leave.

He returned to the north east and his home – which had moved to Gosforth – which is now a suburb of Newcastle.  After the eight weeks he was examined for a move to ‘general service and home light duties’ but was still considered unfit for duty. He was required to report to medics again and again at weekly intervals and until May 1916 was still registered as unfit. His thick file of medical records – which can be viewed at The National Archives, Kew – makes for uncomfortable reading – ‘shock on active service’; ‘effects of shock concussion’; ‘ headaches and arms pains … pains in the nervous system’. One writer added a lengthier note – ‘he is suffering from nervous shock, insomnia, headaches, uncertain appetite and tremulous muscles’. Needless to say modern advances in the field of physical neuroscience would explain his state of health both mental and, more importantly perhaps physically. However it still comes as a surprise to discover that on 16 May 1916 an instruction came from high that the medical board should ‘please order him to join the EF (Expeditionary Force)’.

On 27 May 1915 he was appointed lieutenant in the 14th DLI. By August he was at Etaples although his record then notes that he was ‘in hospital’ again in October. On 1 December 1916 he was promoted to full lieutenant. Two days later he re-joined the battalion. Four days later he was shot by a sniper. The writer of the 14th DLI war diary (WO 95/1617-2) noted;

‘Cambrin sector – ‘ 20 officers – 735 other ranks – 7 Jan – a little shelling near Munster Parade, Old Boots Back Street – Enemy snipers active – Lieut J H Edwards and 1 OR (ordinary ranker) killed’.

James’s body was buried in Cambrin Churchyard – between the Somme and Ypres battlefields. At the time, his grave was said to have had ‘a durable cross’.  A telegram was sent to 22, Windsor Terrace, Newcastle and returned ‘house empty’. A few weeks later his father received an official letter at his Gosforth address. In July 1917 his father was sent his pay and his effects. Transcribed here from his war record, they present as a pitiful list;

  • 1 pocket book
  • 1 pipe
  • 1 fountain pen
  • 1 wristwatch and guard
  • 1 extra guard for wristwatch
  • 1 officer’s advance book
  • Letters etc
  • 1 cheque book
  • 4 tubes for pipe
  • 3 pencils
  • 1 iodine ampule

Until the closure of the DLI Museum his medals were located in Medal Case 34, Display Group 4 and some of his career details feature on his old South Shields’ school web site. His name appears on a number of north east war memorials especially one in St Nicholas Church, Gosforth put up by his parents in memory of their son and other local men killed in the conflict.

Over the last years I have studied the First World War careers of over 250 men who played sport – rugby, cricket, tennis and hockey – at what is known today as Ashbrooke Sports Club in Sunderland.  Over sixty of them failed to return home – possibly as high as one in four. The unfortunate James Harry Edwards was one of them – killed in action – not in a major battle like the Somme, Arras or Ypres but randomly picked off by an enemy sniper. Should he have been there at all? I will leave readers to judge for themselves – with our without the hindsight of advances in modern medicine –  but urge them, on this centenary, to give a few moment thought to James and thousands of others who died – not in the heat of battle – but sad and often lonely deaths during that most bitter of conflicts.


About the Author- Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including ‘One Among Many’, ‘Sporting Ancestors’ and ‘Australia in Sunderland’. Details of his work can be found at keithgregson.com and his books can be purchased from Amazon.


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