Photograph of James in Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Reference: MR4/17/282
(L to R) Military Medal; British War Medal; Allied Victory Medal
James was born on the 24th February 1895 at 27 Young Street in Manchester. His father was called Patrick and his mother was Amelia. He had an older brother called Patrick and 3 younger siblings, Margaret, Andrew and Christianna. The family had lost 4 other children by 1911. They were Roman Catholics.
Patrick was a comedian and dancer who worked on stage in music halls. In 1901 his family lived at 2 Grapes Street, off Deansgate in Manchester. Amelia was also a performer in this year, but by 1911 she appears to have left the stage. In 1911 the family lived at 17 Newcastle Street in Hulme, Manchester. James had left school at the age of 14 and now worked as a cart boy for the London and North Western Railway Company.
James had a number of labouring jobs between 1911 and 1914. When the First World War broke out in August 1914 he was working as a packer in a warehouse and lived with his parents at 34 Newcastle Street. He left his home and job on the 28th November to join the Army.
James enlisted in the 8th City Battalion. This was a 'Pals' unit that was being formed by the men of Manchester so that they could serve together. It became the 23rd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, and James was assigned to X Platoon in C Company. His service number was 22144.
The 23rd Battalion was originally formed as a 'Bantam' unit, made up of men who were below the Army's minimum height requirement of 5 feet 3 inches. They had to be at least 5 feet tall, with a minimum chest measurement of 34 inches, rather than 33 for the rest of the Army. The intention was to recruit men who were short, but used to hard physical work. We don't know James' exact height.
James and the 23rd Battalion trained at Morecambe in Lancashire until June 1915, and then moved to Masham in Yorkshire. They moved to Salisbury Plain during August before sailing to France in January 1916. James seems to have taken to military life. He was promoted to Lance Corporal on the 7th January 1915 and to Corporal that November.
The 23rd Battalion first saw combat near Bethune in March 1916, then fought again near Neuve Chapelle in April and May. At some point James joined the Signal Section, who were responsible for keeping different units of the battalion in contact with each other, as well as ensuring the battalion stayed in touch with other units.
On the 8th May James carried out an act of great bravery. 'During an intense bombardment...the telephone wires were cut by shell fire. Corporal O'Connor took charge of a party of linesmen, and, at great personal risk, restored all communications at the end of an hour'. For this he was awarded the Military Medal in the London Gazette of the 10th August 1916. By the time this was published James had been promoted to Sergeant.
The 23rd Battalion served in the Somme Offensive between July and November 1916, seeing combat at Guillemont, Trones Wood and Morlancourt. They also fought around Arras during October.
During 1917 they served in Ribecourt and Ponttruet before moving to Belgium and taking part in the Passchendaele Offensive that October. The 23rd Battalion was disbanded in February 1918 due to a reorganisation of the Army that aimed to have more soldiers in fewer battalions, rather than fewer soldiers in more battalions. We believe James was initially assigned to the 12th Entrenching Battalion, but did not stay with them for long.
On the 23rd April James transferred to the Royal Engineers, joining the 18th Divisional Signal Company. This unit was responsible for communications between higher headquarters and the units of the 18th (Eastern) Division. James was reduced to the rank of Corporal by the Engineers, and given a new service number: 360685.
The 18th Division took part in efforts to stop the German Spring Offensive, which had begun on the 21st March, and then joined the Allied advance that began in August and led to the end of the war on the 11th November 1918.
James was demobilised on the 9th July 1919 and returned to his parents, who now lived at 105 Broadfield Road in Moss Side, Manchester.
At some point during 1919 James met and married a French woman, Prudence Laure Griselle. They had 2 children, who were both born in Warloy-Baillon in the Somme region. Prudence Laure Amelia was born on the 10th April 1920, and Bernard Roland James was born on the 10th July 1926.
On the 11 May 1920 James began to work for the Imperial War Graves Commission as a caretaker and gardener at the Australian war cemetery in Warloy-Baillon. This is now Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension.
James was promoted to Head Gardener, Grade C, on the 20th February 1931. Just over a year later, on the 2nd April 1932, he resigned and returned to the UK. This was so that his children could be educated in Britain.
On the 17th June 1935 James rejoined the Imperial War Graves Commission and returned to France. He was assigned to Cormicy in the Marne area of France. On the 3rd July James was put in charge of a group of cemeteries, and maintained them all without help from any colleagues. His family stayed in the UK, and he lived at the Cafe Rouge in Cormicy.
By the spring of 1936 Prudence was in poor health. This meant James had to resign on the 7th May and return to the UK. He was regarded as 'an experienced gardener, a useful propagator and a good planter who has always carried out his duties in an entirely satisfactory manner'. He was a man of 'excellent character'.
We believe James lived at 4 Gerrard Avenue in Timperley, Cheshire, for a time. He fell ill with pneumonia during 1937.
After he recovered James took a job with Manchester Corporation's Parks Department. He began as a labourer and later became a gardener.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 local government employees were allocated 'war' jobs. The Parks Department was assigned to collect the bodies of people killed during air raids and transport them to local mortuaries.
Although James must have experienced horrific situations during the First World War, he still found seeing and handling the broken bodies of women and children to be too much. He left the Parks Department and found work at Gallagher Limited, a cigarette manufacturers based on Derby Street in Manchester. He worked here until 1960, when he retired.
In retirement James put his gardening skills to use at his homes in Fallowfield, and later in Timperley. Bernard remembered it as small, but 'a delight and made such a contrast with the cobble and paving' of the area.
On the 18th September 1964 James attended the dinner at Manchester Town Hall held to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the formation of the Manchester City Battalions.
Prudence died on the 29th April 1965. She was 67 years old. James was 71 when he died on the 26th October 1966. Bernard died in 2006 and Prudence junior in 2011.
His medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in December 1997.