James was a member of the Darwen Corps of the St. John Ambulance Brigade who offered their services for the front. He enlisted on 8th August 1914, then proceeded to Aldershot. He was 26 years and 11 months old; a Colliery Deputy by trade; and was living at 45 Blacksnape Road, Darwen at the time. He entered the war in France on 21st August 1914 with the 19th Field Ambulance. He was taken prisoner at Landrecies on 26th August 1914, during the retreat from Mons. An article in the Blackburn Weekly Telegraph, titled “Prison Life in Germany - Darwen Soldier on his Experiences’, on Saturday, 10th July 1915, reports James’s experience as a POW. “I would rather be shot dead than go through again all we had to put up with while we were in the hands of the Germans,” Private Walsh, whose home is in Mount Pleasant Street, Darwen, told a representative of the “Telegraph “last weekend.
During the past ten months, he has been a prisoner of war in the hands of the Germans interned at Sennelager Camp, and a few days previously was liberated by arrangement between the two Governments. The story of Private Walsh was confirmed by Private Kirkham, also of the RAMC, these two also with Private Scarisbrick, a Darwen lad, and Private Longworth, of the Mill Hill district, Blackburn, having been fellow prisoners. “The German guards who treated us most kindly were those who had been to the front and fought in the war. If they spoke English they would say a few words, but all the time they were searching round with their eyes to see that their superior officers had not detected them. If we asked for a cigarette, they might drop one and walk away. They had been to the front, and they knew what it meant. The other were brutes.
It was early one morning in August last that we were taken prisoners. Our troops had retreated from Mons to ---- . A battle started about dusk and continued through the night. When the Germans came upon some of our men were engaged picking up the dead and brining in the wounded. I was in a room in a building. An operation had just been performed on a poor fellow, and I had the severed leg in my hand when the Germans came in and pointed their revolvers at our heads. Our men pointed to their Red Cross badges, but these Germans ignored. They told us that if any arms were found about the place we should all be put to deaths. The hospital was searched through and we were all lined up, and an offer said, “You are prisoners, and we are going to shoot.” His guard was lined up with loaded rifles ready to send us to the next world when another officer came on the scene. He spoke English and said, “These are not soldiers, they are gentlemen; we only shoot soldier.” The only arms the Germans got were those they took from the wounded men we had brought in.
Some of the men treated us fairly but other sneered at us. We spent a terrible night in a cavalry barracks. The stench was fearful, and we had nothing to eat. We were up at five the next morning, but still were kept without food. The Germans took us to a station and put us in a shed, where food was brought us by Belgians. They would not give the Germans anything, so the Germans stopped them from supply us. In the goods shed we were like a herd of pigs, and anything of value and our badges were taken from us as souvenirs for the German soldiers. A poor wounded Englishman who needed covering was stripped of his coat so that it could be placed over a dead German. On the station platform, we were banged about and kicked like dogs. One man who was found to have a jack knife was taken into a guardroom, and we never knew what happened to him. We never saw him again. From ----- we travelled in trucks like cattle, with armed guards. The train stopped at every station, and the people jeered and booed us. The guards told them we had used jack knifes to cut off the breasts of nurses and gouge out their eyes, and these lies drove the people wild with hatred of us. Bottles and all sorts of things were thrown at us, and when we asked for a drink of water it was pitched over us from a bucket.
When we arrived at Sennelager we were given black bread – horrible stuff, which I could not eat, though I was very hungry. For two days, our conditions were very fair, and then we were moved to another camp, where 2,000 of us had to sleep out in the open in the rain for days like a flock of sheep. They gave us burnt barley and called it coffee, horse beans, sour cabbages, stuff like grass, and animal food. We sometimes got two inches of sausage and a pickled herring, which we had to eat raw. We lay on straw, and the blankets we had were simply ‘alive.’ The number of prisoners increased, and eventually there were some ten thousand there. But there were only two taps for the lot, and from these we had to get the water for drinking, and for washing ourselves and our clothes.
The Germans made us carry timber for hut-building miles to a place we called ‘Siberia,’ and sometimes gave us swede turnips for dinner. We grew beards until we were allowed to be shaved, and our clothing was shocking until parcels came from England. After the American deputation had visited us and we had told our stories we had more cleanliness, but there was no improvement in food, and we had to rely on the parcels from England. The people in England are keeping the prisoners in Germany, and if the parcels stop going out the men will die of like flies. The Germans would not let us use English postcards or notepaper. We had to use only German stuff, and if we had no money to buy it we could not write home, and we got no parcels. They told us stories of the way the war was going in their favour; that Paris and other places were occupied and London was in flames. The ‘Continental Times,’ a paper printed in English and given to us we called the ‘Continental Liar.’ One of its paragraphs is, ‘As there are no more British war-ships to be torpedoed, Capt Horsing, commander of the U51, has gone to Constantinople to take a much-needed rest.’ The Germans would post messages in the camp giving the losses of the Allies. One of our men took the figure down and they made it appear that we had lost 22 million. We used to laugh at their telegrams and their messages, and the Germans could not understand us at all. They were always proclaiming big victories, and the drums would play and the people go about singing. These claims were always made just before fresh troops were sent to the front, and they were put forward to cheer the soldiers up. It was a case of whistling to keep up their spirits. In the camps, we took the proclamations to be a sure sign that the Germans had suffered a reverse.” James was repatriated on 29th June 1915. He remained in the UK until 21st July, when he embarked to travel to Mudros - disembarking there on 4th August 1915. He was sent to Base Details. On 9th November 1915, he proceeded to the 10th Division at Salonika and was posted to serve with the 32nd Field Ambulance. He remained with them until 26th February 1918, when he was admitted into hospital due to sickness. He rejoined Base Depot at Kantara on 25th August 1918 but was admitted back into hospital on the 29th. On 8th October 1918 he was posted to serve with No 71 General Hospital. He proceeded to Alexandria with his unit on 26th November 1918, then embarked at Alexandria on the New Zealand Hospital Ship “Marama” and headed back to the UK. He served in the UK from 28th December 1918 to 5th February 1919, having been reverted to Class Z on 4th February 1919. James was the husband of Fanny Walsh [Nee Arkwright]. [Photograph courtesy of Tony Foster, and special thanks to Tony for sharing his information and research on the Darwen lads. Other information taken from James’s service record]