Corporal James Cunning



James Cunning was born on 29 September 1886 at Artikelly, Limavady, County Londonderry, the first of four children of labourer (later domestic gardener) William Cunning and his wife Rachel (nee Matthews). By the time of the 1911 Census he was living with his parents and two surviving siblings at Glenview Terrace, Whiteabbey, County Antrim, and working as a domestic gardener. Soon after this he moved to England, where he worked as a gardener in Addlestone, Surrey.

Cunning enlisted in the North Irish Horse on 15 March 1916 (No.2129). In November that year he was one of 100 North Irish Horsemen who volunteered to transfer to the Royal Irish Rifles (No.40864). The formal transfer took place on 7 December, the same day they embarked for France, where they joined the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, on the Somme front.

On 15 February 1917 Cunning was appointed unpaid lance corporal. A month later he fell ill with dysentery and was evacuated to England via No.25 Stationary Hospital at Rouen. There he was admitted to the 1st Southern General Hospital, Dudley Road Section, Birmingham, remaining there from 29 March to 18 May, before being moved to Ballykinlar Command Depot Hospital.

Cunning was released from hospital on 12 July and seventeen days later re-embarked for France, where he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, assigned to C Company. He was promoted to corporal on 6 December 1917.

On 21 March 1918 the 2nd Battalion was on the front near St Quentin, with the 36th (Ulster) Division, when the Germans began their spring offensive on that front. Not being in the front line at the beginning, they survived the first two days relatively intact. On 23 March the battalion took up defensive positions north-east of the village of Cugny, where they received orders to hold on at all costs. The battalion diary for the following day reports:

6 am touch was established with troops who had during the night moved forward. Enemy M.G. fire was very heavy during the morning, but no infantry advanced to the attack on the Battalion front, although on the right and left he succeeded in driving back our troops. Our flanks were slightly withdrawn to form defensive flanks.

2 p.m. The enemy advanced preceeded [sic] by a very heavy artillery bombardment in overwhelming strength, on our front and both flanks, and although the Battalion put up a most stubborn resistence, all with the exception of about 10 wounded O.R. and 10 unwounded were killed or taken prisoner.

Cunning was one of the many taken prisoner that day. He spent the remainder of the war at prisoner of war camps at Giessen (Hesse), Altdamm (Pomerania) and Stargard (Pomerania). He was repatriated in the months following the Armistice.

On 31 March 1919 Cunning was demobilised and transferred to Class Z, Army Reserve. He was awarded a pension, having been assessed as 20 per cent disabled due to 'disorderly action of the heart' and the ongoing impact of the dystentery he had contracted in 1917.

After his discharge Cunning returned to England, where he worked as a gardener. In early 1920 he married Ethel Eleanor Hooks in Windsor, Berkshire.

By the time of the 1939 register he was living with his wife and two children at Glebe Cottages, Kingstown Lane, Uxbridge and working as a horticultural foreman. He died at Hillingdon Hospital on 2 July 1948.


Among Cunning's wartime memorabilia is the following handwritten note, dated 7 February 1919:

The ten Demandments

1.   The Colonel is Thy only “boss”; Thou shalt have no other Colonels but him,
2.   Thou shalt not make to Thyself many graven images of officers, who fly in the heavens above, who own the earth beneath, and of Submarine officers who are in the waters beneath the earth, Thou shalt stand up & salute them, for the C.O., thy “boss” will visit with field punishment unto first or second degree on those who salute not, & shower stripes on those that salute & obey his Commandments,
3.   Thou shalt not take the name of the adjutant in vain, for the C.O. will not hold him guiltless that taketh the Adjutant’s name in vain.
4.   Remember Thou shalt not rest on the Sabbath day. Six days shalt Thou labour, and the seventh day is the day of the C.R.E. – on it Thou shalt do all manner of work, Thou, (?) Thy officers & the non-commissioned officers, the sanitary men, & the Kitcheners Army that is then Thy trench for instruction.
5.   Honour the army staff, that Thy days may be long in The Corps Reserve where one day they may send you.
6.   Thou shalt kill only Huns, Slugs, Lice, Rats & other vermin which frequent dug-outs,
7.   Thou shalt not adulterate Thy sections Rum Ration,
8.   Thou shalt not steal, or at any rate not be found,
9.   Thou shalt not bear false witness in the Orderly Room,
10. Thou shalt not covet the A.S.C.s job. Thou shalt not covet the A.S.C.s day, nor his (?), nor his wage, nor his (?), nor his billets, nor his horse, nor his asses, nor any cushy thing that is his.


Private Cunning, North Irish Horse, in 1916


James Cunning (right) in 1916



Images 1, 2 and 3 kindly provided by Dick Cunning, grandson of James Cunning. Image 4 from the Belfast Evening Telegraph, 1918, kindly provided by Nigel Henderson, Researcher at History Hub Ulster (