Private James Elliott


James Elliott was born on 30 June 1891 at Garryharry (Garrowcarry), Letterkenny, County Donegal, son of farmer John Elliott and his wife Martha (nee Harris). By the time of the 1911 Census he was living at Garrowcarry with his aunt and uncle and working as a general labourer.

Elliott enlisted in the North Irish Horse on 9 December 1912 (No.761). He embarked for France with C Squadron on 20 August 1914, seeing action on the retreat from Mons and advance to the Aisne.

He later recounted his experiences, as told in Niall McGinley's Donegal, Ireland and the First World War:

Just after leaving his home that morning [following mobilisation] James met a neighbour woman: "Good luck in the war, James. I hope you don't get wounded." "As long as I don't lose an arm or a leg I don't mind", said he.

The grisly scemes of war which he sometimes talked about seemed unreal in the quiet countryside where he lived. Food, of course, was scarce, but often a German dug-out had ample supplies. As they entered such a place once a massive German confronted them; luckily their leader was a giant from Omagh who bayoneted him and pitch-forked him and his rifle over the parapet. They spied a blue-moulded loaf in a corner and cutting away the blue-mould they devoured it.

The rows of dead in places looked as if they had been left behind by a reaper and binder. Night was the usual time for burying them; some who had been jammed in trenches or craters were levered out with crowbars or the like, but if this proved impossible the corpse might be cut off at the legs and the trunk then interred in, say, a shell-crater.

His fondness for pranks probably preserved his sanity. If put in charge of horses at night, as punishment, he'd make a few jumps with bales of hay and pass the night riding a horse over these, keeping himself warm into the bargain. Tobacco was scarce and always in demand; he himself did not smoke. At one time a few of them collected dry dung of animals and put a layer of it in an old tobacco box; on the top they spread a thin layer of real tobacco and then sold the box to the French – whom they generally disliked.

One English soldier who was fussy and crabbed was very particular about setting up his canvas tent at night; he used to pack dried clay around his tent to keep the sides on the ground. One night James and Co. jumped on his tent, filling it with dust and particles of clay. The man reached for his rifle and ran about in a terrible fury looking for the culprit.

A group of them went into a restaurant where one bright boy ordered very expensive meals for them all. The others knew he could not afford to pay the bill and were curious to find out the outcome; beside his table was a large low-silled window: here the big spender made his exit when he had eaten, followed by others. An innocent military policeman was cornered by the proprietor for the bill.

In June 1916, C Squadron joined with F Squadron and the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons Service Squadron to form the 2nd North Irish Horse Regiment, serving as corps cavalry to X Corps until September 1917, when the regiment was disbanded and most of its men were transferred to the 9th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers – renamed the 9th (North Irish Horse) Battalion. Elliott, like most, was transferred on 20 September. He was issued a new regimental number – 41294 – and was posted to C Company. He probably saw action with the battalion at the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917.

Elliott was wounded during the retreat from St Quentin during the German spring offensive between 21 to 28 March 1918:

James was number two man feeding ammunition into a Lewis machine-gun when they were ordered to retreat. The bullets were in canisters one pair of which James had thrown across a shoulder; while bending to pick up the other pair a bullet entered his back below his ribs and cut through his lung, stopping beside his heart. ... His comrade, Chuckie Clements of Limavady, hoisted James on his back carrying him a mile and a half to the field ambulance. He was in many hospitals; a French wardsman told him after his major operation that he had been told to prepare the morgue to receive James – his heart had stopped three times!

On 30 January 1919 Elliott was discharged as no longer physically fit for war service due to his wounds (paragraph 392 xvi, King's Regulations). He was granted a pension, and as late as 1923 his level of disability was assessed at 50 per cent.

With some silver ribs and one lung he did survive – and worked hard in field and bog for over sixty years. The matron in his last hospital was a very stern personage but she had to smile at James's reply to her: "You must never eat meat on any account", she warned. "Ah matron", said James, "there'll be little danger of that in the place I'm going to!!"

Elliott died on 13 December 1982.