James Webster – another underage soldier

James William Webster, Private 15/1645, 1st Leeds Pals

James William Webster was born in Leeds on 7th July 1898, possibly the only son of James William Webster, who had married Esther Knowles in Leeds in 1892.  He had several sisters, Emily, Elsie, Hilda, who died, and Esther, plus another sibling who also died, and James was third in the family.  James senior was a brewer’s labourer, while Esther had worked in the tailoring trade.  On both the 1901 and 1911 Censuses they are shown as living at 13 Beaumont Street, Green Road, Leeds, which was in Meanwood.  James does not have an occupation on either census, but presumably in 1911 he was at school.

In 1914, when the war started, James had just turned 16, but that did not stop him from volunteering for the Pals.  On 15th June the following year, a few weeks short of his 17th birthday, he was attested, giving his age as 19.  A week later, at Colsterdale, he was officially enlisted, this time giving his age as 18 years 11 months, a discrepancy apparently not picked up at the time, or just ignored.  By this stage of the war recruitment was slowing, and the battalion was keen to get recruits.  James was 5 foot 5 inches, quite tall for his age.  He gave his occupation as ‘tailor’, a trade from his mother’s side of the family, and his address as 35 Nippet Place, Burn Street, Leeds, in Burmantofts.

After initial training with the 19th Battalion, a reserve unit, James was posted to the 15th Battalion, and in June of 1916 he joined them in France, just in time for the Battle of the Somme, though whether he actually took part in the first day is not known.  But on 26th September he was in a front-line trench in the Givinchy Sector when a shell exploded close by, causing a number of casualties.  James was not physically injured, but suffered from shell-shock and the mental effects of what he had witnessed.

His father was now starting to worry about him, and on 5th November 1916 he wrote to the War Office pointing out that his son was in fact under-age, and asking for him to be sent back to England and kept there until he was 19, the official minimum age for being sent overseas.  The result of this was that on 17th November James was on a train for England, with a travel warrant directing him to York.  At York Station, however, he felt so unwell that he reported to a military policeman, who sent him to Fulford Military Hospital.  From there he was sent to the Abram Peel Military Hospital in Bradford, which specialised in treating nervous conditions, and he was diagnosed as having Neurasthenia, or shell-shock.

After almost a year of treatment he was discharged from the army as being ‘no longer physically fit for war service’, and awarded a pension.  He received the King’s Certificate, the Silver War Badge, ‘for services rendered’, and subsequently the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.  It is difficult to know to what extent, if at all, he recovered from his traumatic experiences.  He married Gladys Emma Popham in 1920, but by 1939 was divorced, and living and working in Bradford as a woolcomber.  He may have died in Bradford in 1965.


Ancestry: Army Service Records, Medal Index Card

Find My Past: Census details

Free BMD: Birth, marriage and death details

Researcher: Peter Taylor

Please Note:

  • All opinions and inferences are the researcher’s own.
  • Please refer to our Glossary of Terms for further information on the terms and phrases used in this post.

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