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James Lawrence Urquhart Biography

A Biography by Ruairidh Greig his Great-Nephew

James Lawrence Urquhart

A Biography by Ruairidh Greig

 

            In each generation of a family, there are successes and there are failures, heroes and villains, as well as the miscellaneous majority. Our family is no exception; one notable and unquestionable star of his generation was James Lawrence Urquhart. His many fine qualities and attributes have perhaps been especially appreciated by his siblings and their descendants because of his untimely death at the age of 26, in the First World War.

            James Lawrence Urquhart was born on the 18th of September 1889, the eighth child and second son of David and Helen Urquhart. The family were at that time living at 20 Fraser Street, New Clee[1], having moved south from Peterhead in Scotland in 1877. David, his Father, worked as a cooper and box-maker on the fish docks. The family subsequently established themselves at 240 Welholme Road, opposite Welholme Junior and Senior  Boys’ schools, which he attended until he transferred to the new Municipal College in Eleanor Street in August 1907.

            It is from the years he spent at the College, which later became Wintringham Grammar School that the first evidence of his special qualities emerges. In Athletics, he won the College Sports Championship Cup in July 1909, achieving first place in the 120 yard hurdles, the High Jump with a clearance of 4’8” and the Long Jump with a leap of 16’ 6”. He came second in three other events: Throwing the Cricket Ball, the Half Mile and the Shot-Put. He represented the College at Football, as well as Cricket. The College magazine, “The Grim”, for Summer Term 1909 contains two score sheets for matches in which he played. Against Hull Technical School, he opened the batting and scored 7 runs as well as taking a catch; against North Thoresby, he top-scored with 18. The magazine commented:

            “…we won a most exciting match, owing to the fine bowling of Chapman and the determined batting of Urquhart.” (Chapman took 7 wickets)[2]

 

            James was also a member of the Debating Society. His academic leanings were revealed when he seconded the Opposition to the motion that “an artistic and literary education is more advantageous than is a science course”. The Grim records:

            “Urquhart I.[3], seconding Dale, said that an Arts training had a demoralising effect and made one lazy, while Science gave one something to do, think about and watch”.[4]

            In June 1909, the Society debated the motion that: “…war between civilised nations is unjustifiable.” James, six years before he fell in battle, opposed the motion. The Grim reported:

            “Urquhart I., who opposed the motion, did not appear to possess the preceding speaker’s mild and pacific spirit. He demonstrated the impossibility of settling quarrels satisfactorily without war, by the ‘reductio ad absurdam’[5] method, and like a true orator, relied on his gestures as much as his words to convince his audience.”[6]

 

            Despite the support of Urquhart II, James was unsuccessful; the motion was carried by a majority of three.

            Out of school, James was a keen member of the Boys’ Brigade. My Grandfather, David E. Miller was a member of the same group and, in his memoirs, remembered him at a camp at Sutton on Sea in 1905:

            “Jimmy Urquhart was another rare handful of a lad. At 15 he was as strong as a young bull and brave as a lion. He was often on night raids and always worked alone. As he was a Sergeant I suppose he enjoyed doing things alone. His neatest trick at this camp in the early hours was crowning the four officers bell tents each with a washing up wooden bucket.”[7]

           

James%20Lawrence%20Urquhart            Although his sporting achievements at the Municipal College were impressive, it is for his academic successes that he should be remembered. In September 1909 he was awarded the King Edward VII University Scholarship of £70 per year, tenable for three years at an approved University. On the 10th October 1910, James was admitted to Emmanuel College Cambridge, the first member of the family to go to University.

            During his time at Cambridge, James continued to build on his earlier sporting achievements. In his Freshman Week he played left-wing for the Whites, J.L.Crommelin Brown’s XI against the Colours, H.G.Bache’s XI.[8] Most of the other players were from well-known public schools, such as Harrow, Winchester, Charterhouse and Repton. James’ sporting skills must have been very notable to impress fellow students such as these. He played in the College football team throughout his Cambridge years. The College magazine for the Michaelmas 1910 and Lent 1911 terms describes him as:

            “A robust player, who is generally in the goal mouth when wanted. Shoots well, from hampered positions especially.” [9]

 

            The same magazine also recorded his win in the 200 yards race in an athletics match against Queen’s College.[10]

            During vacations, James continued to play football in Grimsby as the following press cutting reported:

            “J.L. Urquhart of Emmanuel College, Cambridge has signed an amateur form for the Town, and he will assist the reserves occasionally. Urquhart is a clever forward, and possesses the knack of scoring goals. Last season he scored 43 goals for his College.”[11]

 

             He also played centre for Grimsby Rovers in a key end of season decider against Cleethorpes.[12]

            The Emmanuel College database also records that rowing became another of his sporting activities. He rowed in the 4th Lent Boat in 1912.[13] This would have been in the “Lent Bumps”, a four day inter-college competition for teams of eight, the object of which was to catch and “bump” the boat in front.

            At the end of his three years at Cambridge, James took his Bachelor of Arts in June 1913. He was placed in the second class of the Natural Sciences Tripos. He then became an Assistant Master at Northampton Grammar School.[14]

            At the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, part of General Kitchener’s New Army. In November 1914, the battalion was moved to Southwick on the South Downs and then to Woking in June 1915.[15] James was gazetted as a Lieutenant and trained as a machine gun officer. During his training at Hythe he won a double distinction in the musketry course and in the machine gun course.[16] Sport was an important morale-boosting part of military life. James played football for “Whitsed’s Own” (nickname of the 7th Battalion, referring to the Mayor of Peterborough who headed the recruitment drive) against Peterborough City Reserves and at Rugby Union for the Barbarians against Shoreham Camp:

            “…at full back Urquhart, a Cambridge recruit, found touch with an accuracy and length that brought much relief to his forwards in the closing stages of the game.”[17]

 

            The battalion landed at Boulogne on the 2nd September 1915. Part of IX Corps, they were deployed behind the front line near the town of Bethune. On the 25th September, the battalion was chosen to support General Haig’s attack on the German lines near the village of Loos. The Battle of Loos has been the subject of much scholarly debate; the preliminary artillery barrage was critically short of ammunition, the chlorine gas released was ineffective because of wind conditions (a number of British soldiers were killed) and the New Army divisions, including the 7th Northamptonshire Regiment were completely inexperienced and ineptly managed. As Sir Basil Liddell Hart puts it:

            “Never, surely, were ‘novice’ divisions thrown into a vital stroke in a more difficult or absurd manner, and in an atmosphere of greater misconception of the situation in all quarters.”[18]

 

            In a personal letter to my Uncle, David Miller, A.B. Cox, a fellow-officer in the Regiment eloquently expressed his feelings about the battle, fifty years later:

            “It was indeed a gallant regiment; and to march it into that bloody slaughter completely green, never having heard a shot fired before was not only the most callous but one of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard of and I still feel hot under the collar about it fifty years later. It’s a wonder they didn’t all turn tail and run. But they didn’t.”[19]

 

            50,380 British soldiers were killed in the Battle of Loos.[20] James Urquhart was not immediately listed amongst the casualties. The family faced difficult times during which they kept alive hopes that he might have been captured and taken to a prisoner-of -war camp. Family letters tell of how enquiries were made to the German authorities as well as to the War Office and the American Vice Consul. The Buhl family, presumably Germans living in Grimsby, assisted with translations and the completion of the necessary forms. Then on the 2nd November 1915, a letter was received from the Red Cross which included telling evidence from fellow-soldiers that Lieutenant Urquhart had been killed. Sergeant Marriott in Number 11 General Hospital, Boulogne on October 21st stated:

            “I was with Mr Urquhart on Saturday night, Sept. 25th in the first line German trench. He was Machine Gun Officer and in the advance next day, all his men were knocked out and I last saw him carrying the machine gun. He was wounded but still went on. He worked tremendously hard. They all say he was killed. He can’t be a prisoner as we kept on advancing and there were no wounded left out in front of us. This advance was near the coal pits.”[21]

 

            Further evidence came from Pte Barber in the 22 Etaples Hospital on the 19th October:

            “I was told by Morris, one of Lt. Urquhart’s M.G. Section, that he saw him killed. He was working the M.G. himself and got hit in the chest. It was on the Sunday. He told me afterwards when we were back in the reserve trenches. Lt. Urquhart was a popular officer and proved himself on several occasions to have been a very brave man. This happened on the left of Loos.”[22]

 

            A letter written by his Mother, Helen Urquhart, to her daughter Annie, then at Killibegs in Ireland poignantly expresses her state of mind:

            “We had a family gathering yesterday of all our family in Gy. And Jack sorted out Jamies clothes and hung them in the attic because they are all damp. It has done nothing but rain here. All the world is dark and damp and miserable and if I had not Wynifred left to us I don’t know what I should do.”[23]

 

            Further confirmation came in February 1916, when a letter was received from the German Red Cross, saying that on the 29th September, a long letter had been found by a German Officer on the body of a dead Englishman in Trench 8 south of Auchy les-La Bassee. It was forwarded to the Prisoner of War Department in the hopes that it could be delivered to the intended recipient:

            “It is to be assumed that the letter originated from the English lieutenant T.L. Urquhart.”[24]

            Who the letter was intended for or what became of it is not known. Possibly it may still be found in the newly re-discovered Red Cross Archives in Geneva. No body was ever recovered. His name is included amongst 20,000 officers and men with no known grave, on the Allied Memorial at Dud Corner, Loos-en-Gohelle, north-west of Lens.

            James Urquhart was a special person; the impact of his life and the manner of his death has influenced the family for nearly a century. His father always proudly wore the Emmanuel blazer; his brother’s two sons both followed him to the college. My Mother, his niece, often referred to him as “James the Rose”[25], meaning that he was the flower of the family. She also told me that in her last years, his Mother, Helen Urquhart, who had “keened”[26] like a Highland woman for a week when she heard the news of his death, was convinced that his spirit had returned and was with her at 240 Welholme Rd.

            I think it appropriate that the last words should be from someone who knew him well in those last months in France, his fellow officer Anthony B. Cox:

            “Jimmy was a grand fellow; always cheerful and a most conscientious worker. Everybody liked him: there was no malice in him and his loss in our very first engagement was a sad blow. If he had survived I always thought he would have gone on to great things. He would have certainly ended the war with a chestful of gongs.”[27]

           

 

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[1] New Clee was later absorbed by Great Grimsby

[2] Op. Cit. p. 26

[3] James is referred to as Urquhart I., his younger brother, John (Jack), as Urquhart II.

[4] Ibid, p.22

[5] “Reduce to absurdity”

[6] Ibid, p. 23

[7] “Memories” by David Esplin Miller, unpublished, p.16

[8] Information from poster in possession of Mrs Wynifred Higginbottom, Wakefield

[9] Quoted in letter from Amanda Goode, Emmanuel College Archivist, whose much appreciated help providing the information is here acknowledged.

[10] Ibid

[11] Helen Urquhart’s Press Cuttings book, p.22

[12] Ibid, p.44

[13] College database entry supplied by Archivist

[14] Emmanuel College Magazine, War Edition, 1916, p.91

[15] Information from Long, Long Trail website:  http://www.1914-1918.net/northants.htm

[16] Newspaper cutting in DUE Miller’s possession

[17] Helen Urquhart’s Press Cuttings book, p.44

[18] History of the First World War, Sir B. Liddell Hart, London 1970, p.265

[19] Letter dated 16th Oct 1965, in DUE Miller’s possession

[20] Amongst the casualties was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John.

[21] Letter from British Red Cross and Order of St John, 2nd November 1915

[22] Ibid

 

[23] Letter from Helen Urquhart to Annie Miller 6 Dec 1915 in DUE Miller’s possession

[24] Translation of letter from Berlin 4th February 1916 in DUE Miller’s possession. The initial T is easily confused with actual J.

[25] She must have heard the expression from her Mother or grandmother- “James the Rose” is an ancient Scottish ballad which must have been known to the family.

[26]  A traditional form of wailing lamentation

[27] Letter from A.B. Cox to D.U.E. Miller, 16th October 1965, in his possession



Owner/SourceRuairidh Greig
Date28 Aug 2009
Linked toJames Lawrence URQUHART

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