James and his brother George were born in Stockport and the family home was at 144 Newbridge Lane. Their parents' names are not known and, in the reporting his death in 1917, the local newspaper only mentions Mrs McDermott, suggesting that their father had died by then.
James worked for the local firm of bakers, Birkett & Bostock until he enlisted into the army in 1914. The company had shops on Swallow Street and Great Underbank. James joined the Royal Garrison Artillery but never served abroad with the gunners. No doubt, he was transferred to the Fusiliers when he had completed his training.
The 1st Battalion was part of the regular army and it went into action in the initial landings at Gallipoli in April 1915. James had probably not joined by that time and it is more likely that he was posted to the Battalion as one of over 300 new troops who were sent in August and September to replace casualties. After the failure of the campaign, the Battalion was withdrawn and spent some time in Egypt before arriving in France in March 1916.
Shortly after this, the news that Mrs McDermott will have been dreading finally came. George had been killed, on 3 June 1916, whilst serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He is buried at Dranouter, near Ieper, only a few miles from his brother.
James will have seen action during the Battle of the Somme in the summer and autumn of 1916 and at the Battle of Arras in the following April. After a few days in reserve, the Battalion returned to the front line on 13 July 1917, relieving the 2nd Hampshires in the Zwaanhof sector just outside the town of Ypres (now Ieper).
Preparations were well under for an attack that would take place on 31 July and which would mark the start of the Third Battle of Ypres (often known as Passchendaele). The opposing sides were engaged in a heavy artillery "duel". British artillery was firing with the intent of destroying the enemy trenchworks. German artillery was retaliating trying to knock out the British gun emplacements. The Battalion's War Diary entry for the 14th notes that the British positions were shelled regularly through the day but there was British retaliation by firing poison gas at the Germans.
The following day, the Diary records that it was the British artillery that was now firing heavily but that some shells were falling short and the Fusiliers had no option but to "sit it out" for three hours and hope for the best. Captain Ridley, commanding "V" Company, was killed by the explosion of one of these "shorts".
Although James' date of death is recorded by the War Graves Commission as 17 July, this is not confirmed by the Diary, which makes no mention of casualties for that day. Indeed, it notes that the Battalion finished its tour of duty in the front line and was relieved to the support lines. Whilst it is possible that James' death may not have been recorded in the Diary, it seems much more likely that he is one of the two men recorded as being killed on the previous day. The Diary notes that Battalion HQ was heavily shelled and, apart from the two deaths, another seven men were wounded.