James was born in Stockport and lived all of his life in the town. Both of his parents died before him - his mother only on 17 April 1915. His nearest relative was his grandfather, William Sheehan, 57 Lancashire Hill. James worked at the bleachworks of Halliday & Co, Sandy Lane, until he enlisted into the army in September 1914.
After training, James was assigned to the 2nd Cheshires. This was a regular army battalion, but casualties were now being replaced by new volunteers who had signed up only for the duration of the War. On 26 April, James and his comrades started a tour of duty in the front line trenches at Zonnebeke, about 9 kilometres north east of the town centre of Ypres (now Ieper).
The Second Battle of Ypres had opened on 22 April with the Germans making use of poison gas for the first time. The main thrust of the German attack was a few kilometres to the west of James' position but by the 28th the advance had been checked. The Battalion's War Diary makes no detailed notes of the activities of this tour of duty only noting that 16 men were killed, 79 wounded and 23 missing. Most will have been killed or injured by shellfire but the Stockport Express, in its edition of 24 June, noted that James "was very tall and, doubtless, offered a good target for the sniper".
James will have been buried just behind the front line. During the course of the war, many of these small burial areas were destroyed by shellfire, or their exact positions lost. This explains why, today, James has no known grave and is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing.