James was born and brought up in Stockport, the son of Henry and Elizabeth. As a young man, James had joined the army, serving with the 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment. He served for 16 years and saw action in the Boer War at the battles of Petershill and Tugela Heights and took part in the relief of Ladysmith.
After the War, he was discharged from the army and he returned to Stockport where, in the summer of 1902, he married Mary Elizabeth Bowers. They lived at 3 Nicholson Street in the Lancashire Hill area of town and, over the years, became the parents of six children. James worked at Stockport gasworks until he rejoined the army on 30 August 1914. He left for France in January 1915 as one of the first draft of replacements for the regular army troops, of the 1st Battalion, who had been killed or wounded in the first few months of fighting.
On 3 March 1915, the Cheshires moved from reserve positions at Bailleul to billets near Ouderdom and, the next day, took over trenches near St Eloi, approximately 5 miles south of the Belgium town of Ypres (now Ieper). The Battalion's War Diary makes no mention of action on 5 March reporting only that they were "in the trenches". The letter his wife received suggests that James was shot by a sniper.
At first, Mary received no proper information about her husband, but did know that he had been shot. She was desperate for news. The Stockport Express then published an account from a Private Luxton, who was home after being wounded, who had helped a local soldier. She wrote to Luxton "I wondered if you could give me a description of the soldier you carried away. Two letters have been sent to Stockport that my husband, 10898 Private J Sleigh, was shot on March 9th (sic), either going to or from the trenches. He was in B Company, 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment. He was a fresh-looking man with very grey hair. It is a fortnight since the letters came to Stockport and I have had no news from the War Office. The suspense is almost killing me and I would be so thankful if you could write me by return of post and tell me what the man was like. I keep wondering if, by chance, he was only unconscious and they had taken him to hospital."
Luxton replied with a description that confirmed that the man he had helped could not have been James. Mary's fears were realised when she received a letter from Captain A E Harry, commanding "B" Company. He was sorry to have taken so long to write but had been unable to find her address. He confirmed that James had been killed on the 5th and had been buried with "due military honours". Captain Harry may have been trying to ease Mary's grief in suggesting James had a proper burial as, today, he has no known grave. If he was buried, then it would have been very close to the front line. Many of these small burial areas were destroyed by shellfire during the course of the war.
Captain Harry was himself killed on 3 January 1916. Private Luxton is thought to have survived.