When the 1901 census was taken, James and his sister Florence were living with their father, also called James, at 19 Hall Street, Blackley, Manchester. Their mother had died prior to this and her name is not known. By 1914, the family had moved to "Aldersyde", 1 Ashfield Crescent, Cheadle. James had been educated at Manchester Grammar School and later went to work for the Liverpool, London & Globe Insurance Co., King Street, Manchester.
He had served as a private soldier for 8 months in a pioneer battalion (presumably the 18th West Yorks) and then been recommended for a commission. He was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in November 1917.
On 21 March 1918, the 1st Battalion was in trenches near Morchies, 10 kilometres north east of Bapaume. The previous days were reported as being very quiet with no casualties. This ended at 5am when the Germans launched a massive offensive along a 50 mile front from Arras to St Quentin. The Battalion's War Diary describes an intense artillery barrage on all the trenches, approach routes and the positions occupied by British artillery. "B" and "D" Companies, holding the front line suffered many casualties. In the chaos of the day, this is all that the Battalion officers were able to record of the disaster. Records exist, however, at Brigade and Division level and it is possible to piece together some of what happened.
The enemy bombardment continued for five hours, with gas and high explosive shells landing on the British front line. At 8am, smoke shells were also fired and this hid the actual advance of the German infantry. For the next couple of hours, nothing was heard from the 1st West Yorkshires. Just after 10am, their commander, Colonel Boyall reported that the enemy had advanced past his front line troops and was working towards the support line, but there was still an intact line of British troops to the right. By 11am, the area to the right had also been penetrated by the enemy. At noon, Colonel Boyall sent an urgent message for more ammunition, but it was impossible for it to be delivered.
By 2.30, the Battalion and other neighbouring battalions were practically surrounded but they were ordered to hold on to their positions until dusk when a counter attack was planned. At 3pm, Colonel Boyall telephoned Division to state that if reinforcements were not immediately sent, the troops would "fight it out to the last as the situation was hopeless and retirement impossible". An hour later, he telephoned again to say that the enemy was within 40 yards of his Headquarters. This was the last message from the West Yorkshires. It would seem, however, that neighbouring units heard sounds of fighting for the next three hours but by 7pm all was quiet.
Small groups of men had been able to find their way past the Germans and make it to the relative safety of the Divisional position. There were exactly 100 West Yorkshires. They had started the day with 700. The remnants of the Brigade were regrouped near Morchies village. The fighting of the day was not yet over because they had not finished digging in, before the enemy arrived just as it was going dark. They made two unsuccessful assaults on the position. The night then passed quietly.
The Battalion's War Diary, written up on the 22nd, records that nearly 550 men were still missing (many were prisoners). Only 9 were then recorded as having been killed (although later records would confirm over 100 had died). James was one of these nine. This suggests that he was killed either early or late in the day when his comrades were certain what had happened to him.