They shall never sound in slavery!" An emotionally stirring and inspirational song, The Minstrel Boy was written by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) who set it to the melody of The Moreen, and old Irish aire. It is believed by many that Moore composed the song as a memorial to several of his friends he had met while a student at Trinity College and who had participated in the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen. One died in prison, another was wounded, and a third captured and hung. The song originally consisted of two verses. Due to its popularity, the song was a favourite of the many Irishmen who fought during the U.S. Civil War, primarily on the Union side. It was at this time that a third verse was added by unknown authors The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as Heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev'ry battle must be ended.
James Duffy was born in Framwellgate Moor, Durham City in 1890, the eldest son of Owen and Mary Duffy, Irish immigrants whose origins lay in the village of Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Ireland.
Owen Duffy & Mary Duffy, like many of their fellow countrymen before them came to England to find a better life. Irish immigration to the British mainland had its roots in the Great Potato Famine of 1847 which forced people to leave their homes. The North East of England and County Durham in particular provided opportunities for work with the booming coal industry, limestone quarrying and the iron, chemical, shipbuilding, engineering industries and the railways providing lots of unskilled work for the often penniless Irish families who made the journey.
Owen Duffy was employed as a coke drawer in a local colliery in Durham and lived in Durham Moor Houses which was a part of the Township of Framwellgate Moor.
1891 Census return
James was the first born in a family of four boys, with Thomas and Owen coming along in 1894 and 1897 respectively being joined by Peter in 1902
The Duffy family were still living in the same residence in Framwellgate Moor in 1901.
1901 Census Return
In 1906 Owen the youngest of the three brothers died, aged 6 years. By 1911 The Duffy family, with the three boys still living with their parents had moved to Coxhoe and were residing in Blackgate, on the west side of the Turnpike road, being in the parish of Cornforth.
1911 Census return
The three men of the household, father Owen and sons James and Thomas were all employed in the coal mining industry, whilst Peter was still at school. Nephew John, 18 years of age, who was living with the Duffy’s was also working in the coalmines.
Military Service & Training
Great Britain declared war on Germany on the 4th August 1914, after the German Army had ignored Belgiums request not to march through their country in order to launch an attack on France. Great Britain was part of a triple entente which included France and Russia and had an agreement with Belgium that should it be invaded then the nation would come to its assistance. The following day the British Expeditionary Force mobilised for war.
James Duffy, being of Irish descent made the short journey to Deaf Hill on the 12th November 1914, where in the Church Institute he enlisted into the 25th (Service) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, known as the 2nd Tyneside Irish and was assigned the service number 25/935. James signed up for 3 years or the Duration of the war. The battalion was two days into it’s existence when James enlisted, a 2nd Battalion being sanctioned by the war office on the 10th of November 1914 and by the end of January 1915 a further two battalions, the 26th and 27th Northumberland Fusiliers formed the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade. ( 24th, 25th, 26th & 27th N.F.)
The 2nd Tyneside Irish (25th Northumberland Fusiliers) were called up to billets and accommodation in Birtley, Co. Durham, with half of the battalion, about 500 men, being billeted in the ice rink until March 1915, when barrack huts were expected to be complete. The new recruits mess hall was in the Birtley Co-operative Hall. ¹ Training began with route marches around the neighbouring villages and physical training and drill in the surrounding streets and trench digging done on Blackfell, where today the A1(M) motorway passes the Washington service area.
Birtley Co-operative Store
By April 1915 the 103rd Brigade comprising the 24th, 25th, 26th & 27th Northumberland Fusiliers all came together to train at Woolsington, on the site of what is now Newcastle Airport, at one point being inspected by King George V.
At the end of August 1915 the Brigade moved to Salisbury Plain, and a camp at Windmill Hill, near Tidworth. After only a month poor weather conditions forced the move into huts at Sutton Veny to commence further training and to prepare for travel to France. Training continued with musketry, trench digging, route marching and the other associated aspects of preparing for warfare, and with a year now past the brigade were beginning to wonder if they would ever leave for the front.
Camp at Sutton Veny, WiltshireWoolsington Hall
Off to the War
Orders were received on the 4th of January 1916 to mobilise for war and the brigade was brought up to full strength. On 11th January 1916 The 2nd Tyneside Irish (25th NF) with Private 25/935 James Duffy amongst the ranks set sail from Southampton to Le Havre aboard the troop ships SS Caesarea and SS St. Tudno
SS St. Tudno
After disembarking and spending the night in Le Havre, the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers entrained and made the journey to St Omer in the Pas de Calais. They would be billeted in Hallines and Wizernes, which were villages close to the Brigade headquarters. Here James Duffy and his fellow soldiers would undertake further training in readiness for battle, and undergo specialist courses for those soldiers who would become signallers, scouts, snipers and bombers. Bombing would be a skill that James would be called upon to use later in the campaign and which we will come back to later.
The 34th Division, including the Tyneside Irish, were inspected by General Field Marshall Douglas Haig and General Joffe on a cold and wet January 20th 1916, and Joffe was praiseworthy of the Divisions appearance in a communiqué sent to Divisional HQ, from G.H. Nugent, A.A. & QMG, 34th Division, when he said,
“General Joffe Commander in Chief of the French Army, has expressed his admiration of the appearance of the 34th Division and was particularly struck by the steady behaviour of all ranks under arms,
The Divisional Commander was himself much struck by the steadiness of the battalions and considers the parade reflects much credit on the Division.”
The Brigade was now prepared and moved nearer to the Front Line towards the end of January 1916 and by the end of the first week of February were ready for the trenches. Much of the first weeks in the trenches were unremarkable with soldiers holding the line and moving supplies up to the front line. Life for the most part would be boring. That would change in the months to come.
James Duffy would carry on with the day to day aspects of soldiering and his work was recognised with promotion to Lance Corporal on the 15th April 1916.
Indeed throughout his short army career James would regularly gain promotions until he attained the rank of Sergeant in March 1917, which can be seen from his Casualty Form / Active Service record pictured above.
The Somme Battlefield
Having held the line in the Armentieres area the 103 Infantry Brigade with the Tyneside Irish battalions moved up to the Somme in early May 1916 and after arriving in Amiens after a 10 hour train journey were faced with a 12 mile march to occupy the trenches in front of Ovillers and La Boiselle, in an area known as the Tara and Usna redoubts which were longside the road from Albert to Bapaume.
During this period L/Cpl James Duffy would experience regular shelling of the trenches by the German army and would find himself in close proximity as a member of D Company when an enemy raiding party attempted to storm the trenches but were held back by strong opposition and a few bombs. After this spell of action the brigade moved out of the line and had some well earned rest and were held in reserve supplying the front line.
Some of the battalion, miners in civilian life, were assigned work with the tunnellers as the burrowed their way towards the German frontline trenches in the mines were known as Y-Sap and Lochnagar.
As May moved into June the battalion continued to train for battle “The Big Push” and Z Day, when as soldier of the Tyneside Irish, 26/880 L/Sgt Edward Dyke was quoted as saying
“The gates of hell were opened and we accepted the invitation to enter”
Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for futile and indiscriminate slaughter, with General Haig's tactics remaining controversial even today.
The British planned to attack on a 24km (15 mile) front between Serre, north of the Ancre, and Curlu, north of the Somme. Five French divisions would attack an 13km (eight mile) front south of the Somme, between Curlu and Peronne. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. British commanders were so confident they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. Once they had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans.
To the South of La Boiselle, James Duffy would be waiting in his trench at the jumping off point, preparing to go over the top, believing he and his comrades would walk up to the German line without resistance and accept the surrender of those German soldiers that had survived the week long barrage of artillery from the British Army. As we now know, nothing could have been further from the truth.
At 7.28 am on 1st July 1916 along the front, a series of six mines from Beaumont Hamel to Mametz were blown, signalling the start of the battle. Directly in front of the 2nd Battalion Tyneside Irish was Y-Sap mine containing 40,000 pounds of ammonal and to their right Lochnagar which would blow with 60,000 pounds of explosives. When they were blown a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps, Cecil Lewis, patrolling above in his aircraft described how the debris reached up to 4,000 feet in the air.
“ The whole earth heaved and flared, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet."
Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont Hamel
At 7.35 a.m. The 103rd Brigade of 4 battalions of Tyneside Irish, 24th ,25th ,26th ,& 27th left their trenches and advanced towards the German defences and the Y-Sap crater, created when the mine was blown at 7.28 a.m. two minutes before zero hour.
The above photograph is of a column of Tyneside Irish of the 103rd Infantry Brigade as they make their advance towards the Y-Sap Crater on 1st July 1916, and somewhere amongst these brave men would be L/Cpl James Duffy.
Chris McCarthy in his book, The Somme, The Day by Day account, describes the action thus.
“After the firing of Y-Sap mine, 20th, 23rd and 25th Northumberland Fusiliers following, attacked down Mash Valley across some 800 yards of No Mans Land. The attack was cut down by machine gun fire from Ovillers, La Boiselle and trenches on the right of the attack. A few isolated parties made the frontline trench but were all killed”
A German officer, Lieutenant Colonel Kienitz of the 110th Reserve Infantry Regiment Machine Gun Company, described the British attack as follows.
“Silently our machine guns and the infantrymen waited until our opponents came closer. Then, when they were only a few metres from the trenches, the serried ranks of the enemy were sprayed with a hurricane of defensive fire from the machine guns and aimed fire of the individual riflemen. Standing exposed on the parapet, some individuals hurled hand grenades at the enemy who had taken cover to the front. Within moments it seemed as though the battle had died away completely. But then, initially in small groups, but later in huge masses the enemy began to pull back towards Becourt, until finally it seemed as though every man in the entire filed was attempting to flee back to his jumping off point. The fire of our infantrymen and machine guns persuaded them, hitting the hard, whilst some of our men daringly charged the British troops, capturing prisoners. Our weapons fired away ceaselessly for two hours, then the battle died away.”
Line of Attack 25th Northumberland Fusiliers. 7.35am 1st July 1916
Within 10 minutes of jumping off the leading battalions in the advance 20th NF (1st Tyneside Scottish ) 23rd NF (4th Tyneside Scottish) with the 25th NF ( 2nd Tyneside Irish) following attacked down the line of Mash Valley across some 800 yards of no mans land. The attack was cut down by machine gun fire from Ovillers, La Boiselle and the trenches. A few isolated parties made the frontline but were all killed.
The first battalion over the top had suffered 80% casualties. Various relief attacks by 21st and 34th Division troops were proposed during the day but the 21st were to weak to continue. The 34th Division attack lost 23 out of 30 men as soon as they left the trench.
It was to take 48 hours before all the British wounded on the Mash Valley – Sausage Valley sector could be brought back to dressing stations. In the first 24 hours more than 5,000 wounded men were taken back. More than two hundred officers and four thousand men were killed in the same sector. Thirty were taken as German prisoners.
As soldiers began to return to their lines and roll calls were taken the extent of the slaughter would be revealed for the tragedy it was. The 25th Northumberland Fusiliers suffered many casualties on the 1st of July 1916 and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists 143 dead the greater majority of those whose bodies were never found and are now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing which contains the names of over 72,000 officers and other ranks.
The following day, July 2nd, the Tyneside Irish Brigade were beginning to be withdrawn from the battlefield. Losses would be replenished, rest would be taken and the battalion would move out of the Somme battlefield and ready itself for the next action.
James Duffy would move north to Souchez, a small town that lies just to the east of the city of Lens, and north of the much fought over town of Arras and it would be on this battlefield that James Duffy would be awarded The Distinguished Conduct Medal
For Distinguished Conduct in the Field
In the Souchez sector of the battlefield tunnelling companies were very active mining underneath the German lines, an occupation that was very familiar to many of the Northumberland Fusiliers, with coal mining being their civilian occupation. Just as the Allies would try to undermine the enemy lines, so to would the German Army.
On the night of the 7th August 1916 in the early hours of the morning, 2.13 a.m, the Germans blew up a mine, which was very quickly followed by a party of German soldiers, upto 50, who stormed the trench the 25th Battalion, including L/Cpl James Duffy, were holding and gained entry. Keeping his wits about him, James along with another private soldier got themselves into a defensive position behind a traverse in the trench and began throwing bombs at the onrushing enemy. With help from soldiers from the 24th Battalion who were in another part of the trench they drove out the Germans and occupied the crater created by the explosion.
The fight lasted around thirty minutes and only one casualty occurred in the 24th Battalion. Along with James Duffy other soldiers who took part in the action were recognised for their conduct that day and some were to become recpients of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and others the Military Medal.
His Distinguished Conduct medal citation, published in the London Gazette on 22 September 1916 describes his actions.
9292 SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 22 SEPTEMBER, 1916 25/935 L./Cpl. J. Duffy, North'd Fus.
For conspicuous gallantry. When the
enemy exploded a mine, wrecking part of the
defences, and then rushed forward in large
numbers to the attack, Lance-Corporal
Duffy, with a private, posted themselves
behind the first defensible traverse and held
up the enemy with bombs. After about 20
minutes he led a bombing attack, drove the
enemy out and enabled us to occupy the
James Duffy and his act of bravery was recognised in the local newspaper with the Durham Advertiser of the 20th October 1916 reporting the following.
Durham County Advertiser : 20th October 1916
DCM for Coxhoe Man
The DCM has been awarded to Corporal Jas Duffy, of the Northumberland Fusiliers, who has also been promoted sergeant, for his gallant conduct in preventing the enemy obtaining possession of a crater after they had exploded two mines. He held them at bay by using his bombs for twenty minutes until reinforcements of our men arrived, and the position was saved. Half-a-dozen of the enemy managed to get into the crater soon after the mines exploded, but he dropped a bomb among them with disastrous results. Sgt Duffy, who has recently been on a visit to his mother at Coxhoe Pottery, was a coal hewer at Kelloe colliery previous to his enlisting in November 1914 and is well known in the district. He was the recipient of many congratulations during his visit, and was presented with a sum of money at Coxhoe Workingmen’s Club.
Additionally employers and work colleagues also recognised the honours for the gallant deeds that Sgt Duffy and his colleagues had carried out and in October 1916 the Durham Advertiser carried the following piece.
Durham County Advertiser : 20th October 1916
East Hetton And Kelloe Heroes
For the purpose of suitably recognising former workmen at East Hetton, (or Kelloe) colliery who have been awarded honours for gallant deeds at the front, a committee, consisting principally of workmen at the colliery, with Mr Thomas Morley as chairman, Ald Thomas Foster JP, secretary, and Mr M Duddin treasurer, has been formed, and subscriptions are being collected in the district. Already above £27 has been raised, including £5 from the owners of the colliery and Ald. S. Tate. It was reported that two former workmen had received DCM’s, Serg. Duffy, Coxhoe, and Private Kirkup, Cassop and two Privates F. Hewison, Kelloe and W Kenning, Coxhoe military medals. While another had been recommended for Honours.
Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)
The DCM was instituted in 1854 to recognise "distinguished, gallant and good conduct" by troops in the Crimea. All DCMs are issued named to the recipient, usually with impressed details around the medal's rim.
Nearly 25,000 DCMs were issued during World War I, compared to 1,900 for acts during World War II. The majority of World War I DCMs have citations in the London Gazette. Since 1939, DCMs are listed in the London Gazette but don't have citations.
Full details of DCMs awarded up to 1914 can be found in the book "The Distinguished Conduct Medal" by P.E. Abbott, published by J.B. Hayward & Son. DCMs awarded during World War I can be found in a similar publication by R.W. Walker, but no citations are provided.
Contrary to what may be implied by the term "Distinguished Conduct ..." it should be remembered that this medal was, for NCOs and other ranks, second only to the Victoria Cross
Moving up the ranks and around the battlefields
Following on from his action on the 7th August, L/Cpl Duffy was promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal. Before this took place however the 2nd Tyneside Irish found themselves back under the command of the 34th Infantry Division and on their back to the Somme, to fight alongside the 15th (Scottish) Division at Contalmaison. Here they continued with the battle until the last week of September 1916 when they were pulled out and moved on North to Estaires and co-joined with the 8th Australian Brigade.
After a short period of leave in early October 1916, upon his return to his battalion Acting Corporal Duffy was appointed to the rank of Lance Sergeant, which is effectively a corporal acting in the rank of Sergeant.
For the remainder of 1916 the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers ( 2nd Tyneside Irish) would take part in the continuing actions in an around the Armentieres sector before their withdrawal at the beginning of February 1917. They would billet at St Omer and train for their next journey into the lines and the battle of Arras, the battle that would see L/Sergeant James Duffy promoted to the rank of Sergeant. By the beginning of March 1917 the 25th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers were on the front of the Arras battlefield.
The Arras front would prove to be a tough place for the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers with constant German raids on the British lines but the allied army were to ensure that their preparations for the offensive would ensure that the German army would have a difficult time too.
At the beginning of April 1917 the Tyneside Irish Brigade marched out of their billets and took its place at the front and on Easter Monday the 9th April 1917 advanced towards the German lines behind an artillery barrage and took the German trenches and a support trench. The gains were not without cost to both the 24th and 25th Tyneside Irish who lost all their officers, either killed or wounded in the process. However many enemy weapons were captured along with many German prisoners.
As the brigade moved forward, things began to go wrong as they came under heavy machine gun fire from the left of the line. This German attack created confusion amongst the British companies with many different battalions of differing regiments being mixed up, once sorted out however a party of men of the 25th battalion succeeded in disabling the machine gun.
Amongst them was a soldier named L/Cpl Thomas Bryan from Castleford, Yorkshire, who, for his actions that day was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first VC awarded to the Nothumberland Fusiliers during the First World War.
L/Cpl Thomas Bryan VC receives his award from King George V.
At the end of the day the 25th Northumberland Fusiliers would be left counting the heaviest cost of the Tyneside Irish Brigade, with 5 officers killed, 8 wounded, 19 other ranks killed and 135 wounded and a number missing, many of whom would be presumed killed.
Sgt. James Duffy did not escape unscathed during this attack sustaining gunshot wounds to his left arm and left side that would see his part in the war but not the army come to an end.
The Field Ambulance
On the 10th April 1917, having sustained gunshot wounds James Duffy would have gone through a casualty clearing station where his wounds would have been assessed and dressed and then moved on to a Field Ambulance, which in this case was the 102nd Field Ambulance.
The Field Ambulance was a mobile front line medical unit (it was not a vehicle). Most came under command of a Division, and had special responsibility for the care of casualties of one of the Brigades in the Division. Each Division had three Field Ambulances. The theoretical capacity of the Field Ambulance was 150 casualties, but in battle many would simply be overwhelmed by numbers. The Ambulance was responsible for establishing and operating a number of points along the casualty evacuation chain, from the Bearer Relay Posts which were up to 600 yards behind the Regimental Aid Posts, through the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS), to the Main Dressing Station (MDS). It also provided a Walking Wounded Collecting Station, as well as various rest areas and local sick rooms. The Ambulances would usually establish 1 ADS per Brigade, and 1 MDS for the Division.
The Field Ambulance was divided into 3 Sections. In turn, those Sections had Stretcher Bearer and Tented subsections. The Field Ambulance was composed of 10 officers and 224 men.
From the Field Ambulance, Sgt Duffy was transferred to the Canadian general Hospital at Etaples and from there to York Military Hospital where he arrived on the 20th of April 1917.
James Duffy spent 9 weeks in the York Military Hospital having his wounds treated and this would afford opportunities for his family and friends from Coxhoe to pay him the occasional visit and rejoice in the news that he was safe if not well at that time.
Discharge from the army.
Once James wounds had healed and he was fit enough to leave the hospital a decision was taken on his future in the army.
He was placed in Class P of the Army Reserve which was defined as follows:-
Class P Reserve and Class P(T) were introduced by the same Army Order 355/16. These classes consisted of men
- ‘whose services are deemed to be temporarily of more value to the country in civil life rather than in the Army’
- and who were not lower than medical grade C iii
- and as a result of having served in the Army or TF would, if discharged, be eligible for a pension on the grounds of disability or length of service.
Men in Classes P and P(T) were, for the purposes of pay, allowances, gratuity and pension, treated as if they been discharged on the date of their transfer to Class P or P(T); that is. they did receive money from the Army. Other terms and conditions were as for Class W.
Authorisation was given in early December 1918 for all classes of the P and W Reserves (with the exception of conscientious objectors in the latter case) to be discharged forthwith, irrespective of their original terms of engagement.
Once discharged James returned to civilian life and his job at East Hetton Colliery.
The local community did not forget what all the brave men of Coxhoe and the surrounding Villages sacrificed by going off to fight and rewarded them with gifts upon their return.
The Durham County Advertiser recognises one such event.
DCA 28th Sept. 1917
Presentations to Soldiers DCM Honoured
On Wednesday night last the Wesleyan Schoolroom, Coxhoe, was packed by an enthusiastic gathering, when presentations were made by Coxhoe Soldiers and Sailors’ Welcome Home Fund to soldiers belonging to the village, in recognition of their services in their country’s cause. Mr WH Denison, QH, chairman of the fund, presided, and the presentations were made by the Rev. Father Sheehan, CC., West Cornforth. The first of the recipients was Sergt. James Duffy, DCM, NF, who was presented with a silver luminous wrist watch.
On returning to his civilian employment at East Hetton Colliery James deeds would be further recognised when he was presented with a gold medal by the East Hetton Lodge of the Durham Miners Association in recognition of his Services during the Great War 1914 -19. Pictured below with James son Tommy proudly holding it.
James would go on to raise a family and become a valuable member of the community both locally and in service to the County of Durham serving on the bench of the Magistrates Court.
James Duffy passed away in March 1963 at the age of 73. Upon his passing Alderman HC Ferens paid the following tribute,
On the 12th of June 1919 the Colours of the 25th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers ( 2nd Tyneside Irish) were paraded through the streets of Newcastle before they were laid up in St Marys Roman Catholic Cathedral. Of the four battalions that served overseas only the 25th Battalions colours returned. Father George McBreaty, the padre of the 2nd Tyneside Irish, who served with them and was wounded in France led the address. Perhaps his most poignant words were these.
“When the eyes of the people are turned to those Colours, those eyes will be saddened at the recollection of the men who laid down their lives in France. Many eyes will fill with tears as a mother, wife or sister says a prayer for a dear dead one, whose body lies in a foreign land”
In honour of 25 / 935 Sgt. James Duffy DCM
25th (Service) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers
2nd Tyneside Irish
1890 - 1963
Sources of Information
The Tyneside Irish: 24th,25th,26th,27th, (Service) Battalions of Northumberland Fusiliers