James Duncan McTavish was born on 12th January 1897 in Edinburgh, Scotland to Margaret Williamson McTavish [née Duncan] and James Schomberg McTavish, an hotelier.
James was educated firstly, at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh before attending Wellington College1 in the years 1907-11 where he served within the Officers Training Corps [OTC]. Upon leaving school he became an apprentice insurance clerk with Scottish Metropolitan Insurance back in Edinburgh.
Prior to the outbreak of the First World War James had enlisted as a private soldier (No.1404) in ‘H’ Company, 1/9th (Highlanders) Battalion, Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment), part of the army’s Territorial Force2 and so on 5th August he was embodied for war service. After a period of time spent on defence of the Scottish coastline the Battalion left Scotland by train for Southampton where the men boarded the troopship ‘SS Inventer’ for Le Havre, arriving on 24th February 1915.
On 29th November that year James fractured his left fibula in what was believed to be a non-war related injury. He was taken to No.15 Field Ambulance [AMB] then to No.5 Casualty Clearing Station [CCS] and finally admitted to No.8 General Hospital in Rouen before being repatriated to Southampton on the hospital ship ‘St. Patrick’ in December.
Upon his return to full fitness in June 1916 James applied to join an Officer Cadet Unit with the view to gaining a commission. John Dobson, the Wellington College vice-principal, and O/C, the OTC said of him ‘McTavish should make an excellent officer, from my knowledge of him in the OTC, and in sport. He has an excellent character.’
His application was successful and after being formally discharged from the Army he then re-joined at No.4 Officer Cadet Battalion at Oxford on 7th August 1916 with the desire to be appointed to any Scottish Regiment, in particular the Gordon Highlanders. James was duly commissioned as a Second-Lieutenant into its 3rd (Reserve) Battalion on 21st November 1916, the depot/training unit based in Aberdeen, confirmation of which was promulgated in The London Gazette the following month.
On 5th January 1917 having been transferred to one of the Regiments active duty battalions, in this case 1/7th (Deeside Highland) Battalion, James arrived in Étaples, France to join them.
By 16th January the Battalion had moved into the front line as reinforcements in the area of CAOURS and NEUFMOULIN approximately 3 miles north-east of ABBEVILLE. By 28th February the Battalion was in LA COMTE from where James and two other Second-Lieutenants plus 6 other ranks attended Divisional School at CAMBLAIN CHATLAIN for instruction in signalling, Lewis Gunnery and bombing. The Battalion then spent time in training, carrying out road repairs and general tidying up, with their afternoons playing football.
At 10.10am on 17th March the Battalion marched out of LA COMTE en route to MAROEUIL, a village in the Department of the Pas-de-Calais, about 4 miles north-west of ARRAS. Over the next seven days the Battalion was utilised in moving stock piles of Trench Mortar ammunition from the central dump to the forward batteries and then giving the town itself a thorough clean-up, much to the satisfaction of the remaining inhabitants.
With this job completed the Battalion entered the line on 25th March and took over the right sub-sector relieving their sister unit, the 1/5th (Buchan and Formartin) Battalion and with a Canadian unit situated on their left flank.
Three days later on 28th March they came under enemy retaliatory fire in response to Canadian trench raids, the price of which was the loss of 29 men. At the end of the month they themselves were relieved by the 1/5th Battalion and returned to MAROEUIL at 8.00pm on 1st April. Once there they moved the horse shelters further back still to BRAY to avoid enemy shelling, about which they had received early warning.
After a brief respite from the trenches they re-entered the line three days later. Here they took over the right sub-sector once again, only to move out on 7th April so that the 1/6th (Banff and Donside) Battalion of The Gordons, together with the 1/6th (Morayshire) Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders, could launch an attack from these position on the enemy lines on 9th April 1917 in what would become known as ‘The Battle of Arras’.
Extracts from the Battalion War Diary3 for 8th/9th April 1917 stated:
Forenoon spent in resting & afternoon employed in equipping the fighting portion of the Bn with special stores rations etc, previous to moving back to Battle position in the line. The Battn moved from BOIS de MAROEUIL [10.30pm] to BARRICADE TUNNEL via, MAROEUIL, ANZIM, cross country to ANZIM TRENCH.
The Battle opened at 5.15am and from the O.P. a splendid view of the progress made was obtained. Beyond supplying a party of 50 men as stretcher bearers the Bn was not called upon to take any part in the attack and remained in these positions overnight.
The Arras Offensive lasted from 9th April until 16th May 1917 where, British, Canadian, South African, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and Australian troops attacked the German defences near the city of ARRAS on the Western Front. Apart from major gains on day 1 of the battle, stalemate, a common occurrence by now, followed. In total the price paid in blood was nearly 160,000 British and about 125,000 German casualties.
By 4.00pm on 10th April the Battalion had moved forward to some of the captured German trenches where they remained until relieved 48 hours later by a battalion of The King's Royal Rifle Corps and went into billets in MAROEUIL.
At 7.30pm on 15th April James and his Battalion moved into a new sector of the ARRAS FRONT where they found the trenches in a very poor state of repair with no dug-outs or shelters. These were all repaired, whilst all the while the Germans kept up a constant bombardment of their position.
The 1/6th (Perthshire) Battalion, The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) took their place on 17th April and James and his unit moved into a support role in the HINDENBERG LINE, where they remained for a period of 48 hours before returning to their billets in ARRAS at 9.30pm.
On 22nd April the Battalion prepared itself for its role the following day when it was due to take part in the next stage of the Arras Offensive; parading in the morning in Company order, drawing special rations and stores for ‘Z’ Day. The packs were then stacked and stored and by 6.00pm that evening the Battalion marched out in fighting order by Company.
Before dawn on the morning of Monday 23rd April 1917 the Battalion was in position in the assembly trenches and at 4.45am the British Artillery opened fire with great intensity. At some point during the course of the days fighting James was reported by the Battalion as ‘wounded and missing in action.’ Once again confusion in the fog of war swirled about which led to anxiety in the family whilst the Army sought out the facts.
In this instance it was not until 3rd May that the War Office sent notification to James father, who at the time was in Leeds. The telegram, which he received on 4th May failed to mention that his son was ‘missing’!