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’!

Having had no further news by 12th May, James McTavish snr wrote to the War Office and requested further information as to the nature of his sons wounds and in which military hospital he was receiving treatment as they had not heard from him.

On 25th May, and with still no information forthcoming from the War Office, his father wrote once again telling them that the family had heard directly from his sons Commanding Officer [Lt-Colonel Bruce] who had been able to recount what he believed happened to 2nd Lieut McTavish.

Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce recalled that McTavish ‘received a bullet wound in the neck whilst leading his platoon to go to the enemy trench, was taken to the Casualty Clearing Station at Aubigny and from there evacuated to the base.’ The father was mightily concerned that his son was ‘lying in some hospital unable to give any account of himself.’

An internal War Office memorandum of the 29th May 1917 poured cold water on Lt-Col Bruce’s account of events for if it were true how on earth could an officer be missing! The writer who penned the memorandum suggested that a copy of Bruce’s letter be obtained so that ‘enquiries might be made’.

Further additions to the handwritten memo (by another individual) advised that an enquiry could hardly be refused even though it was felt that no mistake had been made. The final annotation, by a third hand, suggested sufficient compelling evidence existed ‘on which to base an enquiry’.

Enquiries were duly made and on 1st June James McTavish snr, sent typewritten ‘extracts’ of two letters he had received to the War Office. The first extract was from Lieut-Colonel Bruce and the second from 2nd Lieut JT Gray, O.C. ‘D’ Company: he did not enclose copies of the originals nor disclose the full contents of both letters.

Copy of letter from Lt-Col Bruce, Commdg 7th Gordon Highlanders [15.5.17]

Dear Sir,

Second Lieutenant J.D. McTavish was wounded on 23rd April whilst leading his platoon against enemy trenches.

I believe he was wounded by a bullet in the neck.

He was taken to C.C.S. at Aubigny and from there evacuated to base. Since then I have not heard of him.

I hope he is getting on all right.

Extract of letter from 2nd Lieut Jas. T Gray, O.C. ‘D’ Coy [24.5.17]

----Your son went into action on the 23rd ult but was attached to a different Company. Hence the knowledge we derived from the men of (? this) Company.

After the attack the reports we received were to the effect that your son was wounded and left the line en route for the C.C.S.

We were quite satisfied that he was safe in hospital and when informed by Base Authorities that enquiries were being made we felt rather alarmed.

Fresh enquiries confirmed original reports to a certain extent; i.e. the officer was seen going back accompanied by his orderly who was also wounded.

They were not seen again by any of our people.

The Chaplain has worked hard and has traced the orderly to a C.C.S., where he died of wounds, but no information can be got regarding your son. As the enemy were shelling the area at the time we are afraid of the worst. -----

On 13th June 1917 The Army Council accepted the death of Second-Lieutenant James Duncan McTavish, 1/7th (Deeside Highland) Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders, as having occurred on 23rd April prior, due to the ‘lapse of time’, and notified his father accordingly. He was 20 years old.

He however, was not one to give up at that point and on 15th June requested the War Office ensure that his son’s name was on the list of names which were circulated to the PoW camps and hospitals in Germany: he had yet to receive notification from the War Office that they had already declared his son to be dead. The matter was closed.

With no human remains to bury Second-Lieutenant James McTavish is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, Faubourg-d'Amiens Cemetery, Arras in France. He joins the 34,784 other soldiers of the forces of the United Kingdom, New Zealand and South Africa, who have no known grave, and who died in the Arras sector between Spring 1916 and 7th August 1918.

The Gordon Highlanders Regiment is perpetuated today in The Highlanders, [4th Battalion] The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

1. Contemporaries from his time at Wellington at the time of the 1911 census and who died in the War can be found in Appendix 1.
2. The Territorial Force [TF] was the volunteer reserve component of the British Army from 1908 to 1920, when it became the Territorial Army [TA] and in 2014 reorganised once again to become the Army Reserve [AR].
3. Battalion War Diary: WO 95/2882/1 [1915 Apr - 1918 Oct].

See also the Imperial War Museum permanent digital memorial to the ‘Lives of the First World War’ for JD McTavish. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/lifestory/2869260