By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Private James Tait, 10th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment
James Tait joined the 10th Battalion East Yorkshire regiment - known as the Hull Commercials - on 19th April aged only 15 - clearly, there was no need to show a birth certificate before joining up. Probably inspired by the general belief that the war wouldn't last long, and carried along in a tide of patriotism (reflected in local support for the pals battalions raised in Hull between September and November the previous year), he had no concern that he was underage. Like many others at the time, he was keen to take a crack at the 'Prussian bullies' so he enlisted along with his step-brother Frank Cocker. Many men were drawn to enlist with the Pals and Commercials battalions in the hope of being at war together, but James was separated from his step brother. Unlike Frank, he survived action on the Western Front.
James was born in Newcastle in 1899, son of a tobacconist turned travelling inspector. When his father died James' mother remarried. He left school aged 14 to work for a wholesale tobacconist before he took a job as a stock clerk with a firm of ship chandlers. The opportunity to go to war may well have represented an enticing adventure and Tait's diary has a formal but romantic tone suggesting that he hoped to turn some of his memories into a publication - or at least have an audience for his writing.
After six months at a Depot co. at Hornsea and Pocklington, Tait spent nine weeks in Egypt before he was transferred to the Western Front. He was excited by the prospect of visiting foreign lands and described the atmosphere on board the troops ship: 'Dec 11th '15 - Dawn of a glorious day - sea calm and a few fleecy clouds relieve the monotony of the deep blue sky. I am from today to be a permanent Mess Orderly during the voyage. The band plays for the first time on board, and everyone is enjoying the journey now. We sit up on deck as late as possible, as it is a most delightful star-light [sic] evening. Singing is taken up in general.'
Obviously unprepared for what he was about to experience, he nonetheless displayed the same energy and clarity of thought as he described conditions in the trenches, and remained true to his word - always optimistic: 'Still raining. Troops in very bad condition. We are covered from head to foot in mud. As a rest we spend three hours in the dug-out which is a delightful treat.'
If he had a criticism of the war it was about the quality of training and the attitude of some of the officers above him: 'Complaint has been made by the officers that we are writing too many letters. It has been hinted by them that we are allowed too much time. Are we a navvy's Batt. or a commercial? A most unnecessary complaint surely could never have been harboured. We are entitled to our own time at night and as literature is very scanty what have we to occupy our time with? What delights us more than communicating as much as possible with the old land?'
When his mother and step father applied for his release, pleading that he was underage, the War Office made no difficulties and arranged for his return to civilian life. Although he regretted leaving his 'pals' behind, he was very glad to be going home. But this didn't stop him joining up again in September 1917 once he was legally old enough to enlist. He joined the Durham Light Infantry and was drafted to the 7th Battalion.
By April 1918 he was back in France and was lucky to survive the third German offensive which began on 27th May 1918. Tait's diary describing his second phase in the war had had to be abandoned with his large pack during the fighting but he recounts his experience in a short memoir. His battalion as Pioneers were positioned to the rear and were not caught up in the fighting until the second day of the German retreat. Even so, there were heavy British casualties and James was once again lucky to escape.
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