Corporal James McPhie is one of 74 Scots who was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the presence of the enemy during the First World War.
James McPhie was born in Edinburgh on 18 December 1894, the son of Allan McPhie, commission agent, and Elizabeth McPhie.
Eight members of the McPhie family – including a seven-year-old James – appear in the 1901 Census living at Salisbury Street in Edinburgh, a long-since demolished road that ran between Pleasance and Dumbiedykes.
By the time of the 1911 census James McPhie, aged 16, an upholsterer’s apprentice, was living with his widowed mother, two sisters and a brother, as well as his aunt and a nephew at 112 Rose Street, Edinburgh.
James McPhie joined the army in 1914 and by 1918, he was serving with the 416th Field Company, Royal Engineers.
In October of 1918, the military breakthroughs of recent months had ended four years of largely static trench warfare, with huge Allied advances all over the Western Front. The outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, as German High Command made representations for an Armistice to the President of the United States. Even so, the German Army – crippled by shortages in manpower and munitions, and retreating steadily before the advancing Allies – continued to fight doggedly and ferociously.
On 14 October 1918, Corporal McPhie was part of a team of sappers at the Canal De La Sensee near Aubencheul-au-Bac, in the Nord Department of France. When a cork bridge that infantry were using to cross the canal began to sink and break up under enemy fire, threatening to strand men who had already crossed, McPhie and a fellow sapper jumped into the water to make repairs.
McPhie’s Victoria Cross citation records that after this attempt had failed, McPhie said “It is death or glory work which must be done for the sake of our patrol on the other side” and, in full daylight and under close fire, he stepped onto the bridge to make a fresh attempt at repairs. He was struck several times by enemy fire and was killed.
His citation also notes that “It was due to the magnificent example set by Corporal McPhie that touch was maintained with the patrol on the enemy bank at a most critical period”.
Cpl. James McPhie VC is buried at the Naves Communal Cemetery Extension near Cambrai, close to where he fell.
McPhie’s pay book will records his personal details and contains a short, signed statement that in the event of his death, his possessions should pass to his mother, Elizabeth McPhie. Many soldiers willed their possessions to their wives, mothers and other close relations in this way.
James’s mother Elizabeth accepted her son’s Victoria Cross medal from King George V at an investiture ceremony in 1919. She continued to live at the family’s home on Rose Street until she died in the 1930s. In 1966, two of James’s siblings gifted their brother’s Victoria Cross medal to the Imperial War Museum.
McPhie’s name is one of many that were recorded on a memorial plaque at St George’s Church at Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, a short walk from the McPhie family’s home. James’s name appears alongside those of many others from the church’s congregation who died in the First World War.
Copyright and courtesy of Historic Environment Scotland.
Corporal McPhie’s story is one of millions that can be traced using NRS records, including our ancestry research service ScotlandsPeople. You can find guidance on how to search the wills of over 26,000 Scottish soldiers and airmen at ScotlandsPeople here.