Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Edward James (1882–1954)

by Michael Migus

This article was published:

William Edward James (1882-1954), soldier and farmer, was born on 12 April 1882 at Harcourt, Victoria, son of Joseph James, farmer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Frost, both Victorian born. His father died two years later and his mother remarried. As a boy he had difficulties with his stepfather Robert Martin, and lived at Harcourt with his widower grandfather Isaac James. Having completed primary schooling he worked with his grandfather and uncle, who were orchardists and beekeepers. Influenced by his deeply religious grandfather, who was a Methodist and Rechabite, he grew up in a loving but strongly disciplined environment.

James began his military career by joining the militia in 1901; he was commissioned second lieutenant in the 8th Australian Infantry Regiment, Australian Military Forces, in 1904 and was promoted captain in 1911. On 15 April 1908, with Methodist forms, he married Edith Mary Eagle (1884-1970) at her parents' home at Harcourt. In 1914 James was an area officer involved in the A.M.F.'s universal training scheme and was therefore discouraged from joining the Australian Imperial Force. He eventually enlisted in the A.I.F. on 1 May 1915 as a captain and company commander in the 24th Battalion and embarked for active service a week later. After training in Egypt, where he was promoted major, his battalion reached Gallipoli on 5 September and moved into the trenches at Lone Pine. In November James contracted paratyphoid and was evacuated to Malta and then to Australia, arriving in Melbourne in May 1916. After recovering he embarked for England in October.

On 5 February 1917 James rejoined his unit at Fricourt, France, and that month was appointed second-in-command of the 24th Battalion which had experienced heavy fighting and losses at Pozières and Mouquet Farm. After being wounded in action on 3 March at Grevillers, he resumed duty in May and was promoted lieutenant-colonel commanding the battalion in July. He showed fine leadership and courage in the 3rd battle of Ypres and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry when his battalion captured the key objective of Broodseinde Ridge. He earned a Bar to his D.S.O. for his conduct in the attacks on Beaurevoir and Montbrehain in October 1918, and was mentioned in dispatches twice in 1918-19. From February 1919 he commanded A.I.F. demobilization camps in England and returned to Australia in March 1920; his A.I.F. appointment ended in May.

James continued service in the A.M.F. in the 1920s, reaching the rank of colonel in 1929. His family lived modestly at Harcourt, relying on subsistence farming and pig husbandry; they were widely known and respected in the Castlemaine-Harcourt district. James went on to the A.M.F. unattached list in 1932 but returned to active duty during World War II, commanding the Infantry Training Brigade, Southern Command, at Wangaratta in 1940-41. He was placed on the retired list in April 1942.

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died at Whittlesea on 26 September 1954 and was buried in Harcourt cemetery after a Methodist service. Billy James was a strict Rechabite but, except for his immediate family, he did not impose on others his views on the evils of drink. Strong self-discipline was his outstanding characteristic. His 1915 passport shows him as 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) with grey eyes and brown hair, and photographs reveal a strong, fresh face. He had a rare understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of men, and his sincere manner, his cool, brave demeanour in the face of adversity and his readiness to help anyone in need inspired affection and respect.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Harvey, The Red and White Diamond, 24th Battalion, A.I.F. (Melb, 1920)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • London Gazette, 28 May, 3 June 1918, 2 Apr, 11 July 1919
  • Report on the Department of Defence 1914-17 (Australian War Memorial)
  • war diary, 24th Battalion, AIF (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Migus, 'James, William Edward (1882–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 April, 1882
Harcourt, Victoria, Australia


26 September, 1954 (aged 72)
Whittlesea, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.