Born at Crowle in December 1891, James was the elder brother of Arthur and the eldest son of the seven children John William and Jane Anne Donnelly (nee Staniforth). His father, born in Ireland (although his census returns until 1901 said Liverpool), was a flax linen worker when James was born. His mother from Crowle also worked at the flax mill. The family had moved to Selby by 1901 in 1911 were living at 17 Harper Street in 1911. At that time James was an oil miller.
James was a general labourer living at 4 Alpha Place when he enlisted with his brother in the East Yorkshire Regiment at Hull on 16th November 1914. Also joining the 13th (Service) Battalion who, whilst officially the 4th Hull were commonly known as the ‘T’Others’.
He was certainly not an ideal soldier, his service record showing several periods of detention and forfeit of pay during 1915, and then again from mid-1916 when at home recuperating. The detentions may relate to unauthorised absences of leave related to the death of his father in early 1915. However the deduction of pay of 4d per day from 20th February 1916 onwards was to support the child he had with Miss Elizabeth Sunely, of Emilys Terrace, Strickland Street.
James was with the 13th East Yorkshire’s in 92nd Brigade, 31st Division, embarked for Egypt on 15th December 1915 and arrived there on 29th December 1915. However he did not depart with them when they moved from Egypt to France in March 1916 as he was in hospital in Port Said on 16th May with synovitis of his left knee, an illness that saw him evacuated back to England on the HS Panama on 1st June for a period of convalescence.
Following his period of convalescence James embarked for France on 21s December 1916 and on arrival was posted first to the 6th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment and then the 11th Battalion, joining them on 22nd September 1917.
His misdemeanours continued out in France, being deprived of a 10-day leave pass on 12th November and then on 28th November, being charged and sentenced to 14 days Field Punishment Number One for drunkeness. Which was his second experience of the same sentence, having also received 14 days on 15th October 1917.
A way of punishing misdemeanours whilst out in service, Field Punishment Number One (F.P. No. 1) was issued to 60210 British soldiers during the War. It consisted of the convicted man being placed in handcuffs or similar restraints and attached to a fixed object, such as a gun wheel or a fence post, for up to two hours per day. Generally it would be carried out in field punishment camps set up for the purpose behind the front lines, but could, if the unit was on the move for example, be applied by the unit themselves.
On 9th February 1918 James was posted back to the 13th Battalion, just as they were disbanded and amalgamated with the 1/4th Battalion in 150th Brigade, 50th Division. During
March 1918, the 1/4th East Yorkshire suffered heavy casualties in attempting to halt the German Spring Offensive, Operation Michael, fighting several rearguard actions particularly one at Brie Bridge on the Somme. During this period of action the battalion lost over 600 men and when relieved on 1st April their fighting strength was 3 officers and 36 other ranks.
Following their involvement in Operation Michael the 1/4th East Yorkshires were removed from the front line to rest and train the batch of new young reinforcements sent to rebuild their strength. Returning to a supposedly quieter section of the front, on the River Lys, just as the German’s launched their next offensive, Operation Georgette in that area.
Hurriedly sent forward with their half-trained recruits on 9th April the 1/4th East Yorkshires were in the area around La Gorgue, south-west of Estaires, when the German’s attacked at Rouge Maison Farm. Holding the attack off the 1/4th East Yorkshires retired across the River Lys the following day where they were positioned to defend the river south-east of Estaires
Early in the morning of 10th April, the Germans launched heavy attacks, covered by artillery fire, on the river crossings at Lestrem and Estaires. Forcing a crossing at both places, both attacks were successfully driven back again by determined counter-attacks from the 50th Division. Undeterred the Germans attack again, with fierce street fighting taking place in Estaires in which both sides lost heavily. In the evening the German infantry once again forced their way into Estaires, and after a most gallant resistance the 50th Division withdrew from it to new positions, north and west of the town.
Private James Donnelly was one of many men who died in the defence of Estaires. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.