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James Samuel Emerson (1895–1917) killed in action on this day, 6 December 1917

James Samuel Emerson was born on 3 August 1895 to John and Ellen Emerson, and grew up in a farming family in Collon, in County Louth. He was baptised the following month, on 22 September in Collon parish church by the Revd Robert Freeman. Early in World War I, Emerson had enlisted into the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, a reserve battalion in Dublin, before sailing to France with the British Expeditionary Force on 16 April 1915.

 

Baptism of James Samuel Emerson, Collon baptismal register, RCB Library P970.2.1.
Baptism of James Samuel Emerson, Collon baptismal register, RCB Library P970.2.1.

Emerson rose quickly through the ranks, earning promotions to corporal before being wounded at Hooge on 29 September 1915. After recuperating, he was posted to Portobello Barracks (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) and was there for the Easter Rising in 1916. By August of the following year, Emerson was serving in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as second lieutenant.

On 6 December 1917, Emerson was initially wounded during a counter–attack near La Vacquerie, near Cambrai, clearing 400 yards of trench, yet still he fought on when German forces attacked in vastly superior numbers to his group of eight men. Staying with his men, and refusing the opportunity to get medical aid for his injuries, Emerson was fatally wounded later the same day, during an attempt to repeal yet another attack.

For his actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously, the citation specifically mentioning that his actions led to his company of men holding out until the arrival of reinforcements, eventually allowing them to repel the attack. Emerson was one of only 38 Irishmen during World War I who received the Victoria Cross, the highest British military honour. It is awarded for gallantry ‘in the face of the enemy’. In Emerson’s honour, the award was presented to his mother, Ellen Emerson, in a ceremony at Whitworth Hall in Drogheda on 3 April 1918.

 

Collon church and the memorial. Photograph by Patrick Hugh Lynch.
Collon church and the memorial. Photograph by Patrick Hugh Lynch.

 

Although there is no known grave for Emerson, he was not forgotten by his community in Collon. A memorial was erected at the front of the church to all those from the parish who died in World War I, with the name of James Samuel Emerson inscribed on the front. Although it is Emerson’s name that appears on this memorial, an additional memorial scroll featuring the names of all the parishioners who died in the War was erected in the church. There is also a mention of Emerson’s Victoria Cross medal in the Church of Ireland Gazette on 1 March 1918. Referring to a prize that Emerson had been awarded in 1913 by Archbishop Peacocke, the Archbishop of Armagh, for excellence in the ‘Synod’ examinations, the paper made a reference to the honour that Emerson had received in the form of the Victoria Cross, emphasising that ‘if anybody won the Victoria Cross the most likely person would be someone who had studied God’s Holy Word and was instructed in the formularies of their Church’. James Samuel Emerson’s name, along with six other recipients of the Victoria Cross, appears on the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing, sometimes known as the Louverval Memorial, near Doignies, France.

The Church of Ireland Gazette, 1 March 1918.
The Church of Ireland Gazette, 1 March 1918.

 

For further insights to materials relevant to the First World War in the Library, see previous presentations on letters from the Western Front here and a short video based on these stories.

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