Private James Lawless

Co. Wicklow

Family background and early life

James Joseph Lawless was born in October 1890 in Greystones, County Wicklow. 

Son of Andrew and Mary Lawless, he was one of six children – Annie, Ellen, Thomas, Bessie and Susan. According to the 1901 Census, James’s father worked as an Agricultural Labourer. Andrew could not read or write. The family were Roman Catholic. The Lawless Family have lived in Greystones for generations. They lived on the land of Dr. Fox. He grew up in a small cottage which housed the whole family. He attended school at Blacklion National School. He did not attend Secondary School.

Greystones was always a small fishing village, but in the mid 1800s it became famous as a Victorian sea-side resort. Many well to-do families flocked to Greystones to live or to simply holiday. This meant that many occupations held by people of old Greystones families were domestic servants and gardeners. And that is exactly what James and his sisters became.  

Adult life

In 1911, James Lawless is listed as working for Elizabeth Jane Eustace as a Gardener Domestic Servant. His sisters Ellen and Susan are also working in the same house. Ellen as a ladies maid/domestic servant and Susan as a cook/domestic servant. It is not clear how long he was working as a gardener and servant, but we know that taking a job in domestic service was popular among the Lawless family. This is clear from 1901 when James’s eldest sisters Annie and Ellen are listed working as domestic servants.


Private James Joseph Lawless, 20380, 2nd battalion royal dublin fusiliers

James enlisted in Greystones, Co. Wicklow in early 1916. There is no record of his enlistment found except on his death certificate from the war office. However historian Liam Dodd was able to confirm for me that he was a late joiner, as his regimental number was 20380, meaning 20380 men have enlisted before him. Also he did not receive the 1914 or 1915 medal, meaning he did not complete service in either of those years. 

 Nobody knows why James joined the war. Perhaps he was looking for adventure, or perhaps a better avenue of income to support himself. 

Now, James Lawless was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  


The 2nd Battalion was extremely instrumental in the run up to the beginning of the first world war. The first band of 2nd Battalion soldiers arrived in France a month before war was declared as part of the 10th Brigade, 4th Division as the British Expeditionary Force. 

The 2nd Battalion was also involved in the retreat following the Battle of Mons, their first engagement taking place at Le Cateau where they fought bravely on 26th August 1914. However there were large numbers of casualties and a badly depleted 2nd Battalion faced the Germans once again at the Battle of Marne (5th-9th September 1914) which finally halted the enemy’s advance. 

Royal Dublin Fusiliers 2nd Battalion Signal Section 1916

Group of unidentified men from the 2nd Battalion

The 2nd Dublins went on to fight in the Battle of Aisne and their largest engagement of all, the Battle of Armentiéres (13th October-2nd November 1914). But it was not over for the soldiers yet. 

1915 saw the beginning of major losses of lives in many subsidiary battle such as second Ypres and the Battle of Saint-Julien , the latter effectively disintegrating the battalion as a fighting unit due to serious Poison-Gas attacks.

At this time, the British Army as a whole had no defence against Gas attacks, resulting in the horrible deaths of thousands of men. Due to this, the 2nd Battalion did not take part in any more battles for the rest of 1915 due to lack of men.

On 1st July 1916, the Battle begun which would claim the life of Private James Lawless. The opening days of the battle took the lives of thousands of men, especially from the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. There were horrific casualties, some days hundreds of men from every Battalion losing their lives. Men of all ages, including boys my own age.

The picture on the left shows the Thiepval Area of the Somme from the 14th September to the 31st October 1916. This is what the area would have looked like at the time of Private James' death. (23rd October 1916)

Private James Lawless' War

Private James Lawless arrived in France some time after March 1916. Before he was posted to the front, the 2nd battalion had faced many bloody battles and suffered horrendous losses. From the time he arrived at the front to his last battle in October, it is clear that his battalion was victorious in a battle – shown on his medal card. 

However James Lawless’s war only lasted a few months. On the 1st of July, the Battle of the Somme began. This was his final battle. 

Private James Lawless, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel R.G.B Jeffreys, died during the hardest battles fought by the 2nd battalion. The 2nd battalion fought in the Lesboeufs sector, attacking Hazy Trench. James’ battalion was the second wave of men to attack the German Trench, the first being shot down by Machine Gun fire. Private Lawless made it to the German Trench where hand to hand combat ensued with the use of Bayonets. Thirty six men were accounted missing from that particular attack, James Lawless is assumed one of those missing men. They say Private James Lawless was killed in Action on the 23rd of October 1916. However he was actually missing from this date on (Died). 

Lieutenant Colonel R.G.B Jeffreys

Below are the Lieutenant Colonel’s letters home to his family discussing with them the horrors he witnessed from the 20th of October onwards. However his outlook changes drastically from war to his social life in the space of a couple of days:

25th October 1916 (two days after James was declared missing): "I was not able to write yesterday, we have been fighting hard and I think the last three nights and two days are quite the hardest I have ever had in my life. The regiment had a hard task and they did it well and covered themselves in glory... I gave the orders that no prisoners were to be taken, as I did not want a lot of Boches in the trenches... I also told them not to waste any ammunition, so you can imagine what happened with the bayonet..."

28th October 1916 (five days after James was declared missing): "The General had the battalion on parade and congratulated them on their last display in battle...I got seven new officers yesterday...One sportsman took too much wine last night and started 'bucking' to four men of another resulted in the four men throwing him down a well from which he was extracted by the Provost Sergeant."

It is clear that the Lieutenant Colonel was not really ‘in touch’ with what his soldiers were really facing on the front and outside the safety of his office, if what he mentions in his letters are anything to go by.


No one knows exactly what happened to James Lawless. He has no grave. It seems that the war office did not have much of an idea either, as it took nearly a year for the Lawless family to find out any information about James. This resulted in countless attempts from the family to find any information which would lead them to find out more about James’s last days. His mother, recently widowed and now worried about her Son, had no idea what happened to James. We assume she ceased to receive letters home from the front.

The Lawless Family's attempts to find James (Newspapers)

  • 25th November 1916, The Wicklow People - "Private James Lawless, 20380, RDF 2nd Battalion, missing since 23rd October 1916, family searching for information."
  • 27th November 1916, The Irish Times - "Private James Lawless, 20380, RDF 2nd Battalion, missing since 23rd October 1916, family searching for information."
  • 2nd December 1916, The Wicklow Newsletter - "Private James Lawless, 20380, RDF 2nd Battalion, missing since 23rd October 1916, family searching for information."

It seems the family were still looking for information nearly a whole year later, as further information requests kept appearing in local and national newspapers.

  • 30th July 1917, The Irish Times - "Private James Lawless, 20380, RDF 2nd Battalion, missing since 23rd October 1916, family searching for information."
  • 2nd June 1917, still missing

Every day, various newspapers across the country published the photos of missing soldiers or soldiers who died at the front, often requesting information by the family’s request. James’ sister Susan put forward the request.

It is unclear if James’ Mother , Mary, or any other family members received any more information about James from the war office, or they just decided to give up hope on his return.  

Whatever they thought, they announced his death in the Irish Times and the Wicklow Newsletter on the 4th August 1917, dating his death as the 23rd October 1916, aged 26. They never heard from him ever again nor did they ever learn what happened to him. It remained a horrific mystery to his mother Mary to her dying day. 

The mother never forgot her Son who never returned home. James’s name is at his Mothers final resting place, written on her grave. Mary never got a chance to visit the Thiepval Memorial, where James is remembered.

See Private James Lawless' record of his place on the Thiepval Memorial here (The Common Wealth War Graves Commission) 

'In Loving Memory of our dear mother Mary Lawless, Blacklion, Greystones, who died 26th January 1954 and her son James who was killed in action 23rd October 1916'.

Private James Lawless' Medal Card

Below is a picture of Private James Lawless’s Medal Card. Written on the back is a message regarding his Medals whereabouts. It reads ‘O’c. Recs. Request’s Auth re Disposal of medals 30/11/1922’. This meant that James' medals were destroyed in 1922, as no family member was able to collect them. Therefore the war office destroyed James' Medals and they are no longer in existence. 

Visiting Thiepval

On the 27th of June 2015 I visited Thiepval Memorial, the place where Private James Lawless' name is memorialised. Even approaching the memorial was an extremely heartbreaking experience. What made it even more emotional for me, was that Marcus and I (representing county Derry) were the students to place the wreath at the memorial, as neither of our soldiers had graves. The experience was so moving. We all placed a single rose on the cross of sacrifice for the soldiers with no known grave from our county. We then said poems and sang songs to honour our soldiers.

Sadly, after the memorial, I realised that I could not see James's name on the wall, as Thiepval was closed for construction to mark the 100 centenary of the Somme next year. However, I along with a few of my friends held a small ceremony for James at the base of Thiepval. I lay a single stalk of Lavender from the garden where he worked before the war (which also holds an extremely personal connection to me due to a coincidence), and soil from my own garden. It was the most heartbreaking thing I have ever had to do. 

Every student on this trip would definitely agree with me when I say it is so emotional and moving to visit your soldiers grave or memorial, as you have form such a personal connection with your soldier. Sadness, because you are visiting his grave. But relief, as you were the person to finally visit them and honour them. 

A couple of my friends and I have decided we will go back to Thiepval and our soldiers graves one day. It was an amazing experience we will never forget.

The Journey Continues

On the 2nd of July 2015, a whole 99 years and a day from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, I visited the grave of Mary Lawless, James' mother again. Coming back to the grave was another extremely moving an emotional experience, as I had now visited the place where James was before he died. His family could never visit Thiepval, so for me to return and visit Mary's grave was very special. I was the first person to know of James and to honour him where he last was. 

I brought a poppy cross from Thiepval to bring home to Mary Lawless' grave. I also brought a single pink rose that I found in my garden. Oddly enough, it appeared when I returned from France and was the exact same colour as the one I placed on the memorial. So i thought it fitting to leave it with the cross on Mary's grave. Perhaps it was a last sign from the gardener, Private James Lawless.

The cross and the rose now lay on Mary Lawless's grave, son and mother reunited once again.

Click here for my PowerPoint Presentation on Private James Lawless

"We are not makers of history. we are made by history"

- Martin Luther King Jr

To say that I am a bit of a history buff is kind of an understatement.

I don't really remember a time when I didn't love history. Ever since I was really young I absolutely adored it. Perhaps it was because my Granny Phillie always told me stories about her Gaelic League days in the forties and fifties or her Mother's and Grandmother's experiences of the Civil War. Maybe it was because my Dad always told me tales about how the O'Hara family emigrated to Scotland for a new life, just to come back to Ireland a generation before I was born. Or maybe it was because both of my Grandfathers, Irish and Scottish were in the RAF in World War II. Both Called John. Both in the same Air-base in Newcastle, England. Little did they know they would meet years later when their children would end up marrying each other and become my parents... and the rest you could say, is history.

But I do know for a fact, the moment when I realised I absolutely loved Irish History, was when I read my Grandfather's biography on Michael Collins. I never got to meet my Grandfather, but apparently he was a bit of a History Buff too. It leads me to believe that the love of history that I picked up along the way was nothing to do with my own personal interests, but that it is in fact, hereditary. There's a long line of history buffs in my family alright!

If I had to choose one period of 20th Century Irish History, it would have to be from 1900-1930 or so. Even ask my friends, I manage to throw in a Dev or Collins quote here and there most days. I find that time fascinating. Ireland went from being a country under British Rule to enjoying its first taste of independence in the space of a few years. All the changes that took place, all the lives that were affected for generations to come stemmed from that time. It was the formation of the state, but also the formation of the Irish Society we see today.

I think if you were to mention  the year '1916' to any Irish person, they would immediately be reminded of the ill-fated Easter Rebellion, a rebellion attempting to claim independence for Ireland that would kick-start years of unrest. Unrest and destruction that would end up scarring many Irish families for generations.

Irish people rarely remember that 1916 was also a year for a different kind of war, that in total would claim the lives of 420,000 British Soldiers in one Battle alone. An unearthly proportion of these men were in fact, Irish. That battle was the Battle of the Somme, starting on the 1st of July 1916 and finishing that November. But Irish men lost their lives before 1916 in this war. It started in 1914. The death and destruction didn't end until 1918.

One of those lives that the Battle of the Somme took was Private James Lawless from County Wicklow. Not only did he never return home. His family had no idea what happened to him. No one did.

But James was among so many Irish soldiers who died or went missing 'on the behalf of small nations'. All of whom Ireland forgot about in its exciting and fast-paced claim for it's own Independence. These Soldiers went off to war as heroes. They came back to an utterly changed Ireland, an Ireland that dissociated itself with anything to do with Britain and its army. These heroes that fought for Ireland's independence in other ways were forgotten. And its only till now, that we are finally remembering them. 

I can't express enough how much of an honour it is to represent my county in this project. Not only have I discovered more about Ireland's past in World War I, but I have also went on a personal journey while learning about the life of James Lawless which was cut short by a bloody and pointless war.

About me

My name is Eva O'Hara from County Wicklow. I am 16 years old and I have just finished Transition Year (fourth year) in Loreto Bray. TY was by far my favourite year yet. I got to try out so many new and exciting things this year, from taking part in the European Youth Parliament, to taking a medicine course, to the My Adopted Soldier project. This year has been jammed packed with so many wonderful opportunities and experiences that I will never forget.

I first learned about this project back in October 2014 when I saw a poster for it in my history teacher's classroom. I was instantly interested as I absolutely love anything to do with World War I and that time, especially the Irish effort involved. I wrote my essay and sent it off. I was delighted and absolutely shocked when I heard back a few months later, informing me that I would be representing Wicklow in the project!