James Arthur Murphy


1893 - 1972

Portrait of James Murphhy

Born in North East Margaree in 1893, James Arthur Murphy was the son of James and Julia (Coady) Murphy, farmers of Irish Catholic descent. The fourth child in a family of eight, he went to work in a coal mine at 16. He later returned to his studies and attended St. Francis Xavier University and the Royal Military College in Kingston in 1915. In March 1916, he joined the 59th Battalion as a lieutenant and sailed to England on board the S.S. Olympic the following month.

A Life In Photographs

Explore the photograph gallery below to learn more about James’s life in Margaree, his family, and military service.

Beyond the Shores of Cape Breton
Coloured war map depicting the many small towns in rural France; includes Vimy.

The Canadians in France War Map (Montreal Star Publishing Company, ca. 1918). Map 185.

Of the more than 619,000 Canadians who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War, nearly 425,000 went overseas, and more than 61,000 did not come home. Approximately 36,000 of those who served were from Nova Scotia, a suggested 4,500 of whom died in the war. Those who survived were expected to return to civilian life, but for many the transition proved difficult. Some struggled to find work, while others suffered the effects of physical and psychological wounds.

The men who volunteered in the CEF came from a variety of backgrounds. Drawn from rural areas and urban centres across the country, they included doctors, dentists, clerks, farmers, fishermen, miners, and students. The majority were recent British immigrants or men of British background, but there were also men of various ethnicities (including those of Acadian, Mi’kmaq, and African Nova Scotian heritage). They ranged in age from 18 to 45 (with exceptions), and were typically single, religious, and possessed a limited education. Some had previous militia experience, but many did not.

The thousands of Canadians who served overseas left their communities, homes, family, and friends. Their lives would be forever changed, including James Arthur Murphy of Northeast Margaree.

In the trenches
Sepia typed military orders with black ink notations.

Lieutenant Murphy's Vimy raid orders, with James's handwritten notations, February 9, 1917. MG 20.25 James Arthur Murphy fonds.

“I don’t want to make out that I was a hero. The heroes are pushing up daisies over there.” – James Arthur Murphy, Lieutenant

Once in England, James spent several months instructing physical and bayonet training, but he was anxious to get to France and join the fight in the field. By October his lobbying proved successful, and he was transferred into the 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan), which was arranged by Lieutenant Colonel Dawson, James’s former professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston.

The 46th was a particularly aggressive battalion that became known as the “Suicide Battalion” because of its high casualty rate: 1,133 killed and 3,484 wounded—a casualty rate of 91.5%—in the 27 months it was in action. In the fall of 1916, the Battalion was sent to participate in the Somme offensive along the River Somme in France. On November 10th, 1916, James was present when the Battalion staged an attack on the Germans at Regina Trench, near Courcelette. Known as the Capture of Regina Trench, it marked the end of the months long offensive, which would prove to be one of the bloodiest and most catastrophic battles of the war.

Three months later, in the early hours of the morning on February 13, 1917, James was wounded in a large brigade assault at Souchez, a village nearly three kilometres northwest of Vimy Ridge. Led by Lieutenant Colonel R.D. Davies, commanding officer of the 44th Battalion, the brigade was comprised of junior officers and men from each of its four battalions (44th, 46th, 47th and 50th), for a total of 320 men. The purpose of the raid was to destroy enemy tunnels that the Germans had built as part of the extended defences at Vimy Ridge, and was part of the lead-up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. It required the Canadians to pass through three lines of enemy trenches. The fighting was fierce, and casualties were high. Thirty-one Canadians were killed in the raid, and many more were injured, including James. He sustained a very serious injury—a compound fracture in the humerus, the long bone that extends from the shoulder to the elbow—to his left arm and was removed from the field for medical treatment.

Following the raid, Lieutenant Colonel Dawson recommended James for the Military Cross, which was approved in April 1917 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He rallied several raiding parties at a critical time. He displayed great gallantry throughout, and although wounded, by his example and effort rendered invaluable assistance in making the operation a success.” James received his Military Cross from King George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on June 30, 1917.

After five months in hospitals in France and England, James was repatriated to Canada in July 1917 for further treatment in military hospitals in Halifax (Camp Hill) and Sydney (City Hospital and Moxham Military Convalescent Hospital). In May 1919 he was posted briefly to the military district depot in Montreal, then was sent back to Halifax where he was demobilized in July 1919.

After Blighty
Sepia portrait of a family in a studio; there are two parents and five children.

James and Elizabeth Murphy and their five children, ca. 1940. MG 20.25 James Arthur Murphy fonds.

Following the war James returned to civilian life, a transition that proved difficult for many men. Convinced that opportunities existed in repair and construction work, he and three other men established Cape Breton Engineering Works, later renamed Moore & Murphy Marine, Mechanical and Structural Engineering in Sydney in 1918. In 1920, he returned to St. FX, where he enrolled in a two-year engineering program with a view to completing his degree at the Nova Scotia Technical College. A deep economic depression in the region soon set in, however, and the company’s success was short-lived. After its closure, James was forced to seek work elsewhere, and like many Cape Bretoners before him, he left the island and moved to Boston in 1923.

He worked in construction in and around Boston for several years, and later moved to Detroit, where he worked first in a steel mill, then in the Ford and Chevrolet car factories. During the Second World War, he worked at the Naval Ordnance Depot in Detroit, following which he worked in the Budd automotive parts company until his retirement in 1961.

While in Boston James met Elizabeth “Betty” MacDonald of Iona, whom he married in 1924. Together they had five children: Patricia, Kathleen, Julia, James, and Delores. Although they lived in the United States for nearly fifty years, the Murphy’s retained close ties with family in Cape Breton and frequently returned to the island to visit, a tradition which family members continue today. James died in Detroit in 1972, aged 79.

A man from Margaree
Watercolour painting of hills and a valley. There is a handpainted writing in the bottom left corner with the location and date that the landscape was created.

Vale of Margaree, September 18, 1904, by Louise McLennan. Wildflowers of Cape Breton, Rare Books Collection, Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

James Murphy’s story represents the changing nature of Canadian (and especially Cape Breton) society in the early years of the twentieth century. Born in a rural part of the island where educational opportunities were limited, he sought work (and likely some life experience) away from the family farm. After working as a coal miner for two years, he returned to school with the support of his family and began his service in the military as a lieutenant. But his progress was cut short when he was wounded in the war, and his injury forced him to seek another path. Economic depression and industrial unrest made life difficult in the postwar years, and James’s attempts to further his education and establish a business in that climate proved unsuccessful. Like many others, he left for the United States in search of opportunity and stability. While there, he married, had a family, and worked in the steel and automotive industries until his retirement, and in so doing, forged a new way ahead for himself during a period of great unrest, uncertainty, and change.

Sepia typed military orders with black ink notations.

"I don’t want to make out that I was a hero.
The heroes are pushing up daisies over there."

James Arthur Murphy

Somewhere in the mud

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