The Curious Case of Private James Sterling

Pat Geary has uncovered the curious case of Private James Sterling, who is commemorated on the 1916 Lisburn Roll of Honour (Lisburn Standard) and the Lisburn War Memorial, but whose death has seemed slipped through the official records of the war, including the Commonwealth War Graves.

Sterling, Rifleman James

Born in Lisburn , probably in 1888 or 1889 by 1901 he was living with his widowed mother Agnes and three siblings, Margaret (23), Annie (21) and Patrick (14) at 67 Gregg Street in the town. Roman Catholic by faith, James the youngest member of the household, was the only one not working and he would be the first to leave.

While by 1911 the other members of the family were still in Gregg Street, now at number 91, James had enlisted in the Army and was serving with 1 Royal Irish Rifles somewhere in Burma or the Andaman Islands. In the absence of his service record it is impossible to say when he joined up or whether or not he ever returned home but that, it would seem, is extremely unlikely.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Rifles were in Aden where they would remain until the end of September. Stationed at the Infantry barracks at Steamer Point they busied themselves strengthening the harbour defences. Detatchments were also despatched to the island of Perim to act as guards and escorts for the German “prize ships” that had been captured there.

Relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers on the 27 September 1914 the battalion left Aden the following day on the ‘Dilwara’. However, when they arrived at Liverpool three and a half weeks later , James Sterling was not with them. He had died on the 5 October 1914 in Lady Strangford Hospital, Port Said. The circumstances of his death are unknown as is his final resting place; it is as if he had disappeared. Not only is there no record of him in “Soldiers’ Died in the Great War” or “Ireland’s Memorial Record”, but it appears that the Commonwealth War Commission have no record of him either. The only public recognition of his service is on Lisburn War Memorial and on the Roll of Honour for Lisburn Roman Catholic Church published in the Standard just before Christmas 1916.

As for his family there would be another tragedy to endure. Patrick Sterling, James’s elder brother had also enlisted and served with 1RIR. In April 1915 he was wounded by a German rifle grenade and, as a result, had his left leg amputated. Subsequently discharged, he would survive the war but only just, dying at home on the 30 November 1918. Having lost her youngest son right at the start of the war, Agnes Sterling lost her eldest right at the end.