Incredible WW1 Dalkeith boy soldier’s story re-told to children

Children's author and former teacher Gill Arbuthnott with her latest book, A Secret Diary of the First World War. Based on the real-life diary of James Marchbank (left) - a 14-year-old boy from Dalkeith
Children's author and former teacher Gill Arbuthnott with her latest book, A Secret Diary of the First World War. Based on the real-life diary of James Marchbank (left) - a 14-year-old boy from Dalkeith

The incredible story of the 14-year-old Dalkeith boy who went to war has been re-told by a children’s author based on the schoolboy’s diaries.

James Marchbank was called up in 1914 and survived the war. James was called up in August 1914 and by November he was on the front line. He kept the diary during his entire time on the Western front until August 1918.

Now his story has been re-told in ‘A Secret Diary of The First World War’ by Gill Arbuthnott, who got his diary from the Royal Scots’ Museum at Edinburgh Castle.

She said: “It was fascinating. What made it unique was he went there legally because he was in the territorials and therefore exempt. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. They were allowed to have a certain amount of buglers and drummers.

“James grew-up on the Western Front. The more I learnt the stranger it got. James’ older brother Willie had to lie his way in, even though e was two/ three years older. They both survived the war. I have learnt a lot about attitudes to war at the time. It was very different.

“I would love to do a whole novel about James. I’m quite tempted to go back and do more about him.”

Gill has enjoyed passing James’s story onto children: “It’s important to tell this story to kids. There are some good fiction and non-fiction books about the First World War. But this is different because it’s based on the true story of someone they can relate to.

“It’s not a typical children’s book. It can’t be given the nature of it. I have just started going around the schools with this. They are fascinated that somebody not much older than them went through this.”

After the war James went to work on the railways. He had a daughter, and a son - who is still alive.

Gill added: “The relatives have been incredibly generous. It’s a great responsibility to take an actual person’s life and mould it into a book.

“Thankfully they were very happy for me to do that. They have shown me photographs, medals and some of his letters.

“James wrote more about his time in the war and did a recorded interview which you can listen to.

“He had a long life and he set-up the ambulance service in Dalkeith. There is quite a lot about him in the museum.”

Gill will be joined by the book’s illustrator Darren Gate at a special launch event to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, at Augustine United Church in Edinburgh on Thursday, November 8.