Page taken from the service file of Tunneller J.R. McDougall of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, First World War.

James Murphy

James Murphy, Lieutenant

At first glance, the early life of James Murphy would not have been unlike the lives of young men in rural Cape Breton today. He would have had few opportunities for education or employment. After he completed Grade 10, the school in North East Margaree closed and so with limited options he went to work in the coal mines. After two years of work underground, James capitalized on the family connections his mother had at St. Francis Xavier University, and went to Antigonish to complete his high school and begin post secondary education. This would set a course for him that paved the way for a successful career following his years of service in the First World War.


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

Introducing James Murphy

  • James Murphy could be described as an intelligent, ambitious man who was adventurous, determined, and a born leader. He came from a humble background, growing up in a typical farming family in rural Cape Breton. Throughout his 79 years he experienced a range of adventures including working as a coal miner, earning post-secondary and engineering degrees, serving in the 46th Battalion overseas during the First World War, and working in Boston and Detroit.
  • As an introduction to James Murphy, view the video paying close attention to dates, his adventures, and key milestones throughout his life. Your task is to create a timeline of James’s life, telling his story through chronological events. To get you started, determine the year James was born (you may need to calculate this based on clues in the video), and use that as a starting point.
  • The next step is to gather information on the life of James Murphy. The video gives a detailed account of his story, so view it a second time and take notes that will remind you of key milestones in his life along with dates. You may find that you will need additional information, and just as with any project, you can use the Internet, books, newspaper articles, and other sources. Be sure to note the source for every piece of information you discover, because you may want to go back to it to ensure accuracy.
  • Next, view the video a third time and note the important events in James’s life, such as his birth and death, work experience, years when he studied, historical events that influenced his life, etc.
  • Now you are ready to create a timeline of James’s life, starting with his year of birth, and ending with the year of his death. Consider using technology to create an online timeline and include enough detailed information to give an accurate account of his life story.

Growing up in Margaree, Cape Breton

  • Like parents today, James’s parents wanted the best for him and his siblings. They encouraged and supported him to attend St. Francis Xavier University (St. F.X.) following two years working in a coal mine. 
  • Locate Margaree on a map of Cape Breton. Today Margaree is a picturesque, rural setting noted primarily for its heritage river that flows through the region. The river is famous as an important ecosystem for wild Atlantic salmon. In the early 1900s, many residents of Margaree farmed. Through research, discover what farming was like at that time and why children were encouraged to be part of the family operation, eventually taking over the farm from their parents. James’s parents had a farm, but after the local school closed, James decided to take a job in a coal mine in Port Hood. Why do you think he did not stay at home to work on the farm?
  • James’s mother was a cousin of Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins, two Roman Catholic priests from Margaree who had ties to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. Read about their work by visiting the following Nova Scotia Museum web page:

Coady and Tompkins were from North East Margaree, and they understood the hardships of life in rural Nova Scotia. Through their connections, James Murphy, after two years working in the coal mines, was accepted for entrance at St. F.X. where he completed his high school requirements and began post secondary studies. Do you think many young men had access to university at this period in history? Why or why not? How do you think James, the son of a hard-working farmer, was able to attend?

  • While attending St. F.X., James had another opportunity to study at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. Explore the James Murphy exhibit to discover why this opportunity became available. Do a Wikipedia search of the Royal Military College of Canada to learn about the importance of this institutional in the training of officers for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Recruitment and the First World War

  • In April 1916, James joined the 59th Battalion as a lieutenant and boarded the SS Olympic in Halifax to sail overseas to join the war effort. What he was about to face for the next two years was more than he or most soldiers imagined. James had two other brothers who joined the armed forces to fight in the war. His older brother participated in battle for only 6 months before he was killed in battle at Cambrai. His younger brother was conscripted in June 1918 and completed his basic training but the war ended before he was deployed overseas.
  • For James’s parents, having three of five sons in the Armed Forces was a constant worry. They were young adults when they left home, and there was always the concern that they would not return alive. Today communication is instant because of technology, but at this time in history soldiers and their families could wait for weeks or months before receiving any news. In the photograph gallery, locate the letter that James wrote to his father in October 1916, six months after leaving for overseas. He was twenty-three years old, and the contents of the letter reveal a young man who wanted to portray bravery while knowing the danger he was about to face before he went to the front line. Read the letter and make three observations of the type of young man that James was. How long do you think it would have taken for this letter to reach his family in North East Margaree? How do you think his parents reacted when they received this letter?
  • James’s parents received a telegram from the Officer in Charge in Ottawa on February 16, 1917 that said James had been wounded in battle on February 13, three days before. Locate a copy of the telegram in the photograph gallery. How do you think his parents reacted to this news? Several weeks passed before they received an update. If you were them, how do you think you would cope with the anxiety? Locate James’s Medical Records in his Service File. How serious were his injuries and how long do you think his recovery would be? 
  • A second letter from James to his father is also in the photograph gallery. It was three months later and James was recovering in hospital from a serious injury to his arm. Imagine the relief that his parents felt to receive word from him that he was improving. In the letter, he mentions his younger brother Martin who was helpful working on the farm. However, a year later in June 1918 Martin was conscripted to the army. He completed basic training but never served overseas because the war ended in November of that year. The following website from the Canadian War Museum describes the pros and cons of conscription for the First World War when it was initiated in 1917:

Read the article and study the objects and photos contained on the site. Imagine that you are a member of Prime Minister Borden’s cabinet and you are receiving fierce criticism from the opposition party. Organize a debate on the pros and cons of conscription.

  • James’s older brother, Dennis, was working in a coal mine in Saskatchewan. He joined the armed forces in June 1917, a year after James was wounded. How do you think their parents felt about his decision to go to war? Dennis only served overseas for six months when he was killed in battle. His death certificate which is shown in the photograph gallery gives very limited information. Why do you think this is so? He is buried in Bucquoy Road Cemetery, south of Arras, France. Visit the following website to learn more about this cemetery and the soldiers who are buried there:

Imagine that you are travelling in France to learn more about the First World War and you visit this cemetery. Write a journal entry of what you discover there.

Life after the War

  • During the First World War, 425,000 Canadians served overseas in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Of that number, 36,000 were from Nova Scotia and approximately 4,500 died in combat. In relation to the population of Nova Scotia at the time, this large percentage would have had an overall effect on the economy and society in general. In addition to those who died overseas, many who returned suffered from physical and emotional injuries. Very few Nova Scotian families were not affected directly by the war. Life in Nova Scotia after the war could never be the same.
  • In 1911, Statistics Canada reported Nova Scotia’s population at 492,338 (approximately half of what it is today). Calculate the percentage of Nova Scotians who served overseas in the war. Calculate the percentage who died. Speculate on how this may have affected the economy and society of Nova Scotia following the First World War.
  • When James Murphy returned home late in 1918, he continued to convalesce for the next five months at Moxham Convalescent Hospital in Sydney. Moxham Castle, one of two “castles” in Canada, was built for Helen and Arthur Moxham, he being appointed the general manager of Dominion Iron and Steel Company in Sydney. Research the history of Moxham Castle, and describe its significance during the war years. What happened after it was no longer a convalescent hospital?
  • The commitment and dedication of soldiers who fought overseas for our country is recognized in many ways, such as medals, citations, etc. However, many who could not go to war supported the war effort from home. In the photograph gallery, you will find a copy of a National Service Diploma of Honour that was awarded to James’s father, James M. Murphy, in recognition of his efforts in food production during the First World War. What do you think is the significance of the efforts of people like James’s father? List other ways that people supported the war effort from home.
  • While James was recovering in Moxham Convalescent Hospital, he met a fellow patient from Louisbourg and they spoke about their futures. Thinking there was a need for engineering services, they decided to open Moore and Murphy Marine, Mechanical and Structural Engineering in Sydney. Immediately after the war, there was a downturn to the economy, and the business struggled and was forced to close. The establishment of this business demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit that James demonstrated. Do you think there is a correlation between the end of the war, the return of the soldiers who served, and the general economy of Canada? Research the economy of Canada at that time to justify your answer.


  • Towards the end of the video on James Murphy there is a quote from Brian Tennyson, Historian and Professor Emeritus, Cape Breton University. He states, “... the war didn’t end in 1918, even if the killing stopped. Its impact on those who went overseas, those who waited at home and prayed for them, and everyone else was profound and haunts us still.” 
  • Explain in detail what you think Tennyson meant by this statement taking into consideration why we are still haunted by the First World War.
  • Today we still have military men and women who are deployed overseas to serve in conflicts between countries. Do you think the impact on those who now serve as well as those who are waiting at home for them to return is similar? Do we provide more support for those who continue to struggle with PTSD than they did in 1918?
  • James returned to St. F.X. in 1920 to continue his studies in engineering with the hope of completing his engineering degree at the Nova Scotia Technical College. Lack of funds forced him to abandon that idea, and so he moved to Boston where he worked in construction. It was not unusual for Cape Bretoners and others from the Maritime Provinces to move to the Boston area where they had relatives and work was plentiful. 

There James met and married a woman from Cape Breton and began a family in 1923. Later they would move to Detroit where he worked in the automotive industry. Outmigration was prevalent and continues to cause serious concerns for the survival of small towns and communities today. Why do you think this is the case? Work with a classmate to determine why outmigration characterizes this region, and speculate what is currently happening or could happen to change this pattern.

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