THE GREAT WAR COLUMN: Edinburgh's Fallen Alumni

James Crozier was a former medical student at the University of Edinburgh and was tragically killed within the first few weeks of World War I.

The University’s Roll of Honour from 1915 lists the first of those to be killed during the opening months of the conflict. The document, which can be found at the National Library of Scotland, records 16 Edinburgh alumni killed between August 1914 and January 1915. The Roll of Honour further lists those that were wounded, as well as details of the various roles of alumni in the conflict.

Roll of Honour, 1915

Roll of Honour, 1915

James Crozier is the second name on the Roll of Honour, which is organised alphabetically rather than chronologically. Crozier is reported as having been killed in action on 27 August 1914. Further records tragically reveal that he had only arrived in France a mere 13 days earlier and that his death occurred on his first day of active combat. James served in the B Company of the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, after having joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1912 before enlisting in 1914.

Crozier was originally from Cheshire but had moved to Scotland where he attended Loretto School in Musselburgh between 1906-1909. From 1910, he read Medicine at Edinburgh for two years while living with relatives in Longyester. We can only assume that his medical ambitions were put on hold in 1912 when he joined the RSF. Tragically, they would never be resumed.

The chronology of events surrounding Crozier’s premature death remains fragmented. However, from the limited information available, it is possible to put together a timeline of his experiences. Having enlisted in 1914, he was taken to Flanders, landing at Le Havre on 14 August 1914. Within two weeks, he would be dead.

On 27 August 1914, his unit prepared for their first day of active service. They were based near Etreux, in northern France, and had been given the task of halting a German advance. However, they were outnumbered six to one by the German troops. Crozier is alleged to have shouted, ‘There they are, come on men!’ as he exposed himself to the onslaught of the enemy’s rifles. From Crozier’s unit, a mere four officers survived their first day of battle.

The first British casualty of the war is reported to have been on 21 August 1914, less than a week before the death of James Crozier. John Parr is widely believed to have been the first British Commonwealth soldier to be killed in action during the conflict.  Both deaths marked the start of a long and bloody war.

News of Crozier’s death did not reach home until October 1914. An obituary was printed in the Haddington Courier, which provides biographical information and highlights the importance of newspapers as an archival resource in historical research. Memorials across Midlothian pay further tribute to Crozier, including those at Loretto School and the Holy Trinity Church in Haddington. He was repatriated, unlike so many of those killed during the First World War. His gravestone is located at St Mary’s Church in Haddington, along with other members of his family.  

James Crozier may have been the first Edinburgh University alumnus to be killed, but he would not be the last.  In the first year of the war, 18 alumni were counted among the war dead, however this would increase to over 160 in 1916 alone. The University suffered the deaths of hundreds of alumni, as well as many wounded, as a result of the conflict.