News From The Past Sligo War Stories

News from the past is a project to commemorate the people of Sligo who fought in WW1. This blog will be used to share these stories.

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Private James Duffy

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James Duffy was born in Sligo on the 1st of May, 1890 to James and Mary Duffy.  As a child, James with his parents emigrated to Edinburgh where he learned the skill of stone cutting and became a successful long distance runner with the Edinburgh Harriers.

In 1911, James emigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto.  Soon after his arrival he started competing in long-distance races there and quickly made a name for himself in sporting circles after placing 2nd in the 1911 running of the Ward Marathon, a 20 mile event in Toronto.  Duffy earned the right to represent Canada in the 1912 Olympics which were held in Stockholm, Sweden where he finished in 5th place. 

Upon his return to Canada, James Duffy had a string of successes, he set a record in the Ward marathon of 1 hour and 46 minutes and 15 seconds which was unbeaten for 46 years.  In April 1914, Duffy won the Boston Marathon with an impressive time of 2 hours and 25 minutes and 14 seconds.  The race was a thriller, with fellow Canadian Édouard Fabre matching his pace throughout and only in the final mile did Duffy take the lead and won by  15 seconds. After the Boston Marathon, Duffy turned professional but pickings were slim and he lost his first professional race to Édouard Fabre.

Duffy enlisted in the Canadian Army at the outbreak of World War I. He joined the 91st Argyle Regiment and was subsequently transferred to the 16th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Private Duffy was among the first Canadian soldiers to see combat when his 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion (Manitoba Regiment) took part in heavy fighting near Ypres, Belgium on April 23, 1915. This was part of a larger battle that saw the Canadians courageously hold the front line after the Germans used poison gas for the first time. He was one of the 278 members (out of 305) of the 16th Infantry Battalion (the Canadian Scottish) who were killed in the midnight assault on German positions at Kitchener’s Wood, northeast of Ypres. Duffy was buried in the military cemetery at Vlamertinge, 8 days before his 25th birthday and 4 days after Édouard Fabre won the Boston Marathon.

This is an extract accounting the death of Private Duffy from a book called “The Great War as I saw it” by Frederick George Scott who served alongside him.

  “A shrapnel burst just as the men moved off and a man dropped in the rear rank. I went over to him and found he was bleeding in the neck. I bound him up and then taking his kit, which he was loath to lose, was helping him to walk towards the dressing station when I saw what I thought were sandbags in the moonlight. I called out, "Is anybody there?" A voice replied, "Yes, Sir, there is a dying man here." I went over and there I found two stretcher-bearers beside a young fellow called Duffy, who was unconscious. He had been struck by a piece of shrapnel in the head and his brain was protruding. Duffy was a well-known athlete and had won the Marathon race. We tried to lift him, but with his equipment on he was too heavy, so I sent off the wounded man to Wieltje with one of the stretcher-bearers who was to return with a bearer party. The other one and I watched by Duffy. It was an awful and wonderful time. Our field batteries never slackened their fire and the wood echoed back the crackling sound of the guns. The flare lights all round gave a lurid background to the scene. At the foot of the long slope, down which the brave lads had gone to the attack, I saw the black outline of the trees. Over all fell the soft light of the moon. A great storm of emotion swept through me and I prayed for our men in their awful charge, for I knew that the Angel of Death was passing down our lines that night. When the bearer party arrived, we lifted Duffy on to the stretcher, and the men handed me their rifles and we moved off. I hung the rifles on my shoulder, and I thought if one of them goes off and blows my brains out, there will be a little paragraph in the Canadian papers, "Canon Scott accidentally killed by the discharge of a rifle," and my friends will say, "What a fool he was to fuss about rifles, why didn't he stick to his own job?" However, they were Ross rifles and had probably jammed. There were many wounded being carried or making their way towards Wieltje. The road was under shell fire all the way."


  • James Duffy WW1 Soldier,Sligo and Toronto, Vlamertinge Military Cemetery
  • James Duffy, WW1 Soldier, Sligo and Toronto, Boston Marathon 1914
  • Private James Duffy, Vlamertinge Military Cemetery
  • James Duffy crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon, 1914

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  • Anne Sterling
    Anne Sterling Wednesday, 25 February 2015

    James Duffy was a very impressive young man! Frederick George Scott, who wrote about him, was a Canadian writer of note I believe.
    As a Canadian, I was not aware of the Toronto races or that the Boston Marathon was also run before WWI.
    I was looking at this site to find my grandfather's 1st cousin Henry Cullen Ross, son of a Riverstown medical doctor. I would like to know more about Harry and his family. It would be wonderful to have a photo of anyone in this family.
    Anne Sterling in Ottawa Canada

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