Privates Enock and Harry Birch

Another exploration of names on the cenotaph at St James, Ogley Hay.


Lichfield Mercury 10 Dec 1915


Local Casualties: — News has been received by Mr and Mrs H Birch, of High Street, Brownhills, that their son, Private H Birch (25), 5th South Staffords, has been rather severely wounded in the head, shoulders, hands and left leg, and is now in a hospital in France. His brother, Enoch Birch, was in the 10th South Staffords, and was wounded on May 18th, and died on July 10th, in hospital in Glasgow. He was brought to Brownhills and interred in St James’s Parish Church burial ground.

This has been a frustrating search. Often, the best starting point is the register of soldiers who died in WWI, which is fine when the record is accurate! Going on what I had found in the censuses, Enock (or Enoch) was easy enough to find, but all I could find was a note that Harry had died in the same year. Eventually, that would lead somewhere, but what was their background, and what was their relationship to Brownhills?

The 1901 census records the two brothers at Silver Street, Brownhills, with siblings and parents, Henry, coal miner hewer, and Harriet Birch. Henry and Harriey were both born in Shropshire, but I had no idea this would have any relevance later. Enock and Harry, aged 11 and 8, were both born at Castleford, Yorkshire.

In 1911 Harry, formally Henry, was with family at Brickiln Street, Brownhills. Father, Henry, Harry and his brothers Brian and Thomas were coal miners; a typical Brownhills family.

At the same time Enock was in the Army, in barracks at Gibraltar. If his motivation was to see the World, he would not have been disappointed. Private Enock Birch served in the South Staffordshire Regiment, 1st Battalion infantry. From Gibraltar he was posted in 1913 to Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Then, on 19 September 1914 the battalion disembarked at Southampton and were marched to Lyndhurst in the New Forest, Hampshire. They sailed to Zeebrugge, Belgium, on 6 October 1914, where they were ordered to assist the defence of Antwerp, but were too late to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

Enock saw some fierce action. The battalion suffered heavy losses at the first battle of Ypres (19 Oct – 22 Nov 1914). Reinforced, they took part in the Battles of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 Mar 1915) and disastrous Aubers Ridge (9-10 May 1915), then Festubert (15-25 May 1915). There, Enock was wounded on 18 May 1915, when the battalion was unable to progress against the German artillery. The place of death in the records is “home”, but cannot be taken at face value; it simply means on home territory. In fact he succumbed to his injuries on 10 July 1915 in hospital at Glasgow, Scotland.

The records tell that his effects were £24 2s. 6d. to be paid to the sole legatee Harriet Birch, his mother. So Henry senior had died. There was also a gratuity of £5. Poor old Harriet had lost her husband and son in such a short space of time.

So what befell Harry? On the web I found an obscure note that he died in the same year as Enock. When I narrowed the search to December 1915 I found a record of Henry Birch, who died of wounds, 12 Deccember 1915, but his birthplace was given as Sevengates, Salop. Not Castleford? It seems even the Army was not perfect! But he was resident at Brownhills, and his parents were from Shropshire. It had to be right.

Harry served in the 1st 5th Battalion, Territorial Reserve, South Staffordshire Regiment. They landed 3 March 1915 at Le Havre, France. On 12 May 1915 the formation became the 137th Brigade, 46th (North Midland) Division. After training at Luton, Bedfordshire, The North Midland Division was deployed to France in February and March 1915, the first Territorial Force to complete. The 137th Brigade was in the forefront of the attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt (13–15 Oct 1915). The Brigade, with 1/5th South Staffs in the van, advanced toward the German lines behind a gas cloud, but this just hung around in no-mans-land craters, and served merely as a warning for the Germans. The attack failed and the South Staffs were almost entirely wiped out. As far as I can work out this was the last major action for the Brigade before they were moved to Egypt in December 1915. It is almost certain, therefore, that Hohenzollern Redoubt was where Harry was wounded.

46th North Midland Division Memorial at Vermelles.  Source:  Webmatters.

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