Today we remember John William Birch of Witham on the Hill and the 7th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, on the 100th Anniversary of the day he sadly died of wounds, 29th April 1917.
John Willie Birch was born early in 1889 in Little Bytham to Thomas Birch a woodman (forester) born in Sproxton, Leicestershire and his wife Mary Jane King of Little Bytham.
They were married in 1885 in the Bourne district, Mary already having two daughters, they had another 8 children, 6 more girls and 2 boys.
They lived in Little Bytham initially before moving to edenham and then on to Lound. In 1911 John can be found living with his parents in Lound, aged 22, working as a bricklayers labourer.
John enlisted in Grantham and joined the newly formed 7th Battalion Lincolnshire regiment in September 1914.
The Battalion trained around Wareham before moving to Winchester in May 1915 for final intensive war training.
On the 10th July the Battalion received orders that they would be sent into action and on the 14th they marched out of Flowerdown Camp (Winchester) and entrained for Felixstowe with a strength of 21 officers and 932 other ranks.
At midnight on they disembarked in Boulogne and proceeded to Ostehove Camp.
9am on the 15th July saw the Battalion route march to Pont-Des-Briques station and entrain for Wizernes near St Omer and then Billet at Setques and Quelmes where they remained until the 17th July.
The Battalion then moved to Wallon Cappel and then Eecke and on the 21st 5 officers were sent into trenches near Ypres for instruction. On the 24th the Battalion, with the 51st Brigade was placed in Corps reserve with a strength of 29 officers and 933 other ranks.
By the 27th July the Battalion was sent into trenches near Reninghelst, attached to the 138th Brigade, 46th Division and received their first casualties in battle on the 30th July with 6 other ranks wounded. It was not until the 17th August that the Battalion received its first fatality in the trenches.
The 7th Battalion remained in the Ypres area until March when it moved to Armentieres to continue in the trenches there until the end of May 1916.
June 1916 saw the battalion move to St Omer and then on to Allonville to enter brigade training for the rest of June in preparation for the major offensive that was planned for the end of June. On 30th June 1916 the battalion arrived in Morlandcourt to await orders.
On the 1st July 1916 (first day of the battle of the Somme) the Battalion marched from Helly to Fricourt to join the British front line. They relieved the 6th Dorsets and then on the 2nd July were ordered to attack Fricourt with the South Staffs. They attained some objectives before being held up by the enemy guns in Fricourt wood.
The Battalion’s first tour of the Somme trenches finished on the 12th July when they were relived and moved back to Fordringy.
Since the 1st of July in this first action on The Somme the battalion casualties were 7 officers and 49 other ranks killed, 7 officers and 246 other ranks wounded, 28 other ranks missing.
The 7th battalion Lincolnshire Regiment remained on the Somme for the remainder of 1916.
The 7th Lincs received 100 new replacement troops over the period 18th to 20th January 1917. This was whilst they were in the line at Meaulte near Albert on the Somme.
The reinforced Battalion next saw action on the 29th January when they relieved the 8th South Staffordshire Regiment in the line near Sailly Saillisel.
In February the 7th Lincolns and 8th South Staffords traded the camp and front line at Sailly Saillisel in rotation until on the 21st the Lincolns were withdrawn from the line entrained for Corbie and then on to Bussy for the end of the month.
March started in Bussy for the Battalion but then a series of marches saw them in Herissart, Gezaincourt, Maison Ponthieu, La Broye, Waivens before being billeted at Le Suich and Brevillers a few days before the month ended. The fighting force at the end of the month was 32 officers and 882 other ranks.
The following transcription from the Battalion Diary shows the conditions that Private John Birch faced in his last days during the battle of Arras.
1st April 1917 – Le Souich
26 other ranks joined for duty wastage from sickness 11 other ranks
3rd April 1917 – Le Souich
Lieut C S Bott took over command of B company
5th April 1917 – Le Souich
4 other ranks joined for duty. battalion with 51st infantry brigade group, marched to Neuville-Au-Cornrt.
6th April 1917 – Neuville-Au-Cornet
Fighting strength 32 officers, 792 other ranks, wastage from sickness 16 other ranks.
7th April 1917 – Neuville-Au-Cornet
Battalion with 51st infantry brigade group marched to Villers sir Simon
8th April 1917 – Villers Sir Simon
Battalion with 51st infantry brigade group marched to Novellette. battalion under 4 hours notice.
9th April 1917 – Novellette (Fisrt day of battle of Arras)
5.30am – Z day of offensive. The 17th Division held in readiness to support the cavalry corps. The Battalion with 51st infantry Brigade moved towards Arras.
9.30pm -Orders received to close up on leading Battalion and bivouac on side of road about 2 miles from Arras.
10th April 1917 – Arras
Battalion with Brigade Group marched into Arras to billets at one hours notice.
13th April 1917
Battalion moved to Railway Triangle East of Arras behind old German front line.
14th April 1917
Moved to Brown Line H28.a.4.5 to H28.c.5.7 old German 2nd Line
15th April 1917
Working party found by Battalion for front line.
16th April 1917 – Brown Line
Working party found by Battalion for Front Line
17th April 1917 – Brown Line
Enemy shelled our trench with 4.2s during day, very heavy during afternoon, Casualties Lieut C S Bott killed, Lieut G A Wright and 17 other ranks wounded.
18th April 1917 – Brown Line
Battalion moved BNorth along Brown Line close to Railway. Battalion HQ moved to Railway Cutting, Captain E James MC and 1 other ranks joined for duty. Casualties 3 other ranks.
19th April 1917 – Railway Triangle
Provided carrying parties to front line, and afterwards returned to Railway Triangle. Casualties Killed 1 other rank, wounded Captain R Pennington DSO and 2 other ranks wounded slightly at duty. Captain J H Cotter RAMC Medical Officer attached, and 2 other ranks.
21st April 1917 – Railway Triangle
Battalion returned to Brown Line. Casualties 1 other rank.
23rd April 1917 – Monchy-Le-Preux
3am – Battalion took up position from cross roads H.29.d.8.7 to H28.d.4.9 in accordance with plan from general advance of the whole line, the 17th division: working in conjunction with 51st Division on the left bank of River Scarpe and 29th Division: on 17 Division right, the 17th Division being centre Division on right bank of Scarpe.
4.45am – Zero Hour a standing barrage put on enemy lines BayonetTrench and Rifle Trench to life at the rate of 3 minutes per 100 yards.
4.55am – The Battalion moved forward with orders to occupy Bayonet Trench after it had been taken by 8th South Staffs
5.45am – Arrived at Lone Copse H.30.d and found 8th South Staffs digging in as this first attack on Bayonet Trench had failed owing to heavy Machine Gun fire both from the enemy line in our immediate front and from the left bank of the River Scarpe.
6.30am – The 8th South Staffs attacked again at 6.30am with same result as the first attack. It was reported that thick coils of wire was still in front of enemy line, also reported that Border Regiment had captured south end of Bayonet Trench.
7.45am – Received orders to attack Bayonet Trench and a barrage was ordered for that time.
8.20am – The Battalion advanced to attack Bayonet Trench leading waves A company on left, B company on right D company supported A and C supported B.
9am – Leading waves reported to be within 30 yards of Bayonet Trench having crawled there under heavy machine gun fire, trench strongly held. Heavy enfilade fire from North of River Scarpe.
10.5am – Attack having failed the Battalion returned to the assembly trench. Lone Copse holding line H.30.d.2.3 to left towards the Scarpe.
Consolidation commenced at once and awaited orders.
Captain D Roberts, 2 Lieuts H Y Maulkinson, A Crawley, T E Stubbs, R G Rudd killed with 22 other ranks, wounded 98 other ranks, missing 20 other ranks.
During our stay in this position the enemy constantly kept a barrage on our back lines and in the valley below our position.
6pm – 50th Brigade passed through our position to attack Bayonet Trench. Battalions of 51st brigade ordered to stand fast and form close support. Enemy having seen 50th Brigade advancing put a very heavy barrage on our back lines and shortened as the waves approached.
8.30pm – 50th Brigade attack failed. The Dorset regiment returned and took up a position about 100 yards in our front and dug in.
9pm – Enemy put up S.O.S which brought a greater artillery barrage than ever in and about our trench and back lines.
11.30pm – Orders received to return to Railway Triangle East of Arras after being relieved.
4am – Battalion Arrived at Railway Triangle in an exhausted condition having been in the open for about 20 days.
Moved by train from Arras to Grand Rullecourt
Fighting strength, 24 officers, 685 other ranks.
John was wounded by a gunshot wound in action on the 24th April, possibly in the early hours before the withdrawl back to Railway Triangle at 4am. He would have been treated locally to the battalions position, at an advanced dressing station and then moved to a field hospital before being withdrawn back to one of the many military hospitals away from the front.
John was moved back to Etaples on the coast south of Boulogne and would have been treated there possibly awaiting evacuation back to England when stable enough to be moved.
He succumbed to his wounds on the 30th April 1917 in hospital in Etaples.
Grantham Journal Saturday 19th May 1917
THE VERY DISTRESSING NEWS has reached Mr and Mrs Birch to the effect that their eldest son, Signaller J W Birch has died of wounds in France. Information had been received stating he was seriously wounded by gunshot on April 24th and was in critical condition and later the sad news came of is death on April 29th. Signaller Birch enlisted in the Lincolnshire Regiment on Sept 14th 1914 and went abroad in July 1915, being slightly wounded in the hand some month ago. He was 28 years of age and leave a wife and one child. Deceased was a perfect type of Englishman of fine physique and a generous kind-hearted disposition and will be greatly missed. A memorial service was held in St Andrew’s Church, Witham on the Hill on Sunday. Signaller Birch was buried in a British Cemetery near the hospital where he died.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission:
In memory of Private John William Birch, 12767, 7th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who died on 29 April 1917 Age 28
Husband of Lily Birch, of 32 Henry St, Leicester
Remembered with honour, Etaples Military Cemetery.
John is also remembered on the Witham on the Hill war memorial.