b. 31/08/1894 Buckley, Wales. d. 21/09/1917 Ypres, Belgium.
Frederick Birks (1894-1917) was born on 31st August 1894 at Garden Cottage, Lane End, Buckley, Flintshire, Wales. His father, Samuel, was a groom and coachman, originally from Cheshire. He married Ann Dodd in Manchester in 1871, but she died the following year in Chester. He married for a second time to Mary Williams in 1877 in Chester. He then became a collier at Messrs George Watkinson and Sons’ Mountain Colliery when a rock fall seriously injured his neck and back on 7th November 1899, and he died ten days later. Mary became a shopkeeper after Samuel’s death and raised her children. Samuel and Mary had eight children.
Fred was educated at St Matthew’s Anglican Parish School, Buckley until 1908. He was a member of St Matthew’s Church Lads’ Brigade and for a period was the drummer. Fred was employed as a labourer and steel-roller man at John Summers Steelworks annealing plant at Shotton, Flintshire. By 1911 he was a brick setter’s labourer. On 29th August 1913, he emigrated alone to Australia, aboard SS Otway, arriving in Melbourne. He was employed as a waiter in Tasmania and Melbourne, where he stayed with a relative of his mother’s.
He enlisted in Melbourne in 2nd Australian Field Ambulance, Australian Army Medical Corps on 18th August 1914. He trained at Broadmeadows Camp, Melbourne and embarked with the unit from Melbourne aboard HMAT A18 Wiltshire on 18th October. He arrived in Alexandria, Egypt and proceeded to camp at Mena. He landed at Gallipoli on 25th April 1915, and on 8th May brought in the wounded at Krithia. In June 1916 he was recommended for the Military Medal for this action, but it never materialised. He was wounded by shrapnel at Anzac Cove on 26th June, but it was minor and he was back on duty the following day. He was evacuated on 9th December aboard HMS Clacton. He was at Tel-el-Kebir and Serapeum until embarking from Alexandria on HMT Briton on 23rd March 1916, arriving a week later in Marseilles, France.
He was soon promoted to Lance Corporal, and was awarded the Military Medal for leadership and service with a team of stretcher-bearers while under heavy shellfire at Pozieres on 26th July 1916. He was presented with the ribbon by Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood at Reninghelst, Belgium on 27th September 1916. He was promoted to Corporal on 10th August. In December 1916, he had a period of leave back to Wales.
On 26th April 1917, he was commissioned, and posted to 6th (Victoria) Australian Infantry Battalion on 10th May and was taken on strength on 12th May. On the 20th September 1917 at Glencorse Wood, Belgium, Birks’ battalion were ordered to attack and capture the German line parallel to them, and the men moved towards their positions from Zillebeke on the night of 18 September, coming under some fire from gas shells. 19 September was incident-free, with the battalion preparing to attack the next day, in what would become known as the Battle of Menin Road. Early in the morning of the 20th, a “light drizzle” fell over the battlefield and at 4am the Germans sent barrages in front of and behind the battalions position. At 5:40am, the battalion advanced.
The first resistance was met by Birks and a corporal, taking two machine gun positions as another group of officers rushed a strong post.They were attacked with bombs, and the corporal was seriously wounded. Birks continued on alone. Reaching the rear of the pillbox, he forced the occupants to surrender. Birks then led an attack a series of dugouts and pillboxes on the edge of Glencorse Wood, and fought against machine gun and bombs. He also assisted in the reorganisation and consolidation of Australian men who had drifted away from their unit.
The next day, 21st September, enemy shelling in response to the movement of Allied artillery had buried some men in Birks’ platoon. Birks was attempted to dig out these men, “standing exposed”, but another shell aimed at the C Coy post killed Birks, and four others, before he could save them. He was buried where he fell, but his body was later moved to Perth (China Wall) Cemetery, Zillebeke. His mother received a parcel with all his personal effects. As he never married, his VC was presented to his brother, Sergeant Samuel Birks RFA, by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 19th December 1917. In addition to the VC and MM, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19. The medals are held on loan and are displayed at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA.
BURIAL PLACE: PERTH CEMETERY, YPRES, BELGIUM.
PLOT I, ROW G, GRAVE 45
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map
Steve Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – Medal Group at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Paul Lee www.memorialstovalour.co.uk – North Wales Heroes Memorial Board