Over 16 million people died during the Great War. The first casualty from Castle Bromwich was Rifleman Eric Gordon Birch, a regular soldier aged 24, whose name is one of the 32 commemorated on the War Memorial on The Green.
Before he was born, Eric’s parents, Thomas and Clara had moved from Stechford to Castle Bromwich, both rural areas at that time. Thomas was a jeweller and was presumably doing very well as they moved to The Beeches, a large house on the Coleshill Road on the edge of Hodge Hill Common.
Eric Birch was born in 1889 and christened at Castle Bromwich church by Rev Richard Rigden.
The 1891 Census lists eight children in the family home aged between one and 18 years. Thomas was only two years old at the time and his name is not recorded in the census, he must have been away from home on the night the census was recorded.
Eric was only nine in 1898 when his mother, Clara died at the age of 46. His father remarried the following year, so Eric had a step-mother, Ampless Fox to care for him. The census of 1901 recorded Thomas’s job at that time as that of Foreign Stamp Importer.
Joins the King’s Royal Rifles
By 1911 Eric, now 21, had joined the army as a regular soldier and had been promoted to Lance Corporal with the 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifles. He was stationed at Shorncliffe Camp in Kent which was soon to be used as a staging post for the British Expeditionary Force en route to France during the First World War.
The 2nd Battalion are known to have returned from India in 1910, so it is likely that Eric had served there. However, Eric’s service record has not survived; many were destroyed by bombing during World War 2. Brief information from his medal index card records that he entered the Theatre of War on 13 August 1914.
Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Eric may have then been at Aldershot Garrison. One month later, Eric now aged 24 landed at Le Havre, a member of first British force en route for Belgium.
Halting the German Advance
Eric’s rifle corps took part in the battles of Mons and the Marne, part of a line holding back the initial German advance towards Paris. On 14 September at daybreak his battalion had orders to cross the Aisne river. The morning was wet and foggy and visibility was very poor.
The 2nd Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifles were part of the advance around the village of Cerny-en-Laonnois. The Germans had the geographical advantage and halted the British who were to lose 2000 men on that day, one of whom was Rifleman Birch. (Altogether it is thought that some 12,000 were killed during the Battle of the Aisne.)
The battle was inconclusive and, in order to keep their positions, the British dug trenches, the first of the war. And the Germans followed suit. It was the beginning of a type of warfare that would typify the Western Front of the First World War and would eventually stretch along the whole of the front line from the English Channel to the Swiss border.
The dead were later buried in war graves; those who could not be unidentified had a gravestone marked with the words ‘Known Unto God’. The fatalities of this engagement are commemorated at the La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial which shows the names of almost 4000 British soldiers who fell near here between August and October 1914.
In 1920 Lady Ida, the Countess of Bradford unveiled the War Memorial on Castle Bromwich Green, which also bears the name of Rifleman Eric Gordon Birch alongside that of her own son, Cmdr Richard Bridgeman.
Acknowledgements: This article has been developed from research by Terrie Knibb and the Castle Bromwich Youth & Community Partnership. For more information about the Castle Bromwich Graveyard Project go to http://castlebromwichgraveyard.co.uk/.
The photograph of Castle Bromwich War Memorial is By Carl Baker on Geograph and is reusable under a Creative Commons licence. The the image of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial is in the public domain.