Ashtead War Memorials - WWI - Pte Henry Birch
2nd/5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry

Henry’s birth had been registered at Easthampstead, Bracknell, Berks for the June Quarter of 1877 as a son of Henry Birch, gardener [born ca 1844], and his wife, Elizabeth [born Highworth, Wilts.]. He became a coachman and his marriage, in the winter of 1903, to Edith Elizabeth David [born Broadwater, Sussex] was recorded at Epsom.

A number of children resulted from this union including Mary Elizabeth, Henry David & Charles Jack whose births, at Ashtead, were in turn registered in Epsom for the September quarters of 1905, 1907 & 1909 respectively.

In 1911 the family resided at 7 Alma Villas, Hatfield Road, Ashtead. On 10 December 1915, at Leatherhead, H. Birch enlisted for War Service before being assigned to 2nd/5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.

His first year would have been relatively quiet:

2/5th Battalion
Formed at Stockton in September 1914 as a second line unit. Moved to Long Benton and placed under orders of 189th Brigade in 63rd (2nd Northumbrian) Division. Moved to Cramlington in July 1915 and Retford in November.
July 1916 : Division broken up. 189th Brigade moved to Catterick.
31 October 1916 : left Brigade and moved to Salonika as a Garrison Battalion, going via France and arriving 15 November. Placed under XVI Corps on arrival.
1 March 1917 : transferred to 228th Brigade in 28th Division.

Later, however, things became hectic particularly during the Battle of Doiran, as described below on :

At the beginning of 1918, the Allied troops in Salonika were prepared for a major offensive intended to end the war in the Balkans. The Greek Army had been reorganised and joined the Allied force. The offensive began in July 1918, but the British contingent did not play a significant part until early September. Then the British attacked a series of fortified hills. The final assault began along the whole front on 15th September 1918, the British being engaged in the Lake Doiran area.

This Battle was really on the 18th and 19th September 1918 and was a disaster for the British Divisions. They had to frontally assault 'Pip Ridge' which was a 2000 foot high heavily defended mountain ridge with fortresses built on some of the higher mountains, notably Grand Couronne (This was what the Bulgarians had been working on in the first months of 1916 and early 1917). They sustained very heavy casualties.

The following report from one involved gives some idea of what the men went through.

By ‘An Unprofessional Soldier’ on the Staff of 28th Division. He entitled his paper: I saw the Futile Massacre at Doiran. It is from Issue 46 of I Was There published 1938/9

“The Battle of Doiran is now a forgotten episode of the Great War, overshadowed by the doings of Haig in France and Allenby in Palestine. There was no full contemporary account of the Battle in any British Newspaper. Sir George Milne’s dispatch was not published and did not appear in The Times until January 23rd 1919, and then only in truncated form. The very name of the battle is unknown to most. Yet, in singularity of horror and in tragedy of defeated heroism, it is unique among the records of British arms.

The real work of the assault was entrusted to the men of the 22nd and 26th Divisions, who were to attack the Doiran hills, co-operating with the Cretan Division of the Greek Army and a regiment of unreliable Zouaves. (French Colonial troops).

In the early light of an almost unclouded morning the British and Greek forces advanced in order of battle. The noise of our guns had abruptly ceased before daybreak, and there came that awful pause in which defenders and attackers are braced up to face the ordeal, with fear or desperation, with cool courage or with blazing ardour. Slowly the pale grey smoke lifted in layers of thin film above the ridges, blue shadows deep in every fold or hollow and a dim golden glow on scrub, rock and heather. No one could tell what had been the effect of our gunfire upon those fortified hills. The infantry soldier relies upon the guns behind him, trusting in their power to smash a way for his advance by killing or demoralizing the enemy and cutting up his defences. In this case, if he had any hopes or illusions, the infantry soldier was quickly un-deceived.

Our attack on ‘Pip Ridge’ was led by 12th Cheshire’s. The battle opened with a crash of machine-gun fire, and a cloud of dusty smoke began to blur the outline of the hills.

Almost immediately the advancing battalion was overwhelmed in a deadly steam of bullets which came whipping and whistling down the open slopes. Those who survived were followed by a battalion of Lancashire men, and a remnant of this undaunted infantry fought its way over the first and second lines of trenches – if indeed the term “ line “ can be applied to a highly complicated and irregular system of defence, taking full advantage of every fold or contortion of the ground. In its turn, a Shropshire battalion ascended the fatal ridge.

By this time the battle of the “ Pips” was a mere confusion of massacre, noise and futile bravery. Nearly all the men of the first two battalions were lying dead or wounded on the hillside. Colonel Clegg and Colonel Bishop were killed; the few surviving troops were toiling and fighting in what appeared to be inevitable and immediate death. The attack was ending in a bloody disaster.

No orders could reach the isolated cluster of men who were still trying to advance on the ridge. Contact aeroplanes came roaring down through the yellow haze of dust and smoke, hardly able to see what was going on, and even flying below the levels of the Ridge and Grand Couronne (nearby mountain at the top of Pip Ridge and fortified).

There was only one possible ending to the assault. Our troops in the military phrase of their commander, “fell back to their original positions” Of this falling back I will say nothing. There are times when even desperate heroism has to acknowledge defeat.

While the 60th Brigade was thus repulsed on the ridge, a Greek regiment was thrown into disorder by a counter attack on the right. At the same time the Welsh Brigade was advancing towards Grand Couronne.

No feat of arms can ever surpass the glorious bravery of those Welshmen. There was lingering gas in the Jumeaux Ravine (probably ours!) and some of the men had to fight in respirators.

Imagine if you can, what it means to fight up a hillside under a deadly fire, wearing a hot mask over your face, dimly staring through a pair of clouded goggles, and sucking the end of a rubber nozzle in your mouth. At the same time heat is pouring down on you from a brazen sky. In this plight you are called on to endure the blast of machine-gun fire, the pointed steel or bursting shell of the enemy. Nor are you called on to endure alone ; you must vigorously fire back, and vigorously assail with your own bayonet. It is as much like hell as anything you can think of.

Welsh Fusiliers got as far as the Hilt, only half a mile below the central fortress, before being driven back by a fierce Bulgarian charge. Every officer was killed or wounded.

Following these came the 11th Welsh, who were also compelled to retire fighting. For a time, however, a few of the enemy’s trenches, full of dead or dying men, remained in our possession.

A third Welsh battalion was offered up, to perish, on that awful day. The 7th South Wales Borderers nobly stormed up through the haze of battle until they had come near the hills of The Tassel and The Knot, Then, all at once, the haze lifted, and they were left exposed in the open to a sweeping and overwhelming fire. Melting away as they charged, a party of Welshmen ran up the slopes of Grand Couronne itself and fell dead among the rocks. Of the whole battalion, only one officer and eighteen men were alive at the end of the day. All night, unheard in the tumult of a new bombardment, wounded men were crying on the hillsides or down in the long ravines.

Whatever Sir George Milne now thought of his own plans, he must have been gratified by the behaviour of his own troops. Those troops had been flung against positions no infantry in the world could ever have taken by a frontal attack, and they had proved themselves to be good soldiers. Two entire Brigades had been practically annihilated.

Only on the right was there a temporary gain of ground by two Hellenic regiments in the neighbourhood of Doiran Town.

The troops of the 28th Division were in support of the Cretans under the Krusha hills east of the Lake. These people were intended to make a “surprise” attack on the high positions to the north, though I do not see how anyone can be surprised by an attack which has to be launched over three or four miles of perfectly open country – unless he is surprised at the futility of such a thing.

The Cretans had lined up during the night along a railway embankment, which is immediately below the hills. At dawn they advanced over the plain of Akindzali, breaking through the enemy’s outpost line. Our artillery, owing to a failure in co-ordination, did not properly support the advance, and our guns were eventually withdrawn under a heavy Bulgarian fire. There were casualties in the neighbourhood of Akindzali village (the scene of unmentionable Greek atrocities in the war of 1913). The attack rapidly collapsed, and by evening the Cretans were back at the railway line from which they had started. At nightfall the 28th Division took up a purely defensive attitude, overlooking the plain. It may well be asked why this Division was never given the chance of throwing its full weight into the battle. The enemy himself, as we afterwards learnt, was very much astonished by the absence or concealment of so large a body of troops. One of the first questions put to a captured British airman near Petrich was “Can you tell us what has become of your 28th Division?”

A fresh and equally futile massacre on the Doiran hills was arranged for the following day, in spite of the total breakdown of the general scheme.

It was now the turn of the Scotsmen – Fusiliers, Rifles and Highlanders of the 77th Brigade, undismayed by the dreadful evidence of havoc, ran forward among the Welsh and Bulgarian dead. Artillery demoralised the regiment of Zouaves on their left. A storm of machine-gun fire blew away the Greeks on their right, in uncontrolled disorder.

Fighting on into a maze of enemy entanglements, the Scotsmen were being annihilated, their flanks withering under a terrible enfilade. A fine battalion of East Lancashire’s attempted to move up in support. The 65th Brigade launched another forlorn attack on the Pip Ridge. The broken remains of two Brigades were presently in retreat, leaving behind more than half their number, killed, wounded or missing.

We had now sustained 3,871 casualties in the Doiran battle. Our troops were incapable of any further effort. A terrible high proportion had been lost or disabled. We gained only the unimportant ruins of Doiran Town and a cluster of small hills immediately above it, never of any value to the enemy or strongly defended. The fortress of Grand Couronne was unshaken, with crumpled bodies of men and a litter of awful wreckage below it.

No one can view the result of the operation as anything but a tactical defeat. Had it been an isolated engagement, there would have been every prospect of disaster. The whole plan of the battle and its conduct are open to devastating criticism; but so are the plans and the conduct of a great majority of battles. ( The Cheshire’s, South Wales Borderers and the Argyll’s were awarded the French Croix de Guerre for their part – the Royal Scots Fusiliers lost 358, the Argyll’s 299 and the Scottish Rifles 228 men)

Luckily, the Franco-Serbian advance was being continued with extraordinary vigour (elsewhere). Before long the Bulgarian Army was cut in two and a general withdrawal began to take place along the entire front. Our Doiran battle was now regarded as a contribution to victory for had we not been effective in pinning down the enemy reserves? British commanders are wonderfully philosophic after all.”

CWGC reports that: -

“XVI Corps Headquarters were at Kirechkoi from January 1916, soon after the opening of the Salonika campaign, until the advance to the Struma in September 1916. The cemetery was begun in March 1916, but it remained a very small one until September 1917, when the 60th, 65th and 66th General Hospitals came to the neighbourhood. In June, July and September 1918, other hospitals were brought to the high and healthy country beside the Salonika-Hortakoi road and in September 1918, the influenza epidemic began which raged for three months and filled three-quarters of the cemetery.”

Ironically, having survived so much of the war unscathed, Private H. Birch may have been one of the majority who succumbed to the pandemic rather than died from wounds

see also John Chapman's story

text: Brian Bouchard & Ann Williams: if you can add to this page please contact the editor
page added 9 Mar 2009