This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in New York.
George Birkenhead and his brother, John, served together in The Cheshire Regiment and in the Machine Gun Corps. John was killed in action in 1918 and George died in the United States in 1921.
George Birkenhead was the second child and eldest son of the six children of George and Mary Birkenhead. He was born in the fourth quarter of 1893 in Stockport, where his father was a bricklayer. George worked for a grocer when he left school and later became a grinder working for Arundel and Co. at their Sovereign Works in the town.
He married Martha Elizabeth Ellen Lomas, whom he knew as ‘Nellie’, on 22 June 1913 at Stockport and their only son, Clifford, was born on 10 October 1913. His wife worked in Stockport as a heald knitter and the family lived at Shaw Heath, a suburb of Stockport.
George Birkenhead enlisted into the Territorial Force on 1 December 1913. He joined the 1/6th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, which was based at The Armoury in the town, and was allocated the number 1535. Mobilised on the outbreak of war, he was soon promoted to lance corporal on 10 August 1914. Lance Corporal Birkenhead was evidently a good soldier and only in trouble once—he was awarded 7 days Field Punishment No. 2 for ‘using obscene language to an NCO ’ in January 1915.
1/6th Cheshires trained at Shrewsbury and Northampton before landing in France on 10 November 1914. The Battalion was attached to ‘GHQ Troops’ and in early December the men had their first exposure to life in the line. On 17 December it was attached to 15th Brigade, 5th Division to consolidate its training and while in the line near Neuve Eglise, south of Ypres, took part in the unique Christmas truce—the Battalion’s war history written in 1932 records:
‘The day opened with the usual stand-to before dawn. Soon after daylight arrived someone in our lines began to play ‘Christians, awake!’ on a mouth organ, and the thoughts of the men in the trenches immediately turned to the folks at home, who they knew were living under better conditions than they were. It was, says one who was there, nothing but mud, mud, mud, a parapet and two strands of wire between us and the Boche, who was 200 yards away. After ‘Christians, awake!’ the Boche responded with the popular melody ‘Come over here!’ and lo! we saw the Boche coming out of his trenches and we wondered whether it was an attack. The Germans were waving their arms, and immediately our men went out to meet them in No Man’s Land, where we fraternised. We ate their Saukeraut, and they our chocolate, cakes, etc. We had killed a pig just behind our lines. There were quite a lot of creatures rambling about the lines, including an old sow with a litter and lots of cattle and poultry. We cooked the pig in No Man’s Land, sharing it with the Boche. We also buried several dead Frenchmen who were lying out there. So ended our first Christmas in the line.’
The Battalion moved back under command GHQ Troops in March 1915, where it remained, largely providing security parties at the Base at Le Havre, until January 1916. It then briefly joined 20th Brigade, 7th Division before finally joining 39th Division. This New Army division had just arrived in France but the battalions of its third brigade, 118th Brigade, had not completed training and were left in England. Four Territorial Force battalions, including 1/6th Cheshires, were taken under command on 29 February 1916.
George Birkenhead had trained as a machine gunner and served in the Battalion’s machine gun section. He was promoted to corporal on 27 October 1915 and sergeant in January 1916. When the brigade machine gun companies were formed on 21 March he was attached, with the rest of the Battalion machine gun section, including his brother John, to 118th Brigade Machine Gun Company, where he served as a Section Serjeant.
He was slightly wounded in the face on 4 May 1916, when the guns were firing in the Festubert and Givenchy Sectors, and treated at 134th Field Ambulance before rejoining his unit a week later.
On 2 June 1916, the men of the Company transferred to the Machine Gun Corps and Serjeant Birkenhead was renumbered 21886. The major action undertaken in the remainder of that year was the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, which began on 26 September. 39th Division was in V Corps holding the left flank as II Corps attacked the ridge. The guns of 118th Machine Gun Company fired 321,000 rounds in five days into the Ancre valley to protect the left flank of the attack. In the continuation of this attack—the Battle of Ancre Heights—118th Brigade attacked on 14 October. The Brigade Machine Gun Company was in the thick of it. Five guns teams were allocated amongst the four battalions of the Brigade, with extra men allocated to each team to carry ammunition. Four of the teams got over to the captured enemy line without mishap, but a fifth, that attached to 1/6th Cheshires, lost its ammunition to shellfire. Four more teams were sent forward in the afternoon and casualties from shell fire resulted in replacements being sent forward in the evening. These gun teams were relieved the following morning. Three men of the Company were killed and others seriously injured.
In November, Serjeant Birkenhead fell ill with influenza and was evacuated back to the hospitals on the coast and, when he had recovered, he served at the base from January 1917 until he rejoined 118th Machine Gun Company on 12 March. He went to hospital again in July 1917 with a fever and it would be almost two months before he would rejoin his Company on 3 September.
39th Division was engaged in the latter attacks of the Third Battle of Ypres and it was during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge in September 1917 that Serjeant Birkenhead’s war in Flanders would come to an end. On 21 September the Company moved forward into the line in the western part of ‘Shrewsbury Forest’, captured in the fighting in early August. The relief was conducted mostly in daylight and shelling was severe. The Company suffered 10 casualties during this period, of whom Serjeant Hassock was killed and Private Bonnett died of wounds later. The following day the positions suffered ‘a considerable amount of shelling ’. Although no-one was killed, there were a number of casualties, including Serjeant Birkenhead. During one particularly heavy barrage he was knocked unconscious—the war diary records that he ‘went down with shell shock ’.
He was evacuated to 129th Field Ambulance, where he regained consciousness and then moved back through 53rd Casualty Clearing Station to 4th Stationery Hospital. There he was diagnosed as suffering from severe shellshock and was transferred to 59th General Hospital at St. Omer. He was evacuated to hospital in England on 12 November 1917 and was sent to The Borough Hospital in Birkenhead for a month before moving to the Red Cross Military Hospital at Maghull in Manchester, which specialised in severe shellshock cases. In July 1918, he became a patient at the Abram Peel War Hospital in Bradford, a similarly specialist hospital.
On 14 September 1918, Serjeant Birkenhead was discharged as ‘no longer physically fit for war service ’, the cause being given as ‘neurasthenia ’.
He returned to live in Stockport and from 7 November 1918 he was treated for his symptoms at the John Leigh War Memorial Hospital in Sale. He later moved to Broughton on the northern outskirts of Manchester and it is evident from his records that he continued to demonstrate the symptoms of what we would today term ‘post traumatic stress disorder’, in particular depression, listlessness, nightmares, and thoughts of ‘ending it ’.
In the period after the war George Birkenhead trained as a photographer. On 15 September 1920 he arrived in the United States from Liverpool aboard the SS Celtic. He was destined for Brooklyn, where his older sister, Annie, lived. She had married her husband, Frederick, in Stockport in 1910—he had emigrated to the United States the following year and she followed with their son, Frederick, in 1913.
He fell ill in early May 1921 and was admitted to Wyckoff Heights Hospital, Brooklyn on 9 May suffering from pneumonia. Complications developed and he died of an internal haemorrhage caused by peritonitis on 22 May. George Birkenhead was buried in the Evergreens Cemetery on 25 May. His grave (number 16711) is in the Nazareth section on the northern side of the cemetery adjacent to Cypress Avenue. There are 12 other CWGC burials in this cemetery.
His medals group comprises the 1914 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal. He was awarded the Silver War Badge, number B25765.
His younger brother, Private John Birkenhead, also enlisted into 1/6th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment (2486, Private)—he enlisted after war broke out—and also joined 118th Machine Gun Company on its formation. He too transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in June 1916 (numbered consecutively to his brother—21887, Private). He later transferred back to 1/6th Cheshires (267794, Private) and was killed in action on 15 September 1918 in fighting south of Ypres. He is buried in Westoutre British Cemetery. John Birkenhead is commemorated on the inscribed walls of Stockport Art Gallery War Memorial, which was opened in 1925. It is not known why George Birkenhead’s name was not included. John Birkenhead is also commemorated on the memorial in St Mary’s Church, Stockport.
Ellen Birkenhead died in 1980. George’s son, Clifford, died in 2005. His younger brother, Tom, emigrated to the United States in 1923 and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he married and had a family. He died in 1969.
Serjeant Birkenhead’s grave.
Carl Rogerson for the photos of the memorials in Stockport.
The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO 95/1572/1. War Diary of 1/6th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment.
The National Archives. Public Record Office. WO 95/2591/4 . War Diary of 118th Company, Machine Gun Corps.
1. (Back) George Birkenhead (1862-1916) married Mary McDermott (1869-1948) in 1888 in Stockport: Annie (later Downs) (8 September 1889-19 November 1936); John (1897-15 September 1918); Lucy (later Dolan) (28 May 1901-1982); Ellen (later Canovan) (24 July 1903-1969); and Tom (28 August 1906-1969).
2. (Back) Martha Elizabeth Ellen Birkenhead (née Lomas) (5 February 1894-1980). Clifford Birkenhead (10 October 1913-2005).
3. (Back) A heald knitter made ‘healds’—lengths of cord with an eye in the middle through which the warp threads on a loom ran so that they could alternately be raised and lowered for the shuttle to pass through with the weft thread.
4. (Back) Now the home of Mortar Platoon, 4th Battalion, The Mercian Regiment and ‘A’ Detachment, 207th (Manchester) Field Hospital, Army Reserve.
5. (Back) Smith, C. (1932). War History of the 6th Battalion The Cheshire Regiment (TF). p 4. Cheshire: 6th Cheshire Old Comrades Association.
6. (Back) 1/4th and 1/5th Battalions, The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)—which immediately amalgamated—1/1st Battalion, The Cambridgeshire Regiment, and 1/1st Battalion, The Hertfordshire Regiment.
7. (Back) ‘Serjeant’ was the customary spelling used by the Machine Gun Corps.
8. (Back) 21927 Private Reginald Archer MM, Thiepval Memorial; 21895 Private Harry Gosling, Connaught Cemetery; and 22001 Private John Gow, Thiepval Memorial.
9. (Back) 21948 Serjeant William Thomas Hassock and 27922 Private Joseph Bonnett—neither man has a known grave and both are commemorated on Tyne Cot Memorial.
10. (Back) A term to describe a wide spectrum of symptoms caused by emotional stress or anxiety. In the First World War linked to shell-shock.
11. (Back) Sir John Leigh was a wealthy mill owner and politician. He and his wife did much to aid the recovery of wounded soldiers in the Manchester area. Formerly the home of his father, ‘Woodbourne’ was donated with eight acres of land as a home for the treatment of soldiers suffering from severe shell shock. Sir John Leigh financed the fitting out of the home, which was opened on 15 June 1918 by The Duke of Connaught.
12. (Back) Frederick Downs (20 February 1911-20 April 2007).
13. (Back) See also: Trimmer John Walter Bowles, Able Seaman Thomas Drinkwater, Private William Richard Eveleigh, Leading Seaman William Charles John Geeves, Trimmer Percy Hyett, Able Seaman Patrick McDonagh, Stoker 1st Class Henry John Gardner Miller, Leading Seaman Sydney Stephen Milliner, Fireman Ou Loo, Scullion William Bertram Parr, Stoker 1st Class Alfred Weeden, and Leading Seaman Gordon Wills.