20 SEP 1917: World War I and 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Birks MM, 6th Battalion, originally from Flintshire, United Kingdom, earns the Victoria Cross at Glencorse Woods, near Ypres. It was a posthumous award. Birks enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force on 18 August 1914, a few weeks after the war started. He trained at a camp in Broadmedows, and was assigned to the 2nd Field Ambulance of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps. The 2nd Field Ambulance boarded the HMAT A18 Wiltshire in Melbourne on 19 October 1914, and set sail for Egypt. After stopping in Albany, the unit arrived in Egypt on 10 December.
Birks’ unit was incorporated into the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and was sent into action at the landing at Anzac Cove, providing medical support for the 2nd Infantry Brigade. The 2nd Brigade were also sent to Cape Helles, where they assisted in the attack on Krithia. During the battle, Birks was carrying wounded under heavy shell and rifle fire, in areas where stretchers were unable to reach. His “devotion to duty and good work” earned him his first Military Medal recommendation. On 26 June 1915, Birks was wounded by shrapnel but returned to service the next day, remaining on Gallipoli until 9 September.
Birks’ unit was sent to Marseilles, France, as a part of the British Expeditionary Force. He was promoted to lance corporal on 21 April 1916, and served as a stretcher bearer during the Battle of the Somme. On 26 July, Birks was engaged in duties at Pozières, as the Australian and British forces fought for supremacy of the village. Throughout the day, Birks “continually led his squad of stretcher bearers” through the village and Pozières Wood to the frontline, all the while being “exposed to heavy shell fire”. Commended for his “constant good services”, Birks was recommended for the Military Medal. The announcement of the decoration was promulgated in a supplement to the London Gazette on 14 November 1916, and he was later presented with his Military Medal by Lieutenant General Sir William Birdwood.
Birks was promoted as a temporary wagon orderly corporal on 5 August 1916, and the rank was made substantive five days later. After his unit moved away from the front line, Birks had an opportunity to return to Buckley. There, he visited his old school and gave them a Turkish flag that he has attained while in Gallipoli. Following his return to France, Birks was hospitalised for five days with pyrexia. He rejoined his unit on 14 February 1917.
Birks took classes at the Australian 1st Division school in France, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 6th Battalion on 4 May 1917. He had served with the battalion earlier while a stretcher bearer, and began serving as an infantryman at Passchendaele. Passchendaele was characterised by the mud of the battlefield, and has been widely used as an example of attrition warfare—both the Commonwealth and German forces were suffering heavy casualties. When the Fifth Army was failing to made any appreciable headway, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig put General Herbert Plumer in command of the offensive.
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 battalion’s 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, 21 September, enemy shelling in response to the movement of Allied artillery had buried some men in Birks’ platoon. Birks 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. For his actions at Ypres, Birks was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the announcement of which was gazetted on 8 November 1917.
His citation reads: “For most conspicuous bravery in attack when accompanied by only a corporal, he rushed a strong point which was holding up the advance. The corporal was wounded by a bomb, but 2nd Lt. Birks went on by himself killed the remainder of the enemy occupying the position, and captured a machine gun. Shortly afterwards he organised a small party and attacked another strong point which was occupied by about twenty-five of the enemy, of whom many were killed and an officer and fifteen men captured. During the consolidation this officer did magnificent work in reorganising parties of other units which had been disorganised during the operations. By his wonderful coolness and personal bravery 2nd Lt. Birks kept his men in splendid spirits throughout. He was killed at his post by a shell whilst endeavouring to extricate some of his men who had been buried by a shell.”
Birks’ grave is in the Perth Cemetery (China Wall) near Ypres. A memorial was constructed at his old school in Wales in 1921, funded largely by contributions from local people. When the school was demolished the Memorial was moved to outside St. Matthews Church where it stands now. On Remembrance Sunday the local branch of the British Legion continues to place a wreath of poppies on the Memorial. A portrait of Fred is on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, alongside his Victoria Cross. He is also remembered in the Museum in Ypres, Belgium (Cloth Hall). His service during the war earned him the 1914–15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.