|War Memorials and The Men They Commemorate
Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - November 2001
Birch Parish Council are striving to repair, or replace, the War Memorial which has stood on Church Green since 1917. The "Essex County Standard" on 7 July 1917 described the Dedication Service:
"On June 29th - St Peter's Day - the Bishop of Colchester dedicated a War Memorial Cross at Birch which was given to the village by Mr and Mrs Round of Birch Hall.
The Cross, which stands about twelve foot high, has been placed in the centre of a small square of flagstones on the Green outside Birch Church facing the road. It is made from an ancient oak beam from the old Church of Layer Breton now demolished. At the top is carved the Crown of Thorns encircling the letters I N R I (the Man they Call King of the Jews). The Cross bears the words "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends" and on the panels at the base are carved the names of the men from Birch and Layer Breton who have given their lives for their country.
The Cross was made by Mr Fred Hutton of Birch from the design of Mr D G Round of Witham, and the carving is the work of Mr S Marshall of Coggeshall. It is of beautiful proportions and workmanship, and its simplicity and dignity are most striking.
The church was crowded with a large congregation, including Mr and Mrs Round and their little son, together with many relations of the gallant dead. After a short memorial service, during which the Bishop gave an illuminating and impressive address, the clergy, choir and congregation, led by the Birch Scouts, went out in procession across the Green singing the hymn "For all the Saints who from their labours rest".
Behind the Cross, which was covered by a Union Jack, were drawn up the drums and fifes of the 30th (City of London) Battalion London Regiment kindly lent by Lt Col A A Lyle. Mrs Round unveiled the Cross and the Bishop dedicated it to the Glory of God and in memory of the men whose names it bore. After some further prayers and the singing of the hymn "When I survey the wondrous Cross" the Bishop gave his Blessing and this was followed by the National Anthem. The "Last Post" was then sounded by the drums and bugles, and this most moving call brought to a fitting close a beautiful and impressive ceremony, which will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it".
The First World War had been declared almost three years earlier and by the time the Memorial was dedicated there were, probably, fourteen names on it. What would the congregation have thought had they known that in the remaining sixteen months of the conflict almost the same number of names would be added to it? After a further twenty one years there was cause to add more names.
Much has been written about the two World Wars and the details available are almost endless but even so it is difficult to find precise information about all those commemorated. We know that the Memorial Cross in Birch was one of the early ones but there does not seem to be any local record, apart from the January 1919 issue of the Parish Newsletter, of the number of local inhabitants affected by the losses or involved in the War effort.
We know that three men died in 1914, one a very raw recruit. We know that there was "an enthusiastic meeting" held on Layer Breton Heath on 6 September 1914, presided over by the Rt Hon James Round, with almost 500 present, and "as a result of the meeting 9 recruits joined the 9th Battalion Essex Regiment" bringing the total who had enlisted from the area to 14. One of those 14 may have been Victor Mawberry (or Mawbery) the 19 year old son of George and Tryphena who lived in Birch. He is shown as a member of the 11th Battalion who underwent their initial training near Brighton. They were either billeted in that area, or lived under canvas. The Battalion suffered a number of casualties due to the living conditions one being Victor who died in Brighton Hospital on 17th October 1914, just a few weeks after enlisting.
The earliest casualty was Arthur Smith, a Private in the lst Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment, which was mobilised in Mullingar (Ireland) and moved off to embark on the S.S.Oronsa from Belfast on the 14th August arriving at Le Havre the next day. They disembarked and marched to a very muddy rest camp leaving on the night of the 18th by train at 6 a.m. Arriving at Le Cateau at 10 p.m. they then marched to Pommereuil where they arrived at about midnight. The next few days were spent in sorting themselves out, and waiting for the remainder of the 5th Division, before they advanced towards Mons. At midday on the 23rd they were ordered to dig trenches and reconnoitre a position near Wasmes and the War Diary optimistically records that there was "no immediate fighting expected".
However they were shelled and attacked later in the afternoon resulting in a few casualties. The CO was recalled and given fresh orders splitting the Battalion and moving to Paturages which they reached after dark finding no trace of the rest of the Division although inhabitants told them the enemy was approaching in force along the road from Mons towards Frameries. The next few days contain reports of constant moves resulting in the troops "being very tired". On the 26th the Battle of Le Cateau commenced and the "Battalion mostly in good trenches" but the troops to the right were eventually forced to give ground and withdrawal was made difficult as the country was flat and open but "fortunately enemy's fire rather wild". All the units became mixed during the withdrawal and they made very slow progress but when things were eventually sorted out they had lost at least one officer and 30 men one of whom was Arthur Smith who is buried in Troisville Communal Cemetery, Nord, France.
The weeks stretched into months and then years and the worst possible news was received in many local homes with the last known death from this area being that of 2nd Lt Basil Stow of the 15th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. Basil's obituary, in the "Essex County Standard" of the 9th November 1918, notes that he had been a pupil teacher at Birch School before moving on to assistant schoolmaster at Stanway Council School. He had been promoted sergeant within three weeks of joining the Essex Regiment and on 29th August 1917 was commissioned into the Royal Irish Rifles. The War Diary records that the Battalion was in action on the east bank of the Gaverbeeke where they suffered a number of casualties including Lt Stow who died later from his wounds. His CO wrote that "He has done splendid work since he joined the Battalion and I can very much appreciate his worth both as an officer and a man .... for whom I had the greatest respect ... (he was) loved by his fellow officers and respected by his men". Basil Stow lies in Harlebeke New British Cemetery, in Belgium.
Between Arthur Smith and Basil Stow there were over four years of fighting with many casualties. They lie in foreign fields, not too far distant from each other, and it is only right that we should remember them, and their colleagues from other Wars, together with all those who fought. We should be thankful for the efforts they made on our behalf. Many made the supreme sacrifice but it is also proper to bear in mind those who returned - many crippled, gassed or wounded - and for the families for whom life would never be the same again.
(Much research is being undertaken into what is known of the local men who enlisted in both Wars. If anyone with information would like to get in touch with the Editor of Parish News we can add to what has been gleaned from official records)
The following note was added by Geoff Russell Grant, editor of Parish News:
Fascinated as ever by Eric Hall's research, I looked up the 'Oronsa'; she was sister ship to 'Ortega' and the better known 'Oriana'. All three were built in 1906 for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. Here is a brief account, including their wartime adventures.
ORONSA was built in 1906 by Barclay Curle & Co. at G1asgow with a tonnage of 7989grt, a length of 465ft 4in, a beam of 56ft 4in and a service speed of 15.5 knots. The second sister of the Ortega she was launched on 26th May 1906 and entered service on 13th September with an additional call at Pernambuco. On 28th April 1918, a bright moonlit night, she was torpedoed off Bardsey Island, North Wales whilst travelling in convoy. Her boilers exploded and the ship sank with the loss of 3 lives.
ORTEGA was built in 1906 by Harland & Wolff at Belfast with a tonnage of7970grt, a length of 465ft 4in, a beam of 56ft 4in and a service speed of 15.5 knots. Launched on 22nd March 1906 she commenced her maiden voyage to Callao on 19th July and introduced to the route the Bibby tandem cabin whereby all passengers had a porthole. When the First World War was declared on 4th August 1914 she was at Montevideo en route to Callao under the command of Capt Douglas Kinnier. On 16th September she sailed from Valparaiso, bound for Liverpool, and was immediately chased by the German cruiser Dresden. When she was ordered to stop on 19th September the master took the Ortega into the uncharted Nelson Strait near Cape Horn. While the Dresden waited for her to re-appear the liner, led by two lifeboats taking soundings, traversed 100 miles via the landward side of the Queen Adelaide Archipelago, the Smyth Channel and the Straits of Magellan where she was met by the Chilean warship Admiral Lynch which was searching for survivors. In 1918 she was used to transport American troops to France and in the following year, on 31st January 1919, made the first voyage through the Panama Canal to Valparaiso. She reverted to the southern route to Chile on 4th December 1924 and in 1927 was sold for £19,500 prior to being broken up at Briton Ferry.
ORIANA was built in 1906 by Barclay Curle & Co. at Glasgow with a tonnage of 8086grt, a length of 465 ft 4in, a beam of 56ft 4in and a service speed of 15.5 knots. Sister of the Ortega she was launched on 26th April 1906 and commenced her maiden voyage to Callao via Cape Horn on 21st June. During the First World War she was requisitioned by the Government for use mainly as a troopship. On 8th May 1918 whilst in convoy she went aground in dense fog on Torcor Head by Rathlin Island, off Northern Ireland. When the fog lifted it became apparent that the escorting destroyers Martial and Nicator were also aground as were Blue Star's Aeneas and British India's Manora but fortunately on shelving rocks. All the ships were refloated within two weeks. She resumed commercial service on 17th October 1919 and in November 1922 was transferred to the Panama Canal route. She was eventually broken up in 1927.