Buckley war hero recalled by Westwood Community Primary School

Reporter:

Gwyn Griffiths

A soldier single handedly and selflessly takes on and seizes a German machine-gun posting in the depths of the bloody conflict on the Western Front.

His brave actions save his unit from certain death, but 24 hours later he perishes, aged 23, after being hit during enemy shelling.

While the horrors of the conflict during the First World War may endure in history text books, the individual, personal stories of heroism like those of Buckley-born Fred Birks sometimes fade from view.

But now schoolchildren from Westwood Community Primary School in Buckley are reviving memories of their town’s own Great War hero and his family’s battle to raise cash to maintain his memorial by staging a new play.

Goodnight Mr Birks – the tale of a WWI Buckley Hero, tells the story of the short life of the Welsh-born Australian soldier who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his brave actions during the Battle of Passchendaele in West Flanders.

Allied Forces recaptured a ridge east of Ypres in Belgium, but at a terrible cost.

Half a million men from the ranks of the Allies and the Germans were killed or wounded during the bloody fighting that was typical of the muddy attrition warfare that lasted from July to November 1917.

Fred’s battalion attacked the German line and he and a corporal overwhelmed two machine-gun positions.

They were attacked with bombs, but Fred continued on alone and forced the occupants of the pillbox to surrender.

He then led an attack on the edge of Glencorse Wood, helping to capture 16 men. But the next day while attempting to dig out some of his men who had been buried by a mortar attack, he and four others were hit.

The second lieutenant – who also served at Gallipolli and the Battle of the Somme after emigrating to Australia in 1913 – was swiftly recognised with the highest decoration for gallantry that could be awarded by British and Commonwealth forces.

Fred was buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery near Ypres, but back in his native Fintshire at his old school a memorial was built – which was later moved outside St Matthew’s Church.

The years have taken their toll on the epitaph and now Westwood Community Primary School has teamed up with Fred’s great niece, Janet Tildesley, and Buckley Town Council to secure funds from the Welsh Government to restore and maintain it.

Jayne Williams, deputy head of Westwood School, says: “While Fred’s memorial isn’t crumbling it is not in as good a condition as it should be.

“We have lobbied Buckley town councillors and given them a presentation about why they should support the memorial. By putting on the play, hopefully more people will become aware of Fred’s story and be more inclined to help out.”

Previously the school staged a Christmas production, Merry Christmas -War is Over!, based around Fred’s life.

Mrs Tildesley travelled from Scotland to watch and will do so again to catch the latest show on Tuesday, July 18 at 2.30pm, one of two performances year three to six pupils will be performing at the school – the other is Monday, July 17 at 6.30pm.

They are also showcasing the play to a wider local audience at the Hawkesbury Little Theatre on Wednesday, July 12 and on Thursday, July 13, both 6.30pm.

“When we did the Christmas play we got some great feedback and have decided to take it out to the community,” adds the deputy headteacher.

”Fred’s is a story that needs sharing with a wider audience as there is limited knowledge about his brave exploits.

“We are looking at the historical context and it is a very comprehensive short play about his life – we have taken six stages of Fred’s life from his upbringing locally and to his time as a soldier.

”We are inviting local councillors as well as Lord Barry Jones to come along.”

Ms Tildseley, from Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway, has maintained her family’s devoted research into Fred’s tale.

The author of a booklet published by the Buckley Society three years ago, she has helped organise the dispatch of a commemorative wooden cross from the Australian War Memorial.

Another local mark of remembrance is the plaque unveiled at the soldier’s birthplace, Garden Cottage in Lane End, Buckley, four years ago.

With the centenary of his death on September 21, 1917, approaching, his extended family are planning a trip to the Menin Gate Cemetery to lay a wreath.

And at the National War Museum in Canberra the Last Post will be bugled as a tribute to the soldier who was commissioned in the Australian Army’s 6th Battalion four months before he died.

As well as the VC he was awarded military medals for ferrying the wounded when serving as a stretcher bearer during the Battle of the Somme.

Mrs Tildseley points out: “These were dreadful battles. Pozieres where Fred won his military medal was described as ‘hell’, while Passchendaele where he died was just ‘mud and devastation’.

“The play is just a wonderful thing and the children have really read and understood the story.

”It can be hard to feel connected to these events, but the important message is Fred was an ordinary boy from Buckley and he went off and did extraordinary things.

“He and the two friends who emigrated to Australia with him were inspired by adventure.

”But he did come back to visit in December 1916.

“Many remembered him returning to his old school in uniform and holding a Turkish flag he had got from Gallipoli.

“My family have done a huge amount of research into Fred’s story. My grandfather, Samuel, was Fred’s brother and he was called on to collect his VC from the Palace.”

Email:

gwyn.griffiths@nwn.co.uk

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