14th September 1914

It appears that the first of the World War I casualties in the field from places now within the Borough of Solihull died on 14th September 1914. This was during the First Battle of the Aisne, which marked the change from mobile warfare to trench warfare.

The locally-commemorated men who died were:

  • Rifleman Robert William Baker, born in Olton
  • Rifleman Eric Gordon Birch, born and lived in Castle Bromwich
  • Private Richard William Choate, commemorated at Olton
  • Captain Lord Guernsey, commemorated at Bickenhill and Forest Hall, Meriden

Rifleman Robert William Baker (1885-1914), 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps (born in Olton, lived in Winchester at the time of enlistment).

As far as we know, he’s not commemorated on a memorial in the Borough of Solihull so please let us know if you know differently.

It seems that his birth was registered in Solihull between April-June 1885 but that his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, both of whom were born in Stratford-upon-Avon, had moved to Rowley Regis by the time of the 1891 census when Robert William was five years old. They had married on 21st December 1882 at St Andrew’s, Bordesley, and from the birthplaces of the children on census records,  it looks as if the family lived in the Solihull area from at least 1883 until approximately 1889. Robert (senior) was a railway signalman who was living in Bilston, Staffordshire in 1881 (recorded as being born in Snitterfield, Warwickshire).

There is a service record for Private Robert William Baker on the Ancestry website (available free of charge from library computers in any Solihull library) which shows he enlisted as a regular soldier in Birmingham in December 1906, at the age of 21. His previous occupation was given as groom and he was described as 5ft 4¼ ins tall, with a fresh complexion, black hair, grey eyes, and a large burn scar on the left side of his face. He was stationed in England apart from a spell in Egypt 1907-9.

He married Frances May Meacher on 24th March 1913 at Winchester.  After seven years with the colours, he was transferred to the reserves in December 1913, where he would have been available to be called up if necessary at any time during the following five years. In the event, of course, he rejoined in August 1914 and died within a month of re-enlisting, after being wounded on active service in France.

Confirmation of his death was obviously not sent to his family for some months, as the service record includes a letter sent in March 1915 by his brother, Ted, then living in Small Heath, asking for news on behalf of Private Baker’s wife. It was then established that he had been killed, and his widow was awarded a pension of 10 shillings per week.

Rifleman Eric Gordon Birch (1889-1914), 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps.

His parents lived at the Beeches, Castle Bromwich and he is commemorated on the Castle Bromwich War Memorial.

It appears that his service record hasn’t survived (some 60 per cent of First World War service records were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War) so all that is known of his war service is the sparse information recorded on his medal index card and in the Soldiers Died in the Great War volume, which indicate that he was born in Birmingham and is recorded as first entering a Theatre of War on 13th August 1914.

Warwickshire parish registers on the Ancestry website show that he was baptised at Castle Bromwich on 7th July 1889, with his parents being listed as Thomas and Clara Birch. Thomas was recorded as a jeweller, and the family’s address was listed as Hodge Hill, Castle Bromwich.

It looks as if the family moved from Stechford to Castle Bromwich c. 1880. Certainly, by 1881, they were living at The Beeches, Coleshill Road, Castle Bromwich. By 1891, Clara was living at Hodge Hill Common with eight children aged between one and 18. Thomas was not recorded as living with them at this time so he must have been away from home on census night. It seems that Clara died in 1898 at the age of 46, when Eric would have been 9 years old. Thomas married his second wife, Ampless Fox, the following year.

By 1901, the family (including 11-year-old Eric) was back at The Beeches and Thomas’s job had changed to that of Foreign Stamp Importer. The 1911 census shows 21-year-old Eric (recorded as Gordon Eric Birch) as a Lance Corporal with the 2nd Battalion, Kings Royal  Rifles at Shorncliffe army camp, near Cheriton, Kent. It appears the 2nd Battalion returned to England from India in 1910, so it is possible that Eric Gordon Birch served with the battalion in India. Although Eric was a regular soldier, his enlistment papers would have been kept together with the record of his First World War service, so were presumably destroyed by the bombing in the Second World War.

Eric’s father, Thomas, died in 1920 and it looks as if Eric’s step-mother, Ampless, travelled on the Mauretania from Southampton to New York in 1922, aged 60. It’s not known whether this was a permanent emigration, or a short-term visit.

Some additional information about the war dead from Castle Bromwich, including Eric Birch, is being uncovered by volunteers from Castle Bromwich Youth & Community Partnership.

Private Richard William Choate (1895-1914), 3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards (born in Hackney, commemorated at Olton)

He is listed in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (available on Ancestry and Find My Past, free of charge from library computers), which describes him as the son of Frederick Choate of Birmingham, serving with the British Expeditionary Force. He was killed in action at Soupir, and would have been aged 19 at the time of his death. The Soldiers Died in the Great War volume gives his place of birth as St John’s, Hackney and notes that he was resident in Aston and enlisted in Birmingham. His regimental number was 10332 and he was killed in action.

He was baptised at Hackney Wick on 1st May 1895 to parents Frederick William and Emily Rhoda Choat [sic], living at 1 Gainsborough Square. Frederick’s occupation was given as cricket bat maker.

The 1901 census shows Richard, aged six, living with his two younger siblings and his paternal grandparents, William and Jane Choat, in Hackney. Ten years later, he is listed as a 16-year-old, working as a grocer’s carter and living with his parents, and their six other living children (two had died), at 288 New Avenue, Acocks Green. The birthplaces of the children suggest the family moved from Hackney to Tyseley c. 1902, and then to Acocks Green c. 1905. His father, Frederick, was still listed as a cricket bat maker so it seems highly likely that he worked for the well-known firm of bat manufacturers, Quaife and Lilley, which was established 1893, and had offices in Birmingham and a works in Olton.

Captain Heneage Greville Finch (Lord Guernsey), (commemorated at Bickenhill – presumably because the Earls of Aylesford were Lords of the Manor of Bickenhill. Also commemorated at Forest Hall, Meriden, home of the exclusive Woodmen of Arden archery club, of which the Earls of Aylesford were Patron)

Captain Lord Guernsey, eldest son and heir of the 8th Earl of Aylesford, Irish Guards, is also recorded in De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour but, as an officer and aristocrat, has a more detailed entry. Born in 1883, he attended Eton and then joined the Militia (forerunner of the Territorial Army) in 1901. He was commissioned into the Irish Guards the following year and served in the Boer War and was then stationed in Gibraltar. He retired in 1906, becoming Captain of the Warwickshire Yeomanry in 1910, and of the Reserve of Officers in April 1914.

He married in 1907, and his wife gave birth to their only child, Heneage Michael Charles Finch, in 1908. On the outbreak of the First World War, Lord Guernsey rejoined the Irish Guards and was posted to France on 12th August 1914. He was killed less than a month later, leading his men into battle at Soupir. Lord Guernsey’s son inherited the earldom on the death of his grandfather in 1924, but was himself killed in action in 1940.

The first three men mentioned above are all commemorated at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial to the Missing, 66km east of Paris. Captain Lord Guernsey is one of 16 men buried at Soupir Communal Cemetery.

If you have any information about any of these men and their connections with local places, please get in touch – email heritage@solihull.gov.uk or phone 0121 704 6977.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

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