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Private William Ernest Bird – A Mexborough Man’s War

In this month’s Mexis the Society’s Vice Chairperson Bill Lawrence writes of a Mexborough First World Soldier who faced the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign as well as those of the Western Front, survived, and returned to Mexborough to tell his story.

RIGHT - Private William Ernest Bird, 6th Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment circa 1914
Courtesy of Susan Shaw

The information for this article has kindly been given to the Society by Susan Shaw of Barnsley. Susan has undertaken a considerable amount of work on her family’s history. In doing so she uncovered some remarkable documents relating to her grandfather William Ernest Bird who became Private W.E. Bird of the 6th Battalion of York and Lancaster Regiment during the First World War.

Susan discovered three documents, all within the family bible, which had gone unnoticed for perhaps 90 years. First there was a letter hidden within the pages of the many paged bible, second was the writings of William’s wife, Susan’s grandmother, who had copied the sentiments of another letter written to her by her husband. Both letters tell of his experiences whilst in the army. Third and perhaps the most surprising discovery was a poem about William Bird’s experience in Gallipoli, written as far as is known by Private Bird himself.

There was of course millions of letters written home from the front by servicemen, and sometimes women who served their country in other ways. Probably many have sadly been destroyed, but others have been extensively published, although it must be said those published tend to be from the pens of the middle class, in particular the officer class, many of them the production of public schools. Private Bird was clearly one of the more literate from the ranks of the working class or “the lower orders” as the officers might say.

This ability to express ones thoughts was particularly so when it came to poetry. Martin Stephen remarks in his book, on poems of the First World War, “in poetic terms the true voice of the infantry man is hard to find”. But here we find it and what’s more he was a Mexborough man.

The words of William Bird, like others from his background have remained a secret for years. These writings in recently years have been recognised as important literary works, just as worthy of publications written by such as Field Marshals, Generals and other senior officers and as for poetry, such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

There is perhaps something significant about the writing of such as William Bird. He may have never considered himself to be a writer or poet at all. Yet like other men from his class he was just that. But what they brought to their writings and poetry was perhaps a reflection of their background. The experience of the pit disaster, the harsh realities of working life or unemployment had been everyday horrors and experiences of the common soldier. There seems to be a calmness about Private Bird’s writings and his poem, all conditioned by the experiences of his class, and not to be found outside it. There is a unique mixture of emotions found in his letters and poem. A mixture of grief and sadness for his fallen comrades, revulsion at the worst aspects of the war, but also a sense of pride.

Staffordshire Lad Settles in Mexborough then off to War.
The decade before the First World War saw a massive increase in coal production throughout Great Britain. By 1913 Britain’s coal mining industry was in the forefront of this economic supremacy. By this time output reached nearly 290 million tons of coal per year, the highest figure of coal production in Britain that has never been surpassed before or since.

The opening up of the rich seams of quality hard coal within the South Yorkshire area witnessed a boom in economic activity and relative prosperity for its people. Mexborough was no exception. It was this that brought William Bird, who was by trade a bricklayer, to Mexborough in search of employment. He and his friend, Jim Hope, cycled to the Mexborough area from West Bromwich; it is believed, around 1910.

It appears that it was not long before William, who was living in Wellington Street, met Florence White who was by then living in Victoria Road. This meeting appears to have been fruitful for William’s pal Jim, for he met Florence’s sister Elizabeth (known as Betty). Jim and Betty married and lived in Albert Road, Mexborough.
William married Florence (Florrie) on the 20th July 1912. We don’t know were they initially lived as a couple but later settled in 79 Victoria Road, Mexborough where they stayed for the rest of their lives

Sadly, it is thought, Florrie gave birth to a still born child, possibly in 1913, but there are no records to confirm this. Later William and Florrie had two daughters, twins born on 9th May 1914. Both were born small and sickly. Anne survived but Hilda May died on 28th September 1914. Anne died in Mexborough in 1981.

The summer of 1914 was particularly hot and very dry. William, Florrie and their new family, would have been experiencing this with some joy and hope for the future. This was to be interrupted by the news of the declaration of the First World War on 4th August 1914. Like many young men of the time William volunteered for Army service within days of the outbreak of the conflict. What motivated him we don’t know but one can guess patriotism and adventure may have featured in his decision to go to war.

William Bird would have attended the Mexborough recruiting office, the Register Office within the old Market/Town Hall or the Labour Exchange which was in Bank Street near the Nat West Bank of today (See Julia Ashby’s article in Mexborough Heritage Society Newsletter Achieves May 2000). He would have: gone through the attestation certification process, by swearing the oath of allegiance to king and country; received the ‘King’s shilling’ and quickly sent on the journey to Pontefract Barracks. This was to be the shortest of his journeys in army service and he could not have imaged the long journeys that lay ahead.

Pontefract Barracks Main Gates circa 1914 – Courtesy of Pontefract Museum

Private Bird’s Own Story - From Mexborough to the Hell that was Gallipoli.
Below Private William Ernest Bird tells his own story. It is written as it was in Susan Shaw’s family bible, without paragraphs but this makes no difference to his fascinating story.
“It was on the 19th August that I enlisted in the 6th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment and went to Pontefract on the same day. I was stationed there until September 17th then I was drafted to Grantham in Lincolnshire. We had very hot weather while there, we stopped there until Easter Monday and then marched to Rugby. It took us 3 days and we had a grand reception when we marched through Leicester. The people gave us cigs and cake, in fact they gave us all sorts of stuff. At last we got to Rugby. They billeted us in a School. We stopped there the night and the next morning we marched off to the station, we had no idea where we were going. It took us 12 hours in the train. Of course they took us a long way round. At last we landed at our camp and found that it was a place called Witley in bonny Surrey. We had some very hard work while we were there. I don’t know the dates that I was granted leave. But I know I took one on my own while I was at Grantham. The reason I took it was that while I was there my daughter died. I paraded for a pass so that I could go to the funeral. But the Colour Sergeant passed it off and said it was too late. Well I passed it off as well as I could, but it went down hard. Well shortly after that my grandmother died and they would not let me go to her funeral so I thought I would wait my time and one day I had a letter from my wife to say that the other daughter was ill. I paraded in front of the Captain for a pass but I could not get one so I got my wife to send me the fare. On the Monday there was a big route march. I did not go on it. I went to the butts with a firing party and got back about 1 o’clock and as I sat down, I thought now is the time to go, so I got changed into my clean shift and got to the station about 10 minutes to six. I had a lot of trouble to get a ticket but luck favoured me that day. I only had to wait 5 minutes for a train. Well I got home about 10 minutes to eight. They did not expect me. I had a week at home and when I got back I was tried by the C.O. I explained everything, but I got 7 days defaulters that was my first crime. I will now get back to where we were at Witley. While we were at Whitley we had a surprise visit of Lord Kitchener and later on we were received by the King and Queen. It was on the 28th June 1915 that we had orders that no one was to leave camp and we could not send any letters. We were given our thin suits and helmets. Of course when they gave us those we had a good idea where we were going. On 1st July we left Witley for Liverpool. It was in the afternoon and we were traveling all night. We passed through Birmingham, West Bromwich and we passed within 200 yards of my mother’s house and as I passed I looked out of the window and wondered if ever I should see them again. Well we arrived at Liverpool at 5.30 next morning and we had a lot of stuff to carry. We marched onto the Aquitania at 7.30.pm. she was one of the biggest ships afloat it was just like a floating palace. Well they got everything aboard and she steamed out of the dock in the night and set sail for the hell upon earth place called the peninsula. We had not been sailing long before a submarine sent 2 torpedoes at us. It was 4 o’clock when it happened the first one was about 3 yards away the second about 12 yards. They would have got a good catch as there was between 8 and 9 thousand troops aboard and there was no guns on her except machine guns. Of course they were put at every corner of the ship and ready for firing
in case we came upon a submarine. Well as I say, we set sail from Liverpool on the Saturday afternoon and it was a splendid voyage. We never stopped until we got to Lemnes we landed there on 11th July we left on 23rd July for Mudros a place 15 miles from the peninsula. It was terribly hot while we were there then came the order on 6th August to get ready for moving. There was a number left back as reinforcements. All the boys went with a good heart. Although they did not know the fate that was waiting them. It was on the 6th August they landed on the right of a place called Salt Lake they had orders that not a shot was to be fired everything had to be taken by bayonet. While we were landing they were bombarding Anjas and Ashe Baba to draw the Turkish troops from Sulva Bay. It was a terrible spot was Salt Lake we named it Death Trap. We lost very heavy although we drove the Turks back about 3miles, and if there had been another Division to follow us up we should have been well on our way to Constantinople but that was where the big blunder was made. Well those that was left behind came on the next night and when we landed it was awful to see the chaps that was wounded, it was my first experience on a battle field and it made my blood run cold. I was all day before I got over it. We sat down and had a bit of bully beef and biscuit. General Hammersley came along and he was quite pleased when he knew who we were. At last we marched to where the remainder of the Battalion were and we was not long before we set off to capture a village called Anaparta but it was too late the Turks had got their reinforcements up. It was while we were marching that a bullet missed me and killed the next chap on the spot, so I thought that was a bit of luck. At last we found out that we could not advance any further, so we all laid down in a field as we had no trenches. As night time grew on the order came for us to form a square and dig ourselves in. Well we got nicely dug in when another came for us to retire back onto another position. Well we were marching all night and in the middle of the night the order came back for us to about turn and go back to the position we had left. It was while we were going back that a mysterious thing happened. There was 2 men guiding us and our Colonel asked them where we were they could not answer so he pulled a revolver out to shoot them but before he could do so, one of our lads put a bullet in the pair of them and they turn out to be 2 Turks, it was a good job for us that we did stop else we should have been surrounded and God knows what would have happened to us. The order came to dig ourselves in again. We had only been digging half hour when the order came to advance. So we set out and the sun was telling on us all. I am sorry we lost some men too. We were surrounded by snipers and the smell from the dead and dying was awful. A chap had only to be dead about half an hour before he would be maggot eaten. Well we held that position for 2 days when the Welsh Territorial came to relieve us. We left them and we had not been gone many minutes before they started to retire and we had to fall back and take that position back again. At last we got away and we forced to get back over to a place called Salt Lake. It was fairly a death trap the shells were flying in all directions. I shall never forget it but some of us managed to get to the beach safe. We were only out 24 hours when we had to go back, and as we were going back over Salt Lake they started to shell us again and don’t forget they gave us sock.”

The Poem

Our Gallant Fighters

You may talk of Balaclava,
And of Trafalgar Bay.
But what of the 11th Division.
That landed at Suvla Bay.

We are a part of Kitchener’s army,
Some of us left parent, children and wives.
But we fought for England’s glory,
Yes we fought for our very lives.

It was on the 6th of August,
We made that terrible dash.
And the Turks along the hillside,
Our boats were trying to smash.

The order came to fix bayonets,
As out of the boats we got.
Every man there was a hero,
Who was facing the Turkish shot.

The funnels of our boats got smashed,
While the sea in parts looked red.
But we fought our way through the ocean,
To the beach that was covered with dead.

Creeping at last up the hillside,
While shot and shell around.
We made a last desperate effort,
And charged over the Turkish ground.

The Turks at last gave it up,
When they saw our bayonets play.
For they turned their backs on the British,
And retired from Suvla Bay.

There were Lincolns, Dorsets, Stafford,
And Notts and Derbies too.
The Borders were there,
The rough and ready crew.
Then we got the Manchesters,
With the Lancashire Fusiliers by their side.
The boys who came from Lancashire,
Will fill your hearts with pride.

The Yorks, East Yorks and West Yorks,
And the Duke of Wellingtons as well.
We fought for England home of beauty,
Were among the lads that fell.

The fighting sixth were at it hard,
All Yorkshire lads you lads you know,
The sixth York & Lancs were on their guard,,
And pushing back the foe.

And far away on the hillside,
Laying beneath the clay,
And some of the lads that died,
While trying to win the day.

So remember the gallant 11th Division,
Who volunteered to go.
And fight for England’s glory,
Against the determined foe.

Concluding Footnotes
The Gallipoli Campaign was supposed to create a back door entry into Germany by attacking the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople. The campaign will always be considered by many as one of the biggest blunders in British Military history. Even perhaps greater then the Somme offensive of 1916, for it was to become a futile exercise which was finally aborted at a cost of many thousands of casualties. The total numbers of casualties on the Allied side is estimated to have been about 265,000 men of which 46,000 died either killed in action, of their wounds or of sickness which was rife. The Turkish casualties were believed to be even greater

In 1915, Winston Churchill, then the first lord of the Admiralty, was influential in suggesting the campaign should go ahead when doubts were expressed by others. Churchill was chiefly blamed for this disastrous decision and it took sometime for his reputation to recover. For some of course it never did. The campaign suffered from poor planning and incompetent execution. Private Bird’s description of events eloquently portrays this ineptness and what appears to be almost total confusion. But note there is no criticism of it in the written word but one can only imagine the reactions and emotions of the ordinary soldier to these events.

The 6th Battalion of the York and Lancashire Regiment began to evacuate from the areas on 18th December 1915. By 28th January 1916 the Battalion sailed for Alexandria reaching there on 2nd February. From there to Port Said on the 10th and onto El Ferdan reaching there on the 24th February. Later the Battalion was sent to France for engagement on the Western Front, which was now considered to be the decisive theatre of war. Perhaps mercifully Private Bird and his Battalion did not take part in the Somme offensive which began on 1st July 1916. But this day would still be significant for William Bird as he lost his brother-in-law Private Charles Christopher White of the 10th Battalion of the York and Lancashire Regiment killed in action on that fateful first day of the Battle of the Somme. Christopher was a 19 year old lad from Conisbrough and the brother of his wife Florence. Private William E. Bird’s regiment was sent to Flanders hardly more comfortable than the Somme.

Private William E. Bird returned to Mexborough after the war and settled in his home with Florence at 79 Victoria Road with their, by now, 4 year old daughter Ann. He returned to his former occupation as a bricklayer. Thankfully he survived the horrors of the bloodiest war in history. He and Florence had another daughter, Kathleen in 1920 who still survives at the time of writing. In 1924, Susan Shaw’s mother Winifred (Winnie) was born. She sadly died in 2003 in Barnsley.

William Bird died in 1952 his wife Florence in 1967. They are both buried in Mexborough Cemetery.

After nearly a century this Mexborough soldier’s story has been told. We should take pride in his bravery and that of all the Mexborough service men and women to who we all owe so much.

RIGHT - Private Bird with insert of his wife Florence and 3year old daughter Ann – circa 1917  Courtesy of Susan Shaw

Private Papers of Susan Shaw
People at War – Edited by Michael Moynihan (1973)
Poems of the First World War – Edited by Martin Stephen (1993)
Official History of the York & Lancaster Regiment – Colonel H.C. Wylly (1930)

Copyright. This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of Bill Lawrence.