Joseph Henry BIRRELL

BIRRELL, Joseph Henry

Service Number: 734
Enlisted: 8 October 1915
Last Rank: Sergeant
Last Unit: 29th Infantry Battalion
Born: Carlsruhe, Victoria, Australia, October 1889
Home Town: Paynesville, East Gippsland, Victoria
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Fireman
Died: Killed in Action, France, 24 November 1916
Cemetery: London Cemetery and Extension, Longueval
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Carlsruhe Roll of Honour, Carlsruhe War Memorial, Kyneton War Memorial, Paynesville & District Honour Roll, Paynesville Pictorial Roll of Honor, Paynesville War Memorial
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World War 1 Service

8 Oct 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, 734, 29th Infantry Battalion
10 Nov 1915: Involvement Private, 734, 29th Infantry Battalion, --- :embarkation_roll: roll_number: '16' embarkation_place: Melbourne embarkation_ship: HMAT Ascanius embarkation_ship_number: A11 public_note: ''
10 Nov 1915: Embarked Private, 734, 29th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Ascanius, Melbourne
11 Mar 1916: Promoted AIF WW1, Corporal, 29th Infantry Battalion
4 Aug 1916: Promoted AIF WW1, Sergeant, 29th Infantry Battalion, Temp Sgt, promotion confirmed under standing orders.
24 Nov 1916: Involvement Sergeant, 734, 29th Infantry Battalion, --- :awm_ww1_roll_of_honour_import: awm_service_number: 734 awm_unit: 29th Australian Infantry Battalion awm_rank: Sergeant awm_died_date: 1916-11-24

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Biography contributed by Evan Evans

From François Berthout

Sgt 734 Joseph Henry Birrell 
29th Australian Infantry Battalion, B Company,
8th Brigade, 5th Australian Division
In the now peaceful and silent fields of the Somme, sway in red waves millions of poppies which grow on what were once the battlefields, hell on earth on which fought and fell a whole generation of young men who today, walk in peace and stand proudly, solemn and eternal behind the roses and the shadows of their white graves that tell us, behind their names and their epitaphs, their stories that we will always keep strong and alive so that life of these young men, before and during the war, their sacrifices, their acts of courage and faith will never be forgotten and so that their names, their faces and their memory live forever.

Today, it is with the utmost respect and the deepest gratitude that I would like to honor the memory of one of these young men, one of my boys of the Somme who paid the supreme sacrifice for peace and freedom, for Australia and France, for humanity.I would like to pay a very respectful tribute to Serjeant number 734 Joseph Henry Birrell who fought in the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion, B Company, 8th Brigade, 5th Australian Division, and who died of his wounds on the battlefield 105 years ago, on November 24, 1916 at the age of 27 on the Somme front.

Joseph Henry Birrell, who was affectionately called "Joe" by his comrades was born in 1889 in Carlsruhe, Victoria, Australia, and was the son of Richard and Amelia Ann Birrell, of Paynesville, Victoria. Joseph was educated at Carlsruhe State School , Victoria and after graduation, worked as a fireman.

Joseph enlisted on July 22, 1915 in Melbourne, Victoria,as Private in the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion, B Company, and on August 12, he stood in front of a hall full of Paynesville locals at the farewell that had been arranged for him and eight other local lads. He had just been presented with a token representing the best wishes
of the community and on behalf of the group of volunteers, thanked those gathered for their kindness of the gifts. He said that he did not feel they were making a sacrifice, but doing their duty to their country. He wished that what little they might do would help to the desired object,the freedom of the world from such unscrupulous power as Germany. He felt sure when they got into the trenches that whatever they did it would be their utmost. This was meet with rousing applause and the promise of a hearty home-coming when they all returned. Unfortunately,the promise of a hearty home-coming was not to be for Joseph.

Ready and determined to do his duty for Australia and the future of the world, Joseph followed a four month training period at Broadmeadows Camp, Victoria and embarked with his unit from Melbourne, Victoria, on board HMAT A11 Ascanius on the 10th November 1915 and sailed for Egypt.

On December 7, 1915, Joseph arrived in Egypt and was disembarked at Suez. Three months later, on March 10, 1916, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal at Tel-El-Kebir and on April 2, was sent to Machine Gun School in Zeitoun then returned to his unit on April 24 and on May 22, was sent to the School of Instruction in Ismailia, Joseph then became a Lewis Gunner in the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion and on June 16, with his battalion, he joined the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in Alexandria from where he embarked on board "Tunisian" and proceeded overseas for France.

After a week of a calm journey on the peaceful waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Joseph arrived in France on June 23, 1916 and was disembarked in Marseille and then sent by train to Hazebrouk. On July 8, the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion and the 5th Australian Division was called up to the front from training behind lines in order to replace the battalions of the Australian 4th Division which were being transferred to the Somme. The 29th Battalion undertook a difficult two-day 29 miles (47 km) approach march over cobbled roads with loads of up to 70-75 pounds (32-34 kg) before arriving at the front on the night of 10/11 July.Taking up a position between Boutillerie and Cordonerrie Farm in the Bois Grenier, they relieved the 13th Battalion and on July 19 subsequently took part in an attack against the German positions around the "Delangre Farm"during the battle of Fromelles which was being held by the 21st Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment.Following the attack, the battalion held the line for another 11 days, beating off a particularly heavy German counterattack on July 20, before they were eventually relieved. During their introduction to trench warfare, the 29th Battalion lost 52 men killed in action, and another 164 men wounded.The nature of the battle of Fromelles was summed up by one soldier soldier of the 29th Battalion as follow: "the novelty of being a soldier wore off in about five seconds, it was like a bloody butcher's shop".

After Fromelles, on August 1, 1916, Joseph and the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion were sent to Fleurbaix and two days later, on August 3, 1916, Joseph was promoted to the rank of Temporary Sergeant then were sent to Bac St Maur where they remained in rear of the front lines and alternated between periods of rest and exercises. A month later, at the end of September, they fought at Houplines and Armentieres and left the front line on October 15 then marched for Strazelle (Hauts-De-France) , Bailleul and early in the morning of October 17, embarked by train for the Somme front and arrived in Longpré later the same day.

After arriving at Longpré, Joseph and the 29th Battalion joined Bussus-Bussuel where they bivouacked in heavy and cold rain and an anecdote dated October 18 in the war diary indicates that the men of the 29th Battalion attended a French wedding and the men had rice in abundance. On October 20, the 29th Battalion left Bussus-Bussuel and marched through Buire in a frosty and cold rain and on October 21, arrived at Mametz Wood then the next day, joined the front line and the trenches of Flers. It is noted in the war diary that "the trenches were in an awful condition and the men had their knees deep in the mud." The following days were in heavy rain and turned the battlefield into swamps and the men were constantly under fire from German artillery.On October 24, the entire 29th Australian Infantry Battalion was concentrated at "Crest Trench", Flers, in the vicinity of High Wood and ready for an attack on Le Transloy but the attack was disastrous and the battalion was relieved on October 31.

Unfortunately the rest was very short and on November 1, 1916, Joseph and the 29th Australian Infantry Battalion returned to the front line at Flers in the "Bayonet" and "Lime" Trenches and on November 4 were relieved by the 22nd Australian Infantry Battalion and were sent to the "Shelden Camp" near Montauban then marched through Fricourt, Buire, Vignacourt, joined Ribemont on November 18, Mametz on November 20, Trones Wood on November 21.

Unfortunately, it was three days later, on November 24, 1916, that Joseph met his fate and was killed by barrage of fire from the enemy near the village of Ginchy, Somme, when on his way to the front line. The Germans knew what time the men relieved each other on the front line and regularly sent over their barrage fire on them every evening.

Joseph was hit and is believed to have died almost instantly. In the dark he was heard to call out but he could not be seen. As dawn broke the outline of his body could be seen out in the open in no-man’s land and it was quite impossible for any of his mates to get up to him. Throughout the day he was closely watched for any signs of movement but none were detected. They could see him lying there, knowing well who it was, but could not get to him to positively identify him and were not able to bring him in the daylight and waited for the cover of darkness.

In the evening it was the intention of the men to retrieve Sergeant Birrell, but relief came before this could be done. It was the general opinion of his mates that he had been killed almost instantly. His mates were not able to bury him and so he lay where he fall. The Australians held that line for another ten days and while his mates knew he was dead, officially Joe remained "missing".

It was not until the new year that enquiries were made that determined that he had "officially" been killed that night. At the end of April 1917, the Bairnsdale Advertiser carried the news of his death with the closing line:" another gallant Australian gone."

At first, after his death, Joseph's body was not found, he was reverted to the rank of Corporal but this order was canceled and his name was inscribed and honored on the walls of the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, Somme.

Years later after the end of the war, on February 8, 1939, Joseph's family received a letter informing them that during exhumation work, his body was found southwest of Le Transloy and identified then buried with respect, reverance and care by the Imperial War Graves Commission at the London Cemetery And Extension, Longueval, Somme, where he now rests in peace alongside his friends, comrades and brothers in arms.

Joseph, it is in the prime of your life that, for Australia, the Commonwealth and France, you answered with courage and determination to the call of duty and joined the ranks of your friends, the ranks of a united army which left the coasts of Victoria, Queensland and which sailed with confidence towards the north of France, on the battlefields of the great war and the trenches.For the future of humanity, for peace and freedom these young men went forward, with in their hearts, the deep conviction to do what was right for their country for which they were ready to give their lives and together side by side, through the poppies, the hills and the fields of the Somme, they did more than their duty, they gave everything they had for the men who stood by their side and in the blood, under the hurricanes of fire and steel, they stood with admirable bravery in what were among the deadliest battles of the great war as were Pozieres, Mouquet Farm and Flers where fell thousands of young Diggers who were among the braver soldiers and who were deeply admired by their brothers in arms and French friends who had the honor of fighting alongside them under shells and bullets.Knees deep in the mud, feet in frozen water, hands in blood, standing under the sacks of sand, they faced horrors and fury, they bravely carried the weight of war on their shoulders but kept in their hearts, the hopes and dreams of peace which gave them the strength and courage to fight, they found in each other, in the mateship and in the ANZAC spirit the determination to follow their brothers, their fathers, their pals in the heart of hell, through barbed wire and the sea of ​​mud of no man's land, they fearlessly charged towards the trenches of the enemy who, in a few minutes, loaded the machine guns and rifles and poured down a rain of lead and who mercilessly mowed waves of young boys who collapsed in the poppies and barbed wire from which they could not tear themselves away and who, in a last act of courage, in a last breath, gave their lives under the helpless gaze of their best mates who stood ready to follow their friends' path through shrapnel and bullets, through almost certain death and who, legs shaking but resolute and proud, climbed the ladders wooden behind their officers and moved morward in a tight line, their hearts beating at full speed under the explosions and blasts of the shells, they remained standing under their steel helmets and despite the death around them, despite this endless nightmare , they never took a step back and gave their all without regard for their own lives and gave their today so that we who live today can have a world at peace for which they gave their lives in the Somme.During the great war, 416,809 Australians enlisted, 334,000 served overseas, the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) sustained approximately 210,000 casualties, of which 61,519 were killed or died of wounds, a casualty rate among the highest of any belligerent for the war.Today, it is estimated that between 23,000 and 40,000 Australians were killed in action on the battlefields of the Somme, including Joseph but these young men, my boys of the Somme will never be forgotten, I will always be present for them and I would always watch over them so that their memory and their history, so that the ANZAC spirit lives forever in these lands of remembrance.We will never forget Australia.Thank you so much Joe, for all you did for us, for my country, for each of us who will be forever grateful to you.At the going down of the sun and in the morning,we will remember him,we will remember them.