6th East Kent Regiment (The Buffs), Honorary Lieutenant, Royal Flying Corps
Synopsis of Life and Military Service
Norman Wreford Birkett was born in Chislehurst, Kent on 17 May 1893 and christened one month later on 17 June. His parents were Louis Birkett a wool brokers merchant and his wife Agnes Wreford. His parents appear to have been quite well off with shares in the Great Western Railway, and the 1901 census shows that they had three servants.
He attended Haileybury College and also studied at Imperial College, London after which he moved to Canada and on the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Canadian infantry. He joined the 8th Battalion Canadian Infantry (Regimental Number 227), Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier, Province of Quebec on 23 September 1914. His occupation when he signed up was that of a Civil Engineer, and his description was given as:
- Height – 6ft ½ inch
- Chest – 38 ¾ inches
- Complexion – Medium
- Eyes – Grey Brown
- Hair – Dark Brown
- Scar – 1 inch long, 3 inches above the right knee on the outside of his leg.
- Religion – Church of England.
His unit sailed to England on 3 October 1914. He was commissioned as a temporary Second Lieutenant on 2 December 1914 but he wasn’t discharged from the CEF until 2 February 1915 when the Battalion were based at Lark Hill. Before he was able to take up post, it’s likely he was given compassionate leave to attend the funeral of his sister, Margaret Janson Birkett, a nurse who had died of exhaustion.
Following his commission, Norman was attached to the 6th Battalion East Kent Regiment (the Buffs). The battalion sailed to Boulogne from Folkestone on the South Eastern and Chatham Railway ferry “The Queen” on 1 June 1915. ‘The Queen’ had been in service as a ferry since 1907 and in 1914 had evacuated refugees from Ostend and had also rescued over 2,000 people from the French ship, Admiral Ganteaume which had been torpedoed.
Norman and his Regiment arrived in Boulogne just before 1am in the morning of 2 June and made their way to Ostrohove Rest Camp, subsequently moving on to Bailleul on 6 June where they were put into billets. It was here they started to learn the skills needed for life in the trenches, such as attending a demonstration on how to deal with gas attacks. By 20 June they were at Armentieres where they began to get familiar with the trenches. Shortly after their arrival they suffered their first casualty, Sergeant W A H Dennett, was accidentally killed in a training incident.
On 25 September 1915 the British attacked German lines in what was to become the Battle of Loos. The 6th Battalion were at Despierre Farm south of Plogseert Wood. They set of smoke canisters which lasted over half an hour, and in the afternoon the Battalion opened fire to encourage the enemy to respond, and during the night the Battalion sent out bombing parties. The next day, a notice board was put up on the German parapet opposite “Machine Gun House” with the words “Good luck to you, Englishman”.
The battalion were relieved from the line at short notice on 27 September and Marched to the Grande Place, Armentieres. They subsequently moved into trenches just outside Vermelles on 30 September. On 13 October they moved to trenches north of ‘Centre Alley’ ready for an attack which began at 2.15pm. The war diary states:
“The men were met with a terrific fire, machine guns on three sides while the Germans were lying on their parapets giving rapid fire. The three companies were practically wiped out. It was very difficult to get any information at Battalion HQ as all the wires were broken. At 5pm B Company were ordered up to the S.F.T and one Company of Royal West Kent Regiment to the support trench.
Major Lloyd went up to the front line. The line was as far as possible reorganised. Our casualties were ten officers viz Major Furley, Major Soames DSO, Capt Davidson, Capt Brodis, Lieut Phillimore, Lieut Marsh, 2/Lieut Jelf, 2/Lieut Lambert, 2/Lieut Bainbridge killed and 2/Lieutenant Birkett wounded”
Norman was evacuated to the UK on 23 October 1915 and admitted to the Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital at Millbank, London with a gun shot wound to the left femur. He was kept there until 4 January when he was discharged to the King Edward VII military hospital to convalesce. He was admitted to the Millbank Hospital again on 17 April 1916 and subsequently discharged on 3 June for further convalescence at the King Edward VII Hospital.
“Although medical records for the Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital at Millbank suggest Norman was sent to the King Edward VII hospital to convalesce there is evidence showing that he was at Polesdon Lacey and Luton Hoo. Polesdon Lacey (now a National Trust property) was opened up as a convalescent hospital for officers by the owner Margaret Grenville from June 1915 until late 1916. “
In September 1916 Norman learnt that his brother Sergeant Harold Wreford Birkett, of the Canadian Infantry, had been killed in action at Pozieres.
Because of his wound it’s unlikely Norman returned to the front line and on 9 May 1917 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an Equipment Officer third class and was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 September 1917. He was attached to the No.1 Motor Transport Depot in August 1918 and was again hospitalised in October for about a month. On his discharge he was sent to the Motor Transport depot in Kennington and it’s quite possible that it was here that he met Kathleen Wells who he later married. She was a Motor Transport driver in the Women’s RAF based at Kennington.
He married Kathleen in the latter half of 1919 in Brentford, Middlesex. He subsequently spent some time in Africa, travelling out to Mombasa, Kenya on the Grantully Castle on 15 January 1920. His profession was given as farmer so he may have left the UK to start a new life. He returned home on the Usambara from Durban on 31 October 1923 with his wife and also a young son. He returned to Mombasa on the Guildford Castle on 30 January 1924 but this time as an engineer.
By 1939, Norman was back in the UK and was a Managing Director of a Dry Cleaning company living in Kent. However by 1943 he was working in the County Surveyor’s office in Country Hall, Truro, Cornwall, and was an ARP instructor. On 22 June 1943, Norman and Kathleen’s son John was killed in a flying accident in Canada where he was a Pilot Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Norman died in Droxford, Hampshire in 1946.
The following family information has been ascertained :-
- Wife – Kathleen Wells or Birkett, born 30 August 1892 at Ealing, London, died Droxford, Hampshire.
- Son – John Evelyn Wreford Birkett, born 27 March 1922 at Kenya.
- Son – Carryl Wreford Birkett, born 31 December 1925 at Nairobi, Kenya. Died 15 August 2017.
(It’s believed there were two other children but so far have been unable to identify them with any confidence).
- Father – Louis Birkett, born c.1853 at Southwark, London, died 1943 at Barnstaple, Devon..
- Mother – Agnes Wreford or Birkett, born c.1853 at Crayford, Kent.
- Sister – Mary F., born c.1883 at Stamford Hill, Middlesex.
- Sister – Elsie W.A., born c.1884 at Chislehurst, Kent.
- Brother – Harold Wreford, born c.1885 at Chislehurst, Kent, d.9 September 1916.
- Sister – Margaret Janson, born c.1889 at Chislehurst, Kent, d.16 December 1914.
Records show that Norman lived at the following addresses :-
- 1901 – Summer Hills Villas.
- 1911 – Haileybury College, Hertford.
- 16 April 1918 – 3 Summer Hill, Chislehurst, Kent.
- October 1923 – 3 Summer Hill, Chislehurst, Kent.
- 1939 – Symnells Cottage, East Ashford, Kent.
- 1943 – Benson House, Truro, Cornwall.
Norman Birkett is not remembered on any memorials as he did not die in the war.
Links to Additional Information
- Lives of the First World War – Norman Wreford Birkett.
- WW1 Lives – Sister, Margaret Janson Birkett.
- WW1 Lives – Wife, Kathleen Birkett
- Ancestry.Co.UK: England and Wales Christening Index, 1530-1980.
- The Genealogist: Kent 1901 Census.
- 1911 Census for England and Wales.
- University of London Student Records, 1836-1945.
- Ancestry.Co.UK: Canada, Word War 1 CEF Personnel Files 1914-1918.
- National Archives WO 95/1860: War Diary of 6th Battalion East Kent Regiment.
- Find My Past: British Armed Forces, First World War Soldiers Medical Records.
- Page 5344 | Supplement 30104, 29 May 1917 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 10269 | Supplement 30323, 2 October 1917 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Page 11566 | Issue 30928, 1 October 1918 | London Gazette | The Gazette
- Life story: Norman Wreford Birkett | Lives of the First World War (iwm.org.uk)
- National Archives AIR 76/40/27.
- Find my Past: Ealing Gazette November 29, 1919.
- 1939 Register.
- Canadian Virtual War Memorial.
- Trevor Torkington