John Birkett – known to friends and family as Jack - a mason’s labourer, who worked for Benjamin Kirk, was 21 when the war broke out, and eagerly signed up in the first rush of war fever, earning a place in the list of names proudly printed in the Craven Herald on 9th October 1914, accompanied by an exhortation to the men of Craven to follow Embsay’s worthy example and sign up in droves. His name had appeared several times before in the local newspaper, as he had been a keen cricket player, playing for Embsay’s local second team, and had also played for the Embsay Football team. He had been born into a large family in Shadwell, near Leeds, one of at least 10 children of a Wheelwright and joiner, Walter Birkett, and his wife, Mary Ann. The family arrived in Embsay around 1907 to live at West Lane Top, when Jack was in his early teens. Two of Jack’s younger siblings, James and Nellie, started attending the Church of England National School in November 1907, and his youngest sister, Dorothy (Dollie), was born here in 1909.
Enlisting on 2nd September 1914, Jack was recruited into the 1/6th Battalion of the West Riding (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment as a private. His enlistment records reveal he was a small man – just 5 feet 3 inches tall, with a chest measurement of 34 inches. He was described as only “Fair” in terms of physical development, but good enough to pass the fitness test for entry into the army.
After about 18 months of training, Jack’s battalion was finally put onto a boat for France on 4th April 1916. 166 days later, he was dead in a Flanders shell-hole.
His parents had moved to Skipton during the early years of the war, there to anxiously await news of 3 sons who were on active service – Jack, James and Willie – as well as a son-in-law, Tom Burnett. In September 1916 came the dreaded news that Jack had been killed in action in the continuing war of attrition which raged on for several months on the Somme, long after the opening salvos of July 1st – he was one of a long list of victims amongst B Company killed or wounded during a shell fire attack. His commanding officer wrote a letter to his parents:
"It is with the greatest sorrow that I have to tell you of the death of your son, Pte. Birkett, of this Company. It occurred about 6 p.m. on the night of the 16th inst. We were being shelled and unfortunately your son was buried by one of them, and when he was dug out he was quite dead. He was buried yesterday in a small cemetery about half a mile behind the line in a place set apart for soldiers killed in action. We are all very much upset by his death, as he was a most popular fellow and always most willing and obliging, and what is most important, always most cheerful. He was a bomber and one of the best we had, and we shall all miss him very much indeed. Please accept the very deepest sympathy of the officers, N.C.O.s and men of this Company."
On 6th October, a large congregation gathered at St Mary’s Church, Embsay for Jack’s memorial service. Jack’s father died soon afterwards in December, no doubt devastated by his son’s death.
In January 1917, at her home in Greenfield Road, off Broughton Road, Jack’s recently widowed mother, and those of her children who still lived with her (6 of them, aged between 18 and 7 years), received a little parcel of his personal effects – They would have found inside some post-cards & letters, 4 photographs, a “Note”, a pocket knife, a razor, scissors, an identity disc, a silver ring, and a rosary.
On the anniversary of his death, she and her children published a memorial to him in the Craven Herald which simply read: “BIRKETT - In loving memory of a dear son and brother, Private Jack Birkett, killed in action, 16th September 1916. Only those who have loved and lost can understand. From Mother, Brothers and Sisters.”
All his mother could do now was wait anxiously for the safe return of two other sons – James and Willie – and her son-in-law Tom Burnett, who was a prisoner of war. James won a gallantry medal in July 1917, and like his brother Willie, and brother-in-law Tom, survived the war.
Jack’s Commonwealth War Grave headstone stands in the Blighty Valley Cemetery, Authuille Wood on the Somme. He is commemorated locally on Embsay’s war memorial on Main Street, on the brass plaque for the war dead inside the church, and on another inside the cricket clubhouse.
Embsay Research Group (part of the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group)