945 – 3rd Tunnelling Company
Born on 9 April 1865 at Launceston, Tasmania, William was the son of Alexander and Mary (nee Nagle)
Birch. Alexander Birch had been sent to Van Diemans Land as a 14-year-old convict sentenced to 14
years for stealing 7 silk handkerchiefs.
William Birch married Fanny Downing Hills at Landfall, Tasmania.
Launceston Examiner, Tasmania – Monday 3 August 1891:
BIRCH – HILLS. On the 22nd July, at the bride’s father’s, by the Rev. F. Neale, William, fourth son of Alex.
Birch, Rocher’s lane, to Fanny Downing, eighth daughter of Frank Hills, Landfall, East Tamar.
SAUNDERS – HILLS. On the 22nd July, at the bride’s father’s, by the Rev. F. Neale, William Saunders, of
Hobart, to Theresa, ninth daughter of Frank Hills, Landfall, East Tamar.
Three daughters joined the Birch family; Leah Bridget Mary in 1892; Ruth Lavinia in 1898 and Maud
Emily in 1903.
The Electoral Roll for 1914 records William Birch, a labourer, and Fanny Downing Birch, home duties,
living at the corner of Adams and Shaw Streets, Zeehan. Their daughter Leah Mary Birch, dressmaker,
was living at Tarleton Street, Zeehan.
Known as Billy Birch, he stated he was 49 years and 8 months of age when he completed an ‘Application
to Enlist in the Australian Imperial Force’ at Zeehan, Tasmania on 5 November 1915.
A miner by trade, a preliminary medical examination found him to be ‘Fit for Active Service in Mining
Corps only’. He was considered to be ‘Unfit for military infantry service – tachycardia – perhaps due to
excessive smoking’. It was noted the while his sight was good, there was a problem with his right cornea.
William signed the ‘Attestation Paper of Persons Enlisted for Service Abroad’, and the Oath to ‘well and
truly serve’ on 12 November 1915 at Ross, Tasmania.
He named as his Next-of-Kin his wife Fanny Downing Birch of 297 Main Street, Zeehan, Tasmania. He
stated he had 3 children, 1 of whom was a dependant. William allotted three-fifths of his pay for the
support of his wife and children.
The Mercury Friday November 12, 1915:
ZEEHAN, November 11.
Amongst the passengers by the outward train to Burnie to-day were Messrs W.S. Geard, G. Johnson, W.
Reynolds, and W. Birch, who have joined the Miners’ Corps. They were bound to the Claremont training
camp. They were joined at Renison Bell by Mr Martin Berkerg. The last-named, prior to entraining, was
presented with a smoker’s outfit as a token of the esteem in which he is held by the residents there.
Examiner Saturday November 13, 1915:
There was an animated scene at the Zeehan railway station on Thursday, a large crowd having assembled to
witness the departure of the first members of the Australian Mining Corps. These who proceeded to camp were
W.S. Geard, G. Johnson, W. Birch and J. Reynolds. Warden Fisher congratulated what he termed “the boys of
the old brigade” upon having enlisted, wishing them good luck and a safe return. Mr Geard thanked the warden
on behalf of those leaving for his kindly words. He said they were determined to do their but with the rest for
home and country, and in his opinion any single man, physically fit, and without ties who remained behind
would be a cur.
On 15 November 1915 at Ross, Tasmania, a medical
examination recorded that he was 49 years and 7
months of age. He was 5ft 5ins tall and weighed
10stone 7pounds. He had a fair complexion, blue eyes
and brown hair. His sight was recorded as R D18 – L
D6, confirming the cornea problem previously
identified. A scar running from middle of toe of left
foot and a scar on left eye were recorded as
distinguishing marks. William was of the Church of
England faith.
William Birch 2nd from right at Ross Camp above – and Claremont Camp below
Examiner Thursday December 9, 1915:
On November 27, 208 men, belonging partly to the Mining Corps and
partly to Infantry reinforcements, were transferred from Ross to
Claremont. The following are the names of the men:
Mining Corps: Captain T.H. Vincent, G.A. Anderson, W. Berry, M.
Berkeley, W. Blaney, W. Bayes, F. Bidulph, A.D. Black, C. Breaden,
W.M. Bateson, W. Birch, D. Brennan, C.W. Burris, A.T. Coulson, W.J.
Crosswell, F.A. Cashman, B. Cahill, F.E. Cooper, R. Carter, E.A.
Crawford, C.N. Clarke, G. Dewhurst, P. Dunn, L.M. Forsyth, W.A.
Fraser, W.J. Ferguson, H. Gatehouse, E. Green, W.S. Geard, H.R.
Homan, G. Holloway, E.L. Hubbard, W.H. Horsberg, V.J.R. Hubbard,
G.H. Johnston, H.V. Jackson, E.A. Jupp, A.R. Little, E.R. Monks, P.T.
Moseley, W.M. Moran, M.J. Morrison, A.W.J. Maggs, A. McDermott,
L.R. Morgan, M.P. O’Toole, W. Painter, E.D. Price, J.R. Peterson, T.T.
Rocter, J. Reynolds, R. Smith, L.J. Shearing, W. Stewart, W. Searle, C.
Seen, H. Stevens, L.A. Street, H.C. Simpson, J.G. Turnbull, O.N.W.
Taylor, J. Taylor, J. Thomas, T.J. Travis, C.D. Wardle, L.J. Wolfe, W.
Walls, C. Chaplain, P. J. Barrett, F. Claxton, O.L. McArdell, M. Ryan, J.
Brennan, W. Fordham, -- Jupp.
Article Abridged
Before leaving Tasmania, William had photos taken of himself in uniform, and with his family
l-r standing Leah – Maud – Ruth ; Fanny and William seated
On 16 December 1915 at Claremont William was appointed to the 3rd Company Miners and left
Tasmania on 18 December for the Casula Camp near Liverpool, New South Wales where the 1st Mining
Corps was forming-up and training.
William embarked at Sydney with No.3 Company of the
Mining Corps.
At a civic parade in the Domain, Sydney on Saturday February
19, 1916, a large crowd of relations and friends of the
departing Miners lined the four sides of the parade ground.
Sixty police and 100 Garrison Military Police were on hand to
keep the crowds within bounds. The scene was an inspiriting
one. On the extreme right flank, facing the saluting base, were
companies of the Rifle Club School; next came a detachment
of the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, then the bands of
the Light Horse, Liverpool Depot, and the Miners’ on the left,
rank upon rank, the Miners’ Battalion.
Following the farewell parade in the Domain, Sydney, the
Australian Mining Corps embarked from Sydney, New South
Wales on 20 February 1916 on board HMAT A38 Ulysses.
The Mining Corps comprised 1303 members at the time they
embarked with a Headquarters of 40; No.1 Company – 390;
No.2 Company – 380; No.3 Company – 392, and 101 members
of the 1st Reinforcements.
Ulysses arrived in Melbourne, Victoria on 22 February and the
Miners were camped at Broadmeadows while additional stores
and equipment were loaded onto Ulysses. Another parade was
held at the Broadmeadows camp on March 1, the Miners’
Corps being inspected by the Governor-General, as
Commander-in-Chief of the Commonwealth military forces.
Departing Melbourne on 1 March, Ulysses sailed to Fremantle,
Western Australia where a further 53 members of the Corps
were embarked.
The ship hit a reef when leaving Fremantle harbour, stripping
the plates for 40 feet and, although there was a gap in the
outside plate, the inner bilge plates were not punctured. The
men on board nicknamed her ‘Useless’.
William Birch – Casula – 19 Feb 1916
The Miners were off-loaded and sent to the Blackboy Hill Camp where further training was conducted.
Examiner (Launceston) Wednesday March 22, 1916:
Sapper W. Birch, Privates C.H. Clarke, Leslie Cook, Gordon Dewhurst, C.A. Elphinstone, H.W. Elphinstone,
Gunner A.W. Fretboth, Privates M.R. Clozier, Albert Goss, J. Grimes, H.E. Harvey, Algin Haines, Gordon E.
Hooker, J. Heale, W.E. Newton, S.G. Shegog, Samual Shegog, Sapper L. Shadbok, Gunner H.J. Watson,
Privates Tom Wragg, ClemWragg.
After a delay of about a month for repairs, The Mining Corps sailed for the European Theatre on 1 April
The ship arrived at Suez, Egypt on 22 April, departing for Port Said the next day; then on to Alexandria.
The Captain of the ship was reluctant to take Ulysses out of the Suez Canal because he felt the weight of
the ship made it impossible to manoeuvre in the situation of a submarine attack. The Mining Corps was
transhipped to B1 Ansonia for the final legs to Marseilles, France via Valetta, Malta. Arriving at
Marseilles on 5 May, most of the men entrained for Hazebrouck where they arrived to set up their first
camp on 8 May 1916.
A ‘Mining Corps’ did not fit in the British Expeditionary Force, and the Corps was disbanded and three
Australian Tunnelling Companies were formed. The Technical Staff of the Corps Headquarters, plus
some technically qualified men from the individual companies, was formed into the entirely new
Australian Electrical and Mechanical Mining and Boring Company (AEMMBC), better known as the
‘Alphabetical Company’.
No.3 Company became the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company (3ATC).
William reported sick on 9 August 1917 and was admitted to the 11th Canadian Field Ambulance with
chronic bronchitis. He was discharged to duty on 14 August and rejoined his unit the same day.
He again reported sick on 26 September 1917 and was admitted to the 16th Field Ambulance with
myalgia (muscular pain caused by strain, inflammation or heavy exertion). On 27 September he was
transferred to the Corps Rest Station and the same day was admitted to the 18th Field Ambulance.
Discharged to duty he rejoined his unit on 14 October 1917
William again reported sick on 22 October 1917 and was admitted to the 18th Casualty Clearing Station
with rheumatism. He was transferred to Ambulance Train 31 on 23 October and transported him to the
14th General Hospital at Wimereux where he was admitted on 24 October. The next day he was
transferred to the 1st Convalescent Depot, Boulogne. On 26 October he was transferred to the Australian
General Base Depot (AGBD), Rouelles and on 31 October William it was decided to evacuate William to
England for ‘permanent base duties’ due to age and rheumatism, ending his service with 3ATC.
William had been a member of 3ATC from May 1916 until his return to Australia in January 1918.
3ATC first saw action at Boars Head in the lead up the Fromelles diversion ‘stunt’ of July 1916. The
Company was allocated to the First Army and were engaged variously at Laventie-Fauquissart, Givenchy,
Loos, Lens, Double Crassiers and Vermelles and other places on the Western Front.
On 27 November 1916 at the ‘Black Watch Sap’, Hill 70, and enemy camouflet (or a premature
explosion, depending on different accounts) killed 20 members of the company. The next day 2 more
members were killed in the same area by an enemy camouflet. The 22 members of 3ATC were buried in
14 adjacent graves at the Hersin Communal Cemetery Extension.
The Companies major effort was at Hill 70 where they constructed the extensive Hythe Tunnel system.
William marched in to No.2 Command Depot, Weymouth on 13 November 1917. A Medical Report of
14 November recorded ‘was in France 18 months, practically all of which time he was in the trenches.
Towards the last he began to experience pains in shoulders and legs, also shortness of breath on exertion’
and ‘He is 52 years old and clearly too old to for active service in France’. He was deemed to be
permanently unfit for all military service. His degree of disability was assessed at 30%.
In December 1917, his wife wrote to the Secretary regarding a letter she had read in the paper written by a
soldier in France on 20 September saying that he husband was ill in hospital. She asked if it was true.
Base Records replied on 2 January 1918 stating that no official advice had been received that her husband
had been admitted to hospital, adding that not all cases were reported by cable but that if a cabled report
were received she would be informed immediately.
William left Plymouth on 12 January 1918 on board Hospital Transport SS Port Darwin for return to
Australia due to senility and rheumatism. On 24 January his Next-of-Kin was advised of his returning.
Zeehan and Dundas Herald Monday January 28, 1918:
Mrs W. Birch, of Main Street, Zeehan, has received advice that her husband, Sapper W. Birch, is returning to
Australia at an early date.
Disembarking at Melbourne on 4 March 1918, William then travelled by steamer to Hobart. His
condition was confirmed at the 12 General Hospital, Launceston on 5 March 1918. On 21 March the
Medical Board confirmed his Permanent Military Incapacity and assessed his Temporary Military
Incapacity at one-half (½) for 6 months.
Zeehan and Dundas Herald, Tasmania - Wednesday March 6, 1918:
Sapper W. Birch, who left Zeehan to do his bit at the front some two years and four months ago, is due to arrive
home by the Emu Bay train today.
Zeehan and Dundas Herald, Tasmania - Friday March 8, 1918:
Sapper W. Birch, who arrived on Wednesday, was welcomed home by Warden Fisher at the Zeehan railway
station, and in doing so the Warden congratulated him on having responded to the Empire’s call, and also upon
his safe return and trusted that his health would improve. Three cheers were given, and the returned soldier,
with his wife and family, were motored by Mrs Geo Dunkley to his home at the West End of Main street. It
was about November 9, 1915, when Sapper Birch, who is 52 years of age, enlisted in Zeehan. From then on his
experiences have been many and varied. He saw service in France and during his term had 14 days furlough in
“Blighty,” and was later invalided with rheumatism, and spent some months in a convalescent camp in England
prior to returning to Zeehan, where his family have resided for over 14 years. Naturally a conversation with
Sapper Birch is most interesting to anyone so far from the immediate centres of the great struggle as West Coast
residents are, but unfortunately for the best interests of these columns the censor has first to be consulted,
therefore matter of that character cannot be published ad libitum. However, the returned Zeehanite speaks in
high praise of the manner in which the women of France work. In all branches of industry they could put to
shame many workmen as far as endurance and skill is concerned. In horticultural pursuits they are never-tiring,
and if allowed would till the ground right up to the firing line. The comparison between the intense cultivation
in France where the land is practically utilised right up to the sleepers of railways, or the edges of reeds, to the
vast amount of English soil lying idle, was most noticeable. The absence of fences in the farming districts of
France was also peculiar to an Australian as is also the absence of timber for fuel. Both these characteristics
have been dwelt on by other returned men. Sapper Birch, who has not yet received his discharge, will remain
with his family during his 14 days’ leave before reporting himself at the Launceston Base.
William was discharged from the A.I.F. in
Tasmania on 4 April 1918, entitled to
wear the British War Medal and the
Victory Medal.
He was granted a War Pension of 30
shillings per fortnight from 5 April 1918.
His wife Fanny received a pension of 15
shillings beginning on 5 April, and his
daughter Maud Emily, 10 shillings being
on 11 April.
The 1919 Electoral Roll records the same
details as the 1914 Roll. In 1922 William,
Leah , Maud , Fanny , William , Ruth
after William’s return
Fanny and Leah are all living in Main Street, Zeehan.
He received his Victory Medal at Zeehan on 25 April 1922.
Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania - Monday January 21, 1924:
BIRCH—On January 19, at his residence, Carlton Street, Zeehan, William Birch, dearly beloved husband of
Fanny Downing Birch, aged 49 years.
BIRCH—The friends of the late Mr William Birch are respectfully invited to attend his funeral, which will
leave his late residence, Carlton street, Zeehan, at 4 p.m. this (Monday) afternoon for Zeehan Cemetery.
Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania - Tuesday January 22, 1924:
Another old identity of Zeehan, in the person of Mr William Birch, passed away on Saturday night. He had
served at the Great War in the 2nd Tunnelling Corps, and when he was laid to rest yesterday afternoon a fair
number of his former comrades of the Great Adventure attended to pay their last tribute of respect to one so
fully deserving of kindly remembrances.
Mr Birch was of a quiet, retiring nature. He held strong opinions, but they were unobtrusive, and he always
respected the viewpoints of others, no matter how much he disagreed with them. His qualities were of the
sterling and enduring kind, and many old consters, here and elsewhere, will regret the passing of one they
regarded with much respect. The widow and daughters of deceased have received many messages of sympathy,
and tokens of remembrance and regard were numerous. Rev. R. Jackson (Methodist) officiated at deceased’s
William was buried in the Zeehan Old General Cemetery.
He is commemorated on the Zeehan ‘Roll of Honour 1914-1915’.
There is a plaque at the Garden of Remembrance, Carr Villa War
Cemetery, Launceston.
His widow received his British War Medal at Strahan, Tasmania on
3 March 1924.
William’s widow put similar ‘In Memoriam’ notices in every year
until she her death in 1932.
The family advise: “From the day he died until
she did, she wore black mourning clothes and
visited his grave every Sunday”.
His daughters continued the tradition in 1933 &
photo courtesy Kay Wagland
Advocate, Burnie, Tasmania - Wednesday January 19, 1927:
BIRCH—In sad and loving memory of my dear husband
and father, William Birch, who passed away January 19,
1924. Ever remembered.
—Inserted by his loving wife, daughters, son-in-law, and
grandsons, Zeehan and Strahan.
The composite below shows William from enlistment to discharge.
1915 Nov in Camp Tasmania
1915 Nov in Camp Tasmania
1915 Dec in Camp Tasmania
1916 Feb Casula camp, Sydney
1918 March - Tasmania
Advocate Saturday August 6, 1932:
BIRCH—On Friday 5th, at Zeehan District Hospital, Fanny Downing, widow of the late Sapper William Birch,
aged 64 years.
Comrades are requested to attend the funeral of the widow of the late Sapper Birch, leaving the Zeehan Hospital
at 3 p.m. TO-MORROW (Sunday)—A.G. Cairnduff, secretary.
© Donna Baldey 2014
with the assistance of Kay Wagland, great granddaughter of William Birch. Images courtesy Kay Wagland
Kay is also the great niece of 4750 Sapper Harold Dadd, 2nd Australian Tunnelling Company.