HUGH CARLISLE BIRKETT
9 September 1895 – 11 May 1917
Regimental number: 9/1777
Sapper, New Zealand Engineers
Hugh Carlisle BIRKETT, known as Lisle, was born on 9th September 1895 in Inglewood. His parents (James) Henry Birkett and Emma NIXON had married the year before. Henry was a farmer, and Emma was a school teacher who worked in several schools in Taranaki.
Henry was born in New Zealand in 1865 to Edward and Ellen Birkett. Ellen Hart and her family were early settlers to Wellington, arriving in 1841 aboard the Tyne. Lisle's mother Emma was born in 1864 to William and Mary Nixon in Warden, Northumberland. The family moved to Hexham, where William worked as a lead ore dresser for the local mines. Emma trained as a teacher there before emigrating to New Zealand in 1885 along with her older sister Bessey, who had been working as a domestic servant in Newcastle. They travelled on the steamship Tongariro, taking advantage of the assisted immigration scheme to Taranaki.
Henry and Emma had three more children: Hazel (1897), Dulcie Ellen (1904) and Marjorie Annie (1906). Another two children were born but died young. The family moved around Taranaki, living in Inglewood, Huiroa, Pukearuhe, Te Kiri, Opunake and Eltham. Lisle attended school in Te Kiri and Mangahume School in Opunake. He left Eltham around 1912 for an apprenticeship as a motor engineer with Stanton and Evans in Wellington. The motor garage was based at 15 Molesworth Street, and advertised itself “By Special Appointment to the Governor-General” with “The Best Motor Cars in Wellington for private hire”. During his time in Wellington, Lisle boarded with his father’s sister Martha Jane SHORT and her family in Ohiro Road, Brooklyn. He also joined the Territorial Force, as part of C Company of the 5th Wellington Regiment.
On his attestation papers, Lisle signed himself as Hugh Lisle Birkett. It appears to have been misread by the authorities, and subsequently all his military records were in the name of Hugh Leslie Birkett. He enlisted on 19th October 1915, joining D Squad of the 9th Reinforcements. He was 20 years of age, 5 foot 11 inches, and 154 pounds, with a medium complexion, grey eyes, and brown hair. After training, he embarked from Wellington aboard the Maunganui on 8th January 1916 for Egypt, arriving there on 8th February.
On 10th March 1916 Lisle joined No 2 Company NZ Engineers. The Engineers were responsible for maintaining communications, railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport, as well as building fortifications and maintaining weapons. On 5th April they sailed for France and were based in Armentieres. In late August, the entire New Zealand Division moved south to the Somme, where it joined in the offensive begun the previous month. The Battle of the Somme was waged from July to November 1916, with heavy casualties.
On Christmas Day that year, Lisle wrote to his family, telling them he had received “a parcel of sweets from the children of Brooklyn School, not bad for youngsters. Every soldier from Brooklyn is supposed to have one.” He didn’t mention he’d forfeited a day’s pay for failing to salute an officer two days previously. The following January, Lisle wrote: “I get some great jobs in this outfit, bricklaying, carpentering, building bunks, bridge building, and today I have knocked up a cook-house, some experience eh!”
On 8th April 1917, he was diagnosed with measles and admitted to 7th General Hospital in St Omer, a large town 45 kilometres south-east of Calais. During the first half of the war, it was used as the general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. It was also a considerable hospital centre with the 4th, 10th, 7th Canadian, 9th Canadian and New Zealand Stationary Hospitals, the 7th, 58th (Scottish) and 59th (Northern) General Hospitals, and the 17th, 18th and 1st and 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Stations all stationed there at some time during the war.
General and Stationary Hospitals (Base Hospitals) were large facilities, often re-purposed pre-war buildings such as seaside hotels. Most of the British hospitals in France and Flanders were located near a railway line and near the coast, in order for casualties to arrive from the Front and for evacuation by sea in case of longer-term treatment in Britain. The hospitals were manned by troops of the Royal Army Medical Corps, with attached Royal Engineers and men of the Army Service Corps, along with assistance from volunteer organisations such as the British Red Cross.
Lisle was discharged eight days later to rejoin his unit, where he was put on light duties as mess orderly. However, on the 3rd May he was admitted again to 7th General Hospital with severe cerebro spinal meningitis and was classified as dangerously ill. Also known as ‘Spotted Fever’, cerebro spinal meningitis grew to epidemic proportions during the course of the war. Overcrowding in barracks and huts with poor heating and ventilation contributed to its spread. Those who had suffered a bout of influenza or other illness, fatigue or stress, were more susceptible. To mitigate the spread of the disease, the infected soldier would be immediately isolated, all bedding of his and his neighbours burned, and clothing disinfected. All men sharing the same accommodation would be kept isolated and under observation until nasal swabs taken came back negative and their barracks pronounced infection free.
Lisle never recovered from the disease and died at 8.30pm on 11th May. He was buried in nearby Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery, on the southern outskirts of St Omer. St. Omer is a large town 45 kilometres south-east of Calais. The Commonwealth section of the cemetery contains 2,874 Commonwealth burials of the First World War (6 unidentified)
His scroll and plaque were sent (on the 22nd February 1921 and 9th February 1922, respectively) to his father Henry in Eltham.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Lisle’s parents moved to Auckland, living at 571 Manukau Road, Onehunga. His mother Emma died in 1930 at 65 years of age. Henry lived another 27 years, dying at the age of 92 years in 1957. Both were buried in Hillsborough Cemetery, Auckland. Of his sisters, Dulcie and Marjorie never married, dying in 1976 and 1982 respectively. Hazel married John Wilkie in 1940 and the couple had no children. She died in 1976.
In 1992 Delysse Storey was given a tatty box of letters labelled Newspaper Clippings: Emma Birkett’s beloved son Lisle, by an antique dealer friend. They had been put up for sale as part of his youngest sister Marjorie’s estate. Her booklet A Mother & Son tells the story of Sapper Birkett and includes the letters he wrote.
Debbie McCauley, Lisle’s first cousin thrice removed, has written a biography on him for the Tauranga Memories: Remembering War website, which gives further details on his family and excerpts from his letters.
Researched and written by Margaret Gaffney
Military personnel file for Hugh Leslie Birkett, Archives NZ
Debbie McCauley, 'Hugh Carlisle Birkett (1895-1917)', Tauranga Memories: Remembering War
DIA, Birth, Death & Marriage Historical Records
NZ Cemetery Records
NZ City & Area Directories
NZ Electoral Rolls
NZ Electronic Text Collection
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Meningitis – Epsom and Ewell History Explorer
Photograph of Lisle Birkett and excerpts from his letters shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand Licence.
Photo of grave from Commonwealth War Graves Commission