When the 1901 Census was taken, James was just one. The family lived at 48 Bridgefield Street, Stockport, where Samuel Birch, then 44, worked as a gardener. His mother, Elizabeth, was a cotton waste sorter. James had four older siblings – Agnes (7), Martha (9), Thomas (11) and William (15).
James will have been conscripted into the army when he became 18 and was still in training. By this stage of the war, the Yeomanry units had effectively become the reserve training units for the army cavalry. Also, by 1918, Samuel Birch is thought to have died and Elizabeth was living at 9 Hatton Street. James had been training in Ireland and, on 10 October 1918, boarded the SS Leinster for its voyage from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to Holyhead in Anglesey. He was on his way home for leave.
The 3000 ton ship was owned by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company and made the passage between the two ports twice a day. The owners of the ship had been warned that she might be target for German submarines and the Company had made several unsuccessful requests to the Ministry of Shipping for a naval escort. On this day, she left Ireland with 687 passengers and 70 crew.
The Manchester Guardian, the next day, reported “Leinster was torpedoed and sunk this morning on the voyage from Kingstown to Holyhead. There were some 700 people on board and over 400 are missing. The boats were got out and some of the passengers were taken off then. Others were picked up from rafts. Some of them were on rafts an hour before they were rescued. Destroyers and other naval craft went to the help of the Leinster’s people. Men, women and children were struggling in the water, others clinging to the rafts and bodies and wreckage were floating about.”
Mr Jones, the ship’s fourth engineer had recounted to the newspaper that two torpedoes had struck the vessel. The first, forward near the mail sorting office and the second had hit the vessel amidships, two or three minutes later. The ship had been about an hour out of port and still lies about 12 miles off the coast. U-Boat-123 never made it home safely. She hit a mine in the North sea and sank.