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John Thomas Birch was born in 1897, the son of John and Emma Birch (nee Taylor). By the 1901 census, the family are living at 75 Bush Street, and comprises John and his parents, his brother James and sister Lillian, as well as a boarder, Sarah Ann Price.

John Birch joined the army at the age of 17, by which point his parents were living at 12 Graisley Lane, Wednesfield. He became a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment (number 9513). He was wounded, but recovered and carried on his service. Following his actions in Italy in October 1918, when he led his platoon in action (in the absence of his officer) at the river Piave, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His citation in the London Gazette reads as follows:

During, the operations 27th-29th October, 1918, he did excellent work. On the 28th he followed up the enemy and went forward into their territory. Coming into touch with a party of the enemy at Vazzola, he, with two other ranks, attacked and put them to flight, taking five prisoners. On the 29th he led his platoon, under heavy fire, to its objective. At Cimetta he again led forward a strong patrol, and, crawling forward, pushed back the enemy and enabled his company to dig in.