My mother in law often mentions her cousin Joyce. Joyce Astin and Edna lived close to each other in Burnley. Joyce’s father was Jimmy Astin, remembered in Burnley as a war hero in the first World War.
Last year we made a trip to Towneley Hall to visit the exhibition they had put together to remember the start of that war. By the time we made it there, it had closed and all the exhibits put away. So I turned to pulling together my own version of the James Arthur Astin MM story.
Jimmy married my mother in laws aunt, Alice Cooper, in 1923. It’s possible that Edna’s mother was named after Alice. I know that name has become synonymous with the 1970’s rock group, but she is definitely part of our Burnley family..
Anyway, Jimmy was born in Accrington in 1890. His father, also James, was a cabinet-maker and undertaker. The family moved to the Rosegrove area of Burnley and Jimmy worked at the local Messrs Walmsley’s Peel Mill, where he became a Winding Master. He married Sarah Blackburn in 1912 and they soon had a daughter – Ethel.
According to newspaper reports, Jimmy was well-known in the Accrington Road district of Burnley. He was a member of the Rosegrove Wesleyan School and Chapel and a devoted worker for the (church) cause. (Burnley News 21/08/1918.)
When war started, Jimmy joined up in 1915, and after a few months wait was drafted into the 3/5th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. This was a part of the Territorial Force in Bury and East Lancashire. He did his training at Colchester and then in March 1915, moved to the 1st Battalion in the Regular army. They sailed to Gallipoli via Egypt and Alexandria. There landing was planned for 23rd April, but postponed due to bad weather. They must have felt ill staying on the ships during the storm. Eventually on the 25th April the 29th Division, including the Lancashires, landed at ‘W’ Beach on Cape Helles. They were able to overwhelm the defences despite the loss of 600 casualties from 1,000 men. Fighting was so hard a remarkable number of six Victoria Crosses were won by the Lancashires. This is popularly refered to as the “Six VC’s before breakfast” on what was afterwards known as Lancashire Landing. Battles for Kritha and the Achi Baba heights on the peninsula followed.
After the battle in Turkey ground to stalemate in January 1916, the Lancashires evacuated to Egypt due to the severe casualties from combat, disease and harsh weather. They were quartered in barracks at Abbassia, near Cairo defending Suez Canal at Darb-el-Raj and El Kubri.
They left Egypt in March and sailed across the Mediterranean, landing at Marseilles, France in March 1916. They moved up to the front France and trained for the next big push. On the 1st July 1916, the Lancashires were one of the first units over the top at start of the Battle of the Somme. They were key in the Battle of Albert which started with the giant mine explosion at the Hawthorn redoubt. Just 10 minutes later the 7:30am attack on Beaumont Hamel started.
This famous photograph shows men of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, possibly on 1st July 1916.
The following year 1917 Jimmy was involved in the Battle of Arras (where Jack Greenwood was also involved in the cavalry) along with battles in Ypres and Cambria.
Early in 1918, Jimmy returned to England injured and suffering from Trench Foot. While recovering at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Whalley, he heard that his wife Sarah had died. That must have been such a shock, maybe she had visited before she died.
He was soon back in France, the Lancashires were in the centre of the action. They moved to northern france to support the battle against the second German drive, the Lys Offensive, where the enemy pushed back to Ypres and into France. After the Americans joined the war, the division spent a lot of effort training them in this part of France.
We can pin down where Jimmy was when he won his Military Medal. According to the newspaper article in the Burnley Express of 28 September 1918 he was reported as being among the gallant men who fought with distinction with the 29th Division. His certificate for distinguished service states that “No 203654 Pte James Astin, Lancashire Fusiliers.I have read with much pleasure the reports of your Regimental Commander and Brigade Commander regarding your gallant conduct and devotion to duty in the field on 12th and 13th August 1918 near M—–, (this we now know to be Merris) and have ordered your name and deed to be entered in the record of the 29th Division – (signed) Major General Commanding.
This commendation led to the award of the medal, published in the London Gazette of 24th January 1919.
This action was part of the response to the earlier German advance towards Paris in April, known as the Battles of the Lys 1918. This offensive took place in Flanders with the Germans trying to capture key railway and supply roads and cut off the British Second Army at Ypres. The German attack initially made ground but was held after British and French reserves were found and deployed.
In August 1918 the British Army started to recapture the Lys valley, advancing across land lost in April.
Early in August, the Battalion were asked to “worry” the enemy to find out where they were prepared to give up ground. They were to find out his line so that in the event of a major attack they would know his weak points.
On 11th August, they started to investigate areas south of Merris, taking over key points before the battalion advanced its line by “peaceful penetration” on the afternoon of the 12th. They came under heavy fire and bombardment before withdrawing to their original position. Parties of men got very close to the enemys position but were unable to get back because of the shelling. On the night of the 13th these parties were brought back t their own lines. It seems that Private Astin received his award for his part in the operation being either trapped in the field or part of the party that brought them back.
I will extract the details of this incident from the history of the regiment and add to a subsequent blog.
A ceremony to present the medals was held at The Palace in Burnley in March 1919, where the Mayor (Ald R Hargreaves) pinned the medals on the breasts of the honoured soldiers and congratulated them on their distinction. Apparently the soldiers said they would rather fight than make a speech. The mayor called them the right men in the right place. James Astin received his award for bravery and devotion to duty.
After the end of the war he received his Victory and British Medals. The record shows he moved from the 3/5th Lanc Fusiliers to the 1st and ending in the 2nd Battalion. His exact disposition in the early part of the war I have worked out from his newspaper interview.
On his return, Jimmy will have returned to working in the mill and looking after his young daughter. When he was 32 he married Alice Cooper in 1923, becoming part of our family tree. He had two more daughters, Margaret in 1924 and Joyce in 1931. Cousins of the children, will have played around Rosegrove and Edna got to know Jimmy. She did tell me he was such a nice chap.
More of his non-military life story at Ancestry.