Date of Death:14/10/1916
Regiment: King's Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment)
Unit : 1st Bn.
Memorial: Thiepval Memorial
Memorial Ref:Pier&Face 5D or 12B
The 11th KORL were sent out to France on June 2nd 1916, on board the Belgian transport SS Princess Clementine from Southampton. They arrived in Le Havre the next morning. On June 12th the battalion's four companies were split between four Scottish battalions manning the front line so that they could undergo training. Two or three days later James was accidentally wounded, exactly how isn't known, and that was the end of his time with the 11th KORL. A spell of home leave followed and then he was sent back out to France as a reinforcement for the 1st Battalion.
The battalion had been in action during the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916. At least 120 men from the unit were killed that day and Ashton will have been drafted in as one of the replacements. Their next attacks were in October on 'Spectrum Trench' in which Ashton died but before that in September, Royton man Ernest Wood lost his life.
In "The King's Own,The Story of a Regiment,Volume III, 1914-1950 by Colonel J.M Cowper" there is the following description of the action in which James Ashton was killed.
The third phase of the battles of the Somme opened with hopes which even the experiences of the second had been unable to quench. The Commander-in-Chief considered that there was good chance of success for a large-scale operation along the whole length of the Fourth, Fifth and Third Armies, always providing that the weather was normal. 1/King’s Own was selected to take part in this action when 4th Division was relieved in the [Ypres] Salient at forty-eight hours’ notice. Here the battalion was still commanded by Colonel Borrett and was employed on burying cables. The march to the front in the valley of the Somme lasted two days in pouring rain until Bernafay Wood was reached at three o’clock on Monday, October 9. An hour later the battalion moved on to occupy reserve trenches where there were no dugouts. The going was so bad that it was not until 8 p.m. that the trenches were reached; the next morning they were heavily shelled, the casualties amounting to ten killed and fourteen wounded, and in the afternoon the battalion withdrew to dugouts near Bernafay Wood, 4th Division was on the extreme right of the British line, and from the forward trenches the men could see through the haze the whole panorama of the battlefield. The ground sloped down gradually towards Le Transloy, Les Boeufs and Guedecourt, whence it rose steadily to the top of the next ridge, on the crest of which could be seen the outskirts of Bapaume.
A feature of the front line occupied by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment was a trench called Spectrum which was partially held by the enemy, and it was essential to clear this if 4th Division was to be able to take part in the operation planned for October 15.
On the 13th ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies went up to the line in working parties. They were consequently without food and ill-equipped for trench warfare, but the garrison had sustained such heavy casualties that, much to their discomfort, these two companies were retained to stiffen the defence. There then began a struggle for Spectrum trench which was to continue for ten days and effectively prevent the co-operation of 1/King’s Own with the larger operation on its left, which was one of the most successful of the campaign. The German attention had been attracted to the Fifth Army front by the preliminary attack on the Hohenzollern trench, and in the subsequent fighting in the Fourth Army, Courcelette fell to the Canadians, Martinpuich to the Scots, Flers to the New Zealanders and Delville Wood was finally passed by troops who pushed on from Ginchy towards Les Boeufs. This time the French gains were not comparable with those of the British, but they also moved forward south of the Somme.
When first ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies reached the front line they occupied unconnected trenches known as Windy and Thistle, and although ‘A’ Company began to dig a communication trench, day dawned before it could be completed. Officially known as support and reserve trenches, they were very shallow, in full view of the enemy and heavily shelled. ‘A’ Company found some tins of Bully Beef and the remains of loaves of bread and other food in Thistle trench, but there was nothing of the sort in Windy and C.S.M. E. William and Sergeant Dyson collected what they could and walked across the open with it.
It seemed a miracle that both returned safely. In a desperate attempt to clear Spectrum for the morrow’s battle, the battalion tried to force the sandbag barricade which divided the British from the German portion of the trench. By the evening of the 14th sixty yards of trench had been consolidated, but the Germans still occupied their portion of Spectrum and the King’s Own had lost six men killed and twenty-four wounded. Three more unsuccessful attempts were made to drive the Germans out before ‘B’ Company was relieved on the evening of the 15th by ‘D.’
That morning a German officer was found mortally wounded near the barricade. He refused to accept any offers to move him into a more comfortable position, and although obviously able to speak English as he understood the offers of help, he refused to do so and curtly rejected them in French. He died a few hours later in great agony, defying his captors to the end.
The above account says that five other men died trying to take the trench. The CWGC has a record of four of these
Private Harry Andrews,27198, 22 years old, from Hackthorne,Lincolnshire
Private Martin McGough,4903 from York
Private John Shields,17329 from Liverpool
Private Ernest Winter,27325 from Norringby,Lincolnshire
The Oldham Chronicle reported on October 28th that James' wife Lizzie had received the official notification of his death. It also reported that he has first joined the KORL and then been transferred to the Manchester Regiment which, although the wrong way around, lends credence to the theory he had spent time with a home based battalion of the latter.
James Ashton was born in 1891 in Royton, the son of Michael and Margaret. James was their sixth of eight children - the others being Mary Ellen, William, Annie (who died as a baby in 1888), Frances, Martin, Margaret Ann and John. All the family worked in the cotton industry. James was a piecer at Royton Spinning Company's Mill. James' father, Michael, died in 1908 aged 47.
James married Lizzie Heywood in 1913 and a year later their son James was born.They lived at Reap Croft.
The facts as to when James enlisted are something of a mystery. The Oldham Chronicle reported after his death that he had signed up in 1914 but the first battalion we have for him is the 11th Battalion King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. This unit did not form until August 1915. He enlisted in Ashton-under-Lyne, the depot of the Manchester Regiment, so there's a chance he spent some time with a reserve unit of that regiment first. The 11th Battalion of the KORL was a 'Bantam Battalion' and was for those men who were under the old,pre war,regulation height of 5 foot 3. These units were drawn from industrial and coal mining areas where short stature was no sign of weakness and probably also rather more common.
The SS Princess Clementine on which the 11th KORL travelled to war © IWM