When war broke out, 20-year-old Eric Henry Astley was travelling with his father to England to study in the Leather Industries Department at Leeds University. After visiting Leeds to defer his admission, Astley enlisted in London on 5 October 1914 with the British Section of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF).1
Other Collegians who joined the British Section include Alfred Jameson, Edward Ruddock, Acland Thomas and Alan Wallace. The Section first trained on Wandsworth Common, London and then at Bulford Camp and Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain.2 In November 1914, Astley was one of about 150 men from the group who took part in the Lord Mayor of London’s procession, which that year had a particularly strong military flavour.3
Like thousands of men of his generation, Astley was already familiar with military matters, having served in New Zealand’s Territorial Forces following the introduction of Compulsory Military Training in 1909.4
Born in May 1894, Astley was the second of four children of Katrina (nee Schnackenberg) and John Edward Astley, a co-founder of the family tannery business, E. Astley and Sons in New Lynn, Auckland.5
The year 1906 was particularly eventful for the Mt Albert Primary School pupil: in March he was injured falling off a tram in central Auckland while in December he dove off the Arkles Bay wharf to rescue a younger boy from drowning. For his bravery, the boy’s grateful parents presented 12-year-old Astley with an inscribed gold watch.6
Armed with a scholarship, Astley attended Auckland Grammar School from 1908 to 19107. He started work in the family tannery in 1911 as a technical trainee and for three years took Professor Frederic Douglas Brown's chemistry classes in the evenings at Auckland University College to advance the scientific control of the company’s tanning processes. His father and uncle Frank Astley, a company partner and manager, had earlier attended Professor Brown's classes.8
Standing five feet eight inches tall with fair hair and hazel eyes, Astley was a well-rounded young man; he was active in the Methodist Church, sang in the choir and was a skilled pianist.9
'He lies in the Aegean, between the islands of Imbros and Samothrace and the Gallipoli Peninsula. The sea is very blue and clear, and the sun sinks majestically behind Samothrace and spreads the most glorious colouring over land and water. Eric, who loved the beautiful, enjoyed those sunsets, and seeing it has been his fate to fall as a soldier, I am sure he would have been pleased to rest where he lies.'
Egypt and Gallipoli
In December 1914, the British Section shipped out to Egypt and joined the Main Body of the NZEF at Zeitoun Camp near Cairo. There the Section was disbanded and the men divided between an Engineer Field Company and the Army Service Corps; Astley joined the No. 1 Field Company, New Zealand Engineers as a sapper.10
Heat and dust-storms aside, training conditions in the desert around Zeitoun were ‘… almost too ideal’ for the sappers as bridges were readily built on the regular irrigation canals and digging trenches was easy in the `loose, convenient sand.’11 They would face very different conditions at Gallipoli.
The Company took part in the landing at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915, going ashore late in the afternoon from the Goslar, a captured German vessel.12
‘Men leaped into the water and after landing picks, shovels and other gear, the Field Company was lined up in the shelter of a cliff while arrangements were made for their immediate employment’.13 Some of the Company set about digging support trenches on Plugge’s Plateau while others prepared gun emplacements and built machine gun posts.14
By 27 April, the Company was split between Quinn’s Post, where they alternated between frontline duty and creating communication and firing trenches, and Walker’s Ridge, where the sappers worked to improve earlier trenches but ‘…were soon forced to drop their shovels and help to repel a determined attack’.15
Historian Ian McGibbon says, `For the sappers there was no respite when not working on such dangerous forward positions: communications had to be extended, dugouts built, wire entanglements laid, and water found for thirsty troops.’16
In May 1915, Astley was `slightly wounded’ working at Quinn's Post on the ridge of Shrapnel Valley.17 By early June he would have enjoyed a few days’ respite on the beach along with the rest of his Company after it was relieved of frontline duties by the Australian Engineers.18
On 23 June 1915, Astley was making wire screens with other sappers at Shrapnel Point when a shell landed in their shelter, killing three instantly and wounding others, including Astley.19 ‘Eric was at once removed in an unconscious state to the dressing station, and afterwards was placed on a boat for removal to the Hospital Ship, but he passed away before reaching it.’20
It was from the hospital ship the Gascon that Eric Astley was buried at sea.21
Among the tributes to Astley was one from his fellow Collegians who remembered him at University as a ‘…quiet, retiring youth who worked faithfully and conscientiously. He gave promise of becoming an expert in his profession’.22
In 1920, his father John Astley donated £100 to Auckland Grammar School to establish the Eric Astley Prize, which is still awarded each year to the two top Maths and Science students in class 7A.23 The family also presented a watercolour of Anzac Cove by Sapper Horace Moore-Jones to the Mt Albert Public Library. It was a fitting tribute as both men served in the same Company.24
Jo Birks, Special Collections
- John Astley and Doug Astley, The Astley family 1856 – 1955 and the Astley story continued 1956 – 2008, Auckland, pp.65-66; ‘Astley, Eric Henry – WW14/4a – Army, R22271390’, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
- Norman Annabell, ed., Official history of the New Zealand engineers during the Great War, 1914-1919 : a record of the work carried out by the field companies, field troops, Signal Troop and Wireless Troop, during the operations in Samoa (1914-15); Egypt, Gallipoli, Sinai and Palestine (1914-1918); France, Belgium and Germany (1916-1919); and Mesopotamia (1916-1918), Wanganui, 1927, pp.7-8.
- New Zealand Herald (NZH), 14 December 1914, p.9; NZH, 12 August 1915, p.9. All New Zealand newspapers accessed via Papers Past.
- ‘Astley, Eric Henry – WW14/4a – Army, R22271390’.
- Astley and Astley, pp.50, 99; Eric Henry Astley, Cenotaph database, accessed 15 May 2015.
- Auckland Star (AS), 16 March 1906, p.4; AS, 3 January 1907, p.3.
- NZH, 29 January 1908, p.8; Auckland Grammar School Chronicle, second term, 1915, p.15.
- Astley and Astley, pp.65, 99. Click the Chemistry card photo to see cards for other Astley family members. University of Auckland historical collection: part 3, MSS & Archives Vault 130, Special Collections.
- ‘Astley, Eric Henry – WW14/4a – Army', R22271390’; New Zealand Methodist Times (NZMT), 4 September 1915, p.5, accessed via Church Papers online.
- Annabell, pp.8-9; ‘Astley, Eric Henry – WW14/4a – Army', R22271390’.
- Annabell, p.6.
- Annabell, pp.13, 19.
- Annabell, pp.19-20.
- Annabell, p.20.
- Annabell, p.21.
- Ian McGibbon, Kiwi sappers: The Corps of Royal New Zealand Engineers’ century of service, Auckland, 2002, p.36.
- NZH, 12 August 1915, p.9.
- Annabell, p.33.
- NZMT, 4 September 1915, p.5.
- ibid., ‘Astley, Eric Henry – WW14/4a – Army', R22271390’.
- The Kiwi: Official Organ of the Auckland University College, 11, 1916, p.18.
- Auckland Grammar School, Ad Augusta, Auckland, October 2011.
- Eric Henry Astley, Cenotaph database, accessed 15 May 2015; Anne Gray, 'Moore-Jones, Horace Millichamp', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed 4 April 2015.