Twenty-two year old Austin of 26, Brown Lees Road, Black Bull, enlisted at Burslem on August 19th 1915 into the 3rd Connaught Rangers and became Private 3/6706. He was an unmarried iron worker who had not served previously in the forces. He was described as being of a fresh complexion, 5ft 4½in tall, 124lbs and with grey eyes. Austin was born in 1895, the son of Matthew Burke and his second wife Ann, nee Groden. In 1911 Austin was living at 7, Pepper Street, Newcastle, with his widowed father and four of his siblings. His occupation was given as a labourer in an iron forge. Presumably it was his work in the iron industry that led to his move to Biddulph and Robert Heath’s iron works.
The 3rd Battalion Connaught Rangers was a home based training unit with their barracks situated in the coastal village of Kinsale, Co Cork. After five months of training Austin’s medal card and service records indicate he transferred in January 1916 to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps and received training at the Machine Gun Training Centre, Belford Park, Grantham. Then on May 16th 1916 orders for embarkation were received and following a channel crossing from Southampton, Austin and his mates docked at Le Havre.
He served with the Machine Gun Corps in Flanders and initially Austin was attached to the Base Depot of the MGC at Camiers on the French coast where he joined 20 company. This company was attached to 7th Division and during his time with them he fought in the Battle of the Somme at Mametz, Bazentin and High Wood. By the beginning of August he again rather surprisingly transferred units and joined an infantry battalion already in the field: the 6th Connaught Rangers attached to 16th Irish Division.
The first major action for the 16th Division came during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 when Austin and his new mates were ordered to attack one of the strongest of the enemies’ defences at Guillemont; this had been attacked before and had always resulted in failure. The ruined village hid a strong enemy position preventing the advance of the infantry. The night attack commenced and advanced across no man’s land and was soon met by murderous machine gun and mortar fire.
The 6th Connaught Rangers suffered terrible losses. Over two hundred men fell in this action, which sadly included Private Austin Burke who at the age of twenty three was reported missing on September 3rd and confirmed lost on September 5yh 1916. The attack was eventually successful when the division captured the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy enabling the advance to continue, but at a high cost to the division.
On his enlistment Austin had named his brother Walter as his next of kin. Walter was serving in the 9th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment. It would seem that news of Austin’s death did not reach his landlady in Brown Lees or his sister in Newcastle. Letters survive from both of them, dated 1917, asking for information about Austin.
Transcribed copy of letter from Kate Burke (sister):
I would be very thankful if you could give me any information about my brother Pte Austin Burke no 6/4796 Connaught Rangers as I am his dependant sister Miss Kate Burke and I have not received a letter from him for over four months now and I’ll be very thankful if you can let me know anything about him as I have no parents and I feel so worried if I don’t hear from him often. I will be so much obliged if you can let me know anything. My address is Miss K. Burke, no. 11 Pepper Street, Newcastle-u-Lyme, Staffs., England.
Austin has no known grave and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, Pier and Face 15A. He is not named on the Brindley Ford Memorial but he is remembered on the Brown Lees Memorial, Biddulph War Memorial, St Lawrence churchyard cross and memorial board. No newspaper reports of Austin’s death have been found.
He was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal posthumously.
Elaine Bryan & Mike Turnock.