Ephemeral traces of lives past

Invitation to my great grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party. Image: Ramsay-Leslie family archive.

Invitation to my great grandparents 50th wedding anniversary party. Image: Ramsay-Leslie family archive.

For archivists, ephemeral has a specific meaning. Ephemera refers to a class of documents which are not originally intended to be preserved.  Invitations, postcards, tickets, pamphlets and greeting cards would all fall into this category.

That many of these items are preserved (in collections of ephemera) is due to the fact that they can offer valuable historical insights — and are often incredibly interesting. Who has never rummaged amongst the old postcards in second-hand shop and wondered why Jock and Mary thought Eileen worthy of a postcard from Ostend? Or opened a library book, found a first class British Rail ticket from Stevenage to Edinburgh and wondered about the person who made the trip (actually that was me, going to visit a sick aunt).

Over the last few years, my mother has been sending me photographs and other items that she has treasured over the years. Since I’ve become the family historian, she feels happy to pass them into my care. The invitation above is one of the things she gave me.

My great grandparents, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden got married as pregnant teenagers (he was 17, she 18). They remained married for 62 years, until my great grandad’s death in 1970. I’ve written about them in the past (Getting a telegram from the Queen, On growing old together), partly because I have quite a lot of information about them, but mainly because they were around when I was a small child and I remember them with enormous affection.

It’s lovely then, to have this little piece of ephemera from their lives. The invitation is addressed to my grandparents David Ramsay and Margaret Cruden.

I also have a couple of photos from the event; one of my great grandparents, the other of my mother and a couple of cousins. These provide not only interesting insights into social customs (cups and saucers at a party — these days I’d expect wine glasses), but are also precious memories of people I love.

My great gran, Catherine Black and her sister Caroline. Photo taken at my great grandparents Golden Wedding anniversary. Also in the shot my great grandad, Alexander Cruden and (far left) his brother in law, James Fowler. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Photo taken at my great grandparents Golden Wedding anniversary. Left to right James Fowler (husband of my great grandfather’s sister Betsy), my great grandad, Alexander Cruden, my great gran Catherine Black and (far right) her sister Jessie. Photo: Leslie family archive.

Also taken at my great grandparents anniversary party; Elizabeth Leslie (nee Ramsay) with niece Margaret Ladyka and nephew Robert Guthrie. Photo: Leslie-Ramsay family archive.

Also taken at my great grandparents anniversary party; Elizabeth Leslie (nee Ramsay) with niece Margaret Ladyka and nephew Robert Guthrie. Photo: Leslie family archive.

This post was written for the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: ephemeral.

Ephemeral

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918.

The Spring Offensive, 1918. New Zealand soldiers who had fought in the area around La Signy Farm, Somme; close to where Eric Gray was killed in action a few days earlier. Photo Ref: 1/2-013089-G, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Ninety seven years ago today, the Big T’s great uncle, Eric Andrew GRAY was killed in action during World War I.

I’ve recently written a couple of posts about Eric Gray, prompted in part by being sent a letter he wrote in 1917 after the Battle of Messines. You can read the letter here, and what I’ve learned of his military service here.

I originally began researching Eric Gray’s life on behalf of my father in law. He had talked often of his uncle who had, he believed, “died at Ypres.” When I obtained a copy of Eric’s service record from Archives New Zealand, I found that although he had fought and been wounded at Messines (considered the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres), he actually died in the Somme valley.

What his service record says

Eric Gray’s death is recorded on the first page of his service record. Details are shown below:

Notes relating to the death of Eric Andrew Gray, from the record of his service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, World War I. Obtained from Archives New Zealand.

Notes relating to the death of Eric Andrew Gray, from the record of his service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, World War I. Obtained from Archives New Zealand.

The first line of text says:

Killed in action March 27th 1818. This is dated 8.4.18

In a different hand, the following has been added:

Buried corner Railway Line & Road Tunnel. 57D. Beaumont Hamel Front Q. 15. C. 90. 40

Reported by Rev. S.J. Roberts at 1st C.I.B. (Canterbury Infantry Battalion) NZEF (New Zealand Expeditionary Force) undated G318/80

The source of these lines is given as GRU (Grave Registration Unit)

In a third hand (also listed as GRU), the final entry says

Isolated gravesite southwest angle of crossing of Auchonvillers Mesnil Road & Rly. 10 yards south Rly 18 yards W. of road. 4 ½ miles north of Albert Dept??? Auchonvillers. 00-1- S.S.P 3193/29

Interpretation: why was he there?

It took me a while to decipher both the writing and meaning of the text above, but even from the dates, and the reference to Beaumont Hamel, it was clear that Eric’s death was unrelated to the Battle of Ypres (which ended in November 1917).

Knowing little about WWI, I had believed that the battle of the Somme had taken place in 1916, so I wondered how he came to die there in March 1918.

Military service records identify key events in an individual soldier’s life (postings, disciplinary matters, wounds, etc), but don’t provide much of a context. To understand how Eric’s regiment came to be in the Somme Valley in March 1918 I needed a broader historical perspective.

New Zealand History is a website produced by the History Group of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Designed principally as a resource for schools, and written by historians, it provided me with a basic overview of the political and military context of the battles that took place in the Somme in 1918. It is worth quoting from the article Western Front in 1918 here:

At the beginning of 1918, events had seemed to be turning the war in the favour of Germany. The collapse of Russia’s resistance following the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917 allowed the Germans to transfer more than 50 divisions to the Western Front. On the back of this influx of troops, the German high command launched a massive offensive with the goal of ending the war before the full might of the United States (which had entered the war in April 1917) could be brought to bear.

The German spring offensives which began on 21 March 1918 created the biggest crisis of the war for the Allies. In Operation Michael, 60 German divisions attacked along an 80-kilometre front between St Quentin and Arras, punching a hole through British defences on the Somme and almost destroying the Fifth Army. In some places they advanced as much as 60 km, an incredible feat after three years of mostly stationary trench warfare.

Retreating British troops set up a last line of defence around the city of Amiens, a vital logistics link between the Somme, Flanders and the Channel ports. Its loss would force the British to abandon the Somme, opening a massive gap between themselves and the French armies to the south, and cutting off the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in Flanders.

The New Zealand Division, recovering after a difficult winter in the Ypres Salient, was among forces rushed south to the Somme on 24 March. Attached to General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army, the New Zealanders moved into the Ancre Valley, taking up positions on the Somme battlefield of 1916. Over four days of desperate fighting around Mailly-Maillet, they managed to stabilise their section of the front, repelling a series of German attacks at Auchonvillers Ridge and Colincamps, and capturing 300 prisoners and 110 machine guns at La Signy Farm. These actions cost the New Zealand Division some 2400 casualties, including more than 500 dead.

So my initial question was answered, and I set out to learn as much as I could about the circumstances under which Eric Gray came to be one of those casualties.

For this I have again found Ferguson’s History of the Canterbury Regiment (1926, digitised and available free via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection) incredibly helpful. It documents the movement and actions of the Regiment in chronological order.

Events began on February 23rd with the regiment transported from Ypres to the village of Caestre, about 30 km away. There, the troops were engaged in training for almost a month. When the German offensive began on March 21st, the Battalion was (somewhat hastily) called to the front.

Ferguson describes it thus:

The railway journey was by way of Calais, Boulogne, and Abbeville, and it was originally intended that the brigade should detrain at Edgehill, a railway siding to the east of Amiens, and about half way between that town and Albert. But when the first train arrived at St. Roch, on the outskirts of Amiens, at 1 a.m. on the 25th, the Brigadier was informed by the French railway officials that the train could go no further, as the track near the town had been destroyed by an enemy aircraft attack. At 4 a.m. orders were received that brigade headquarters was to detrain at St. Roch; and at 7 a.m. motor lorries arrived, and took the troops to Chipilly. a village on the Somme between Corbie and Bray. On arrival there, it was found that no accommodation was available; but orders were received from Division that the brigade group was to go on to Morlancourt and Ville-sous-Corbie, midway between Chipilly and Albert. The Division was now attached to the VII Corps, which formed part of the Third Army.

It seems that fighting was heavy, and by the 26th, the Allied forces were forced to hold an increasingly long front line against a determined German advance. The Canterbury Regiment was part of a detachment holding a line east of the villages of Englebelmer and Auchonvillers, north of the town of Albert.

At 2 a.m. on the 26th the first battalion of the Division arrived at Hédauville. .. After a short rest of four hours, this battalion was sent on to occupy Englebelmer and Auchonvillers and the intervening country, so as to cover the advance of the rest of the Division. There were at this time only four battalions at the disposal of the General Officer commanding the Division—the 1st Auckland and the 1st and 2nd Canterbury Battalions and the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade. These battalions were formed into two brigade groups, the two Canterbury Battalions forming the 2nd Brigade Group, and the other two battalions the 1st Brigade Group. To each group was attached one machine-gun company. The groups were ordered to move forward at noon, and to fill the gap between Hamel and Puisieux.

The map below shows the positions of the different battalions involved. From his service record, I know that Eric Gray was attached to No. 1 Company of the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment – in position 1C on the map.

Map showing positions of Allied troops during offensive. Source: www.pap-to-pass.org

Map showing positions of Allied troops during offensive. Source: www.pap-to-pass.org

Events of the 27th March

Citing once again the regimental history:

About 9 a.m. on March 27th the enemy began to shell the 2nd Brigade’s (to which Eric Gray belonged) line with field guns and light howitzers. The shelling was light at first, but it gradually increased in intensity, and extended to the battalion in support. By the end of the morning the shelling was heavy, and the enemy had added to its intensity by using light trench mortars and “pine-apple” grenades against the front line trenches. At noon the enemy attacked along the whole brigade front.

The attack was heaviest in the centre, against the 12th and 13th Companies of the 1st Battalion and the 1st and 2nd Companies, and others up the communication trenches, but they were beaten off by rifle and machine-gun fire; and although some parties succeeded in getting within bombing range, none reached our trenches, and the surviving attackers retreated to their original position. Several prisoners and three light machine-guns were captured.

During this attack the brigade on the right of the New Zealand Division evacuated Hamel, and fell back till its forward posts were as far back as the 1st Canterbury Battalion’s support line. In order to restore the line, the 1st Battalion had to take over another two hundred and fifty yards of trench to its right.

The shelling eased off at 1.30 p.m., and practically ceased at 2 p.m. During the afternoon there was much movement in the enemy back areas: but though a further attack seemed imminent, the remainder of the day passed quietly. The 3rd Brigade of the New Zealand Field Artillery arrived late in the day: and its guns were placed in position that night, and registered at dawn on the 28th. Throughout the day their shooting was excellent, and interfered greatly with the enemy’s freedom of movement: and the feeling of confidence, inspired by the knowledge of artillery support, did much to keep up the men’s spirits.

There were no further enemy attacks during the rest of the month of March. This was no doubt in part due to the rain, which began to fall on the afternoon of the 28th, and continued over the end of the month. The trenches became in a very bad state, and there was a great risk of trench feet becoming prevalent. The front line troops took advantage of the lull in hostilities to block the saps, up which the enemy had advanced in the previous attacks.

There is no way of knowing now exactly what actually happened to Eric Gray on the day of March 27th 1918. From the historical documents, I can see on a contemporary map the reported position of his company, and the remarkably detailed location for his burial provides reference points that might also be located on Google Maps.

Contemporary map of Canterbury Battalion's location during offensive. Google Maps

Contemporary map of the area in which the companies of the Canterbury Battalion were positioned on March 27th 1918. Google Maps

I have assumed from the burial information, and the fact he was later disinterred and reburied, that the initial burial would have been close to, or where, he fell.

Eric Gray now lies in Martinsart British Cemetery, alongside a few other men from the Canterbury and Otago Regiments, as well as many British and Irish servicemen from a huge range of regiments, including the Highland Light Infantry, Lancashire Fusiliers, London Regiment, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Royal Scots, the Cheshire Regiment, Sherwood Foresters, Royal Irish Rifles and even several men from the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. The vast majority of these men died in 1916, during the earlier Battle of the Somme.

Postscript: in praise of archives and archivists

When I began researching Eric Gray, I was also studying for a Masters in Information Studies and doing a paper on Archives. For one of the class projects — an “elevator pitch” about the value of archives, the boy-child and I made this video about how archival information had helped me learn about this young man who went to war — and like so many others — did not return. I include it mainly as a thank you to archivists and historians everywhere whose work allows us to remember, but perhaps more importantly, ensure that we don’t forget.

Making memories … or holiday over, now the work begins

Happy Birthday! The boy-child spent his day skateboarding in Bordeaux with new friends, one of whom took this photo. Can't think of a better birthday portrait. Thanks Thomas ...

Happy Birthday! The boy-child spent his day skateboarding in Bordeaux with new friends, one of whom took this fantastic photo. Can’t think of a better birthday portrait. Thank you Thomas.

Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.

– Oscar Levant

I’ve been on holiday for three and a half weeks with the Big T and our boy-child. We’ve stayed in six cities, taken eight flights (four of them long-haul); ridden trains, trams, buses, street and cable cars; and visited galleries, museums, castles, skateboarding spots, monuments, relatives, friends … well you get the picture.

In the process we’ve laughed, cried, yelled at each other and wondered (sometimes aloud) what the hell made us think spending that much time in each others company might be a good idea.

It was difficult; we are very different people. Our interests (and body-clocks) don’t particularly coincide, and some of us (well ok, the kid and me) aren’t particularly gracious in compromise.

But it had to be done. The boy-child is now 17; graduated from high school and on his “gap year.” He has plans and dreams and a vision of a future that looks outward towards his friends and his own adventures. It’s unlikely we will all holiday together again (at least not until the boy-child is much older and needs a set of live-in vacation childminders), so this time together was vital.

We’re home now and beginning to retell our holiday stories to friends and neighbours. In the process, the rough edges are being smoothed off and the quality of the memories is improving. It’s already starting to feel like a great holiday — something to hold close and cherish forever as our child hurtles towards adulthood.

My boys: garden of Musee des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

My boys: garden of Musee des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

To everyone who has started following this blog while I’ve been away; many thanks. I will get over to all of your blogs to say hello and thanks properly as soon as I can.

Cheers,

Su

Wordless Wednesday: recording my “out of office” message

Photo: Gray family archive

Hm; think air travel might have changed a little since my in-laws went on their honeymoon 55 years ago. Happy Anniversary for Feb 25th Joy and Roger! Photo: Gray family archive

Today’s the day that the Big T, the boychild and I are off on a little European holiday (with a few days in San Fransisco along the way). For the next three weeks we’ll be making family history stories, rather than documenting them, so I probably won’t be posting much to this blog.

I am still planning to post to ZimmerBitch — as time and internet connectivity allow.

In the meantime, thank you to everyone who visits, comments and follows Shaking the Tree; your support, interest, wisdom,  humour — and fellowship — are a huge part of why I blog.

See you all in a few weeks.

Nga mihi nui (my best wishes)

Su