On a soldier’s death, and feeling grateful for good record-keeping

My father in law, generally not much interested in family history, has mentioned many times over the years an uncle – his father’s younger brother – who died in WWI. He didn’t know where or when, so when I first started doing family history research a few years ago, I undertook to find out what I could about the Big T’s great uncle.

The first barrier was that neither the Big T nor his father was quite sure of the uncle’s first name. My father in law referred to his uncle as ‘Toby’, but suggested that might have been a nickname.

The NZ Dept of Internal Affairs’ Births Deaths & Marriages Online allowed me to search within the parameters I had (my father in law’s father’s name) and make a few assumptions.

Wallace Oliver Gray (the Big T’s granddad) was born in 1893 to Emily Ann and Andrew Gray.

By changing the search terms to surname only + mother’s name, I found four other children born to Emily Ann and Andrew –Eric Andrew, Winifred Olive, Aileen Annie and Ethel Fyllis.

As the only other male child, it seemed that Eric was the most likely candidate to be ‘Uncle Toby’.

Archives New Zealand holds historic military service records and provides an online search facility: Archway. This revealed the following entry:

GRAY, Eric Andrew – WW1 15527 – Army

The service records themselves weren’t available online at that stage,  so accessing them involved paying to have them digitized. Although I was fairly sure this was the person, the Big T had the bright idea of first of all looking up the Cenotaph Database held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum, to cross check the information. Excellent move as it turns out.

As you can see, the Cenotaph record was really detailed and incredibly helpful. We knew from the address and biographical information that we had the “right man”. But more importantly we knew in which Regiment he served, when and where he died and where he was buried. And amazingly, at the top of the record was a photograph. The young man (probably aged 20 when it was taken) with the serious expression was one of us; a blood relation to the Big T and our boy-child, and a member of the whanau I’ve been part of for almost thirty years.

Eric Andrew GRAY: record from Auckland Museum Cenotaph Database. © Auckland Museum.

Finding Eric Gray’s burial place on the record led the Big T to Google Maps and me to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (he’s Geography to my History). What we both discovered – almost simultaneously – was that eighty one years after Eric Gray was buried there, we had virtually driven past Martinsart British Cemetery in the Somme Valley while on holiday with the infant boy-child.

Page from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, remembering Eric Andrew Gray.

Page from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, remembering Eric Andrew Gray.

There is much more to say about Eric Gray thanks to the meticulous work of archivists and record-keepers in New Zealand and overseas. I’m currently working through his service records – obtained from Archives New Zealand – trying to understand the terminology and abbreviations. But that is another story to be told in time.

Meanwhile, as commemorations of the four years of warfare dubbed “the war to end all wars” take place all over the world, we’re remembering a 22 year old farm labourer who travelled from Hororata in Canterbury NZ, to die in the Somme Valley of France.

Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918)

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16 thoughts on “On a soldier’s death, and feeling grateful for good record-keeping

    • Thanks Amy. I mentioned Laura that he was less enthusiastic than we expected. Still, I’m really happy with the amount of information I’ve managed to find and the number of sources available. It feels like a text-book case of “shaking the tree” and being rewarded with lots of fruit. Cheers, Su.

  1. This is actually my second time through this post. The first time I was reading it at the same time the body of the soldier killed this week at the Canadian War Memorial was being repatriated to his hometown. This post left me feeling extraordinarily sad for the senseless loss of young lives. At least now I can write about it with some coherency.

    What a wonderful find for you and your family. I’m so glad this young life is being recognized by his descendents.

    • Oh, Joanne. My heart breaks for Nathan Cirillo’s family and for all Candians. I watched a little of the repatriation on the news through tears — like you, at the senseless loss of another young life.
      These days I filter everything through the lens of a mother, and have to try so hard not to be permanently fearful. Eric Gray’s mother watched both of her sons go off to war. The one who returned had also been wounded, and then suffered illness. He did go on to marry, have children and live a long life, but as the “older brother” I have sometimes wondered if he felt guilty at not bringing his younger brother home with him. I wonder if my father in law’s interest in this one relative was because of his own father’s stories.
      Kia kaha Joanne. Nga mihi nui.

      • Like you, I filter everything through the lens of a mother … it’s particularly worse with boys I think :/

        No mother should have to bury a child because of violence. It’s senseless and archaic … but apparently we haven’t evolved beyond it yet.

        I like that – kia kaha. I will remember it 🙂

  2. I often wonder about those relatives who are “not much interested in family history”. I have many of them in my own family, my late father among them.

    But I also wonder if when one finds the “right” records, as you have done here, questions that had been on the minds of our “disinterested” relatives come to the surface and perhaps, just perhaps, inspire in them a little interest in other aspects of their family history.

    This was a wonderful post Su – thank you for sharing the story.

    • Hi Laura, I had really hoped that my father in law would be interested in what I was able to tell him, particulary some other stuff that I haven’t blogged about yet (watch this space!!), but for some reason he was a little dismissive. I think he had been told, or constructed, a particular story and what we shared with him was something different. For me, the exercise was incredibly valuable though because it got both my partner and son interested in “the family.” My son even helped me make a little video for a university assignment about archives. Thanks for stopping by. Cheers, Su.

  3. Pingback: Six word Saturday: life continues, and with it memory | Shaking the tree

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