Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918)
Having begun researching the story of the Big T’s great uncle, Eric Gray, I’ve been trying to find out more about this young man who served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI and was killed in the Somme Valley in March 1918.
I have been working through his military service records, and in an effort to add context to the story, have also been reading the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, this book has been digitized and is available as part of the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – an initiative of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.
From what I’ve seen, NZ military service records are clear and comprehensive. They are however, institutional documents and only record actions and decisions in relation to an individual’s relationship with the organization. From Eric Gray’s record I know that he served in the Canterbury Regiment, was posted to France in November 1916, wounded in June 1917 and repatriated to England to recuperate. He returned to France at the end of 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918.This might have been all I would ever know, except that recently the Big T’s aunt sent me a photocopy of the text of a letter Eric Gray wrote to his sister Doris, while he was in Brokenhurst Hospital in 1917. I am unsure whether it is the original letter, or — more likely — a transcription made by someone (probably T’s aunt). I suspect the latter, based on the last few lines on the final page which have obviously been added later, but look as though they are in the same hand.
Even if it is not “an original”, this document is fascinating.
June 13, 1917
Just a line or two to let you know that I am getting on all right.
I received a letter from you the night before we went into the trenches and never had time to answer it.
We left camp with all our gear and I tell you we were loaded up at nine o’clock Wed night and arrived at the trenches at half past one in the morning.
We had to carry our equipment and forty eight hour rations, water bottle full, rifle and 120 rounds of ammunition and me being a bomber had to carry fifteen bombs each weighing two pounds and one big one weighing fourteen pounds for dropping down dugouts. We also had our oilsheet, a cardigan jacket, towel and soap shaving gear and a pair of socks in our pack and two gas helmets, so you see we were well loaded up.
Well when we were going up the trenches Fritz put over a lot of gas in shells. He fires them over and they don’t explode they just break open and the gas comes out and floats whichever way the wind is blowing.
Everything was very quiet while we were waiting for the word to go over but just when time was up a big mine was exploded under Fritz’s line which rocked the ground so you could hardly stand up.
As we went over our artillery opened fire into Fritz’s trenches and as we advanced they lengthened their range so we were on to him before he knew the guns were firing past him. We took three lines of trenches before we got to Messines and tunnelling uphill all the time.
Before we went in we had been shown maps and pictures of the town and each platoon was given its part to clean up but when we got there it was just like a broken brick heap. You couldn’t tell where the streets were or the square or anything. Our artillery was great. The Germans in the town were full up of fighting. They came out of their dugouts and surrendered without a word. Our corporal and I got twelve out of one dugout and then we went down it and there were eight more in the corner. They could easily have shot the two of us but as soon as they saw us they put their hands up and started to yell for mercy and so we took them out too.
We came across a case of soda water in bottles and didn’t we get into it as we only had out water bottles full to last us for perhaps two days until the water carriers could get up.
Well our job was to clean up our part of the town and then go about one hundred yards past and dig in.
The first brigade that is the North Island men were to go four hundred yards past us and dig in and in the afternoon the Australians went eight hundred yards past them and dug in again. So you see we were not so badly off as we were not in the front line.
We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell and for an hour or two it fairly rained shells but it wasn’t until about half past three or four o’clock when I got my smack. A small shell burst in the trench near me and the flame of the explosion burnt my neck and a piece went in the back of my right shoulder and now I am here but the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon.
Ernie Page got a bit of a smack before we got to Messines but I don’t know whether he is in England or not. You know that Jerry who was working in JB Jones when he enlisted he came with the 16th Rifles, well he was killed. I am in No.1 NZA General Hospital HANTS ENG but my mail will be addressed at the base post office so you won’t have to alter the address at all. Are you still at Dunsandel, you will be getting quite used to being away from home I suppose it is winter there now it is midsummer her. I have just stuck the right time to come to England. I must close now so I remain
Your aff brother
On the bottom of the letter it says
Eric or ‘Toby’
1557 Private EA Gray
1st Coy 2nd Battalion
Canty Infantry Brigade
Born 20.10.1895 Killed in France 27.3.1918
I’ve read this letter many times now, and wonder how difficult it was to write. He speaks quite dispassionately of his own and others’ injuries, and even death — I guess trying not to worry his family even more. His line “the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon” is all that suggests a (very realistic) fear of returning to the Front.
There is so much more I want to know about this young man; having his letter and other documents will make my searching easier.