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.
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.
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 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.