On breakthroughs and more bricks: Alexander Cruden’s war

alexander cruden catherine black 60th anniversary photo 1968

60th wedding anniversary, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden, March 1968. Image: Leslie family archive.

As I child I remember being told that my mother’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cruden (1890-1970), had served in WWI and had a leg amputated. I’m not sure if I was also told he’d served in France, or if I just assumed that to be the case.

Like so much family history research; this story starts with just that one nugget of information.

Mum thought he may have served in the Gordon Highlanders, and she knew for sure he’d spent time after the war at Edenhall Hospital in Musselborough. She gave me photos of him and other ex-servicemen from Edenhall, possibly taken in the early 1920s.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated 3rd from left. Image: Leslie family archive

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated, third from the left. Image: Leslie family archive.

But that was all she knew.

Without being sure of great grandad’s regiment, searching for his service records proved difficult. Alexander Cruden is not an uncommon name in Scotland, and about 40 percent of British WWI records were destroyed during the Blitz of WWII.

Recently though, I had a breakthrough.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

I found out about the Silver War Badge (SWB). This was given to WWI military personnel – like my great grandfather – who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The records of Silver War Badge recipients are available on Ancestry.

These records show only one Alexander (shown on the record as Alex) Cruden as a recipient of the SWB. The age shown is consistent with my great grandfather, and the regiment he served with was the Gordon Highlanders.

The SWB record showed that Alex had served overseas and provided a service number – S/1891.

From the blog Army Service Numbers 1881-1918, I could confirm that S/1891 was an actual service number for the Gordon Highlanders, and that the S/ in front of the number meant it was a wartime enlistment – rather than someone joining the regular force.

I also learned that this number would have been issued in the first weeks of the war, between August and September 1914.

The Fife Free Press

Knowing that local newspapers in New Zealand published lists of those who enlisted to fight, I wondered if Scottish papers did the same thing, and searched the local Kirkcaldy newspaper, The Fife Free Press, for August-September.

Sure enough, on Saturday September 12th 1914, under the headline The Call to Arms  Kirkcaldy Recruits Still Rolling Up, I found my great grandfather’s name amongst the Gordon Highlanders.

Given the Scottish propensity for naming children after grandparents and parents, finding the name doesn’t automatically mean the report referred to my great grandad, and if it had been any other member of my family, I would have known much more research was involved.

But the Cruden family was relatively new to Fife, having come from Dundee when great grandad was a child. I checked the 1911 census (using quite wide search parameters), and found that my great grandfather was the only Alexander Cruden of enlistment age in the county of Fife, and the only Cruden in Kirkcaldy.

Armed with these bits of information, I was able to find Alex Cruden’s medal cards, which told me that S/1891 Cruden, Alexander was a Private in the Gordon Highlanders who was awarded the Silver War Badge, The Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 15 Star (properly known as the 1914-15 Star) [1].

It also confirmed that he served in France, arriving on 10 May 1915.

The Victory Medal record lists him as having served in the 8th Battalion, which I know to have arrived in France on May 10th, as the Regimental Diary notes:

A beautiful crossing was experienced and we arrived in Boulogne at about 1pm.

None of this is absolute proof that S/1891, Cruden, Alexander was my great grandfather, but it seems highly likely.

A short interlude to celebrate

However. My real interest is in finding out about great grandad’s war. When was he wounded? Where? What experiences did he have that he had to carry with him until his death in 1970?

Neither Ancestry nor FindMyPast has a service record for Alex Cruden, so it’s likely to be one of the thousands destroyed in the Blitz. Without that, I have to rely on secondary sources — in particular newspapers which carried casualty reports, and the Regimental Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. The National Archives has digitized these diaries and made them available to download.

The Diaries fall into two parts; the first May 1915-April 1916; the second April 1916-November 1918. This coincides with the amalgamation, in April 1916, of the 8th and 10th Battalions.

I know that Alex Cruden held the rank of Private, so it’s unlikely he would be named in the Diaries (unless he was court-martialled perhaps), but I did hope that by understanding when the Battalion was on active service, it would narrow the time-frames during which he might have been wounded.

When I began reading, I discovered that in the first months of the Battalion’s tour in France, daily casualties were listed in the Diary. For “other ranks” the information included their surname, service number and rank, and whether they were killed or wounded. In some instances, the cause of their wound/death was recorded.

This changed in late September when the Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Loos. For that period, only the total numbers of dead and wounded were included.

For example, the entry for September 27th states:

Sept 27th the total casualties from 25th to 27th September (?) were 17 officers and about 500 men.

I’m almost at the end of the first Diary, March 1916, and I have found no record of Alex Cruden. I’ve also searched both the Fife Free Press and the Scotsman (which published casualty lists for all the Scottish regiments, as well as those of colonial forces, including NZ). Again, I have found no mention of Alex, and the service numbers recorded next to the names of dead and wounded are climbing steadily into five digits.

Did my slightly built, 5′ 2″ great grandad survive almost a year at the Front without being wounded? Have I missed his name on a casualty list? Or did it somehow get left off such a list?

Or more worryingly, have I got it completely wrong and S/1891, Cruden, Alexander is someone else altogether.

I’ll keep looking.

su christening photo

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden. Image: Leslie family archive.

 


[1] Both the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Allied Victory Medal seem to have been awarded to all officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918.

The 1914-15 Star was awarded specifically to all who served in any theatre of war against Germany between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.

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June 7th, 1917: Battle of Messines

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Robin, Wallace and Eric Gray c. 1896. Both Wallace (the boy-child’s great grandfather) and Eric served in WWI. Eric was wounded at Messines on 7 June 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 in the Somme Valley. Image: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Messines; a World War I offensive by Allied troops that formed the prelude to what later became known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

Although the ten day Messines Offensive was regarded as a military success (unlike the later Ypres campaign), it still resulted in around 25,000 Allied and a similar number of German, casualties (1). That included 3700 New Zealanders –700 of whom died (2).

One of those, non-fatal, New Zealand casualties was Eric Andrew GRAY — a great grand-uncle of the boy-child on his father’s side.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Gray family portrait c. 1902. Standing: from left Ethel, Robin, Eric, Wallace. Seated: Doris, Emily Ann (nee Oliver) holding baby Mavis, Aileen (toddler). Photo: Gray family archive, courtesy of Peter Duncan.

Eric was the fourth child and youngest son of Andrew Gray and Emily Ann Oliver. He was born on 20 October 1895 at Hororata, New Zealand and was killed in action on 27 March 1918 near Auchonvillers, in the Somme Valley, France. Before enlisting, in April 1916, Eric worked as a farm labourer for Selwyn County Council.

Almost all of what I have learned about family members’ wartime experiences has come from their military records. For Eric’s experience at Messines however, I have an extra layer of knowledge. While recovering at Brokenhurst Hospital in England from his wounds, Eric wrote to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. Although I’ve written about the letter before, (in the post “We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell …” ) I thought it worth reproducing here, as it gives a quite detailed account of one man’s experience of that day, exactly 100 years ago.

Dear Doris

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

EAG

Before leaving New Zealand for the Western Front, Eric had his portrait taken with two of his sisters, Ethel and Doris. He was just 20 years old and within two years would be dead; buried alongside other young men in the Martinsart British Cemetery, France.

WWI enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 - 27 March 1918), with sisters Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait: Eric Andrew Gray (20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918), with sisters Ethel (left) and Doris Gray c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Fuller accounts of Eric Gray’s war experiences (and of my research) can be found at:

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Six Word Saturday: “… just like a broken brick heap …”

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

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918

____

(1) Battle of Messines (1917), Wikipedia

(2) NZ casualty figures from New Zealand History, 1917: Arras, Messines and Passschendaele.

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.

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

Troops going up to the front past ruined building in the Ypres sector of the front during the 3rd Battle of Ypres probably late September 1917.  Photo: New Zealand National Army Museum

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

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that the Big T’s great uncle Eric served with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI, and was wounded on the first day of the Allied attack on the town of Messines, in the very north of France, on June 7th 1917.

His account of the attack, and of his injury, is contained in a letter sent to his sister Doris back in New Zealand. We were recently sent a transcript of this letter, which you can read here.

I’ve been trying to piece together an account of his military service from a range of sources that I’ve been able to access, including the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph database and Eric Gray’s service record, obtained from Archives New Zealand.

I’ve also found the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, incredibly useful for providing context. This book has been digitized and is available free via the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, which is part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Eric Gray’s service record is largely a series of chronologies; dates that had significance for the military administration. In many cases, they raise rather than answer questions. But this is the structure of Eric Gray’s life as a soldier.

4 April 1916: the first date that appears on any of the records. It seems that on this date, Private Eric Andrew Gray – then aged 20 – became a member of the First Company, 1st Battalion, Canterbury Infantry Regiment.

26 July 1916: embarked for overseas service from Wellington, NZ.

4 October 1916: arrived in Devonport, in Plymouth, England. The record says “marched into Sling.”

Sling was a military camp next to the town of Bulford, on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. In 1916 it was principally occupied by NZ troops. [source: Wikipedia] As Sling is over 130 miles from Devonport, and Google Maps show it as a 45 hour walk, I assume that soldiers were transported by train or truck to the camp.I wonder what a young farm labourer from the South Island made of his trip though southern England?

20 October 1916: departed Sling for France.

Sling Camp and the Chalk Kiwi c.1919. Photo: Christchurch History Society / Wikipedia

3 November 1916: service record notes that on that day he was recorded as being “improperly dressed on 4.30pm parade. Punishment 2 days C.B. [confined to barracks]”. The location shown on the record was Etaples, in the Pas-de-Calais.

The town of Etaples was used by various Allied forces as the location for military camps, hospitals and war cemeteries (FirstWorldWar.Com)

8 November 1916: Eric Gray’s service record shows two entries on this date. One reads “joined Battalion and posted to No.1 Company.” The authority for this entry reads “Pii O No. 34 Rouen 23.11.16”. Further through the document another entry reads “joined 2nd Bn C.R. [assume this is Canterbury Regiment], Field.”

From Ferguson’s History of the Canterbury Regiment, I’ve learned that at the time Eric Gray arrived in France, the battalions were recovering from very heavy loss of life during the Battle of the Somme, fought between July and October of 1916. In total over 1100 soldiers from the First and Second Canterbury Battalions had been killed during that time.

For the next few months, these troops were involved in a number of small offensives, but were periodically relieved by other New Zealand, Australian and Scottish Battalions in order that the men have some rest periods away from the Front. The Battalions seem to have been billeted in towns and villages close to the city of Lille, including Sailly, Estaires and Nieppe.

This period of relative calm continued until March 1917, when the Battalions were moved north-west toward the village of Messines, which had been held by the Germans since the Second Battle of Ypres, in April-May 1915.

Preparation for the Allied offensive took place from March, until the first attack on June 7th – the day Eric Gray was wounded.

Eric Gray’s Casualty Form (Army Form B. 103) – which forms part of his service record, contains quite a lot of detail about the days following his injury.

7 June 1917: wounded. In a letter to his sister dated 13 June, he described the circumstances:

… 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 …

On that day he was transported to No. 11 Casualty Clearing Station. According to The New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-18, by A.D. Carbery (1924), this was located at Baillieul East – about eight miles from the front, and “… used for lightly wounded from our Corps.”

Carbery went on to say:

In the casualty clearing stations, at Baillieul, there was great congestion, so many of the wounded required operation; the surgical teams could not keep pace with the incoming casualties. In order to relieve the pressure, 100 stretcher cases, mostly gunshot injuries of the head, were despatched by M.A.C. to the New Zealand Stationary Hospital at Hazebrouck, where they arrived at 4 a.m. on the 8th. During the first day this unit had admitted 10 sick and 187 wounded.

8 June 1917: under the care of 77th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Gray was transported from Baillieul to Boulogne.

9 June 1917: he was repatriated to the UK and admitted to Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire. This was the principal hospital of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in England during WWI.

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A postcard of wounded soldiers and nurses at the New Zealand Military Hospital at Brockenhurst, England, taken in 1918. Photographer unknown. Photo: North Auckland Research Centre, Takapuna Library Archives

28 August 1917: he was transferred to Codford Depot on the Salisbury Plain. Properly called the New Zealand Command Depot, soldiers were sent to Codford for rehabilitation before being returned to their unit.

21 November 1917: returned to Sling. This means that Eric Gray had been deemed fit to return to active service.

13 December 1917: the record simply says “left for France.”

16 December 1917: It appears that Eric Gray was sent to the New Zealand Infantry and General Base Depot at Etaples. He remained there until 6 January 1918 when he was posted to the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment.

During the period that he had been convalescing in England, Eric’s regiment was engaged in the terrible, protracted Third Battle of Yrpes, of which the famous Passchendaele offensive was one of the bloodiest in WWI. The village of Passchendaele was finally captured on November 6, after more than three months of fighting and terrible loss of live.

The capture was a hollow victory however. The Allies had moved their enemy back about 8 kilometres, but the territory gained no longer had strategic value (NZ HisHistory: Passchendaele). The overall casualty figure for this three month battle is still uncertain, but on one day alone – October 12th – the tiny nation of New Zealand suffered 3296 casualties. In the first four hours of that day, 846 Kiwi soldiers lost their lives. For a nation of just over one million people, that loss was particularly horrendous (Passchendaele Society).

26 January 1918: the record reads “Det/Dep to Division Signallers.” Location is given as “Field.” From the Regiment’s history it seems that on the night of 22 January, the 1st Battalion had returned from a period in reserve a few miles back from the front line, and was to spend some time undergoing training.

3 February 1918: record reads “rejoined battalion.

During this period – the middle of winter – soldiers endured frequent enemy shelling as they tried to consolidate the positions they held. The Regimental History describes conditions:

The trench warfare in the Ypres salient differed from the Division’s earlier experiences at Armentières only by the greater discomforts with which the troops had to contend at Ypres. The trenches were muddy and were as a rule without duck-walks, which meant that the feet of the garrison were almost always wet. There was very little weather-proof sleeping accommodation; and though hot food was sent up from cook-houses behind the line, it usually arrived fairly cold, on account of the long distance it had to be carried.

The final date in Eric Gray’s service record is 27 March 1918. The entry contains just three words “Killed in Action.”

There is more to say about this young man, who travelled across the world from his home in rural Canterbury to die in France. But I think that deserves a separate post.

Six Word Saturday: “… just like a broken brick heap …”

A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917.  Photo: On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917.

A destroyed German observation post at Messines, June 11, 1917. Photo: On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917.

Private Eric Andrew Gray, who was wounded on the first day of the Allied Assault on Messines (7 June, 1917), later wrote in a letter to his sister:

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.

The day before the assault began, Major General Charles Harington, Chief of Staff of British Second Army, said to correspondents during a press conference:

Gentlemen, I do not know whether or not we shall change history tomorrow but we shall certainly alter geography.
(On This Day in Military History, Messines Ridge, 1917)