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

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(1) Battle of Messines (1917), Wikipedia

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

“They shall grow not old …”

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 Doris and Ethel Gray c. 1916. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Today is ANZAC day; the day that New Zealanders and Australians commemorate our countrymen and women who have died in wars, and honour our returned servicemen and women.

What is ANZAC Day?

The date marks the first landing of Australian and New Zealand troops (ANZACs) on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey; 25 April 1915. The ANZACs were part of a larger Allied force comprising also British, French and other Commonwealth troops which aimed to capture the Dardanelles (strategically, the gateway to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea) from its Turkish defenders.

The campaign lasted eight months; cost over 130,000 lives (Turkish and Allied) and ended with the exhausted and depleted Allied armies withdrawing from the peninsula in December 1915, having totally failed to achieve their objective.

Around 8700 Australians and 2779 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli. Although this pales in comparison with losses in other WWI battles (842 NZ soldiers died on one day alone at Passchendaele), Gallipoli has come to symbolise the beginnings of a national identity in both countries. (Sources: The Gallipoli Campaign, and 1917: Arras, Messines and Passchendaele: New Zealand History)

Our boys

When I began researching my son’s paternal (New Zealand) ancestry, I  knew from my father in law that two members of his family had served in WWI: his father Wallace Oliver Gray (1892-1981), and Eric Andrew Gray (1895-1918), Wallace’s younger brother. (see note below on posts about the brothers)

WWI enlistment portrait; Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

Enlistment portrait; Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1917. Image: Gray family archive (courtesy of Peter Duncan).

I’ve since discovered that Wallace’s wife, Merle Wright, had two brothers who served also; Henry Marshall Wright (1891-1915) and Fred Nathaniel Wright (1894-1972).

Henry (Harry) Wright’s military service is particularly poignant here, as he died in the Gallipoli campaign — on 7th August 1915, at Chunuk Bair.

Chunuk Bair: “the high point of the New Zealand effort at Gallipoli”

Most New Zealanders will be familiar with the name Chunuk Bair. Geographically, it is a hill on the Sari Bair ridge, Gallipoli.

Map showing Sari Bair offensive, Gallipoli 1915. Source: Sari Bair offensive, August 1915 map, New Zealand History.

Map showing Sari Bair offensive, Gallipoli 1915. Source: “Sari Bair offensive, August 1915 map”, New Zealand History.

Militarily, it was a strategic objective. Troops from the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and Maori Contingent were ordered to take and hold the hill against the Turks.

Militarily, it was a five day battle that ultimately failed; costing (officially) 849 New Zealanders’ lives, with a further 2500 men wounded (Counting the cost of Chunik Bair, Stuff, August 8 2015). Overall, there were an estimated 30,000 casualties, Turkish and Allied.

Historically, it was another example of the poor military planning and leadership that characterised the entire Gallipoli campaign. (Counting the cost of Chunik Bair, Stuff, August 8 2015). The objective was unrealistic, promised support did not materialise, the men weren’t adequately supplied with essentials — like water — and poor communication meant that many casualties were the result of “friendly fire.”

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Valley leading out of Chunuk Bair; rocky, exposed, barren and hot. Image Source: Australian War Records Section, Australian Memorial.

Culturally, Chunuk Bair has become synonymous with Kiwi fighting spirit, bravery, and endurance against the odds. It was the only piece of the peninsula the Allies managed to capture beyond what they occupied in the April landings. The Kiwis held Chunuk Bair for two days before being ordered to withdraw.

Harry Marshall Wright

Born in Ohoka, Canterbury, on 19 August 1891, Harry Wright was the eldest of eight children born to Sidney Robert Wright and Jessie Susan Harris (about whom I’ve written a little here). His younger sister, Merle Matilda Wright would become my son’s great grandmother (marrying Wallace Gray in 1926).

When he left for Gallipoli, on 17th April 1915, Harry was a 1st Lieutenant in the Canterbury Infantry Regiment. He had enlisted in the regular army on 24th November 1914, aged 23, having already been a member of the Territorial Cadets since his school days at Christchurch Boys High School.

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Portrait of Harry Wright from the Auckland Weekly News, 1915. Source: Online Cenotaph record.

He had been commissioned as a second-lieutenant in the coast defense detachment of the Canterbury Regiment in 1912 and in 1914,  was promoted to 1st Lieutenant — apparently in preference to another officer  who “should” have received the promotion.

Letter confirming the promotion of Harry Wright, 1914. From Military Service Record, held at Archives New Zealand.

Letter confirming the promotion of Harry Wright, 1914. From Military Service Record, held at Archives New Zealand.

According to his military records, at the time of his enlistment, Harry Wright worked as a treasury clerk for the Christchurch City Council. He was unmarried, five foot nine and a quarter inches tall, weighed 154 pounds, had a dark complexion, brown eyes and hair, and had a scar on his chin.

An account of the offensive from the Canterbury’s Official History

I’ve read several accounts of the Chunuk Bair offensive, including that from the official history of the Canterbury Regiment, published in 1921. At the risk of taking information out of context, I think it is worth quoting from this document which shows the whole assault to be confused and problematic.

The task of the Canterbury Battalion was to … attack the Turkish trenches on Rhododendron Spur from the west … After these trenches were captured, and the two columns of the brigade were in touch, the Canterbury and Wellington Battalions were to attack the summit of the Sari Bair Ridge … with the peak of Chunuk Bair inclusive to Wellington and on the latter’s extreme right.

The time necessary for the Mounted Rifle Brigade to clear the entrances to the ravines having been under-estimated, there was considerable congestion and confusion… so that it was 1 a.m. (on August 7th) before the Canterbury Battalion was (in position) … whereas according to the time-table for the attack … the battalion should have reached the Dere before 11 p.m (August 6th).

There had been no opportunity for reconnoitring the ground over which the advance was to be made … on the afternoon of the 6th. Consequently the advance … was difficult, and the difficulty was increased by the darkness of the night. The battalion lost its way completely in a branch of the main ravine, and had to retrace its steps.

On the battalion turning about, the 12th and 13th Companies, at the rear of the column, received a garbled version of the Commanding Officer’s orders to return to the main ravine, and thinking they had been ordered to go right back to Happy Valley, did so. The remainder of the battalion picked up its bearings again and moved up … to Rhododendron Spur. A great deal of time had been lost, and it was now beginning to get light. Pushing on up Rhododendron Spur, the battalion about 5.45 a.m. came in touch with the Otago Battalion, which, in spite of the fact that it had already been heavily engaged at Table Top and Bauchop’s Hill, had taken three lightly held Turkish trenches on the Spur.

The 12th and 13th Companies left Happy Valley at dawn … and had little difficulty in re joining the battalion on Rhododendron Spur. By 8 a.m. the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had reached positions which were practically on the site of the front line of the trench system held by us on the Spur till the evacuation of the Peninsula—Wellington on the north, Otago at the eastern point, and Canterbury on the south. Here the brigade dug in, under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, especially from Battleship Hill, and from a trench on a spur north-east of Chunuk Bair.

At about 9.30 a.m. the brigade was ordered to assault Chunuk Bair, and as neither the Auckland Battalion nor the 10th Gurkhas had been heavily engaged up till now, these battalions were selected for the attack. On their advancing at 11 a.m., they immediately came under heavy fire; and though the Auckland Battalion reached a Turkish trench about a hundred and fifty yards east of our most advanced positions, its casualties were so heavy that it could get no further.

At 12.30 p.m. the Canterbury Battalion received orders to hold its trenches with half the battalion, and with the remaining half to support Auckland in a new attack. The 1st Company was left to garrison the trenches … and the remainder of the battalion moved forward and lay down in the open. It at once came under heavy shrapnel fire from the left flank and suffered severe casualties, losing one officer killed and six badly wounded, in addition to three officers previously wounded.

The battalion’s casualties during the four days’ fighting had been very heavy, as the list below shows:—

  Officers. Other Ranks.
Killed 4* 65
Wounded 8 258
Missing 11
  12 334

Like many who died at Gallipoli, Harry Wright has no marked grave.

He is remembered on the Chunuk Bair (New Zealand) Memorial within the Chunuk Bair Cemetery at Gallipoli — a young man with a bright future; a second-generation Cantabrian who volunteered to travel across the world to fight for an empire his working-class grandparents had emigrated from in search of a better life.

A young man who never had the chance to grow old.

The title of this post is a line from the Laurence Binyon poem For the Fallen, (1914) from which one stanza has come to be known as the Ode of Remembrance; recited at memorial services such as ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day.

The full stanza reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

__________

(1) I have written about the Wallace and Eric Gray in previous posts:

Anzac Day Remembrance: Gray brothers, Hororata

Death of a Soldier: 27 March 1918

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

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

“A small shell burst in a trench near me”

“We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell”,

 

Six Word Saturday: ANZAC Day remembrance — Gray brothers, Hororata

Eric Andrew GRAY: 20 October 1895 – 27 March 1918.

Killed in action during the Spring Offensive in the Somme Valley, France.

Eric Andrew GRAY: record from y cenotaph database

Wallace Oliver GRAY: 21 December 1892 – 19 October 1981

Wounded in action, Christmas Day 1917. Subsequently contracted illness and declared unfit for military service. Discharged 21 May 1919.

Roger Andrew Gray with his parents, Merle Matilda Wright and Wallace Oliver Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

Wallace Oliver Gray, far right of photo, with wife Merle Matilda Wright and son Roger Gray. c. 1956. Photo: Gray-Dove family archive.

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Hand-written cards of remembrance by Auckland school children. Thousands of these have been placed together to form the shape of a gigantic poppy on the field at Auckland Domain. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

 

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.