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:
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.
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
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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)
My father in law, generally not much interested in family history, has mentioned many times over the years an uncle – his father’s younger brother – who died in WWI. He didn’t know where or when, so when I first started doing family history research a few years ago, I undertook to find out what I could about the Big T’s great uncle.
The first barrier was that neither the Big T nor his father was quite sure of the uncle’s first name. My father in law referred to his uncle as ‘Toby’, but suggested that might have been a nickname.
The NZ Dept of Internal Affairs’ Births Deaths & Marriages Online allowed me to search within the parameters I had (my father in law’s father’s name) and make a few assumptions.
Wallace Oliver Gray (the Big T’s granddad) was born in 1893 to Emily Ann and Andrew Gray.
By changing the search terms to surname only + mother’s name, I found four other children born to Emily Ann and Andrew –Eric Andrew, Winifred Olive, Aileen Annie and Ethel Fyllis.
As the only other male child, it seemed that Eric was the most likely candidate to be ‘Uncle Toby’.
Archives New Zealand holds historic military service records and provides an online search facility: Archway. This revealed the following entry:
GRAY, Eric Andrew – WW1 15527 – Army
The service records themselves weren’t available online at that stage, so accessing them involved paying to have them digitized. Although I was fairly sure this was the person, the Big T had the bright idea of first of all looking up the Cenotaph Database held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum, to cross check the information. Excellent move as it turns out.
As you can see, the Cenotaph record was really detailed and incredibly helpful. We knew from the address and biographical information that we had the “right man”. But more importantly we knew in which Regiment he served, when and where he died and where he was buried. And amazingly, at the top of the record was a photograph. The young man (probably aged 20 when it was taken) with the serious expression was one of us; a blood relation to the Big T and our boy-child, and a member of the whanau I’ve been part of for almost thirty years.
Finding Eric Gray’s burial place on the record led the Big T to Google Maps and me to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (he’s Geography to my History). What we both discovered – almost simultaneously – was that eighty one years after Eric Gray was buried there, we had virtually driven past Martinsart British Cemetery in the Somme Valley while on holiday with the infant boy-child.
There is much more to say about Eric Gray thanks to the meticulous work of archivists and record-keepers in New Zealand and overseas. I’m currently working through his service records – obtained from Archives New Zealand – trying to understand the terminology and abbreviations. But that is another story to be told in time.
Meanwhile, as commemorations of the four years of warfare dubbed “the war to end all wars” take place all over the world, we’re remembering a 22 year old farm labourer who travelled from Hororata in Canterbury NZ, to die in the Somme Valley of France.