“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”,

 

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.

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

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

Having begun researching the story of the Big T’s great uncle, Eric Gray, I’ve been trying to find out more about this young man who served in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in WWI and was killed in the Somme Valley in March 1918.

I have been working through his military service records, and in an effort to add context to the story, have also been reading the History of the Canterbury Regiment, by Captain David Ferguson. Published in 1921, this book has been digitized and is available as part of the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection – an initiative of the Victoria University of Wellington Library.

From what I’ve seen, NZ military service records are clear and comprehensive. They are however, institutional documents and only record actions and decisions in relation to an individual’s relationship with the organization. From Eric Gray’s record I know that he served in the Canterbury Regiment, was posted to France in November 1916, wounded in June 1917 and repatriated to England to recuperate. He returned to France at the end of 1917, and was killed in action on 27 March 1918.

Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire, England. Used for NZ casualties during WWI. Photo: Digital NZ.

Brokenhurst Hospital, Hampshire, England. Used for NZ casualties during WWI. Photo: Digital NZ.

This might have been all I would ever know, except that recently the Big T’s aunt sent me a photocopy of the text of a letter Eric Gray wrote to his sister Doris, while he was in Brokenhurst Hospital in 1917. I am unsure whether it is the original letter, or — more likely — a transcription made by someone (probably T’s aunt). I suspect the latter, based on the last few lines on the final page which have obviously been added later, but look as though they are in the same hand.

Even if it is not “an original”, this document is fascinating.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 1. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 - page 2. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 2. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 - page 3. Image: Gray family archive.

Letter from Private Eric Andrew Gray to his sister Doris, June 1917 – page 3. Image: Gray family archive.

Transcription:

Brokenhurst Hospital

June 13, 1917

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

On the bottom of the letter it says

Eric or ‘Toby’

1557 Private EA Gray

1st Coy 2nd Battalion

Canty Infantry Brigade

NZEF

Born 20.10.1895 Killed in France 27.3.1918

I’ve read this letter many times now, and wonder how difficult it was to write. He speaks quite dispassionately of his own and others’ injuries, and even death — I guess trying not to worry his family even more. His line “the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon” is all that suggests a (very realistic) fear of returning to the Front.

There is so much more I want to know about this young man; having his letter and other documents will make my searching easier.

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.

The importance of archives to family history: a video “elevator pitch”

 

 

A couple of years ago, as part of my Masters in Information Studies, I did a paper in Archives Management. One of the assignments was to give an “elevator pitch” about the importance of archives.

I videoed mine and this is it. I think I’d be more articulate now, but the sentiments would certainly be the same. .