June 7th, 1917: Battle of Messines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Doris

Just a line or two to let you know that I am getting on all right.

I received a letter from you the night before we went into the trenches and never had time to answer it.

We left camp with all our gear and I tell you we were loaded up at nine o’clock Wed night and arrived at the trenches at half past one in the morning.

We had to carry our equipment and forty eight hour rations, water bottle full, rifle and 120 rounds of ammunition and me being a bomber had to carry fifteen bombs each weighing two pounds and one big one weighing fourteen pounds for dropping down dugouts. We also had our oilsheet, a cardigan jacket, towel and soap shaving gear and a pair of socks in our pack and two gas helmets, so you see we were well loaded up.

Well when we were going up the trenches Fritz put over a lot of gas in shells. He fires them over and they don’t explode they just break open and the gas comes out and floats whichever way the wind is blowing.

Everything was very quiet while we were waiting for the word to go over but just when time was up a big mine was exploded under Fritz’s line which rocked the ground so you could hardly stand up.

As we went over our artillery opened fire into Fritz’s trenches and as we advanced they lengthened their range so we were on to him before he knew the guns were firing past him. We took three lines of trenches before we got to Messines and tunnelling uphill all the time.

Before we went in we had been shown maps and pictures of the town and each platoon was given its part to clean up but when we got there it was just like a broken brick heap. You couldn’t tell where the streets were or the square or anything. Our artillery was great. The Germans in the town were full up of fighting. They came out of their dugouts and surrendered without a word. Our corporal and I got twelve out of one dugout and then we went down it and there were eight more in the corner. They could easily have shot the two of us but as soon as they saw us they put their hands up and started to yell for mercy and so we took them out too.

We came across a case of soda water in bottles and didn’t we get into it as we only had out water bottles full to last us for perhaps two days until the water carriers could get up.

Well our job was to clean up our part of the town and then go about one hundred yards past and dig in.

The first brigade that is the North Island men were to go four hundred yards past us and dig in and in the afternoon the Australians went eight hundred yards past them and dug in again. So you see we were not so badly off as we were not in the front line.

We got dug in about five feet deep by dinner time and then Fritz started to shell and for an hour or two it fairly rained shells but it wasn’t until about half past three or four o’clock when I got my smack. A small shell burst in the trench near me and the flame of the explosion burnt my neck and a piece went in the back of my right shoulder and now I am here but the only thing that I am worrying about is that it will be better too soon.

Ernie Page got a bit of a smack before we got to Messines but I don’t know whether he is in England or not. You know that Jerry who was working in JB Jones when he enlisted he came with the 16th Rifles, well he was killed. I am in No.1 NZA General Hospital HANTS ENG but my mail will be addressed at the base post office so you won’t have to alter the address at all. Are you still at Dunsandel, you will be getting quite used to being away from home I suppose it is winter there now it is midsummer her. I have just stuck the right time to come to England. I must close now so I remain

Your aff brother

EAG

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

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

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

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

Eric Andrew Gray: following the trail of a young soldier

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

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

Death of a soldier: 27 March 1918

____

(1) Battle of Messines (1917), Wikipedia

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

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.

N0107002_access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 February 1918: record reads “rejoined battalion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before we went in we had been shown maps and pictures of the town and each platoon was given its part to clean up but when we got there it was just like a broken brick heap. You couldn’t tell where the streets were or the square or anything.

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

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

“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.