Six word Saturday: trying to decipher another war record

Casualty sheet: military service record of Wallace Oliver Gray. Image from Archives NZ.

Casualty sheet: military service record of Wallace Oliver Gray. Image from Archives NZ.

Having learned as much as I could about the military service and death of Eric Gray, I’m now ready to research the story of his older brother Wallace.

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

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.

Eric Andrew GRAY: record from Auckland Museum Cenotaph Database. © Auckland Museum.

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.

Page from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, remembering Eric Andrew Gray.

Page from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, remembering Eric Andrew Gray.

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.

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

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. .