Walter Gray lived in Mitcham all his life, but his name does not appear on any of its memorials. This is the story of a forgotten casualty of the Great War who served on the Western Front from April 1915 until June 1918.
Walter Gray was born in Mitcham in 1897, his parents, Alfred Gray and Jane Sophia Foreman, were married on Christmas Eve 1893 in Parish Church of Immanuel and St.Andrew, overlooking the open space of Streatham Common. Alfred Gray was originally from Bedfordshire and Jane Foreman come from Peckham, they settled in Mitcham soon after their marriage. Walter was their third child and within a decade there had been three more additions to the family. The six siblings were: Alfred Jnr, William, Walter, Herbert, Jane and Nellie. The family was stricken by loss when Walter’s mother died in 1909, Jane Sophia Gray was laid to rest in Church Road Cemetery on 24th June 1909. The void was partly filled by their Aunt Rebecca Foreman, who came to look after the younger children and kept house for Walter’s father.
Walter had grown up in homes near to Commonside East, in Tamworth Lane and Manor Road. His father had worked as a market gardener, and by the age of 14, young Walter Gay was employed as a “Gardener Labourer” and his older brother Alfred Jnr. was working as a “Nurseryman’s Assistant”. The Grays could have all been working in the extensive nurseries of the Mizen family whose glass houses were a prominent feature in East Mitcham.
When war was declared in August 1914, seventeen year old Water Gray was a young man eager to enlist and like so many others adjusted his age to ensure he was accepted. Walter had travelled to the Kingston Barracks on Friday 28th August 1914 and joined the Royal Field Artillery. He was described as 5ft 6in tall, weighing 123.5 pounds with blue eyes, a pale complexion, dark hair and with a chest size of 32 inches. His Army life probably began at Woolwich before he was allocated to one of the many newly formed brigades. After training to work with guns and horses, Walter Gray finally went to France on 18th April 1915 as Driver 94590, W. Gray R.F.A.
Part of the enlargement and reorganisation of the Special Brigade in the Spring of 1916 was the creation of the 5th Mortar Battalion which consisted of four Special Companies who were to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars. Walter was among a large draft of RFA men transferred in the Field in mid July 1916 to the 5th Battalion of the Royal Engineers Special Brigade. Walter was now Pioneer 193146 of the 2nd Special Company.
The issue of chemical ordnance supply dogged the efforts of special companies of the 5th Mortar Battalion. Smoke rounds were in short supply and chemical rounds non-existent for the 4-inch Stokes mortars well into the battle of the Somme. After the offensive ground to a halt by mid November 1916, Walter Gray’s unit withdrew to their winter camp near Helfaut. The prospect of another gruelling year of war was the last thing anyone wished to contemplate. Without records, it is hard to know if Walter Gray was granted leave before the renewed operations of 1917.
1917 was another long slog for Walter Gray. They were based in Bray and Heilly for operations in March, Sailly La Bourse in Arpil and had moved to Nieppe on the Belgium border by mid May 1917. His special company supported Australian and ANZAC forces in the last week of May, firing mainly tears gas and thermite mortar rounds at enemy position such as Ontario Farm near Messines. On the 7th June 1917, nineteen mines were exploded under German positions aiding the capture of Wytschaete and Messines. Walter Gray’s unit continued to fire hundreds of disorientating tear gas rounds during June’s operations.
Their base moved to Eikhoke, near Boesinghe (now Boezinge) north west of Ypres in July, to carry out operations in the sector of the Guards and 51st Division.
Walter’s special mortar company continued firing thermite and lachrymatory rounds at enemy targets in the build up to the 31st July 1917, the opening day of the third battle of Ypres. Now simply known as “Passchendaele”, and synonymous with mud and suffering, the attritional battle was fought in nightmarish conditions lasting 3 months and six days. Walter Gray’s mortar company were in the Ypres Salient the entire time. In July and August they were beginning to make use of lethal phosgene mortar rounds in the mix of munitions fired. They suffered casualties, eight men in one incident due to a burst gas mortar bomb, but the numbers were slight compared to infantry battalions. Walter’s company got some respite by late September but they returned to Poperinghe Camp by mid October in preparation for operations in the Poelcappelle sector.
Moving again to Forthem in November 1917 for operations in the Dixmunde sector, they supported the 2nd Belgium Division using types of tear gas, NC and SK, designed to penetrate the enemy’s gas masks.
The last action of the year was undertaken by one section using six mortars on 30th December 1917 firing thermite rounds in support of an infantry attack.
After sitting out the winter at Helfaut, offensive operations began again in March 1918. Casualties sustained on 27th March 1918 included 4 Americans (1 gassed) who were seconded to Walter Gray’s company. One phosgene bomb was defective and others had been destroyed by enemy fire. During 22nd-30th April Walter’s company were based at Hazebrouck supporting the 1st Australian Division by engaging strong points and other targets around Merris and Meteren. The company had begun making use of “livens projectors” to saturate the enemy with phosgene gas.
Operations continued in the same sector throughout May and into June 1918 with the base still at Hazebrouck.
On 22nd/23rd June 1918, the whole of Walter Gray’s special company were deployed to fire mortars and projectors from the support lines near the Hazebrouck Road (above Merris Map square X 19 ) as Australian and South African infantry advance between Merris and the Becque ( hist p. 402 https://www.awm.gov.au/images/collection/pdf/RCDIG1069552–1-.pdf )
Positions were reconnoitred on the 24th June for a further operation and mortar base plates transferred. Without any indication of precisely where, or how, the 2nd Special Company War Dairy blandly states 2 O/R killed and 1 O/R wounded.
Walter Gray’s long war had come to an end, he was buried at LA KREULE MILITARY CEMETERY, HAZEBROUCK.