‘...I was struck by a bomb which knocked me o[ver], disabling my right arm; and before I could make any attempt to get away, three Germans came and carried me off.’
With that, William Arthur Gray began 14 months of detention as a military prisoner of war (POW) in Germany.
Born in 1889, Gray grew up in Mount Eden, Auckland, the youngest of seven children of Louisa (nee Radnedge) and Samuel Gray, a town clerk.2
Gray studied at Auckland University College (AUC) from 1908 after attending Auckland Grammar School. He was awarded the 1909 Sir George Grey scholarship for science-related study and graduated BSc in 1910 and MSc with first class honours in 1911.3
During his time on campus, Gray played cricket and rugby and was secretary of the Men’s Common Room Club. He was also on the AUC Students’ Association Executive alongside Samuel Howard Ellis, another of the seven Collegians who were detained as POWs.4
The 26-year-old was working as a civil engineering assistant for the Railways Department when he enlisted for military service in May 1915.5 He was attached to A Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade (NZRB) as a second Lieutenant and left the country in early February 1916.6
The NZRB reached France in April 1916 and in late May went into action in the trenches in the French Armentières sector. A month later, Gray was shot in the thigh and was shipped back to England for medical treatment.7
Gray returned to France in early September in time for the New Zealand Division’s entry into the first Battle of the Somme during the third push of the Allied offensive.8 In fighting near Flers village in mid-September, Gray took command of A Company after deaths and injuries left him as its only officer.9 He was awarded the Military Cross in late October for `conspicuous gallantry in action’.10
The 3rd Battalion took part in the assault on the German-held Belgian town of Messines in June 1917 and were still fighting in the area in early August.11 On 6 August, the Battalion was holding part of the line north of the River Lys, between Messines and Warneton. At 8pm, Gray and fellow Collegian Captain Alexander Thomson went out to inspect a wiring party. They reached the group but came under artillery fire. In a 1918 letter to New Zealand’s military commander, Gray described what happened next:
`We all dropped into shell-holes or ditches. About two minutes later I got up, and, seeing none of the party, went straight on. When I had covered about 100 yards, I heard Germans talking, so I turned and ran, but before I had gone five yards, I was struck by a bomb which knocked me o[ver], disabling my right arm; and before I could make any attempt to get away, three Germans came and carried me off.’12
Gray had surgery on his arm in the Belgian town of Menin, after which he was transported to St Vincenz Krankenhaus [hospital] in Paderborn, north-west Germany. He underwent a second operation nine months later.13 According to one of Gray’s three military records, he was detained in hospital at Paderborn for nearly 12 months but another record suggests he was also in a POW camp in nearby Sennelager for a time.14 Promoted to Captain during his captivity, in September 1918 Gray was transported 400km south to the officer’s POW camp in Karlsruhe.15 It was from there that Gray sent this photograph to a `Miss N Pethybridge’ in Devon, England, with the brief message, `All well’.16
After the war
Gray was repatriated to England on 12 October 1918 and had more medical treatment in Bristol and London.17 In June, Gray married his Karlsruhe correspondent, Ellen (Nellie) Mary Pethybridge in her home town of Bovey Tracey, Devon. Soon after, the couple sailed for New Zealand and settled in Mt Eden, Auckland. 18
Gray returned to civil engineering and worked on various infrastructure projects, including roading, drainage and water reticulation. He also served in various professional capacities, including as chairman of the Auckland branch of the NZ Society of Civil Engineers. He kept up his sporting interests and was a member of the Auckland Rugby Union and the Eden Park board of control.19
Gray also retained his military links, serving with the 1st Field Company, NZ Engineers, NZ Territorial Force in the 1930s and was in the officers’ reserve during the Second World War.20
Gray died on 18 June 1953 aged 64; he was survived by his wife.21
Jo Birks and Leah Johnston, Special Collections
- Gray, William Arthur - WWI 25/955, WWII N/N – Army, R24098158, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
- Births, deaths and marriages online, Department of Internal Affairs; New Zealand Herald, 17 July 1933, p.11, accessed via Papers Past.
- Calendar, Auckland University College, University of New Zealand, Auckland, 1910, p.124; 1912, p.111.
- New Zealand Herald, 29 November 1916, p.8; Auckland University College Men’s Common Room Club minute book. MSS & Archives E-6, Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services; Auckland University Students’ Association records. MSS & Archives E-9, 5/11, Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services.
- Gray, R24098158.
- ibid; William Austin, The official history of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade: covering the period of service with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Great War from 1915 to 1919, Wellington, 1924, pp.68, 87.
- Gray, R24098158; `New Zealand's Somme experience’, accessed via www.nzhistory.net.nz.
- Austin, p.128.
- London Gazette, 25 November 1916, p.11550, accessed via online London Gazette.
- Austin, p.224.
- Gray, R24098158.
- Gray, William Arthur - WW1 25/955 – [Duplicate Personnel File], R20548143, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.
- Gray, R20548143; Gray, R24098158.
- Gray, R24098158.
- Gray, William Arthur. Documents relating to military service, 1916-1940. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira. MS-94-55.
- Gray, R20548143; `Nominal Roll of British Officers, Repatriated Prisoners of War, who arrived in London, via Boston, 12th October 1918', P.A. 21307, Prisoners of the First World War Archives, International Committee of the Red Cross, accessed via grandeguerre.icrc.org.
- Gray, R24098158.
- Auckland Star, 26 January 1923, p.10; Auckland Star, 14 October 1925, p. 5; Auckland Star, 12 January 1929, p.19; and Auckland Star, 19 June 1953, p.3, accessed via Papers Past.
- Gray, R24098158; Auckland Star, 19 June 1953, p.3, accessed via Papers Past.
- Gray, William Arthur - WW1 25/955 – Army, R16788411, Archives New Zealand, Wellington; Auckland Star, 19 June 1953, p.3, accessed via Papers Past.