"I am so longing for letters"August 31st, 2016
What an extraordinarily beautiful book.
That was my first reaction to a diary of Randolph Norman Gray as I placed the small, light volume on the copy stand under the photographic lights. The cover was a deep maroon lined with twisting shafts of blue and green, impressively worn by hands and time.
What exactly do I have here?
Commenced July 29th – 1915
Lovely handwriting, I thought, the words just flow across the page. The paper was incredibly thin and fragile. The dark blue ink had seeped into the pages.
I suppose this book should inaugurate my diaries proper, and yet it is almost impossible to chronicle day by day our unimportant doings. When we get to the Dardanelles you may expect some blood and thunder descriptions in my best journal style, but until then – colloquial piffle.
But it wasn’t piffle, and Gray never went to the Dardanelles. I had chanced upon, as a temporary employee of the Alexander Turnbull Library, a diary containing ‘the most vivid and consequently the most horrifying’ descriptions of war on the Western Front from any New Zealand war diary - according to the editors of The Great Adventure . That collection of First World War diary extracts even took its title from Gray’s own writings:
The great adventure has begun, and we are now soldiers of the King in grim earnest...
Norman Gray's letter book 1. Ref: MSX-9367.
As I spent the next two weeks photographing the remarkable diaries the immensity of Gray’s Great War experience reached out to me through his magnificent prose. I felt peculiarly proud that I was helping to preserve this man’s words for posterity.
The start of Gray's journey
Raised by a Baptist minister active in the prohibition movement, Gray enlisted in July 1915 while employed as a law clerk in Dunedin. Like his pro-war agitating father, Gray believed in the ‘War for Civilisation’ and he considered his decision to enlist to be a personal act of resistance in the face of German aggression.
Trained at Palmerston North and Trentham, Gray was not an ordinary solder but a medical orderly – a stretcher bearer and hospital worker. On July 17th 1915 he wrote in a letter from the camp at Palmerston North Showgrounds:
I wish you could all be here to see how happy we are. Everything is far beyond our hopes so far, and we are optimistic enough to believe that everything ahead is just as bright.
Gray sailed from Wellington in October 1915 (the march through the city before embarkation ‘was a wonderful experience – the most wonderful of my life I think’) and arrived in Egypt the following month. In Heliopolis Gray battled the flies in his tent and the Australians on the cricket field. These were happy if somewhat frustrating times. He engaged the help of a chameleon in his tent to attack the flies, and the aid of sandy holes in the cricket pitch to attack the Australian batsmen.
Norman Gray’s diaries were not diaries as we would consider them today, they are letter books. Gray would write on the first page – a thin tracing-paper material which would remain in the book. A second carbon-copy page could be torn out and sent home as a letter. Gray wrote both for himself and for his family at home. During his time in Egypt he noted:
Something appeared in orders today which I wish to permanently record. It may be deleted by the censor on your carbon copy, but I will have it in my book...
Gray then notes the details of a man executed for ‘wilful defiance of authority.’ His war experience was becoming darker.
Inside page from Norman Gray's letter book 4. Ref: MSX-9370.
Having envisaged that he would soon be sent to the battle against the Ottoman Empire, Gray found himself still in Egypt during the evacuation of Allied forces from Gallipoli. Reinforcements were badly needed on the Western Front and Gray arrived there in May 1916.
What followed was not the war Gray that had so earnestly believed in, but a period of horror unrivalled before in human history. Three days before the beginning of the Battle of the Somme Gray’s war had already taken a sobering turn. Running into an acquaintance from Dunedin, he learned the details of a raid on the German lines the night before:
I don’t suppose any one of you can imagine Roy shooting three Germans with a revolver at point blank range – but shoot them he did. They had instructions to bring back no more than nine prisoners, and the rest had to go.
"Do you think it all like this?"
By this time I was completely caught up in Gray’s story. I brought my partner to the Turnbull Library on a wet autumn Saturday and together we trawled through the other collection items of Norman Gray in the warmth of the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room. There were dinner menus, train tickets, concert programmes, government-produced postcards. There was a stolen army paybook Gray had confiscated from a man he helped to arrest for desertion. There was a piece of coloured cloth likely cut from a German army uniform.
There was a letter personally though perhaps inexpertly translated from German into English.
Alsleben. Sept 6th 1916
My Beloved kind hearted Karl,
Now I am going to answer your kind letter, My darling it grieves me to hear that you are billeted in a barn with only a little hard straw to rest your weary limbs on... imagine yourself as being at home with me. Oh if only this might be once more for me. Yes if only this frightful war would come to an end but alas there are always more enemies for us. You will soon be fed up with it too as I have heard already from various quarters others are. My cousins husband (who is a cheerful brave man) has written to her the day before yesterday that it is going on in a very depressive way, so much so that they will not be able to stand it much longer. If he had not a wife and children at home who anxiously await his return, he would long ago have blown out his brains. He added to the letter to his wife, God and our prayers no longer avail anything. He has lost all hope.
Now my kind good husband do you think it all like this? I hope not Dear Karl. We will pray too for you constantly and intreat God in his mercy to bring you safely home again...
...as you did not write to me for some time I thought you were angry with me and to live without you seems to be like having my head cut off and being obliged to still live on...
I have asked God to send me all the suffering that my beloved husband might have to endure. And so I take my suffering as an answer to this prayer. What are we not ready to do out of love so long as all comes right in the end...
In the night of Monday and Tuesday I had a great deal of pain... Yesterday in my fever my brother who was with me, said that I kept calling for you, I was still with you and as I recovered consciousness I found my thoughts not altogether clear. It will not be any better with you my own dearest...
A thousand greetings and kisses from your own eternally devoted
This is what diaries and letters can give us today – not an overview of the war, but a single man’s reason for war; not a background on why the Allies fought the Central Powers, but why one man from Dunedin ended up in the mud of northern France, and what he found there.
We hear of the gallantry, the fear, and the long, plodding marches. We hear about the lice in the seams of a coat. We hear about the inadvertent mutterings of a general who has lost most of his men in another futile attack. We hear about the clinging mud. We hear of the way a man feels lying awake in the night as he hears in the distance the great guns of the front lines for the first time.
And with the diaries of Norman Gray we also see the psychological changes wrought by three years of living through a catastrophic conflict on the other side of the world.
Henry Armytage Sanders, an advanced dressing station, Western Front, 19 Oct 1917. Ref: 1/2-012928-G.
Gray at the Somme
The most disturbing of Gray’s diary entries date from the 1916 Battle of the Somme, which resulted in over one million casualties. Serving as a stretcher bearer in the front lines (a task for which he later won the Military Medal for ‘the greatest courage’), Gray wrote on July 20th after 24 hours of non-stop toil:
They sent us... to report to the medical officers up in the support trenches. The communication trench is 100 yards from this place, and we were soon in it, ducking where shells had blown the parapet in, and dodging holes in the duckboard. It was a gloomy procession that passed us, men broken in the fight, some crying, others clutching at us and begging us to help the men still out in ‘no man’s land’... for a mile the trench led on...
The site of the first line of trenches beggars any description. A handful of men in every stage of exhaustion was ‘holding’ this section of the Great British front. Dead and wounded were everywhere in every imaginable state of awfulness. Great shell holes had torn the ground, and rifles, bombs, ammunition, rations, all the impedimenta of an army littered every foot immediately behind the parapet. Men were sleeping anywhere, lying beside helpless comrades wounded for twenty hours, and crying for water. Not a medical officer was there...
Most of the [wounded] cases from 1 a.m. onwards were from no man’s land. About five of them had been out for sixty hours, and three were in the last stages of collapse... One big sergeant was lying on his stretcher waiting for the car, and as his rescuers left him, he broke down, sobbing like a child... One man had both his hips broken and crushed, and he crawled for 100 yards to our trench and reached it before his will gave out.
From an initial strength of 1010 men in one battalion, Gray notes that in the night only 132 answered the roll call – "An awful toll!"
Henry Armytage Sanders, wounded World War I soldier being cared for at a field hospital, 1914-1918. Ref: 1/1-002083-G.
"How I long again & again to be with you"
Wounded late in 1917 and also suffering mentally (‘windy’ he called it), Gray was not returned to the line. Instead, by now an acting Captain, he served for a period as an adjutant at Etaples Camp.
1st January, 1918.
My own dear people...
It is New Year’s Day – the third away from you. We all feel that this terrible business must end this year, even if we are beaten. It is beyond human endurance to stand more.
Just heaps of love for everyone. I am so longing for letters.
By 1918 Norman Gray seems to have kept no more diaries. Instead, his few letters home suggest only a desire to survive and to return. His literary flourishes, so rich in the diary before the Western Front, are now very few.
1 March 1918
Just heaps of love to every one of you. The photos are splendid & make me long to be back with you. God speed the day.
12 March 1918
Oh, when will it end?
27 May 1918
How I long again & again to be with you...
This was what became of Norman Gray’s initial enthusiasm for ‘the great adventure’. His war, like many others, started with hope and vigour. It ended in almost unimaginable toil, blood and horror. Gray did return to New Zealand, but in poor health. He remained proud of his war service until his death from tuberculosis, aged 44. He was survived by his wife and three children.
Three great-grandfathers from my own family fought in the war, at Gallipoli and the Somme. One of them, after experiencing the reality of the conflict, wrote a letter home entreating his family to prevent his younger brother from enlisting. Like so many younger brothers George Wyatt didn’t heed the advice and enlisted, serving in same regiment as Norman Gray. He died, like so many others, in the mud-soaked apocalypse of the Western Front in November 1917.
In a way, Gray’s diaries were my own ‘great adventure’. For a few weeks, in the air-conditioned comfort of the National Library building in Wellington, the intensity of the words carried me back over 100 years to the experiences of the man who had lived them.
Isn’t that, at least in part, what the Turnbull Library is all about?
The Randolph Norman Gray collections
For more of the Randolph Norman Gray collections see MS-Group-2302. As part of Camus’ digitisation project the letter books are now available to view online, aiding researchers and helping to protect the original manuscripts.
Randolph Gray, Archives New Zealand, AALZ 25044 Box 3/F1247