Vivienne Gayfer has very kindly shared this poignant First World War story with us about her great grandfather Frederick and great uncle Hubert, brothers who both served in the conflict. Vivienne tells the following story.
In the picturesque village of Broom in Bedfordshire, in the early years of the 20th Century, Ebenezer and Matilda Gray were bringing up their family of boys in a way that had not really changed for generations.
The Gray family had lived in the area from at least 1640, the men working almost exclusively on the land, farming the market garden crops for which Bedfordshire is famous.
On the night of the 1911 census Ebenezer, who was a ‘horse keeper’, and Matilda were at home with four of their five sons – Albert aged 21, Hubert aged 16 and William aged 14, all described as ‘market garden workers’ and their baby, Herbert, aged two. The fifth son, Frederick, was staying nearby at the home of his grandparents Alfred and Elizabeth Cain. He was 19 at this time and described as a ‘domestic gardener’.
As we know, this peaceful existence was not to last much longer.
Hubert, it seems, joined the army before the outbreak of World War I, serving in the Essex Regiment with the rank of lance corporal. He then transferred to the 1st Bedfordshire Regiment, serving in France, where he was awarded the Military Medal. He must have got home on
leave, as he married Elsie Vintiner of Caldecote early in 1917. (After the war Elsie’s sister, Beatrice, married Hubert’s brother William, who also served in France, sustaining a hand injury.)
On September 27, 1918 as the Germans retreated, the 1st Bedfordshires were attacked by a bombing party in the afternoon and seven officers and 19 other ranks were lost. Lance Corporal Hubert Ernest Gray M.M was among them. He was 24. He is buried at Vis-en-Artois British Cemetery in Northern France.
The news of Hubert’s death must have come as a dreadful blow to the family at Broom as this was their second tragedy. Hubert’s elder brother, Frederick Arthur had joined the Bedfordshire Regiment 6th Battalion with the rank of Private and had also been killed on April 6 of the same year, aged 26, at the 1st Battle of the Somme 1918 – the Battle of the Ancre together with 12 of his comrades. Frederick had married Ethel Milton of Biggleswade in November 1915 (while the eldest brother Albert had married Ethel’s sister Clara in early 1917).
Frederick’s wife Ethel was informed of his death on April 20. He had been killed by shell fire while burying a comrade. At the time, Ethel was living at home with her parents in Bensons Row (off Shortmead Street) in Biggleswade with their baby son, Harry, who had been born on May 1, 1917.
In the last letter to his wife written four days before his death Frederick wrote:
My Darling Wife
I am just writing you a line or two to say that I am quite well at present but having rather a rough time just now. I hope you and baby are well, please remember me to all at home. Now I must close as I cannot write anymore just now, hoping I shall be spared to see you again.
With fondest love from your everloving husband Fred xxxxxxxxxx
Frederick is buried at Gommecourt British Cemetery in Northern France and his grave was visited recently by his great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.
Frederick’s name, together with that of his brother Hubert appears on Southill War Memorial.
Vivienne continues: “Frederick and Ethel’s son, Harry - their only child - was my father who died in 2008 aged 90. Their descendants now number two granddaughters, five great grandchildren and nine great great grandchildren.
It is almost inconceivable for us today to imagine what it must have been like to lose one son in a war, let alone two and often more with families being decimated in the line of duty.
Thanks go to Vivienne for this timely reminder of a very personal First World War tragedy that echoes so many others.
The two photographs show Private Frederick Arthur Gray standing outside wooden army huts and Lance Corporal Hubert Ernest Gray M.M. in a studio photograph.