The short life of a Great War hero

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William George Gray was just 17 when he left his Cocking home and enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery as a driver soon after war was declared.

He could not have imagined the horror which awaited him when he said goodbye to his mother and father, Loveden and Alice Gray, at their home, 193 Cocking on the corner of Crypt Lane.

The family had moved to Cocking from Chichester when Loveden got a job as a maltster.

The malthouse stood on the main road, just north of Crypt Lane, and produced malt for the brewery behind the Angel Hotel in Midhurst, run by Messrs Parker and Popplewell.

And it was here that William spent his short life, growing up with his six brothers and sisters and watching his father play cricket. Loveden, a keen player, was the opening bowler and batsman for the Cowdray Esate XI.

But his carefree days were short-lived when William was posted to northern France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in July 1915, having been promoted to a gunner.

His parents must have been proud back home when he earned the Military Medal in July 1917, awarded for acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire’.

He received the medal for trying to rescue an injured officer during battle, but there was heartbreak for the family when the young man was killed in action in Belgium just three months later on October 15, 1917 at the age of 19.

He was a member of 221st Trench Mortar Battery at the time of his death and was buried at Huts Cemetery at Dickebusch in Belgium.

Gunner Gray’s is just one of many hundreds of moving stories.

Many of the area’s young men were buried abroad.

Others, like Charles Ryan, who also lived in Cocking, made it home after the war, but their lives were never the same again.

Charles was 23 when he left his mother and father, Charles and Eleanor, at their Manor Cottage home.

He joined the Royal Engineers and was the victim of gas poisoning.

He died from his wounds after the war on March 18, 1920 and is buried in Cocking churchyard. There are more stories of gallantry and tragedy on every war memorial.

At South Harting, Emma and William Soal lost two sons, Arthur and William.

Arthur was killed in action at Vermelles on November 9 1915, aged 24. His brother died a year later at home from his wounds.

There are families still living in the Observer area whose grandfathers’ names appear on their village war memorials.

At Stedham, the name of former parish council chairman Eddie Lintott’s grandfather, Horace, appears on the wooden memorial tablet in St James Church.

“Every year at the Remembrance Service, ” said Eddie, “I am reminded why my middle name is Horace.”

His grandfather, who ran the Gnu village pub (now a private home, The Ale House) with his grandmother Ethel, served with the 1st Reserve Battalion, the Royal Engineers.

He died from his wounds in Aldershot hospital on April 27, 1917 and is buried in Stedham parish church.

The grandfather of well-known Midhurst historians Tim and Dave Rudwick, Harold, returned from the war and lived until the 1980s, working at the family business, now the home of Midhurst Museum.

Harold served in North Africa where he was hit in the head by shrapnel and sent home.

Anyone who is interested in taking part in the project or who has information, articles or photographs which may help the team in its researches, should contact Ian Buckingham on 01798 860899 or ian@smithbrook.plus.com or Pat Bryant on 01730 812801 or pat.bryant121@btinternet.com

Please also contact the Observer with details of any commemoration events being held in your village.

THE Observer is joining forces with the Midhurst U3A, which has decided to support local communities by searching out the stories of the huge number of men and women from the area who were casualties of the first world war.

Midhurst, Petworth and the surrounding villages all have at least one war memorial. This is where the team’s research will start.

“We hope to be able to look far deeper than has been possible before into the backgrounds of the casualties on the memorials and the impacts of their deaths, ” said Pat Bryant, a member of the team.

“We will be searching out details of the families of the casualties; their military service; where, when and how they died; and the impact their deaths had on their families and their communities.”

Initially the Midhurst U3A team will be covering the parishes of Bepton, Cocking, Lodsworth, Midhurst, Petworth, Rogate, Stedham with Iping and West Lavington, but they hope later to extend this to Easebourne and other villages.

“However more volunteers will be needed to do this, ” added Pat.

“A great deal of work has previously been undertaken around the country and rather more has been undertaken in our area, particularly by Chris Comber for the Roll of Honour website.

“All of this will feed into the team’s researches.

“They will also be helped and inspired by books and articles already published by others, particularly the excellent A Richer Dust by Michael Oakland, based on his many years’ research of the Lurgashall war memorial.”

Midhurst U3A plans to produce a one to two-page story of each casualty, as well as an account of the building of each war memorial.

These will be available during 2014 to churches, schools and communities to help them prepare for commemorative services and displays.

But they will also become a permanent part of local and national archives.

“Indeed we will be sharing the results of our work with the Imperial War Museum’s War Memorials Archive and West Sussex County Council’s Great War Project, led by Emma White of West Sussex Libraries, ” said Pat.

“Many of the members of the Midhurst U3A team are experienced genealogists who will be applying the expertise they have learnt in researching their own families.”