Pte Charles Gray, 15th Highland Light Infantry

Pte Charles Gray, 15th Highland Light Infantry

Charles Duncan Gray was born at Sunside, Wardhouse in the Parish of Kennethmont on 30th June 1896, the youngest son of James and Ellen Gray. He had five elder brothers and two younger sisters and was known to his family and friends as Charlie. His father was tenant in the farm of Sunside on the Wardhouse Estate. He had worked for and later took over the tenancy of Sunside from his aunt Margaret Howie in the late 1890's. The Howie family had farmed Sunside since before 1841.

Between the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914 and May 1916 is is known that Charlie was initially in the Royal Field Artillery, number 143793 and enlisted in Aberdeen. A photo of him in Regular Army R.F.A. uniform is below. For some reason, possibly relating to his age or health, he must have been discharged and returned to civilian life and in 1916 he was employed in the office of Mr Duguid, Advocate, Union St, Aberdeen.

May 1916 saw universal conscription come into effect with a Military Service Act applying to all men regardless of marital status between 18 and 41 years. According to his diary Charles received his call up papers on Friday May 19th, reported next day and was then given a weekend pass home to Kennethmont. He left for Glasgow in the early hours of Monday and reported to Maryhill Barracks, the regimental headquarters of the Highland Light Infantry (H.L.I.), at 6am and joined "C" Company, 15th (Service) Battalion (1st Glasgow) HLI.


1916 diary


15th H.L.I. was known as the Glasgow Tramways Battalion. When the battalion was raised by the Lord Provost and City of Glasgow on 2nd September 1914 the vast majority it's volunteers came from the Glasgow Tramways. They arrived in France in November 1915. He began his basic training at Maryhill and was then transferred to Montrose on 20th June having received his inoculations, etc. He was paid 8/- (40p) a week and billeted at Union Mills. On 22nd July he was home for a weekend and started musketry training on 14th August.

As the move to the Front became imminent he was home for the last time on five days embarkation leave commencing 1st September 1916. His battalion moved to Folkestone on the 27th arriving there at 6am next morning. By four in the afternoon they were in France and moved from the port of Boulougne to Base Camp at Etaples next day. After further training at Etaples they finally went into the line in the Arras sector on October 10th at Busnes, near Bethune.


Gunner Charles Gray, RFA

Gunner Charles Gray, R.F.A.


Private Charles Gray, 15th HLI

Pte Charles Gray, 15th H.L.I.


The Hindenburg Line, April 1917
Click on image to view large map.

15th H.L.I. were involved in the actions during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line (14 Mar-5 Apr 1917). The German defences of the Hindenburg Line ran from a position east of Arras to near St Quentin on the British sector. The Germans withdrew to these defensive positions.

The Hindenburg Line, or Siegfried Stellung as they called it, was a vast system of defences in Northern France constructed by the Germans during the winter of 1916-17. It ran from the area around Arras all the way to beyond St Quentin, and consisted of deep and wide trenches, thick belts of barbed wire, concrete machine-gun positions, concrete bunkers, tunnels and command posts. It was considered virtually impregnable by the Germans. The British offensives of late 1917 and 1918 were to prove otherwise.

On the day of his death on April 2 Charlie, in "C" Company, 15th H.L.I, with the 14th Brigade, arrived in the Bois-de-Savy (Savy Wood) on the East of Saint Quentin about 3 on the morning to take up attack positions. The objectives were Holnon and Francilly-Selency, still nearer to St. Quentin on the oblique line of the drive north-east across the town's western approaches. The 1st Dorsets on the left had to seize Holnon. The 2nd Manchesters had to go direct at Francilly, "B" Company of the 15th H.L.I. in support, with orders to consolidate the eastern edge of Francilly. Two other companies of the 15th on the right, "C" and "D" Companies, were to capture the height which runs roughly east from the village. This high ground was to have been taken by the 96th Brigade which had failed. Two platoons of "A" Company were employed as R.E. working parties and a third platoon as Battalion reserve.

At 4.55 a.m. the British artillery laid down a heavy barrage on the village which lasted five minutes. Then the 14th Brigade attacked. The stormers were violently assailed by machine gun fire along the entire front but they swept on purposefully and laid hold of the allotted positions, taking numerous prisoners. "D" Company of the H.L.I. captured three machine guns in a quarry. The 2nd Manchesters were fired at point blank by a battery of six German field guns situated on a slope some hundred yards to the east of Francilly which was in the hands of that Midland battalion.

Francilly-Selency area map

The gunners decamped, however, under the fusilade of rifle and machine gun fire, abandoning their pieces, whereupon the Manchesters dug their line so as to command the battery position. The 15th H.L.I. had few casualties in the actual assault, but about 6.15 a.m. the Germans opened a severe bombardment, smashing shells into Francilly and battering the heights. On this wet and dreary morning "B" and "C" Companies were frenziedly digging to consolidate. The shelling went on all day but did not turn the companies from the construction of very fine trenches. They dug and dug with shell-bursts all around them, dug for dear life. But they suffered 40 casualties before they had prepared a position in which to resist counter-attack.

15 HLI Diary entry.
April 2. Bois-de-Savy. Attack and capture of Francilly.
Casualties for April : Officers, 2 killed, 3 wounded; other ranks, 42 killed, 124 wounded.


It is not known whether Charlie was killed during the attack on the ridge at Francilly or during the later shelling of their trenches. He and seventeen of his comrades who died that day were buried in a grave near the railway line beside the Holnon - Savy road in the battlefield cemetery that was to become known as Savy Wood North Cemetery. It's 44 burials were subsequently all moved to Savy British Cemetery in 1920.

The grave of members of 15th HLI killed 2 April 1917


NCO's & Men of 15th HLI.
Killed in Action.

1395 Cpl T Miller
13539 Cpl G Bertram

13753 L/Cpl C Crabb
42062 L/Cpl D Third

40656 R McFarlane
13866 R Kettles
33338 W Ferrier
42801 W Ewing
27393 C Gray
42277 F McNiven

41150 D Pollock
40650 J C King
41273 P Allen
42168 W Cairns
40595 T Henegan
3089 F Kerr



The original grave and marker by the Holnon - Savy Road with the railway embankment to the left. The photo was supplied to his father by The Graves Registration Service in late 1917.


The Next of Kin Memorial Plaque and Scroll The 1914 or Mons Star The British War Medal The Victory Medal

The Memorial Plaque

The Memorial Plaque

This circular bronze plaque, 4.75 inches (120mm) in diameter, was first issued in 1919 to the next of kin of those British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their lives on active service during the Great War. Each one was different in that the commemorated individuals name was embossed in raised letters within a tablet.

The design shows Britannia bestowing a laurel wreath on the rectangular tablet. A lion stands in the foreground, with dolphins above and an oak branch in the lower right. A lion cub clutching a fallen eagle in its jaws decorates the exergue. The wording around the circumference states:

The final total manufactured is estimated to be in the vicinity of 1,150,000 units, and represented the most universally distributed numismatic work ever cast or struck, excluding money.

Due to some similarity with the old one pence coin it was commonly known as a Dead Man's or Death Penny.

The Memorial Scroll and King's letter.

The tube and contents

Next of Kin Memorial Scroll

The Memorial Scroll

The Scroll measures 180 mm by 280 mm and was printed from hand-cut wood blocks, the design and production supervised by the London County Council School of Arts. Printing of the scrolls started in January 1919. The scroll was sent out in a cardboard tube, accompanied by a letter from King George V.

King George V letter

The King's letter to next of kin

The printed covering letter bearing a facsimile of the King's signature.

The memorial plaque and scroll, sometimes embellished by the deceased soldier's war medals, were proudly displayed in hundreds of thousands of homes after the First World War. This represented a link with the Fallen, many of whom had no known grave in the country where they fell.

Memorial card Click to view large image of card


It was the practice of the time to commemorate a death on a Memorial or Death Card. The card on the left is tri-fold and double sided ( both sides shown). It bears a picture of Charles, details of his death and a verse.
They would have been given to family members and friends.


Click on the card it to view a full size image.



Charles Gray was awarded these medals for serving his King and Country in The Great War.

British War and Victory Medals
Move mouse over medals to view reverse

The British War Medal (left and Victory Medal (right) were awarded to all personnel.

The Victory Medal The British War Medal


The British War Medal 1914-1918
The medal takes the form of a solid silver medal with an image of a mounted figure of St George trampling the shield of the central powers with the dates 1914 and 1918 thereon. At the base is a skull and crossbones, symbolic of death, whilst above is the rising sun of victory. The reverse has the coinage head of George V.



Victory Medal 1914 - 1919
It was decided amongst the Allies that a common theme would be adopted and that each country would produce a medal to commemorate the Victory. This medal took various forms according to the country but a common item was the rainbow coloured ribbon. The British medal shows the winged victory on the front holding a palm branch in her right hand with the left outstretched. The reverse has the words "The Great War for Civilisation" surrounded by a laurel wreath.

The pair were affectionately known as "Mutt and Jeff".


Gray headstone, Insch Kirkyard

Gray family headstone at Insch Kirkyard


Insch Old Kirk and graveyard

The ruins of the original Insch Kirk with the
Gray family grave in the foreground.


The family headstone at Insch Kirkyard has details of Charles.

Pte Charles Duncan
Fell in action in France
2nd April 1917 aged 20


Photographed March 2002

The Victory Medal The British War Medal


James and Helen Gray, Sunside, Kennethmont

James and Ellen Gray, Sunside.

Family photographs, letters and medals are reproduced here
by kind permission of his nephew Robert Smith, Sunside.