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The Mystery of Sergeant Gray and Lieutenant Halliday

On the first day of the Battle of Messines, 7th June 1917, 6 Squadron experienced the highest number of flying casualties for any single day of the First World War, a statistic never matched in the 103 years since the squadron’s formation in 1914. Over a few short hours, four men were killed, three were injured and one was taken prisoner of war. The crew of an aircraft lost that day (RE8 Serial: A3214) were reported as 'Killed in Action', though their bodies were never returned to the Squadron for burial at Lijssent

hoek Military Cemetery, as was often the case. Instead, the final resting place of Sergeant Louis Gray (pilot) became the Aeroplane Cemetery on the road between Ypres and Zonnebeke and that of 2nd Lt Morrice Halliday (Gray's observer), several kilometres to the north at the Poelcappelle Military Cemetery, both cemeteries a long way from the site of the crash in “no-man’s land” near Hill 60. With the help of CWGC's recent release of grave registration documents and other official records, I can now reveal exactly what happened to the two airmen.

Sometime after the RE8 of Sergeant Gray and Lieutenant Halliday was brought down in flames by German anti-aircraft fire, the bodies of the two men were retrieved by the allies and their aircraft destroyed by shellfire to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. At that time, Lt Halliday's body was unable to be identified and he was buried in a makeshift graveyard by the side of the road along with the bodies of six soldiers. The location was 500 metres to the east of the village of Zillebeke on the road leading to Sanctuary Wood (Map Grid Ref: 28.I.23.c.85.60). Only one of the soldiers was identified and none of the graves bore headstones. It is unclear where Sergeant Gray was buried, though it would have been close to the village of Zillebeke, also in a makeshift graveyard. With some 26,000 allied casualties sustained during the first day of the Battle of Messines, the administration of burying the dead would have been given second priority.

The bodies of the two men remained undisturbed until after the war, when the Imperial War Graves Commission determined that the remains of the fallen should not be repatriated to the UK but instead honoured where they fell in properly designed cemeteries, each grave identified with a standardised headstone, no matter the rank of the serviceman. A department was formed in the name of 'Concentration of Graves (Exhumation and Reburials)', whose task it was to exhume the remains from informal roadside burial grounds and small cemeteries and rebury them in existing or newly-created cemeteries. In addition, every effort would be taken to identify those bodies initially designated as an 'Unknown Soldier'.

In accordance with the new directive, on the 14th June 1920, the bodies of sixteen British soldiers (9 ‘unknown’ and 7 identified) as well as 1 Royal Flying Corps sergeant were exhumed from a number of small burial grounds around Zillebeke and reburied collectively in the Aeroplane Cemetery, located to the north-east of Ypres on the N332 road to Zonnebeke (Map Grid Ref: 28.I.05.b.2.8). Sergeant Louis Gray was identified as the Royal Flying Corps sergeant. At the same time, twenty bodies from the Bedford House Cemetery (Enclosure No 5) and twenty-three from the Lock 8 Cemetery (Map Grid Ref: 28.I.26.c - approximately 2.5 kilometres south-west of Zillebeke) were also exhumed and concentrated into the Aeroplane Cemetery. Three years later, on the 31st October 1923, the body of 2nd Lt Halliday and the six soldiers who were buried with him at the informal cemetery east of Zillebeke, were exhumed and transported to the cemetery at Poelkapelle. After further investigations, the identities of four of the seven bodies were determined, including that of Lt Morrice Halliday, and the men were re-buried with appropriate headstones.

The mystery has been solved.


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