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‘We are here for one purpose, and some, alas! must fall.’

ABOVE: MEMORIAL AT FROMELLES

In 2015 Scotch College commemorated the 46 former students and staff who died as a result of military service 100 years earlier. This year we are commemorating the 53 Scotchies who died at war in 1916. This article pays tribute to two young men killed within a few years of leaving Scotch. Clark Maxwell (Max) Gray (1915) and Graham Rodgers (‘Ned’) Cox (1912) both died in the Battle of Fromelles, in which on 19 and 20 July 1916 more than 5000 Australians of the 5th Division were killed or wounded.

Clark Maxwell (Max) Gray (1915)

CLARK MAXWELL (MAX) GRAY

Max Gray was born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1896. At the outbreak of war his father, William, was Principal of Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Melbourne. Max attended Scotch from 1912 to 1915. He played 2nds tennis and won several academic prizes. He was a prefect in 1914 and 1915.

Max was just 18 on enlisting, and his occupation was given as ‘school boy’. His parents had to give him written permission to enlist. He was no stranger to the military, for he had experience in Cadets and the Citizen Military Forces.

In November 1915 Max joined the 6th Battalion as a Corporal on Gallipoli. He wrote home vividly about arriving there at night. He told of enjoying swimming amid enemy shellfire, how the Anzac defences were ‘like ground bored by rabbits’, mentioned the ominous onset of winter rain, and matter-of-factly explained how a bullet had struck his temple but, as it was spent, inflicted only a bruise.

On 5 December he was appointed Lance-Sergeant and, after returning to Egypt with his unit, promoted to full Sergeant. In February 1916 Max was transferred to the newly-formed 58th Battalion, part of the new 5th Division. He was soon appointed a 2nd Lieutenant: an impressive rise for a 19-year-old. Max wrote home about a 32-mile long march that the unit made over two days in thermometer-bursting heat in Egypt, an event famous in the division’s history.

The battalion arrived in France on 23 June 1916. Less than a month later, on 19 July 1916, at Fromelles, Max was reported ‘wounded and missing’, on the bloodiest single day in Australia’s military history. That day the 58th Battalion lost almost one-third of its strength. In 1917 Max was officially declared ‘killed in action’. Soon after his death a fellow 58th Battalion officer, Lieutenant William Scurry (who was decorated for inventing the self-firing rifle used at Gallipoli), wrote in a letter reproduced in The Scotch Collegian: ‘Max has paid a soldier’s big price, and you are left with all the pride that he was an officer and a gentleman ... We lived together out there on the scorching sand; we swam, rode and talked together, and always I was the gainer by our friendship … He died, as, if it is so decreed, we would all choose to die, in front of his men and facing East.’ Scurry was himself severely wounded shortly afterwards, losing much of his eyesight.

The Red Cross created a ‘wounded and missing file’ for Max. Typically, this contains contradictory rumours about his fate. Eyewitnesses say variously that he was shot in the chest, taken prisoner, hit in the thigh and stomach, and hit by machine-gun fire. They agree that he was a good man. In one file an orderly says Gray was commonly called ‘Dolly Gray’, that he was ‘a very fine fellow’ and ‘popular with the men’.

Lieutenant George Wood, former Scotch teacher and a 58th Battalion officer, wrote to the school in 1917 that among the many Scotchies and other servicemen he was meeting on the Western Front, ‘C.M. Gray, of the P.L.C., was very highly spoken of, both as a good fellow and as a good officer’.

Graham Rogers (‘Ned’) Cox (1912

GRAHAM RODGERS (NED) COX

Ned Cox’s path to Fromelles originated at Wedderburn in 1895. His father, William, was a Presbyterian minister. Ned attended Scotch from 1910 to 1912. According to the Collegian the boys ‘thought him a bit of a rough diamond when he arrived at Scotch’, but soon ‘found out his real worth’. In 1911 he was in the school’s football premiership-winning team.

He was in the 1st XVIII again in 1912, when he was also a prefect. Stan Neale (1912), who was School Captain in 1912 and an army Captain in 1916, said of Cox: ‘Ned was at school with me, and we played football in the same team, and I knew his worth – a boy in a thousand.’

Ned’s parents gave the 20-year-old electrician the necessary permission to enlist in June 1915. He was just 5 feet 3.5 inches (161cm) tall, which only just met the requirements. Ned served with the famous 14th Battalion on Gallipoli until he fell ill with fever. He was in the 15th Brigade Machine-Gun Company by June 1916, when he left Egypt for France. There he joined the 59th Battalion, presumably as part of a machine-gun detachment and definitely at the suggestion of that battalion’s Captain Stan Neale, mentioned above.

Ned’s Red Cross file contains two accounts by men who saw him dead. One said he saw him buried at Fromelles and recalled of this ‘short fair headed chap’ that ‘I heard him say he used to go to Scotch College, Melbourne’. The other eyewitness account, by Quartermaster Sergeant Browne of Ned’s company, said that Cox and another five machine-gunners in one party had been killed by a single shell, all with head wounds. They were buried together in a large grave. Earlier they had been singing A Perfect Day.

Browne described Ned Cox as a ‘real sport and an excellent chap being very popular.’ He said he was a fine athlete and footballer, ‘educated at a Melb. Public. School’.

A letter from Lance Corporal Walter Downing in the 1916 Scotch Collegian praised Ned and other Old Boys killed that year as popular and reliable. He had been with Ned a great deal in Egypt, on the transport and in the trenches, and said that his instantaneous death spared him ‘the pain of which we have seen so much.’

In May 1917 Ned’s parents received a parcel of his effects: an identity disc, wallet, dictionary, safety razor and photos. On the receipt for those effects, his father wrote from Nagambie: ‘We have received the above and beg to acknowledge with deep appreciation the effort which made it possible. Our son’s effects are shell-torn but more precious to us than infinite gold.’

At the age of 21, Ned Cox was buried at Fleurbaix. Like three other Scotch Collegians killed at Fromelles, Max Gray has no known grave, as his body was never found. He is commemorated at the VC Corner Memorial at Fromelles.

In an echo of Lieutenant Scurry’s comment about Max, Captain Stan Neale wrote in a letter that Ned Cox ‘died as he would have chosen.’ There was no suggestion here of the soldiers’ doubts so common in the received wisdom about World War I. Military service surely wrought changes in Max and Ned, but both reportedly remained committed to their cause and jobs until the very end.

Neale concluded philosophically about Cox: ‘We are here for one purpose, and some, alas! must fall.’ That purpose, defeating militaristic imperialism, was worthy, but all too many would fall, including Stan Neale himself.

More details about Max Gray, Ned Cox, and all other Scotch Collegians killed in World War I can be found on the Scotch website, under ‘WWI Commemorative website’ on the lower right of the home page.

DR MARK JOHNSTON – HEAD OF HISTORY

Updated: 3 October 2016