Published: 15:30, 21 June 2021
| Updated: 13:54, 22 June 2021
A boy soldier who signed up under age to serve in the First World War has been remembered during a service to rededicate his grave after it had become lost and forgotten.
Gillingham lad Ernest Dray was just 15-years-old when he joined the army in 1915 and saw battle in the Middle East the following year and on the Western Front in 1918.
He had claimed to be 19-years-old – men had to be aged 18 to sign up or be conscripted – when he enlisted into the Royal East Kent Mounted Rifles in Canterbury on June 7, 1915.
Private Dray was later awarded a commendation certificate for displaying "gallant conduct and constant devotion to duty" during the Battle of Beersheba in southern Israel on October 31, 1917 – a month after turning 18.
The citation was signed by Pte Dray's commanding officer, Lt Col Ponsonby, after the battle which saw British, Indian, Rhodesian, Australian and New Zealand forces attack Turkish troops from the Ottoman Empire at the start of the Southern Palestine Offensive in the Sinai and Palestinian campaign.
Ernest was released from the army in 1919 and joined the Royal Irish Constabulary – aka the Black and Tans on account of their police and army surplus khaki uniforms – the following June describing himself as an ex-soldier.
While on patrol in Midleton in County Cork, Ernest was shot and fatally wounded during an IRA ambush on December 29, 1920. He died of his wounds aged just 21 in military hospital on New Year's Eve.
His body was repatriated and buried in Gillingham on January 6, 1921 and he was posthumously awarded the Royal Irish Constabulary Medal for Gallantry.
Last year, the medal came up for sale and members of the Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry Association (KSYA) wanted to find Ernest's lost grave.
Having trawled through archive documents with the help of the Medway Council burials team, eventually Ernest's grave was found.
The plot in the cemetery had become unknown over time after the original headstone and markers for the grave belonging to Ernest, his sister Gertrude Pack who died in 1923 and mother Sarah Ann who passed away in 1925, were lost.
His father, William Dray, a blacksmith is also buried in the cemetery in an unmarked grave.
The family lived at number 6 Unity Cottages in Gardiner Street and Ernest, born on September 30, 1899 was the couple's sixth child.
A rededication service was held at the Woodlands cemetery in Gillingham about a mile from Ernest's family home last Thursday.
Now a new gravestone, which was funded by KSYA and its members, is in place commemorating the soldier, his mother and sister.
The service was attended by representatives and Ernest's great, great nephew, Peter Dray.
It was conducted by Lt Col the Rev Canon Paul Wright, sub dean for HM Chapels Royal and attended by Lt Col Mark Hodson, chairman of KSYA, Lt Col Matthew Webb of the Royal Yeomanry, Maj Brenda Traylen MBE, Lt Tim Rayson, KSYA secretary.
A bugler was also present to play the Last Post and Reveille.
Lt Rayson said after the event: "I personally felt a sense of fulfilment that I had found this missing member of our regimental family and ensured that he was no longer lost to us.
"I was also delighted that we have brought together Ernest's family in Canada and the UK who were unknown to each other until now."
The Kent and Sharpshooters Yeomanry is the modern day successor to the Royal East Kent Mounted Rifles with whom Ernest served in the First World War.
The unit has two active squadrons in the British Army held in reserve. The Light Cavalry is based in Croydon under the Royal Yeomanry and the other stationed at Bexleyheath under the 71st Signals Regiment.