One of the amazing things about researching the Berry and Co portraits is that with each identification comes new insight into World War 1. The stories behind the people and their experiences make what happened during the war more real and personal. One image in particular pulled at my heart-strings this month, that of John Owen Clay and his involvement in the Battle of the Somme.
Sergeant John Clay had fought extensively in France where he was wounded several times. His medical records show that he received medical treatment in Alexandria and Estaples but it was the last entry on his medical record that linked the experiences of John to one of New Zealand’s most devastating battles – the Battle of The Somme, September 1916.
The Somme was New Zealand’s first major engagement on the Western Front, beginning with an advance across ‘No Man’s Land’ at 6.20am on 15 September. The NZ Division fought for 23 consecutive days in bad weather conditions and suffered heavy losses. There were 7000 casualties with 1500 men killed. John was there and was one of those injured.
His military medical report documents that on the 25 September John received a compound fracture of the skull. The record states, ‘While in a bayonet charge he was struck by a bullet, sustaining an extensive depression over posterior frontal region’. John was lucky to survive, but after a period of recovery he was discharged from service in April 1917.
It appears that John lived in the Wellington region after the war, he may have gone back to his old job working for the New Zealand Railways in Trentham. He died at the Silverstream Hospital in July 1968 aged 81 years old. His next-of-kin at the time of his death was Mrs B Clay who was possibly his wife.
John lived a long life and it would be great to know more about what happened next. This is the next stage of the project and to help with this we now have two wonderful researchers from the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists using their research skills and networks to flesh out the stories of the people we identify in these portraits. We now have about 30 soldiers as well as their family identified and are starting to build up quite a fascinating collection of stories.