Corporal Albert Clay: a wounded WW1 soldier’s journey from the Western Front to the Royal Pavilion Estate

The centenary of the Pavilion Military Hospital for limbless soldiers (1916-1920) is currently commemorated in our exhibition Pavilion Blues: Disability and Identity. In this post, researcher, Jo Palache, tells the story of how one patient, Corporal Albert Clay, came to be treated at the hospital and how she came to find out about his story.

Whilst researching for the current exhibition, I have been looking for stories of the people who were treated at the hospital and the staff who cared for them. I was particularly eager to learn about the critical days before amputees arrived in Brighton, but I found little information on this until I heard the story of Corporal Albert Clay.

His son and grand-daughter, John and Yvonne Clay, had not known that Albert was treated at the Royal Pavilion when they booked places on a First World War tour of the estate. It was only once they arrived that they realised that three of their photographs of Albert were taken in the Royal Pavilion Garden.

Albert (far right) wearing the hospital 'blues' uniform with two fellow patients outside the Dome. Lent by John Clay
Albert (far right) wearing the hospital ‘blues’ uniform with two fellow patients outside the Dome. Lent by John Clay

Albert was a young grocer’s assistant living with his family in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, when the First World War began. He had been on active service in France and Belgium for seven months before being wounded by shrapnel. A series of letters and army forms reveal something of Albert’s condition and his treatment over the following weeks.

Albert had kept a number of documents relating to the time he was injured. Of particular interest were the letters that traced Albert’s journey from being wounded at Ypres, Belgium, to returning to the UK. A letter from Sister Graham of the 2nd Canadian Clearing Station describes the treatment that followed his arrival on the night of 15th February 1917:

‘He was operated upon at once by the surgeon specialist and the wounds cleaned to try and save the leg. We almost thought for a little while that it could be saved, but it started to hemorrhage causing his already weak condition to become weaker. On the 22nd the surgeon specialist asked for some one to give some blood to be transfused into your son. As usual these men always offer and a healthy man from the Flying Corps was chosen. After the transfusion Corporal Clay was in much better condition and it was thought best to amputate the leg.’

Unfortunately the wound became septic and Albert’s condition remained serious. It took over three weeks to stabilise his condition enough to transfer him to a hospital in Boulogne and from there to the UK and the Pavilion Military Hospital. During this time the war diary refers to treating hundreds of casualties and suffering ‘heavy bombardment’, yet even under these conditions the Chaplain writes that Albert is ‘a splendid patient and a great inspiration to the other men.’

The letter from Sister Graham to Albert's mother. Lent by John Clay
The letter from Sister Graham to Albert’s mother. Lent by John Clay

Albert’s condition remained serious and three operations followed in Brighton, but he survived and passed on his story and photographs of his experience. One was of Albert in bed inscribed ‘Last operation and still smiling’ (see below).

Albert Clay (far right) with a dome protecting his legs after the operation. Lent by John Clay
Albert Clay (far right) with a dome protecting his legs after the operation. Lent by John Clay

Albert went on to live an active life, but he kept the documents that record the treatment that saved his life. His family is particularly grateful to the Canadian nurse, Sister Graham, who had kept his mother so well informed, and Yvonne Clay has travelled to Canada to find out more about her.

Over six thousand patients were treated at the Pavilion Military Hospital. It is through stories like this that we hope to learn more of the human experience behind the statistics.

Jo Palache, Oral History and Life History Researcher

If you have any information on the Pavilion Military Hospital or would like to know more, please contact me at jo.palache@brighton-hove.gov.uk.

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