Able Seaman William Leonard Clemas

Able Seaman William Leonard Clemas was a New Zealander of Irish birth whose ship was sunk in a gallant little action as part of the Battle of Jutland in 1916. William survived and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of the Germans.

William Leonard Clemas was born on 8 January 1886 in Kilkeel Down, in what is now Northern Ireland and joined the navy as a Boy 2nd Class on 18 June 1901, his 12 year engagement time commencing on his 18th birthday, 8 January 1904. After completing his basic training in HMS Boscawen at Portland he served in no less than 12 ships before joining HMS Nestor in May 1916.

Colour print of the battle of Jutland titled 'The Day Battle'
Colour print of the battle of Jutland titled ‘The Day Battle’

Nestor was an Admiralty M class destroyer which had only been completed in March 1916. The ship displaced just over 1,000 tons, was armed with three 4 inch guns and 4 torpedoes and was capable of steaming at 34 knots. Along with HM Ships Onslow, Nomad and Nicator, Nestor formed the 2nd division of the 13th Destroyer Flotilla. At Jutland, less Onslow which had been detached, the Flotilla formed the screen of the first Battle Cruiser Squadron.

At about 3.30pm the battle cruisers sighted the German battle cruisers and altered course and increased to maximum speed to engage. This left the destroyers astern and in order to regain their screening stations ahead of the battle cruisers they had to steam at over 30 knots between the two opposing forces. Once fire was opened HMS Indefatigable was hit and exploded as the destroyers were passing and shortly afterwards HMS Queen Mary suffered the same fate, taking amongst her ships company, a New Zealander, Stoker Leslie Follett.

As they gained their position ahead of the big ships at about 4.30pm, the destroyers were ordered to attack the German ships, Nestor being senior ship. At 34 knots they altered course towards the enemy and despite being attacked by their German opposite numbers, were able to gain a position from where their torpedoes could be launched. At this time Nomad had been hit and was left astern, but two German destroyers were sunk. Torpedoes were launched and by now the destroyers were coming under fire from the enemy battle cruisers, but which had turned away. The destroyers then turned themselves to rejoin their battle cruisers, but instead encountered German battleships. They manoeuvred into an attacking position, but at this time Nestor was hit in two boilers and lost way, in the process, inadvertently fouling the attack of Nicator. Nicator was ordered to rejoin the battle cruisers and for a short while there was relative calm, until the main body of the German High Seas Fleet appeared and Nestor was quickly sunk. Miraculously only six men were lost from Nestor and the survivors of both Nomad and Nestor were rescued by the Germans and made prisoners of war.

The destroyers then turned themselves to rejoin their battle cruisers, but instead encountered German battleships.

Naval and Merchant Navy rating prisoners of war were imprisoned in a camp at Brandenberg Havel, the officers being sent to another camp and it was here that William was taken. It was a trying time for his family in Wairoa as they were initially informed that their only son had been killed. The camps were built to a basic design of barracks approximately 10m wide and 50m in length to house 250 men. Besides these there were kitchens, theatre hall, a canteen, latrines and a prison facility. Food was basic but was supplemented by Red Cross parcels and occasionally food posted by the family. As the war progressed and the British naval blockade tightened the prisoners, because of their Red Cross parcels, were actually better fed than the guards and the civilian population. Ratings were employed on work details, which around Brandenburg was mainly agricultural.

At the time of the armistice there were over 1,450,000 prisoners of war held by the Germans and it took some months for them all to be repatriated. William survived the war and eventually arrived back in England on 31 January 1919

Shortly after arrival at Brandenburg there was a tragic incident involving one of the Nestor survivors. Able Seaman J.P. Genower was on a barge bringing the prisoners to Brandenburg and which the prisoners were ordered to secure. As it berthed Genower jumped off and in response a German hit him in the face with the muzzle of his rifle, cutting it. Genower was taken to the camp hospital for treatment, but a few days later was taken and put into the camp cells, which at this time also housed five Russian and one French prisoner. The cells were a light timber building which, for no explained reason one morning caught fire. This caused a commotion and the prisoners made their way to the cells, outside which initially was a solitary guard. Genower broke the small window at the end of the building and attempted to climb out but was bayoneted by the guard and fell back inside. More guards arrived with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets and they kept the other prisoners well away from the burning cells. None of the guards dared to open the door without authority of an officer and by the time one arrived, the building was consumed and those inside all dead.

Jutland from HMS New Zealand
Jutland from HMS New Zealand painted by Chief Petty Officer Eddie Fitzgerald

At the time of the armistice there were over 1,450,000 prisoners of war held by the Germans and it took some months for them all to be repatriated. William survived the war and eventually arrived back in England on 31 January 1919. One tangible reminder of his extended naval engagement because of the war, was his receipt of the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal that he eventually received in August 1919, William having been discharged from the Navy on 4 April.