Vivian Clay was the younger son of Dr Challoner Clay, a surgeon and physician, and his wife Annie Kinnard, née Harris. He was born on 18 October 1892 at the family home, the Manor House in Fovant, near Salisbury. He was a pupil at Epsom College from 1904-1909, where he was a keen member of the Officers’ Training Corps. In 1911 he was an ecclesiastical student, perhaps an indication of his intended career. He matriculated at Durham University at Epiphany 1912, being admitted to University College as an Arts student. At Durham he joined its Officers’ Training Corps, keeping the rank he had attained at Epsom College of lance corporal. He satisfied the examiners in the first year, and passed final examinations in 1914, graduating with a B.A. in litteris antiquis. His obituary in the Durham University Journal noted he was a good all-rounder, but excelled at fives, rowing, and shooting. He played for his college in its cricket, fives, rugby and shooting teams, and also for Durham Colleges shooting team.
After graduation he taught mathematics at an Army preparatory school in Plymouth, also commanding a Scout troop.
In April 1915 he was commissioned (on probation) into the Special Reserve of the Wiltshire Regiment, and after training at Weymouth joined the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment in France in August. His rank was confirmed in December 1915, and at the end of the month, during a period of home leave, he became engaged to Flora Mary Elizabeth Penruddocke (1891-1960), the eldest daughter of Charles Penruddock J.P. of Compton Park, Wiltshire. In May 1916 he transferred from the Reserves to the Regular Army, remaining with the 2nd Wiltshires.
This unit served in the front line and reserve trenches as part of the 21st Brigade in the 30th Division on the Somme until the end of July 1916. On the first day of the battle, in an attack on Montauban, a cigarette case in his chest pocket took the force of some shrapnel saving him from serious injury. He was commended for “conspicuous gallantry in the field” at Trones Wood on 8/9 July 1916, an action in which his cousin Second Lieutenant Robert Clay received a Military Cross. On 27 August 1916 Vivian Clay was promoted to temporary captain, whilst commanding a company.
The 2nd Wiltshires returned to the front at the beginning of October, to trenches between Le Sars and Flers. Captain Vivian Clay was killed on 18 October, his twenty-fourth birthday, in an attack on Gird trench and which commenced at 03:40 that day on the German trenches near Bapaume. The British attack comprised units of 21st Brigade, the 2nd Wiltshires, the 15th King’s (Liverpool), the 2nd Yorks, and the 19th Manchesters. The battalion’s war diary reports that while their attack was largely unsuccessful, Clay’s company had some initial success.
B Coy advanced but lost direction, and part of the Coy under Capt V. H. CLAY crossed the SUNKEN ROAD and got into the first German lines. They bombed up a communication trench, but were driven back before a block could be made.
They again bombed up this trench, but were again driven back on account of the shortage in bombs. On being reinforced by the [5th] Camerons of the 26th Brigade 9th Division this trench was captured and a block made. The first line trench captured in conjunction with the 9th Division, of which we held a part, was consolidated, Capt V. H. CLAY was killed during the consolidation, and 2/LT. J. H. THOMPSON was killed during the advance. 2/LT. E. A. CARRINGTON volunteered to seek information as regards the position of our Companies some while after the attack started. He did not return and parties sent in search afterwards found no trace of him. 2/LT. R. L. SCULLY who acted as liaison officer was buried by a shell and consequently had to be sent down suffering from the shock. Information did not arrive, and it was understood that the attack had failed on the whole of the 21st Brigade front, but that the 9th Division had gained all their objectives.
Our estimated casualty report read 14 Officers 350 other ranks. The remainder of the Battalion held the old British front line from the SUNKEN ROAD to the junction of TURK LANE and FRONTLINE. The trenches were by this time in an appalling state owing to the bad weather."
Source: War diary of the 2nd Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment (Ref: WO95/2329).
His body was never recovered, and for a time he was reported missing believed killed. His family received a telegram confirming his death on 27 October. Lieutenant-Colonel A.L. Martin, his commanding officer, wrote to the family later, adding some detail about the circumstances of his death.
"It is with the very greatest sorrow, I write to tell you something of the way your son, Captain V. H. Clay met his end.
My Battalion attacked the enemy's trenches South of Bapoum [sic] at 3.40. a.m. October 18th, and your son commanded B. Company which was in reserve, but had to advance at the same time as the rest of the Battalion and had a particular objective. At 5 a.m. I received a written report from your son, that he had gained his objective, and was 'digging in'. Later I heard that while urging his men to dig and directing their efforts he was shot in the back and died almost immediately. Under the existing conditions I was unable to get any first hand evidence, but I believe the above to be the facts of this very great misfortune.
I have known your son for nearly a year and have the greatest admiration for his character. Although so young and, in ordinary times, of so little experience, he commanded his company with very great ability. He was so popular with his men that he easily obtained the best from them. He was one of the most popular officers in the Battalion and not only I but every one in the Regiment will regret his loss both as a good officer and friend."
Source: Letter to Dr Challoner from Lt.-Col. A. L. Martin, commanding 2nd Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, transcribed into a commemorative journal in the family’s possession. A transcript is published at http://www.17thwelsh.org.uk.
Further information was collected by Second Lieutenant R. R. Clay, his cousin serving as Transport Officer in the same battalion, stating that Vivian Clay “was walking about on the top (it was still dark) encouraging his men to consolidate the position when he was shot with a rifle bullet through the chest and practically killed at once.”
A letter was also received by the family from Corporal Ian Valentine (pseud. Carter) of the 5th Cameron Highlanders.
"In the attack of October 18th. your son's regiment advanced on the right of us, and in the darkness and the rain one of the Wiltshire Companies got mixed with ours. Your son was in command - in fact was the only officer present. After setting a splendid example in grenade throwing, he endeavoured to persuade his men to dig a communications trench to our lines. They were most reluctant, so he and I went out into the open in the hope that they would follow. Almost immediately he was struck in the back. He fell but was able to speak quite distinctly. He said "I'm done, boy! Let my father know. Promise me that." I said he would be alright soon, but he insisted that he was dying and reiterated his request. I promised. Then he died.
I feel that this must be some consolation to you who have lost him, to know that he died a very splendid death. I can add nothing except that one of the memories I shall carry to the end is the end of a very gallant gentleman."
Source: Letter to Dr Challoner from Cpl Ian Valentine [pseud. Ian Hastings Webb Carter], 5th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders, transcribed into a commemorative journal in the family’s possession. A transcript is published at http://www.17thwelsh.org.uk.
Captain Vivian Clay is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, and on three war memorials in Fovant, on the village war memorial cross, and on a brass plaque and a marble tablet in St George’s Church. His fiancée Flora Penruddocke, who also lost two brothers in the conflict, never married.