Story of a Seaman

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 02, 2015 11:00 AM

Ever since I was a small child I was fascinated by the framed citation and photo that hung on a wall in our family home in Scarborough, Ontario, commending my mother’s Uncle Albert for his service during WWI. It had been signed by the King of England, and was very precious to our family.

As I got older, I asked more about this great uncle of ours, who unfortunately lost his life and never returned to his family on Fogo Island. I remember recounting the story of his bravery on Remembrance Day at school. Based on stories passed down from my mom and her brothers and sisters, and also on information from a historian in England, what follows is the tale of this brave young man, Albert Cluett, N.R.N.R., Seaman, 222X.

As you are aware, during the First World War Newfoundland was not a part of Canada. Nevertheless, Newfoundlanders had a big presence during the hostilities, in the form of a reserve army and navy. Both Albert and his brother Bernard (my grandfather) volunteered for the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve. For unknown reasons, Bernard’s application was rejected; Albert’s was not. He joined up October 14, 1916, at the age of 20.

After completing basic training on board the H.M.S. Calypso (later renamed H.M.S. Britton), he was sent to Chatham, England for specialized training as a gunner. Albert was then posted to a vessel called the H.M.S. President III, a defensively armed merchant vessel, around February 1917. While serving in the Bay of Biscay, the ship came under attack from a German submarine. Fortunately, thanks to the “splendid firing of Gunner Cluett… the underwater boat was driven off.” (This was according to Mrs. Kate Murphy, a former Fogo Island resident, who was living in St. John’s at the time. It is believed that she wrote the account for a newspaper; however, it is unclear which newspaper the article appeared in.)

Soon after, the President III struck an iceberg and subsequently, some rocks at Cape Race. Albert and the rest of the crew were forced into port while the ship was repaired. Uncle Albert was granted leave to visit his family in Cape Cove, Fogo Island. According to my late grandfather, Albert approached him some time during his leave to inquire as to why Bernard was building a house next to the one owned by their parents. Bernard responded that it would be for him and his future family; their parents’ home would be passed on to him. He turned to look at his family home and told his brother that he “would never live in it.” After his death, his family was convinced that Albert had a strong premonition that he would never return from the war.  

Albert returned to Chatham, England after his brief leave and was to be sent to another post. However, fate intervened. He was waiting for his orders at the Chatham Naval Barracks on September 3, 1917 when tragedy struck. According to my mother, Mary Eliza Cluett, there was another resident of Fogo Island, Harry Curtis of Barr’d Islands, with Albert that evening. Harry invited Albert to go out for a drink with him and some other men. Albert declined, saying, “No b’y, I think I’ll turn in.” It was a fatal decision for the young sailor. He was asleep in his hammock when the drill shed was destroyed by a hostile enemy air raid later that night. The drill shed was at the centre of the bombsite and Albert sustained “multiple bomb wounds,” according to the Chatham Naval Hospital records. He passed away before dawn the next day.  

His family was notified of his death via telegram, which was delivered by the coastal boat. My great grandmother received a small pension of $6.50 a month for the duration of her life, in recognition of his service. My mother and her brother (the late Albert Jr.) recall their nanny going to the post office to collect the small monthly award and spending it on special items like coffee or Nestlé’s cream. She would often invite her neighbours or family in for a special tea to share in these treats. 

Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his family’s control, Albert’s remains were never returned to his island home. He is buried in the Woodlands Road Cemetery (in the Catholic section) in Chatham, England, where there is a large naval burial site.

To my knowledge, no one has ever visited his gravesite, but that certainly doesn’t mean he has been forgotten. I often think of the young man with the beautiful grey eyes and what his life might have been if he had not volunteered for the naval reserve. He might have been a fisherman like his father, Richard. He might have married and had grandchildren for his parents, Johanna and Richard. Instead, they had to be satisfied with their memories of his brief life and the knowledge that he saved many lives that day when he ran off the German submarine with his fine gunning. I wonder whether his father taught him how to shoot ducks like my grandfather (who was a legendary duck hunter in their small community) and whether that served him well in his artillery training. We don’t know these things, but what we do know, Uncle Albert, is that your family is extremely proud of and thankful for your service for your King and country. You are forever in our hearts. - By Sylvia (Broders) Busch

Audrey Whelan

After reading this article, I googled "Find a grave". There's a record added Feb. 03, 2008 - memorial #24369790. The plot: Naval. R. C. 5.240 and is maintained by IWPP Custodial Account. The photo of the headstone and gravesite reads: Albert Cluett, Seaman 2222X, September 1917, Age 21. A record I read indicated birthdate as unknown and date of death as September 4, 1917. The cemetery is Woodlands Cemetery, Gillingham, Medway Unitary Authority, Kent, England. Perhaps the photo of the gravesite is the next best thing to being there. (My uncle was in the American Forces and died in Arizona. I was never there but from the photo of his gravesite I took comfort and it was the next best thing to being there. A picture really is worth a thousand words.)