C. One of the Best Looking Men: Lieut. Clarke at St. Eloi

18th Battalion Association[i]
Windsor and Detroit Branch
*MEMORIES*

At one of our Reunion Dinners some years ago, one of he speakers mentioned Lieut. John Clarke[ii], but placed him in the wrong Company. Lieut. Clarke was the Officer in charge of Thirteen Platoon. The other “D” Company Officers were Lieut’s Ambery, McIntosh, and Dillon. Lieut. Clarke, or Johnny Clarke, as most of us called him when he was not around, was one of the best-looking men in the Battalion and on of of the many nice Officers we had.

I was one of the small group who ran into Lieut. Clarke shortly after he was wounded[iii]. Some of the others, I know that several of them are still with us, were Hardwick[iv], McQueen[v], Hamill[vi], and Fickley[vii]. It was one of those bad nights.

We had all left Vierstraat with different work parties. I was a very dark night and as time went on, some of the work parties became separated and disorganized. Our party was assigned to put up some barbed wire about twenty yards in front of the Line. Most of the men were engaged in screwing the iron posts into the ground while the others came along with coils of barbed wire which they placed in the slots.

After we had finished, we started back and it was then we ran into Lieut. Clarke who had been hit in the face. Whitey Sheridan[viii] was with him and we couldn’t understand this as Whitey was not even in our Company. We had quite a job persuading the wounded Officer to go back. I believe Whitey went with him.

The rest of us tarried a little too long before starting back overland. We had only gone about half way when the day broke fast, and the machine guns opened fire. We all dove for cover. Hamill and I landed in the same shell hole and we knew we were there for the day. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible. We both had water and rations. It turned out to be a nice day and when the sun came out, it was actually warm.

The shell hole was on a slope and by peering over the edge, we could see the German front line but nothing beyond. We both had a panoramic view of everything behind our own lines. When there was no shelling, it all looked so peaceful. It was strange to have such a wide view and not see a moving object. The wood behind the M & N trenches which had been shelled since the War started, were a mass of broken and split trees with many intertwining broken branches. There was still a lot of green foliage and it seemed to stand out with a look of defiance.

When the darkness came, we all went on to Vierstraat. When we arrived, I was told to report to the Platoon Officers. I was a L/Corp. [Lance-Corporal] at the time. Lieut. McIntosh wanted to know why we didn’t return with the others. I explained what had happened and he seemed quite satisfied but told me to go see Major Emmerton. When I got over there, he wasn’t in so I gave the same information to Capt. Loughrin [Loghrin] who was also satisfied. He then told the C.S.M. [Company Sergeant Major] not to assign any of those who had been marooned to any work party that evening.

It was a night to remember.

“It was a night to remember…” only begins to offer to the reader the events surrounding this story.

The 18th Battalion had been heavily engaged in the confusion of the St. Eloi Craters[ix] and the dates that this story relate occur during a significant operation in which elements of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade in the guise of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Battalions were tasked with a battle patrol that was tasked with attacking Craters 2 and 3. The resources allotted were just larger than platoon strength with the parties involved with the action varying in size from twenty-two soldiers to fifty.[x] The operation was set for midnight on the night of April 8 and 9 but the action was delayed as the grenade officers of the 18th and 18th Battalion wanted to use a reconnaissance of the craters to establish a better picture of the area of operations. The battle in and around the crates at St. Eloi was very confusing as the Canadian units involved in the actions in this area had difficulty distinguishing between the craters and were apt to believe they were at one crater when they were, in fact, at another one.[xi]

 

Lieutenant Clarke

On the night of the action Lieutenant Clarke figures prominently in many of the after-action reports. He was active in his responsibilities as Grenade Officer for the Battalion and during this action he was wounded in the face by a German bullet. The extent of the injuries was physically grave but did not appear to be mortal. The result of the wound was to contrast against the author’s assessment that Lieutenant Clarke “…was one of the best-looking men in the Battalion…” as they would have disfigured him. The wound, according to his medical records, the bullet entered his left check 1.5 inches below the left eye, fracturing his palate, and exited 2 inches below the “outer angle” of the right eye. The exit would result in the loss of sight of right eye.[xii]

Before the wounding Lieutenant Clarke had been attached from the 33rd Battalion to the 18th Battalion on April 14, 1915, one day before the 18th left for England. Being born in Windsor, Ontario he may have had an natural affinity to the 18th as it was partially raised from men from that city. He served with the Battalion as its Grenade Officer having been attached to the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade in December 1915 as an “Assistant Grenade Officer”. The use of grenades became an important tactical took for the units in the front line and, perhaps, this role gives some indication of his martial skill and ability to command as it entailed being involved in operations which required management of soldiers and the tactical plan(s) that were created to achieve tactical objective.

After his wounding Lieutenant Clarke continued to serve at No. 1 Military District, London, Ontario and was not released from the Army until his resignation on May 22, 1922 at the rank of Captain. It appears that he had other skills and abilities that were of value to the military authorities as he was “permitted to resign” on that date. Perhaps he returned to his profession as a bond salesman, but his distinguished looks had been permanently changed by his wounding and it is not know if the Medical Board’s assessment of 50% disability. 40% was assigned for the loss of the right eye and 10% for the loss of palate. One would suspect that his disfigurement and the experience of combat should have been assessed as well and at least recognized even though this psychic wounding is hard to “measure”. There is no record of reconstructive or other cosmetic surgery, but one would suspect that the observation made in the “memory” indicates the wounds forever changed how Lieutenant Clarke looked in such a dramatic way that they were recounted fifty-four years after it happened.

 

Stuck in No Man’s Land

The balance of the “memory” is a rich description of the experience of the author. During their return to the lines daylight prevents the author and Private Hamill from reaching their objective and they are able to observe their lines and note the “panoramic view”, which would have reflected the German ability to observe the Canadian lines. The Germans tended to situate their trenches on any elevation and, consequently, could observe the Allied trenches and the rear areas and use this ability for effect with their artillery.

In relative comfort these men waited until the return of nightfall to make for the Canadian lines and then to report to their Platoon Office. Lieutenant McIntosh may have been satisfied but he felt that the Company Commander, Major Emmerton, needed an accounting for their absence and they were ordered to attend to him with their report. As Major Emmerton was not available they report to Captain Loghrin and the Company Sergeant Major appears to take some pity on their experience and discharges them from having to participate in a working party set for that night.

 

Conclusion

This memory gives the audience some insight into the activities of the Battalion at St. Eloi Craters. This particular action was not one of the high-points of the 2nd Canadian Division and its participating units, such as the 18th Battalion. The memory of “Johnny Clarke” and the impression he made as man and officer has an opportunity to be expressed by the story-teller and he also offers the audience the experience of being chased by machine gun fire and having to go to ground in a shell-hole until night falls. Their return was not necessarily the end of their adventure as they had to account for themselves and their story had to convince their superior officers that there was no neglect of duty or other actions prejudicial to the unit.

The officers involved seemed satisfied, and the final arbiter of discipline of other ranks, the C.S.M. is satisfied and, perhaps, sympathetic enough, to excuse them from duty. A duty of which involved physical labour fixing up trenches or going, again, out into No Man’s Land and fixing barbed wire. Hamill and the author could relax in the relative comfort and safety in the trenches at St. Elois.

[i] The blog has come into the possession of an exciting and valuable series of documents care of Dan Moat, a member of the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. His Great Grand-Father, Lance-Corporal Charles Henry Rogers, reg. no. 123682 was an active member in the 18th Battalion Association and the Royal Canadian Legion. With is interest in the post-war Association a series of “MEMORIES” in the form of one-page stories relate many of the Battalion’s experiences from the “other ranks” soldiers’ point-of-view.

It appears that the documents were written in the early 1970s, a full 50-years after the end of The Great War and are a valuable social history of soldiers’ experiences as told in their own words about the events that happened a half-century ago to them, and now a full century for us. This is the first of the series, and suffice to say, the reference, names, experiences, and strong immediacy of these stories bring the men of the 18th Battalion alive.

[ii] Lieutenant John Alfred Gibson Clarke enlisted with the 33rd Battalion at London, Ontario and transferred to the 18th Battalion on April 1, 1915.

[iii] Lieut. Clarke was wounded April 10, 1916 while the Battalion was serving at La Clytte, Belgium. His service records indicate this was the date of his wounding, but the War Diary reports 1 other rank killed in action and 25 soldiers wounded on April 9, 1916. The War Diary does mention his wounding in the April 12 entry.

[iv] Most likely Private Claude Hardwick, reg. no. 406097. He joined the 18th Battalion as a replacement on November 20, 1915 and served with the Battalion until he sustained a G.S.W. to his left hand on April 11, 1916.

[v] Soldier not found.

[vi] Possibly this soldier. This soldier arrived as a replacement December 12, 1915. See the service record of Richard Hamill, reg. no. 406735.

[vii] Most likely this soldier. There are only two soldiers in the CEF with that surname and he is the only one that served with the 18th Battalion.

[viii] Most likely Private Ralph Cecil Sheridan, reg. no. 53504. Military Medal and Bar.

[ix] It is strongly recommended to read this paper for more information regarding the action around St. Elois: Cook, Tim (1996) “The Blind Leading the Blind: The Battle of the St. Eloi Craters,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 4.  Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss2/4

[x] Per 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Operational Order No. 38 dated April 8, 1916.

[xi] See the report by officer commanding the 19th Battalion Grenade for more details.

[xii] An examination of Lieutenant Clarke on June 21, 1916 found: “…this officer was wounded in action. Bullet entered 1” below external angular process of left frontal bone. Exit would 2” behind alae of nose on right side, hard palate being perforated. Bullet passed through[.] May 9th, 1916, removal of four teeth, piece of necrosed bone. Fracture of right orbital floor and right upper alveolar process of hard palate. Has lost sight of right eye, no report as to this submitted to Board. He states “extensive rupture of choroid and retina.”

 

The documents below with give some sense of the challenges the units had participating in the action at St. Eloi.

Appendix 5: 4th CIB re 18th Battalion report of action night of April 9 and 10 1916

 

Appendix 8: 4th CIB Report of Action April 8 and 9 by Officer Commanding 19th Battalion Grenade Section

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