A Canadian memorial in Penrith

Penrith’s Castle Park is two things. It’s the ruins of the town’s old castle, all thick red sandstone walls and big ditches. And it’s a largely untouched Victorian or Edwardian town park.

It has a bandstand, a memorial gate with plaques listing the dead of the two world wars of the Twentieth Century, and an earlier Boer War memorial known locally as the Black Angel. It has plenty of flowerbeds, meandering parks, a bowling green and some rather curly wooden slat benches. The kind you remember, but haven’t seen for years.

On one of the green-painted benches I found a memorial. Nowadays, an engraved plaque on a bench is nothing special. Frank loved this spot. Elsie walked her dog here. Independent journalist Miles Kington is remembered with the best, of course, near the Dundas Aqueduct: ‘In fond memory of Miles Kington, who hated this spot, because there was never anywhere to sit down and enjoy it from’. So why comment on Penrith’s bench?

I think it might be the oldest in the country, the original. I’ve never seen one this old. And it is the start of an interesting story which is untold elsewhere.

Set in heavy cast iron lettering are the words:

In Memory of

Pte W.G.Clarke. MM

78th C.I.F.

Who fell in France

10th Aug. 1918

Now, bits of this I understood straight away; Private Clarke, Military Medal. 10th August 1918 probably means the Battle of Amiens. The rest? Well, it took some digging around fairly obscure internet forums. Clarke’s not listed on any other local memorials.

William Gibson Clarke was the son of Henry Blackwell and Sarah Clarke of Penrith (they appear to have been unmarried). They lived at 34 Brunswick Square.

William was born at Skipton, North Yorkshire, emigrated to Canada, and was working as a waiter when he enlisted at Winnipeg, Manitoba, late in 1915.

He served as a private with the 78th Battalion, Manitoba Regiment. The battalion embarked at Halifax 22 May 1916 aboard the Empress of Britain, disembarking in England on 29 May 1916. Its strength was 37 officers and 1097 other ranks.

Clarke’s Military medal was recorded in the London Gazette on 26th April 1917. It’s likely he won his medal at the battle of Vimy Ridge, a smaller part of the infamous Battle of Arras, although there are no records I can find. The battle is remembered at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, set in a 250 acre memorial park, and in Siegfried Sassoon’s The General:

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

It seems that the 78th became part of the Canadian Independent Force (CIF), serving under Brigadier-General Raymond Brutiner. This was an unusual and irregular unit, designed for fast attacks; a precursor to the later German Blitzkrieg tactics. It was made up of two Motor Machine Gun Brigades , a Cyclist Battalion , the 5th Canadian Trench Mortars , 1 Corps Wireless Section , a Mechanical Transport Co. , the 101 Machine Gun battalion, the 10th Royal Hussars and the Canadian Light Horse.

Clarke fell during the Battle of Amiens, in the last 100 days of the First World War. He died aged 27 at Le Quesnel, the location of the deepest penetration the Canadians (and indeed any of the Allied armies) achieved on the first day of the battle. He had advanced 13 kilometres into the German lines by that point, and that action saw the start of the German collapse and brought about the end of the First World War.

Clarke is buried at Caix British cemetery southeast of Amiens, Somme, France, and remembered on a bench in Penrith’s Castle Park which, we can only presume, his parents placed there. Nearly 100 years later, it’s about time the story behind it was told.

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