William Gibson Clarke was born on 16th May 1891, in Skipton, North Yorkshire.
Skipton is on the River Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, south of the Yorkshire Dales and 26 km northwest of Bradford. The name is recorded in the Domesday Book, and a castle built there in 1090 still stands today. Skipton became a prosperous market town, trading sheep and woollen goods, and during the Industrial Revolution became a small mill town connected to the major cities by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and its branch Thanet Canal, named for Skipton Castle’s owner Sackville Tufton, the 8th Earl of Thanet.
William’s father, Henry Blackwell Clarke, was born just over 80km from Skipton, in Blackpool, in 1866. While in most documents, he is listed as working as a newspaper reporter, by the time of the 1911 census he is a licensed retailer of wines and spirits, living in Ipswich.
22-year-old Henry married 28-year-old Sarah Gibson at St Peter’s, Fleetwood, Lancashire on 29 October 1888. It was his wife’s home town – Sarah was born in 1860, in Fleetwood. Her father was William Gibson, a blacksmith who was born in Scotland (after whom, we can assume, William is named), and her mother was Ann Carter of Garstang.
In the 1830s, landowner Peter Hesketh, High Sheriff and MP, had conceived an ambitious plan to build a seaport and railway town, just up the coast from Blackpool and on the edge of Morecambe Bay. He commissioned Decimus Burton, who had recently designed St Leonard’s On Sea, a new town just west of Hastings. In 1831 Hesketh added Fleetwood to his name – and gave the name to his new town. Construction started in 1836. By the time of Sarah’s birth, commercial steamers were providing services to the Isle of Man, Ardrossan and Belfast, and the town had a substantial fishing industry.
By 1889, Henry and Sarah had moved inland to Nelson, just north of Burnley, and two years later they had moved further inland to Skipton, where Henry was working as a journalist.
William was the middle of the couple’s three children. He had an older sister Daisy, born in 1889 in Nelson, and a brother, Henry Cecil, born in 1896 in Ipswich.
Before the First World War, emigration from Britain reached unprecedented levels – over three million people left the UK between 1903 and 1913. The most popular destination was Canada, drawing almost half of Britain’s emigrants. One of them was 18-year-old William, who arrived at St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, on the 18th March 1910. He had travelled on the Canadian Pacific Line ship RMS Empress of Ireland, departing from Liverpool.
Just a few years later the Empress of Ireland became a famous ship for all the wrong reasons when, in 1914, she sank near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. Following a collision in thick fog with the Norwegian collier SS Storstad, of 1477 passengers on board the Empress, 1012 died. It is the worst peacetime maritime disaster in Canadian history
But in 1911, William arrived safely, hoping to start a new life as a farmer.
But he was working as a waiter and living in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, when he decided to enlist in the army, a year after the outbreak of the First World War. Moosomin had only been established thirty-odd years earlier in 1882. In postcards from the time that William lived there, it looks very much like a prosperous town in the north of England. It had a Baptist Church, a Methodist Chapel, a Presbyterian Congregation and an Episcopal Church
On the 22nd December 1915, 24-year-old William enlisted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, giving his address as either Seymour House or (more likely) the Seymour House Hotel. William, 167cm tall, with a dark complexion, brown eyes & brown hair had signed up for the duration of the war.
He was now Private William Gibson Clarke, Service Number 148605, serving in the Manitoba Regiment, 78th Battalion, ‘D’ Coy of the Canadian Infantry. He was one of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, part of 4th Canadian Division, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
He left Halifax, Nova Scotia on board the RMS Empress of Britain on 20th May 1916 – part of the first deployment of the 78th Battalion. He was returning on the sister ship to the ill-fated Empress of Ireland that had brought him to Canada. The Empress of Britain was a luckier ship. Less than two weeks after disaster struck the RMS Titanic in 1912, Empress of Britain also struck an iceberg – but only suffered minor damage. In May 1915, she was recommissioned as a troop transport and carried more than 110,000 troops. On 4 May 1919, on her last voyage before being scrapped, she returned Canadian Expeditionary Force troops from England to Canada. Sadly, William was not among them.
But on 30th May 1916, he disembarked in Liverpool five years after leaving from the same port.
While in England, William wrote out his will on the 2nd August 1916. It was addressed to his mother, Sarah Clarke, now living at 293, Norwich Road, Ipswich. Later, he updated his will and her address on 11th September 1916 was Haig House, 56, Springfield Land, Ipswich.
Ten days after writing his first will, William embarked at Southampton on 12th August 1916. The Canadians disembarked at Le Havre a day later. The French port had become a major centre for the distribution of troops, horses and goods heading for the Western Front. Manned by the Royal Army Service Corp, it was also No 3 General Base Depot for the Canadian forces.
Sadly, it’s hard to trace the exact movements of William after landing in France. But the 78th Battalion served on the Somme, and at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the Arras region in 1917. Just north of Vimy is the commune of Souchez. On the 22nd February 1917, the telephone lines between the Advanced Headquarters and the Battalion Headquarters here had been broken. William, and another soldier, were acting as runners, carrying messages from one to the other. They passed through heavy shell fire to do so, and William was rewarded with a Military Medal, awarded for bravery in the Field.
He was gazetted on 24th April 1917 – by which date, he had also fought through the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In this battle, the Canadian forces suffered 10,602 casualties: 3598 killed and 7004 wounded. The attack on Vimy Ridge was launched at 5:30 am on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Clarke’s Division collapsed almost immediately. Machine gun nests in the German line pinned down, wounded, or killed much of the 4th Canadian Division. Reserves were brought forward, and the attack continued. By the end of the day, the 4th Division had captured objectives that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions had taken within an hour of starting the battle. It took another three days to take the rest of Vimy Ridge. Vimy Ridge is considered to symbolise Canada’s coming of age as a nation, and William was there. He received his medal on 15th May 1917.
But the toll, particularly on the men of the 4th Division, was huge. On 1st June 1917, William was granted 10 days Leave of Absence, and he returned to the line on 15th June 1917.
Seven months later, he was granted 14 days leave to return to England. He left on 12th January 1918, and returned from leave on 23rd January. While his trip isn’t recorded, it must have been to see his parents, and it would be the last time that Henry and Sarah saw their son.
Two months later, in March 1918, General Ludendorff, the chief of the German General Staff, launched the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle), and it very nearly won the war for Germany. The Germans had replaced the traditional advance with Stormtroop (Stoßtruppen) units, elite infantry operating in small groups that advanced quickly by exploiting gaps and weak defences. They would disrupt communication and cause chaos amongst the British headquarters, artillery units and supply depots in the rear.
On 21st March, Germans attacked on a 69-kilometre front between Arras, St. Quentin and La Fère. On the first day, in thick fog, British communication failed; telephone wires were cut and runners struggled to find their way through the dense fog and heavy shelling. Headquarters were cut off and unable to influence the battle. Within 15 days, the Germans had captured 3,100 km2 of territory, 177,739 British troops were killed, wounded and missing, 75,000 had been taken prisoner, and 1300 artillery pieces and 200 tanks were lost. But the advance was stopped just before Amiens, a vital hub in the British transport system. And the German troops were exhausted, and their supply lines overstretched.
On the 8th August, the British, Australian and Canadian forces launched a massive counterattack which would win them the war. The Canadian 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions were first to attack, and as they broke the German lines, William’s 4th Division pushed through the gap. By the end of the morning, they were 4.8km beyond the German front line, and the advance was so fast, they captured German officers having their breakfast.
By the 10th August 1918, William was 50km from Amiens. The speed of the advance was unprecedented. On the 10th, the 78th Battalion passed through Chilly at noon and by 2:00pm seized Hallu. The Germans counter-attacked at Hallu. Lieutenant James Tait of the 78th Battalion rallied his troops when German troops re-entered the village, stopping their advance, though at the cost of his life.
While William was escorting German prisoners back to Brigade Headquarters. an enemy shell fell close to his party. He was severely wounded him in the body and legs, immediately attended to, and then placed on an ambulance to be taken to the nearest dressing station. Aged 27, and having been as far inside the German lines as anyone, William died before reaching hopsital.
The 78th Battalion suffered 46 fatalities in Hallu – of whom 35 were missing, presumed to have been killed in action. William’s body was identified, and he is buried at Caix Cemetery. The cemetery is a walled garden surrounded by farmland, that probably looks much as it did in 1914, before the war started. At the front of the cemetery is a stone cross, and the graves are arranged either side of a central path. You’ll find William’s grave to the left, in the second row of graves. His grave, unusually for a Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone, bears a message from his parents:
‘Our Darling Son. He gave his sweet young life that others may live.’
Off the Somme tourist trail, 28 kilometres south-east of Amiens, Caix holds the bodies of over 300 British soldiers. 203 of them are Canadian. Just across the road, Caix German Military Cemetery holds the bodies of 1264 German soldiers of World War One.
By the time of William’s death, Henry and Sarah were living at 33 Brunswick Square, Penrith, Cumberland (this address appears on William’s military records, but some other documents including his father Henry’s will have the address as 35).
In the early 1920s, the people of Ipswich hoped to raise £5000 to build a lasting memorial to the men who died in the First World War. It was unveiled on 6th May 1924. In total they raised over £50,000, and the surplus funds went to Ipswich Hospital where, up to 1919, 7777 casualties were treated.
William is remembered there, in Ipswich, where his parents lived at the start of the war, and in the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance, but not on the war memorial in Penrith, where his parents lived at the end. It was to Penrith that William’s Memorial Scroll was sent on the 23rd March 1922, and his Memorial Plaque on the 1st April 1922.
But Henry and Sarah wanted their son remembered where they lived. In the 1920s, Penrith District Council acquired ownership of Penrith Castle. They landscaped the grounds, adding walkways, lawns and bowling greens. In 1923, the War Memorial Gateway at the main entrance was opened. William’s name isn’t on it. Instead, you’ll find an original 1920s green-slatted park bench with a heavy cast-iron memorial plaque. It says:
‘In memory of Pte William Gibson Clarke, 78th Btn C.I.F. who fell in France 10th Aug. 1918.’
I sat there and afterwards, asked about him at the local museum: they didn’t know about him, or why there was a bench in the park dedicated to his memory.
His father Henry Blackwell Clarke died in 1935, in Penrith – his mother Sarah Gibson’s death is not recorded. I haven’t traced his brother or sister – some sources say Daisy died as a child, and Penrith’s Queen Elizabeth Grammar School record a Henry Cecil Clarke’s death in a trench raid with the Tyneside Scottish. But – these aren’t certain, and Daisy and Henry may have descendants.
The Moosomin Cenotaph carries the inscription ‘To you from falling hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold high.’ I hope that in remembering one more forgotten soldier, the flame will burn a little brighter.
Thank you to Dawn & Paul Cole, Edward Thompson, to Penrith Remembers, and the Friends of the Lochnagar Crater, especially Iain Ross Fry, Pam Ackroyd