Herbert Clarke (1890–1916)

22776 Private Herbert John Clarke
1 Battalion, The Border Regiment,
formerly East Surrey Regiment,
Killed in action, 1 July 1916, France.
Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Bert Clarke © Cynthia Askie—used with permission.

Bert Clarke
© Cynthia Askie—used with permission.

During the first two hours of the Battle of the Somme, on 1 July 1916, the Allies experienced devastating losses. The extent of that loss (nearly 60 000 casualties) was not immediately clear to those at home since newspapers reported widely that ‘the day went well for England and France’.  Eventually the news would have reached Ham, that a resident of the parish was amongst those killed on that dreadful day, 99 years ago this month.  That man was Herbert Clarke.

Herbert Clarke was was born on 29 January 1890, at 15 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town in the Pancras Registration District. He is the H.CLARKE whose name leads the list on our War Memorial. Herbert was the second son of Frederick Amos Clarke—a man of several trades, including those of baker and organ builder—and his wife, Annie Elizabeth Mary Potts, who was herself the daughter of an organ builder.

Frederick and Annie were married on 6 February 1887 at Holy Trinity, Haverstock Hill, which is where their eldest child, Henry Frederick Amos Clarke, known as Harry, was christened in November of the following year. At that time the family was living at 90 Grafton Road, Haverstock Hill.

Harry and Herbert were to have at least two more siblings, a sister Dora Elizabeth Mary, and a brother William Frederick.  We think also that they had another sister, or half-sister, called Rosa or Rose, as she appears on the list of his close relatives provided to the War Office by Herbert’s wife after his death.

Because we have not so far located Herbert in the 1901 Census, we know very little about his life in the period between the censuses taken in 1891 and 1911.  It is likely that his father, Frederick, died during this period as his mother was free to marry Walter Jonathan Sear in 1912.

In 1911, Herbert was one of three young gardeners living at The Bothy, in Ham Gardens, the oldest of whom was given the task of filling in the Census Return.  Not having read the form correctly, this young man recorded  the county of birth for each of them, neglecting to add the town or parish. Since this bothy appears to have been in the grounds of Ham House, it is likely that the three were under gardeners at Ham House.  As the name suggests, a bothy provides very basic accommodation—not much more than shelter from wind and wet. Given its situation in Ham Gardens, it is however likely that this bothy was more comfortable and solid.

Herbert’s obtaining work in Ham, is likely to be how he met Winifred Alice Davis (1891–1937) the daughter of John Davis and his wife, Alice Lewington. Herbert’s granddaughter  has confirmed that his marriage certificate gives his address as Ham House, Ham, and his occupation as ‘domestic gardener’ information which confirms that he is the Herbert listed there in 1911.  Herbert and Winifred were married in the Kingston Register Office on 21 November 1912 and their children, Edward Herbert John Clarke (1913–1997) and Norita Winifred Alice Irene (1914–1940) were born in Ham.  The family lived at 7 Brockwell’s Cottage, within easy reach of Ham Common.

Herbert’s elder brother was in Sydney when war broke out in 1914 and was one of the first to enlist in the A.I.F.—the Australian Imperial Force.  William, the youngest brother, would not have been old enough to enlist.

7 Brockwell's Cottages

7 Brockwell’s Cottages

Herbert enlisted voluntarily with the East Surrey Regiment on 22 April 1915, when his son was not yet two, and his daughter just 7 months old.  Sadly, they are unlikely to have had any clear memories of their father.  By the end of the year he had been transferred to the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment, joining his battalion at Gallipoli on 24 November 1915.  Many of the men in his battalion had endured as much as seven months of the hell of Gallipoli, before their evacuation in January 1916 to Mudros in Egypt via Mudros.  The battalion was stationed there until ordered to France in early March.

In France, Herbert’s battalion was based near Acheux, and it was to Acheux that they would return after periods on the front line.  The 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment formed part of the 87th Infantry Brigade which was itself one of the Brigades in the 29th Army Division.  Also in the 87th Infantry Brigade were the 1st Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 2nd Battalion, the South Wales Borderers with the support of the guns of the 87th Machine Gun Company and the 87th Trench Mortar Battery.

Hoping to discover how Herbert might have been affected by preparations for the Battle of the Somme,  we viewed the entries for the days running up to 1 July. All was relatively quiet except for the night of 27 June 1916, when a raiding party from D Company left Acheux in the afternoon for the Front Line. We don’t know to which company Herbert was attached, so he may not have been involved in this carefully planned raid, intended to cut the wire and to remove that obstacle before the battle commenced.  Slightly more space in the war diary is given to this raid than to the events of 1 July, as the adjutant had the time to analyse what had gone wrong.  In mid-summer, such a raid could not start until after dark. At 10.45 p.m. the raiding party began to move along the trenches, reaching their exit point within 45 minutes, with the exception of the team bearing the torpedoes, who had been sent via another route because of “the extreme difficulty of moving [the torpedoes] to the exit point along the trenches”.  The guide provided for them by the R.I.F. [Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers] lost his way, delaying the start of the raid, which eventually had to go ahead without the torpedoes. When the torpedo party arrived at the appointed point, after the raid had begun, it was found that the fuse holes were choked with mud so they would not have been of any use for whatever purpose they had been intended.

The men’s first task was to locate the point, using the co-ordinates provided, at which the wire had already been cut.  They managed to cut all except for 8 feet of the wire, which consisted of a thick mass of iron including trestles, at which point the enemy was alerted by the start of another regiment’s raid, and opened fire.  Throughout the firing and the sending up of Very lights, their lieutenant continued to attempt to cut at the resistant mass with his clippers, but as progress was so slow, he gave the order for all to return to their trenches.  There are no further entries in the regiment’s war diary for June.

On the morning of 1 July, along with hundreds of thousands of other Allied soldiers, the battalion moved into position on the Front Line.  The record begins at 7.30 a.m. the designated time for the advance towards Beaumont Hamel to begin. Exactly three hours later, the battle was over for the First Battalion of the Border Regiment and their attempt to advance had been given up.

The B[a]t[talio]n (less 10%) advanced just south of BEAUMONT HAMEL, their objective being BEAUMONT REDOUBT. The 2nd S[outh] W[ales] B[orderer]s, whose objective was the first two GERMAN LINES, were wiped out by MACHINE GUN fire in our own wire. The 1st Btn The BORDER REG[IMEN]T then went over the top from our support line, and over the first line, the bridges over our front trench having been ranged by the GERMAN MACHINE GUNNERS the day previously, we met with heavy losses while crossing these bridges and passing through the lanes cut in our wire. The men were absolutely magnificent, and formed up as ordered outside our wire, made a right incline and advanced into ‘NO MAN’S LAND’ at a slow walk, also as ordered.  The advance was continued until only little groups of half a dozen men were left here and there and then, finding that no reinforcements were in sight, took cover in shell holes or wherever they could.

8 a.m. The advance was brought entirely to a standstill.

8.15 a.m. Enemy re-opened his bombardment on our trenches for which our guns retaliated.

9.15 a.m. LIEUT-COL. ELLIS having been wounded and brought in by No. 8409 PTE NEWCOMBE, [see note under Further Information re Private Newcombe] MAJOR MEIKLE JOHN (who had been in command of the 10%) assumed command of the B[a]T[talio]N, and collected all the men he could in the support line, as ordered by the BRIGADIER.

10.30 a.m. The 10% ordered back to reserve line, where they stayed until next morning. Advance definitely given up in this sector.  The B[a]T[talio]N strength of those who took part in advance was OFFICERS 23 OTHER RANKS 809.

The entry for the day closes with a summary of the casualties.  The Officers lost two men, with another four ‘missing believed killed’ and two ‘wounded and missing.’  Twelve officers were wounded.   It appears therefore that only three officers sustained no injuries.

Of the 809 men serving in the ‘Other Ranks’, 64 were killed, 411 wounded and 144 missing.  Herbert Clarke has no known grave, so we can presume that he was amongst the 144 men who were missing.  Herbert was only 26 when he lost his life and thus the years he might have had ahead of him.

It appears that the description “The men were absolutely magnificent” referred to their orderly advance at a slow walk, which coincided with the period when most casualties were sustained.

A description of the Newfoundland Regiment, in the same stretch of action, facing the same barrage from the German guns, describes their men “with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard.” From the similarity of the descriptions it is easy to picture the men of the Border Regiment, proceeding in a slow walk, with the same stoic forbearance—into a veritable blizzard of bullets.

Because of the chaos and uncertainty on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, it is likely that there was some delay before Herbert’s wife learnt of his death.  By that time, she had already left their home in Ham Street and moved, with their two children, to her father’s house at what was then 8 Lock Road.  By 1919, Herbert’s widow and their children were living at The Wharf Court, in Devizes, a Wiltshire, town which is about 8 miles northwest of Rushall, the parish in which Winifred’s father, John Davis, was born.  John Davis died in the Devizes registration district in 1928 but is likely to have been on hand to give at least some support to his daughter in the difficult early years of her widowhood.  Winifred and Norita lived in Devizes for the remainder of their lives.  Herbert’s son, Edward, died in Birmingham, in 1997, aged 84.

Private Herbert Clarke is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial—“The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. The memorial records the names of those men from the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme Sector before 21 March 1918, and who have no known grave. According to the CWGC, of the approximately 72 000 men listed on it, about 65 000 were killed “between July and November 1916”. A major ceremony is held at the Memorial each year on 1 July, the anniversary of this huge military setback, to commemorate them.

The National Archives, WO 95/2305/1, ‘War Diary of 1 Battalion Border Regiment’, 1 April 1916–30 April 1919.

Further information which may be of interest to Herbert’s descendants and to Ham’s local historians and residents

Where in Ham did Herbert Clarke and his family live?
Herbert lived at The Bothy in Ham Gardens before his marriage, and then, with his wife and their two young children, at 7 Brockwell’s Cottages, in Ham Street. After Herbert’s death, his wife and children moved to 8 Lock Road, now 19 Lock Road, to live with her father, before moving permanently to Wiltshire, where her father had been born.  Her address in June 1919 was The Wharf Court, New Park Street, Devizes.

Background to the Battle and the sector in which Herbert’s battalion was deployed
The Long Long Trail, ‘Logistical preparations before the Somme,’  http://www.1914-1918.net/bat15D.htm, accessed 30/6/2015.

Map of British Objectives at the Somme, 1 July 1916, Newfoundland and Labrador in the First World War, http://www.heritage.nf.ca/first-world-war/articles/beaumont-hamel-en.php, accessed 11/7/2015.  Scroll down to see a map of the British objectives at the Somme [for] 1 July 1916.

Veterans’ Affairs Canada, ‘The opening day of the Battle of the Somme,’ http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/overseas/first-world-war/france/beaumonthamel/somme accessed 12/7/2015. The Newfoundland Regiment was also tasked with advancing to Beaumont Hamel.  Thousands of Newfoundlanders perished, and this web page has some vivid descriptions of the challenges they faced.

World War One Battlefields, ‘Beaumont Hamel, http://www.ww1battlefields.co.uk/somme/beaumont.html, accessed 10/7/ 2015.

Locating Private Clarke
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme commemorates six Privates named Herbert Clarke, three of whom were killed on the first day of July 1916, another later in July, two in August and one in September.  That small detail somehow illustrates the enormity of the loss of life in 1916.

Notes seen in the Richmond Local Studies Library and Archive identified our Herbert as Herbert Stanley Clarke—an understandable mistake since both these Herberts were associated at some point with the East Surrey Regiment and died on 1 July 1916.  In addition, before the WW1 supporting details for the WW1 men were removed from the War Memorial, the memorial recorded him as H CLARKE and his regiment as “East Surreys” with date of death 1.7.16.

In the course of identifying ‘our’ Herbert Clarke, I have had to research three of the six Herberts named on the Thiepval Memorial, as well as yet another Herbert Clarke whom I was, at one point, quite close to merging with ‘our’ Herbert, because of the ‘missing years’ between 1891 and 1911, which he filled comfortably, and, inconveniently, was resident in the borough of Richmond.

Anyone researching another Private Herbert Clarke, might wish to check with me whether or not I already have some information about him!

Private Newcombe
He is mentioned in the War Diary for 1 July 1916. The battalion’s War Diary for 19 August 1916 notes Honours & Awards made to men of the battalion, including the Military Medal to 8408 (sic) Private J. Newcombe. His Medal Index Card confirms his regimental number as 8408, rather than 8409, and his name as John.  It appears that he survived the war as none of the eight men called John Newcombe on the CWGC database for WW1 had his service number or served in the Border Regiment.

Rosa Clarke:  When, on 13 June 1919, at Devizes, Winifred filled in the form requiring her to list all her husband’s living relatives, she recorded in the limited space in the row for ‘full blood’ brothers only Henry, and in the space below, for intended ‘half blood’ brothers, William.  Similarly the name Dora appeared in the row for the ‘full blood’ sisters, and Rosa (or perhaps Rose?) under the ‘half blood’ sisters.  No matching birth record for Rosa/Rose has been identified.

As for William, a William Frederick Clarke, son of William (sic) Clarke and Annie Elizabeth Mary Clarke, was baptised on the same day as, and immediately after the baptism of Arthur James William Potts, the son of Annie Clarke’s brother, Arthur. Their baptism on the same day suggests than this Annie Elizabeth Mary Clarke is Herbert’s mother.  I think the church official recording the baptism erred here with the father’s name  (as is the case more often  than one might expect) but it is, indeed, remotely possible that Frederick Clarke had died before 1901, and that his widow Annie had married another Clarke and had a son, William, by him.  Frederick is, however, named on Dora’s marriage certificate which does not record her father as ‘Deceased’—but as the preceding pages reveal not a single deceased father, it may have been that this was a question the minister did not pose to the bridal couples.


About Margaret Frood

Margaret Frood is a Family and Local Historian with an insatiable curiosity about the partially told stories of a family's past. Her four war memorial blogs have been created in the hope that they will help to rescue from oblivion the stories of those listed on the war memorials of Petersham, Ham and Tur Langton, as well as Southern Africans commemorated in the UK and in Western Europe.
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2 Responses to Herbert Clarke (1890–1916)

  1. Cynthia Askie says:

    Dear Margaret Frood,

    Thank you so much for the 1st July message about my grandfather. I went to France, staying in Amiens, with my son Phillip and sister Pamela so we were there from 30th June – 4th July. We travelled with Guided Battlefield Tours from Newport, Wales.
    We were on the front line at Machine Gun Wood, facing Montauban on the 1st July. At 7.30 am we had an act of remembrance, with whistles being blown by some of our group (one of them an actual WW1 whistle from the Somme), we could also hear whistles from other groups in the area who we could not actually see, also heard guns and church bells. A wreath was laid and a poem and prayer were read, also my sister and another lady scattered poppy petals.
    At Beaumont Hamel, where Herbert and his comrades were killed, we found a few Border Regiment graves at Y Ravine Cemetery. We put a cross for Herbert at one grave for a Private Haworth, which had an unknown soldier buried there as well.
    We placed a wreath and cross at the Thiepval Memoria and right next to it was a cross for an East Surrey soldier – Pte Alfred Smith, died 16/8/16, aged 28, Farleigh, Surrey.
    It was a very moving and interesting tour and, although we didn’t get tickets in the ballot for the Thiepval ceremony on 1st July, it didn’t really matter.
    Thank you once again for all your hard work on our (and other families) behalf.

    Cynthia Askie.

  2. Pingback: Petersham Poppy Walk | Petersham Remembers

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