A Family at War – Ashley Clark

Ashley Clark Tour Guide

Sergeant Fred CLARK 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment- a family at war

Fred CLARK was one of 7 sons and 2 daughters born to George and Lucy CLARK of Peterborough. The brothers in age order were George, Charles, Fred, John, Jim, William and Harry.

Fred was born in 1882 and on 3rd September 1901 he enlisted in the First Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment. Fred served for 12 years and for most of this time was based in India. In 1913 he left the army and went on the reserve list.

At the start of the war Fred re-enlisted in the 1st Battalion of the Northampton shire Regiment .In view of his previous service was promoted to Sergeant. Five other brothers enlisted too. Some had served previously in the army and the picture below taken in the early autumn of 1914 shows a proud father and his sons. Harry the youngest aged 19 volunteered in August of 1914. William in the bowler hat had a young family but he was conscripted in 1916.

As far as we can establish they are standing  (from left to right):

Charles, Fred, a family friend, William, Harry, George, John and Jim.

Fred embarked for France on 12th November 1914 no doubt to replace other men in the battalion. The 1st battalion had been in the thick of it from the start having fought at Mons, the Marne, Langemarck and Ghelevelt where their Divisional Commander, Major General LOMAX was mortally wounded by shell fire on 31st October  –  a crucial point of the 1st Battle of Ypres.

On 21st December 1914 Fred was deployed to the trenches south of Ypres near Neuve Chapelle. They went into action almost immediately repulsing a German attack. Shortly afterwards at various places in this vicinity there were a number of spontaneous Christmas truces and incidents of fraternisation. Many of the soldiers deployed here were Indians. We know from the Battalion diary that Fred spent Christmas day in billets at Essars just outside Bethune. Early in the New Year they were back in action with a series of artillery duels alternating with periods in and out of billets.

On the 27th the Battalion went to the front line trenches at Cuinchy Brickstacks by the canal between Bethune and La Bassée where there was a small salient into the German line.

On 29th January  the Germans attacked in force seeking to take the area at a present to the Kaiser on his birthday. The battalion was praised with a special order from General Westnecolt “on their gallant and steady defence”. Some 20 men were killed. Alas one was Sergeant Fred Clark. His body was not recovered and he is remembered on the nearby Touret Memorial.

Five days later young Harry CLARK, also assigned to the 1st Battalion, arrived in France eager to join with his brother only to discover that he had been lost a few days earlier. The Battalion remained in the same area and was one of a number selected to take Aubers Ridge in May 1915. The Battalion diary gives a telling account:

8th May 1915 “We march away 26 officer and about 750 men. All men are being cheerful and ready for the coming fight”

9th May 1915 “Our first Companies got close up to the German barbed wire. Captain Dickson and about 30 men ahead got into a gap made for their guns in the trenches. There, however, they were all shot down. Captain Dickson being killed and also Captain Farrar leading D Company. The enemy had opened up a heavy rifle and machine gun fire from their trenches…………… the assault had failed, but our men could not withdraw as they would have been shot down at once. Throughout this day the Battalion lay out absolutely exposed ….. no man daring to move. The losses were terrific with 8 officers killed, 9 wounded and 541 men either killed wounded or missing…….When darkness came all the survivors crawled back to our trenches having laid out in the open for 14 hours.

10th May 1915 Day spent reorganising the Battalion now just over 200 and no officers.

For Harry the war was over after just 102 days in France. In the attack on Aubers Ridge he got a “blighty” wound and on recovery spent the rest of the war as an army baker. Harry went on. He got married and had a family but rarely spoke about war.  As for the other brothers…… What happened to them?

Jim was in the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment. At the Battle of Loos in September 1915 he threw a Jam Tin Bomb. A German caught it and threw it back blowing out Jim’s eye. He survived the war.

John served as a Sergeant in the Bedfordshire Regiment. In June 1917 not far from Lens, France he was leading a working party when he was struck by a shell and killed with others. He is buried in La Philosophe Cemetery, France.

William was conscripted to the South Staffordshire Regiment in 1916. On May 8th 1918 he died at the Etaples Hospital, France from the effects of gas poisoning. He is buried nearby.

Charles and George survived the war unscathed other than by the knowledge that they had been part of a band of 7 brothers from Peterborough who had answered the nation’s call.  A heavy price had been paid with 3 killed and two wounded.

Private Harry Clark died in Gillingham, Kent in 1974. He is the grandfather of Anglia guide Ashley Clark. Ashley retired from Kent Police in 2004 as Head of its Frontier Operations Department following some 30 years service much of which was spent working alongside French counterparts. He holds the Final Diploma of the Institute of Linguists and is retained as an examiner by the French Gendarmerie Nationale. Over many years he has developed a keen interest for the human aspects of the First World War.