My maternal grandmother (née Clarke) had six brothers, all keen poker players. All six volunteered to fight in the Great War, and only one, Sergeant Herbert Clarke, of B Company, 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, failed to return to civilian life afterwards. He was blown up by a shell during the second week of the Battle of the Somme.
Shortly before the shell got him, Herbert had taken some leave and married his sweetheart, Dolly. Dolly never got over him. Just before she died, she passed on Herbert’s army papers and tiny, secretly kept diary to my aunt. The diary was written in pencil and difficult to decipher, but to mark the centenary of the start of the war, a member of my aunt’s local historical society painstakingly transcribed it and published it in their historical magazine. Herbert writes cheerfully and well and he seems to have enjoyed his time at the front, though he admits to being sick of eating omelettes. The final page of the diary is blank apart from a fading brown bloodstain.
It is a great help to have a relative’s face on which to focus on Remembrance Sunday, and Sergeant Herbert Clarke’s full-length photograph is now framed and hanging in the hall. He is tapping his boot smartly with a riding crop and looking steadfastly at the camera. I nod to him when I go out. My aunt has also located his grave in a cemetery in France, just off the Albert to Becourt road, should anyone want to go.
More recently, however, my aunt has found another letter in a drawer that she didn’t know she had. The letter is addressed to Dolly and written by Mrs Bowl, the mother of a young lad who died of wounds sustained in the same blast that killed Sergeant Clarke. I’ve reproduced it below. It’s poignancy in many ways overshadows the story of my great-uncle’s Herbert’s war service. The first letter was sent from Mrs Bowl to Dolly. The second letter, enclosed inside the first, was written to Mrs Bowl by a soldier who was in the trench when the shell hit, but survived.
My son was working with your husband when the Shell burst into the trench they were working in. I received an official paper to say my Boy had died of his wound on the 11th of July. I could not find out any more from the Army Office, so I wrote to a friend’s father with whom my Boy was billeted. He in turn wrote to his Son who was with my Boy and your Husband when they were hit. His Son is in hospital suffering from Shock. He sent back a letter which I have copied. As soon as I received the letter I wrote to Hounslow asking for the nearest relation to Sergeant Clark [sic] as I felt you would like to see a copy of this letter.
Dear Mrs Bowl,
I was glad to get your letter this morning but it both surprised and shocked me to learn that Bowl had died of his wounds. I will tell you all I can about him. I was with him when he was hit. It was done by a shell an hour or two after we entered the trenches near Albert. Bowl and Sergeant Clarke were working in a Tee Trench. I was standing just outside the T when a shell came over killing Sergeant Clarke and wounding Bowl and one other. Tucker and myself were smothered in earth but unhurt. Bowl came running out of the T complaining of being burnt. Bowl was immediately placed on the fire step and dressed. He was complaining all the while of difficulty in breathing. He was conscious all the time and his wounds did not appear serious. Several large pieces of shell must have hit him. His water bottle and entrenching tool, the latter made of strong iron, were completely shattered. The pieces of shell must have penetrated right through them and entered in his buttocks. There were several large holes in his buttocks and he was bleeding profusely. It was quite dark and we were unable to see much. There may have been wounds higher up his back. He was immediately taken to the aid post and that’s the last I saw of him I am afraid.
Mrs Bowl continues: It is no use me saying anything to you as I feel the same as you. My boy was my all. He enlisted against our wishes, saying he was 19 and a half and he was only 15 and a half. Your husband I expect had to go, but my boy’s life was made a misery of by recruiting sergeants. I cannot write any more. But I thought you would like to read this. The accident happened on the 8th or 9th of July.
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