When the call came to fight for King and Country, Claude Clark didn’t hesitate. As soon as he could, he followed in his elder brother Charles’ footsteps and travelled from his terraced home in Portsmouth to Winchester, home of the Hampshire Regiment and signed up.
It was Tuesday 18th January 1916, ten days after Allied evacuation of Helles marked the end of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign and eleven days before compulsory conscription was introduced in Britain.
Claude was just eighteen years and a month old and a slight figure at just 5 foot five inches tall. Until that moment, he had been working as a joiner’s apprentice. Now he was 46198: Clark, Claude Clement, Private – and the latest teenage recruit into the British army.
The reality of what lay ahead was all too real. He was then asked to sign Army Form W.3664 – better known as a recruit’s Will. It was a functional piece of paper, just a little larger than a modern day post-it note. Under “Final disposal and to whom sent” he wrote simply “To Mum”.
A poignant note – and one which has particular resonance for me. For 18-year-old Claude Clark, Private 46198 of the Hampshire Regiment, was my Grandfather.
My Grandad died before I reached my teens and I never talked to him about his wartime service. Of course, I wish I had, but realistically it’s unlikely he would have wanted to talk to a child about the horrors he had faced.
Like most men who survived the degradation and nightmare of the trenches, he would have wanted to put it all behind him and move on with life. It’s certain that his military service stayed with him mentally, as it did physically – and I remember him being terribly wheezy, a result of him being gassed in the trenches.
Piecing together exactly what he did during the war isn’t easy. Like those of so many millions of his comrades, my Grandfather’s wartime service record fell victim to a bombing raid on the National Archives during the Second World War.
What was saved from the ensuing blaze are literally fire-damaged fragments. We know from some remaining paperwork that he moved around quite a lot. He joined the Hampshire Regiment before switching to the 446 Field Company, Royal Engineers (and his rank was swapped from private to sapper) and then to the 12th Yorks (Pioneers). He earned 2 shilling and sixpence a day.
What we do know was that he was gassed, although we don’t know when or where. We also know that he was demobilised on February 10 1919, two months after Armistice Day.
To our knowledge Claude didn’t keep a diary so we don’t have a detailed record of his war. But recently we’ve found something arguably better. He was a keen amateur artist, something he loved throughout his life, and took a drawing book to the trenches.
Found in a box of family papers, my Grandfather’s battered old book and loose pages of drawings give an extraordinary insight into his war. There’s an almost mocking cartoon of an effete-looking officer “the sub”, a drawing of a wounded comrade labelled “a blighty”, a self-portait of “the artist at war – what a beautiful sunset” and many, many more.
There are sketches of an airman’s grave, a dogfight, refugees, an old lady, a dugout – a real range both of subjects and, one imagines, of the artist’s mood, from serious and dour to humorous.
(I’ll be writing more about the sketches soon).
After the war my Grandad returned to his home town in Portsmouth. On 6th July 1940, four days before the beginning of The Battle of Britain during the Second World War he married my Grandmother Margaret Fogden at St Stephen’s Church, North Mundham in Sussex.
He was, for the time, quite an old groom at 43. He and my Grandmother went on to have four children: a son, Barry – my Dad – and three daughters, Averil, Rosemary and Gill.
During the Second World War Claude put his skills as an artist to good use and worked as a camouflage painter helping to hide important military sites in the south of England ahead of D-Day. After the Second World War he founded a sign and printing firm Clark’s Sign Work’s Limited in Portsmouth and his love of art meant he also had an art shop on the site, a stones’ throw from Portsmouth College of Art.
He became Secretary of the Hampshire Art Society and much of his time was spent painting and drawing. He loved the south coast and spent many happy holidays in Swanage in Dorset.
Born in 1897, he was already in his seventies by the time I was born, but we spent most Saturday afternoons (and every Christmas Day) at my grandparent’s home in Fareham. I have some prized sketches that he did for me one Saturday. They are just little cartoons, but are special to me. As we left to head home he gave us pocket money, a ten pence coin, pressed firmly into our hands.
My Grandad died on January 4th 1981, aged 83.
Like many of us who have never been called upon to defend our country and our freedom, I have often wondered how I would have reacted. I’d like to think I’d have done the right thing like my Grandad did: risk the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.
So many people gave so much for our country in the First World War and subsequent conflicts. My Grandad did the right thing. I am proud of him: my Grandad – my hero.