CWG: Serjeant-Major Charles Clarke

Serjeant Major Charles Clarke

Charles Edward Nesbit Clarke was born in December 1884, the son of Ralph Clarke. Sadly, there is little documentation to flesh out his early life. He had at least one sibling, a sister called Nellie, and was born in London, possibly in Hampstead.

Charles seemed to have been mechanically minded; when he left school, he found work with a motor vehicle fitter, before going on to get employment as an electrical engineer.

He met a woman called Elizabeth Bertha Gould, and the couple married in Islington in November 1908. Four years later, the couple had a child, Edward. The boy’s baptism record shows that the family were living in the St John’s Road Workhouse in Islington, so things seemed to have been really tough for them. (There are no other workhouse records available, so it may be that it was a temporary residence, while Edward was born, but this cannot be confirmed either way.)

The Great War broke out, and Charles enlisted straight away. He had found employment as a foreman fitter by this point, and joined the Army Service Corps, in the Motor Transport Division. He was sent to France a week later, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, and served there for seven months.

When he returned to England, having gained the 1914 Star and the British and Victory Medals for his service, he was assigned to the military camp at Burnham-on-Sea, Somerset.

Five months later, a local newspaper picked up the sorry story of what happened next.

At Weston-super-Mare Hospital… Dr S Craddock held an inquest on the body of Staff Sergeant Major Charles Clark [sic], Army Service Corps, who was admitted to that institution suffering from a mortal and self-inflicted wound received at the Burnham military camp on Sunday morning.

Captain Budibent deposed that at the time the deceased was detained in camp as the result of having been absent from duty for four days without leave. On hearing of his return, witness (who liked the man and recognised his great value, having served with him in France) went to the tent to see him. Deceased was very upset, and in reply to a question said “I can’t account for staying away; I must have been mad.” Witness tried to cheer him up, reminding him that is was not “a hanging matter”, to which Clark replied “No, sir, I wish it was.” When they were in France together Clark confided to witness that a girl who once lived with him desired him to marry her on his returning from the Front, but he stated that he could not do so, as he loved another girl. As he was depressed, witness advised him on returning home to see the girl who considered she had a claim upon him, and, if it were a matter of money, to settle it, and then marry the other girl. On later returning to the Front from England, deceased said his troubles were over, that he had married the other girl, and that he could now do his work with a good heart. Witness, however, believed other troubles had arisen.

Sergeant Belt, ASC, said he had slept in the same tent with the deceased. Clark had a good night, but next morning became very depressed over the fact that half the Company were leaving the came for another destination, and would be losing close friends. He remarked “The last hour has been the worst in my life.” Later, when outside the tent, witness heard a rifle shot and, rushing in, found Clark lying in bed with a rifle wound in his chest. Deceased admitted that he had fired the rifle himself. Death occurred in Weston Hospital, whither he was removed the same night. The medical evidence revealed terrible internal injuries, the bullet having practically severed deceased’s liver.

The jury returned a verdict that Clark committed suicide while temporarily insane.

Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser: Wednesday 18th August 1915

The report, particularly Captain Budibent’s comments, raises some questions. By the time of the First World War, Charles was married to Bertha. There is no record of him having married anyone else, so where the girl he loved, and the other who loved him came into it, it is impossible to say.

Sergeant Major Clarke had taken his own life at the age of just 31 years old. Bertha and their son were living in Chatham, Kent, at the time, and it seems likely that the cost of moving him closer to home may have ruled that out.

Charles Edward Nesbit Clarke’s body was buried instead in the Milton Cemetery in Weston-super-Mare.


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