Five Peterborough brothers went to war, only two came home

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Barely a family was untouched by the horrors of the Great War, but one Peterborough family, the Clarks of Wellington Street, suffered almost unimaginable grief and heartbreak. Five of the family’s sons served their country on the front line but only two came home, and they were badly injured. Ian Porter, who lives in Yorkshire, has researched the history of his Peterborough family and the sacrifices they made. As the country prepares to mark the centenary of Armistice Day, here in his own words, is his family’s war story.

“At the outbreak of war in August 1914 George and Lucy-Ann Clark were living in the family home of 147 Wellington Street, Peterborough. They were parents to two daughters and seven sons; George, Charles, Fred, John-Robert, Jim, William and Harry.

The opening of the hostilities saw the recalling of John-Robert to the colours. He had been with 1st Battalion The Bedfordshire Regiment since 1907 and was now a reservist.

His old battalion were immediately deployed from Ireland to Belgium where they fought at the Battle of Mons, John-Robert was instead ordered to report to Landguard Fort at Felixstowe, as an instructor, to help train the new recruits now enlisting in their droves.

Fred had left the Lincolnshire Regiment in September 1913 having served the full 12 years with the army in India and latterly Aden and had found employment with the Post Office as a linesman working on telegraph cables.

At the start of the war however, he re-enlisted, joining the 3rd and then 1st Battalion the Northamptonshire Regiment. He was deployed to France on 12th November 1914.

The youngest of the Clark brothers, Harry, a baker by trade, joined the Northamptonshire Regiment on 31st August and was sent to 3rd Battalion for training. The next brother to join up was Charles, who had served with 1st Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment from 1896 but was discharged in 1901 as medically unfit and returned home from India.

By August 1914 he was living in Grimsby, married with five children yet moved back to Peterborough to join the 8th Battalion home service battalion as a storeman, not being fit for military service.

The fifth Clark, Jim, enlisted 19th January 1915 and joined one of Kitchener’s pals battalions, locally known as Whitsed’s Light Infantry after a local councillor of that name, who had been instrumental in its formation. This later became part of 7th Battalion the Northamptonshire Regiment.

On Kaiser Bill’s birthday, 29th January 1915, Fred was now an acting Sergeant and was in the line at Cuichy, Pas-de-Calais, when the Germans attacked the Northamptonshire’s trenches.

Some 25 men were killed or wounded, Fred losing his life in their successful defence of the position. Although buried locally, Fred has no known grave and is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial a few miles distant.

Meanwhile Harry was now on his way to Fred’s Battalion arriving in France fully expecting to meet up with his elder brother but was instead met with the desperate news of his loss when he joined them on the 3rd of February.

Harry’s tour of action was to be cut short as he was wounded at the Battle of Aubers Ridge 9th May 1915, the blackest day in the history of the Northamptonshire Regiment, suffering 984 casualties across the two battalions.

Harry was evacuated to Kent where he met and married his wife Elsie in 1915, still serving in the army in England until 1919 and living in the county until his death in 1974.

Jim saw action at the Battle of Loos with his regiment attacking the German trenches, where he threw a jam tin bomb (an improvised grenade) into a German defensive position only to have it thrown back at him causing wounds to his arm and the loss of an eye.

He was also sent back to Kent and served in various units at home until being demobbed at the war’s end. Jim died at home in Star Road in 1936 at the young age of 49.

In December 1915, ahead of conscription being introduced in 1916, William, a gardener at the city park, enlisted into the 1/6th South Staffordshire Regiment. William married his fiancée Maud in June 1916 before joining his Battalion on the Somme in July.

The eldest of the Clark brothers, George Culpin, was conscripted at the age of 40 in February 1917, serving in home defence units until December 1918.

Approximately 60 per cent of all World War One servicemen’s records were lost to fire in the Blitz in 1940, and so this makes it difficult to know the exact movements of many men, and this is true of John-Robert Clark.

By 1917 he was serving in France as a Corporal with the 8th Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment and on the evening of the 21st of June he was out on a patrol in front of the British line and was killed by a shell. He left a wife Sarah and a son Albert Ernest. He is buried at Philosophe Military Cemetery close to Hulluch where he fell.

William continued to fight in France, but on May 1st or 2nd 1918 his battalion came under gas shelling at Gorre and about 90 per cent of the unit were incapacitated.

William was moved to a dressing station and then to one of 22 hospitals located at Etaples, south of Boulogne where he died from wounds, a phrase meaning from the awful effects of the gassing, and now lies at rest in the Etaples British Military Cemetery.

All of the brothers were killed or wounded within a few miles of each other.

George and Lucy-Ann Clark were not alone in their experience of loss come the day the guns fell silent in November 1918, but few had the misfortune to have five sons see active service, two become badly wounded and three make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.

May the selfless duty of the Clark brothers’ generation never be forgotten.’’