Thiepval and Ernest Edward Clark

People who want to be convinced of the folly of World War I should visit the big memorials. The one on the Somme is called Thiepval. It is enormous.

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It has to be enormous for on it is the names of seventy two thousand men who died on the Somme during the war and who have no known grave. Oh, that’s just one side of the story. There could be another similar number from the other side, all killed for no very obvious reason. And of course, many of those that died did have their bodies recovered and they will be commemorated in properly constituted war graves. Those 72000 are just those whose bodies were never found.

Amongst them is a distant relative of mine – Ernest Edward Clark. He descends from my 3 greats grandfather so he is a third cousin, once removed in fact. By the way some branches of the family had a final e – Clarke. Others were just Clark. It probably depended on how somebody first wrote it down.

Ernest Edward Clark was born about 1896 at Heathfield in Sussex. He was the second child of Edward Jessie Clark and his wife Harriet Elizabeth (nee) Leadbetter. Ernest Edward had an older sister, born about 1894 and named for her mother, Harriet Elizabeth Clark. By the start of the 20th Century there were two more sisters, Jane Elizabeth and Ida May Clark. All four children were Heathfield born suggesting that their father (Edward Jessie) was coping as a bricklayer in the area.

One can guess that an 18 year old lad was keen for the adventure offered by the war but I do not know just when Ernest Edward joined up. His regiment was the Royal Sussex and he found himself on the Somme in 1916. Ernest Edward would have been involved in the Somme offensive of July 1916.

On 1 July 1916, supported by a French attack to the south, thirteen divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive on a line from north of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite a preliminary bombardment lasting seven days, the German defences were barely touched and the attack met unexpectedly fierce resistance. Losses were catastrophic and with only minimal advances on the southern flank, the initial attack was a failure. In the following weeks, huge resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to exploit the modest successes of the first day. However, the German Army resisted tenaciously and repeated attacks and counter attacks meant a major battle for every village, copse and farmhouse gained. At the end of September, Thiepval was finally captured. The village had been an original objective of 1 July. Attacks north and east continued throughout October and into November in increasingly difficult weather conditions. The Battle of the Somme finally ended on 18 November with the onset of winter. In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918. The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. The memorial also serves as an Anglo-French Battle Memorial in recognition of the joint nature of the 1916 offensive and a small cemetery containing equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves lies at the foot of the memorial. The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was built between 1928 and 1932 and unveiled by the Prince of Wales, in the presence of the President of France, on 31 July 1932. The dead of other Commonwealth countries who died on the Somme and have no known graves are commemorated on national memorials elsewhere.

Ernest Edward Clark fell on 17th July of 1916. There is no known grave for him and so he is one of the 72000 names on the Thiepval memorial. Without guidance it would be a hard job to find an individual name.

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These are just some of Ernest’s regiment – The Royal Sussex. We can see that a couple of names have been removed. This will be because bodies have been identified and they have joined the dead in a war grave cemetery.

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There he is – a simple name: Clarke E. E.

On this visit, which was in 2004, an English school party were laying a wreath. It really was rather moving.

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Behind the youngsters is one of the name covered pillars – it gives us a sense of scale.

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