This is the story of Bajan doctor Maj. Frederick Clarence Clarke MD MC who served during World War I with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. It is told by his grandsons: Ian and Christopher Clarke who both live in Canada.
During World War I Maj. Frederick Clarence Clarke MD MC, a Bajan doctor, served in England and France with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps from March 1915 to September 1919. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” while with the 12th Forward Field Ambulance. Maj. Clarke followed the troops into no-man‘s-land during an advance, collected four wounded soldiers and got them under cover where he treated their wounds and remained with them for three days until help arrived. Dr. Clarke passed away in Barbados from a stroke in 1941 at just 58 and was buried at Christ Church Parish Church, Barbados.
Frederick Clarence Clarke was born in Coverley, Christ Church, Barbados on 23rd May 1883, the son of Sir Frederick James Clarke and his wife Sarah Senhouse (Greenidge). Educated in Barbados at The Lodge School, and then having obtained a Cambridge “certificate” in 1902, at twenty in 1903 he was accepted into the Medical School at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. An illness forced him to repeat his second year and he did not graduate until 1907. A year later he received his accreditation to practice medicine in western Canada and ultimately established his first practice in the small town of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan rather than return to Barbados.
Even in these early years, health issues had begun to plague the young doctor and it was recommended that the more temperate climate of the Canadian prairies might be better for him physically.
After a successful year as a family doctor in Maple Creek, he married Kathleen Edsall, a nurse he had met at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. A year later, the couple moved further west to Calgary in Alberta where he established his new practice in one of the growing city’s new districts. Their daughter Dorothy was born in late 1911, and although Dr. Clarke was still only four years out of medical school, he was becoming well known as a family physician and surgeon.
Less than three years later hostilities broke out in Europe and Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd August 1914. Mobilization swept through the British Empire and five months after the outbreak of World War I, Dr. Clarke enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) in January 1915. He sailed for England in July 1915, but he was not without his family for long. He and Kathleen sold their modest home in north Calgary, and in March 1916 she followed him to England with their four-year-old daughter.
After six months of basic training in Calgary, Dr. Clarke arrived in England in early July when he received the commission promoting him from Lieutenant to Captain. He proceeded to the Canadian Army Medical Corps Depot at Shorncliffe in southeast England where he treated wounded soldiers repatriated from service on the front lines in France. [Shorncliffe Military Hospital was near Cheriton in Kent which is very close to where the Euro Tunnel Terminal at Folkstone is now situated. Shorncliffe is also the location of Commonwealth War Graves – Shorncliffe Military Cemetery.]
In January 1916, he was assigned as the medical officer in charge of thirty invalided soldiers who were sent back to Canada on board the Canadian Pacific Liner “Metagama”. Within six weeks he was back at Shorncliffe where he was appointed Commanding Officer of the Canadian Army Medical Corps Training School and then the Assistant Director of Medical Services for the Training Depot.
Kathleen and his little daughter had arrived in West Byfleet just southwest of London at about the same time to be near to him.
Working in difficult conditions, with soldiers suffering multiple diseases as well as their wounds, Dr. Clarke was stricken with bronchopneumonia in June 1916. He was hospitalized, and given a month’s sick leave, which also coincided with the arrival of his wife Kathleen and their daughter. After his return to active service and for the next six months he commanded the Medical Training School for the Training Depot, but in early March 1917 he was posted to the 7th Canadian Cavalry Field Ambulance (CCFA) at Tully in France. Over the next three weeks, the unit relocated toward the battle lines and established an advanced dressing station to treat wounded officers, NCOs, and other ranks near the front.
As the fighting eased, the unit was then moved back from the front along with its dressing stations. Dr. Clarke remained with the 7th CCFA but was periodically attached to other units to command medical services. In May 1917 he was attached to the 12th Field Ambulance which became his operational home. The Field Ambulances were the essential battle units of medical services. Attacks against the German lines in early June had them treating hundreds of casualties each day. Relieved by another unit, the 12th was able to pull back for some well-deserved rest, but over the next weeks Dr. Clarke was assigned to a number of other units in need of his skills and medical management. He re-joined the 12th in early July 1917 and the month proceeded without action, other than cleaning equipment and sports tournaments for the men. At mid-month he was placed in charge of the unit’s hospital, located well behind the lines.
With his wife, Kathleen about to give birth to their second child, Dr. Clarke took a leave of absence at the beginning of August 1917 and crossed the Channel to be with her in West Byfleet. But his timing was poor, and he had to re-join his unit in France three days before the birth of his son, Frederick Jr. Fortunately, the baby’s nurse mother was able to tend to the premature little boy [Fredrick Jr.] who weighed less than two pounds. The incubator she fashioned was a cotton batten-lined shoe box kept close to the warmth of the stove, allowing him to thrive.
Dr. Clarke’s new duties involved coordinating the advance of the 12th Field Ambulance toward the front lines through August and September, including the dangerous night of 2nd September 1917 when the unit was shelled by a German heavy gun. Miraculously, it did little damage to the unit’s equipment and missed the hospital entirely. There were no casualties, although they were treating hundreds of front-line casualties every day because of the fierce fighting in Belgium in the Battle of Passchendaele that lasted until mid November 1917. The victory came at a tremendous cost. Over 4,000 Canadian soldiers died and another 12,000 were wounded through the nearly four months of the battle. All field ambulance units in the region of northern France were compelled to suspend leave to deal with the influx of wounded and dying soldiers.
In mid-December 1917 as the flood of casualties subsided, Dr. Clarke enjoyed a welcome Christmas leave with his family back in England. He returned to the front in early January of 1918, where he was greeted with the news that he had been promoted from Captain to Major in recognition of his service and leadership. This was followed by the honour of spending a week at the Royal Army Medical Corps School of Instruction whose attendees benefited from his experience and leadership skills.
Through August 1918, the constant relocations of the 12th Field Ambulance were clear indications that the Canadians would play key roles in the new offensive, that came to be known as the 100 Days Campaign. It was designed to drive the Germans backward and compel them to seek an armistice. The soldiers of the cornered German army fought fiercely despite the hopelessness of their cause, and casualties remained high on both sides. In one four-day stretch during heaving fighting in late September 1918 almost 10,000 casualties were seen by Field Ambulance medical staff.
At the height of the Hundred Days Campaign, the 12th Field Ambulance joined a Canadian battalion in support of their attack on the German lines. Commonly, medical staff followed the attacking soldiers into no-man’s-land to deal with the inevitable casualties. During this time Capt. (A./Maj.) Frederick Clarence Clarke, 12th Field Ambulance, Canadian Army Medical Corps was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” saving four severely wounded men. The citation for his award appeared in The London Gazette: 29th November 1918 and The Edinburgh Gazette: 4th December 1918, and read as follows:
Having survived the battles and the shelling that had claimed other officers and men in their unit, Dr. Clarke and his colleagues greeted the 11th November 1918, armistice day, with the joy and the gratitude of the thousands of troops who had survived the war. But their time on duty was not over. The Canadian Army Medical Corps 12th Field Ambulance remained in France until May 1919 when they finally returned to England.
It would be another three or four months before Dr. Clarke and his family returned to Kathleen’s home in Bowmanville, Ontario after he was released from service. Aside from the maladies he had suffered through difficult service, his general health had improved sufficiently to prompt his decision to return to practice not in western Canada but in Barbados. He spent the next ten years there with Kathleen, Dorothy, and Fred Jr., serving the Island population as a general practitioner and surgeon. He also spent two six-month terms as a visiting physician in New York City through the twenties. Once again Dr. Clarke’s health deteriorated, and he took the family back to Canada in 1929.
Before long Dr. Clarke had re-established the home-based family practice he had left after his enlistment in early 1915. He also resurrected his hospital privileges to perform surgeries on serious injuries frequently involving young children playing on or near the city’s roadways.
Early in 1932, his own disorder prompted him to attend the famous Mayo Clinic in the United States, where his skull was trepanned [a surgical intervention where a hole is drilled in the skull] to relieve the mounting pressure on his brain. It was a surgery he would have to endure for the rest of his life, as the bone was replaced with a wax plug to allow for easy access should it be necessary.
After another visit to the eastern United States later that same year, he suspended his practice until May of 1934. Three years later, suffering aphasia [a condition that leaves a person unable to communicate effectively with others] from the damage to his brain surgery, Dr. Clarke’s medical career ended, and he chose to return to his home at Coverley in Barbados where he spent his last few years.
On 20th September 1941 at the age of 58, Dr. Clarke passed away from the effects of a stroke, much to the sorrow of his family and friends in Canada and Barbados and his son Flight Lieutenant Frederick Clarke Jr. of 414 Army Cooperation Squadron serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England. Dr. Clarke was buried in Christ Church Parish Church, Church Hill, Oistins, Christ Church Barbados. His wife, Kathleen Clarke eventually returned to Canada. She ended her life in Lethbridge, Alberta where her daughter Dorothy lived, and passed away in 1958.
Ian and Christopher’s father, Fred Clarke Jr. (know as Freddy / “Knobby” in the RCAF) was born in 1917 in West Byfleet in Surrey, England where his father Capt. Frederick C Clarke MD was serving with the RCAMC. Having spent ten of his first twelve years of life in Barbados, Fred Jr. always considered himself a Bajan.
Fred Jr. joined the Calgary Flying Club and learned to fly in 1938, and then joined the RCAF where during World War II he served as a volunteer pilot initially with 400 and then with 414 Army Co-operation Squadron, flying the P-40 Tomahawk and the Mustang Mark I. As an Army Co-operation Squadron, their purpose was to supply Allied Army Intelligence with photo reconnaissance, intelligence and undertake ground attacks where necessary.
Fred got married on 7th November 1942 to Helen Hope from Corydon in England where 414 Squadron was initially based. Christopher was born in England in October 1943 (a war-baby). Ian was born in Calgary in 1946 (a baby-boomer). Fred passed away in 2005. Helen passed away in 2007 eighteen months after Fred.
Click here to read about F/L Fred Clarke RCAF, who like his father, Dr. Clarke who served his country during World War I with the RCAMC, Fred served his country during World War II as a RCAF pilot with 414 Army Cooperation Squadron.