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A Valour Road Victoria Cross Memorial Plaque to Leo Clarke

A Valour Road Victoria Cross Memorial Plaque to Leo Clarke

Leo Clarke was born on December 1, 1892 in Waterdown, Ontario (although his Attestation Paper states that it was Hamilton, Ontario), the son of Henry Trevelyan Clarke and Rosetta Caroline Nona Clarke. He spent his early years in England, home of his parents, but returned to Canada and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba around 1903. 

Before the start of the First World War, Clarke was working as a Surveyor for the Canadian National Railway in the Canadian north. He signed his Attestation Paper as a Private (72132) with the 27th Infantry Battalion "City of Winnipeg Regiment" on February 25, 1915 in Winnipeg. He did so at the age of 22, naming his next-of-kin as his father, stating that he had no previous military service, that he was not married and that his trade was that of Resident Engineer. 

The Battalion was raised in Ontario and Manitoba, with mobilization headquarters at Winnipeg, Manitoba under the authority of G.O. 36, March 15, 1915. The Battalion sailed May 17, 1915 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J.R. Snider with a strength of 33 officers and 1,039 other ranks, arriving in England near the end of the month. 

In early June, he was transferred to the 2nd (Eastern Ontario Regiment) Infantry Battalion, joining his brother, Private Charles Clarke. 

Leo Clarke was taken to the 2nd Canadian Field Ambulance on December 8, 1915, suffering from a gunshot wound to his right side. He was transferred the same day to the 2nd Casualty Clearing Station and after three days, returned to duty on the 11th. In the following spring of 1916, he was admitted to No. 3 Canadian Field Ambulance with a case of Influenza on April 10th, and after fifteen days, was transferred to the Casualty Clearing Station on the 25th, where he was to remain for one week, before rejoining his unit on May 2nd. 

In the fall of 1916, the main assault of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was scheduled for September 15th.Its objective was to occupy a chain of trenches between Martinpuich and Courcelette. On September 1st, Clarke's battalion was charged with capturing a fifty-yard-long salient between the Canadian position at Mouquet Farm and Courcelette to the north. Eight days later, on September 9th, near Pozieres, France, the first three companies of Clarke's battalion went over the top, leaving the fourth in reserve. Clarke, in the rank of Acting Corporal at the time, was assigned to take a section to clear the enemy on the left flank, to allow his Company Sergeant to build a fortified dugout that would secure the Canadian position once the salient was overrun. When his section reached the trench, it was so heavily defended that they had to battle their way through with hand grenades, bayonets and their rifles as clubs. 

Clarke was the only man left standing, the rest either having been killed or wounded. About twenty Germans, including two officers, counter-attacked. Clarke advanced, emptying his revolver into their ranks. He subsequently picked up two enemy rifles and fired those too. One of the officers attacked with a bayonet, wounding Clarke in the leg, but Clarke shot him dead. The Germans retreated, with Clarke pursuing, shooting four more and capturing a fifth in the process. In all, Clarke killed nineteen of the enemy. For his efforts that day, Clarke was awarded the Victoria Cross, as mentioned in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette 29802 of Tuesday, October 24, 1916, on Thursday, October 26, 1916, page 10395, his citation reading: "For most conspicuous bravery. 

He was detailed with his section of bombers to clear the continuation of a newly-captured trench and cover the construction of a "block." After most of his party had become casualties, he was building a block when about twenty of the enemy with two officers counter-attacked. He boldly advanced against them, emptied his revolver into them and afterwards two enemy rifles which he picked up in the trench. One of the officers then attacked him with the bayonet, wounding him in the leg, but he shot him dead. 

The enemy then ran away, pursued by Acting Corporal Clarke, who shot four more and captured a fifth." He was briefly hospitalized "sick" with the wound to his leg on September 18, 1916, before returning to his unit on the 24th. Clarke's battalion was ordered forward to secure the newly captured Regina Trench on October 11, 1916, the trench still under heavy enemy artillery fire. 

He was crouching in a hole at the rear of the trench, when a shell exploded and the back of the trench caved in, burying him. His brother, Charles, dug him out, but Leo Clarke was now paralyzed, the weight of the earth having crushed his back and injured his spine. He was rushed and admitted to No. 1 General Hospital at Etretat. In his Medical Case Sheet, dated October 18, 1916, Major J.W. Richardson RAMC documented Clarke's "Paraplegia", his situation noted as "Dangeously Ill": "Admitted shortly after from Amb. (Ambulance) team No. 280. Lower limbs completely paralyzed. Very weak, restless and groaning. Answered questions with difficulty. Passed a fair night with some sleep but restless and talking. In the morning was cyanosed (turning blue and/or purple) and much worse, died 11 am.” 

Clarke died from his wounds on October 19, 1916, at the age of 23. He is buried at Etretat Churchyard, Seine-Maritime, France, Plot II, Row C, Grave 3A, sixteen miles north of Le Havre, and is commemorated on page 67 of the First World War Book of Remembrance. According to a contemporary newspaper article, shortly before his death, he wrote his parents, stating: "I don't care so much for the Victoria Cross as getting home for a couple of months." Clarke was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross in spring of 1917. It was presented by the Duke of Devonshire (Governor General of Canada) to Leo's father before a crowd of 30,000. In 1925, Pine Street in Winnipeg was renamed "Valour Road", in honour of Clarke and fellow Victoria Cross recipients, Frederick William Hall and Robert Shankland, all of whom lived on the 700 block. 

A plaque in Clarke's honour was erected by the Ontario Heritage Foundation at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch in Waterdown. His story was featured in a Historica vignette, which aired nationally in Canada. Leo Clarke's Memorial Plaque was sold to the Canadian War Museum in 2014 and is now on displayed as part of the Valour Road exhibit. 

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