A staff post by Jesper Ericsson, Curatorial Assistant at The Hunterian.
Some years ago, a gold University of Glasgow prize medal for ‘Hebrew Class’ was found in an antiques shop in north Wales. On the edge, the inscription revealed that the recipient was Vernon C Clarke, and that he had been awarded the medal in 1936. This is his story, and that of how the medal came to be a part of the numismatic collection at The Hunterian.
Born in Hastings, Clarke attended the High School of Glasgow and went on to study here at the University. He graduated MA in 1934 and BD in 1937, before becoming Minister of Moncrieffe Church in East Kilbride. War broke out in September 1939. On 19 April 1940, Clarke was commissioned as a Chaplain 4th Class and joined The Gordon Highlanders in the UK.
In January 1941, Clarke received a posting to North Africa. He was to be Chaplain of 2nd Battalion Scots Guards. The Battalion had been in Egypt since January 1939, but had not yet seen action. The voyage from the UK round the Cape of Good Hope would have taken Clarke at least six to eight weeks, and he arrived in time for the deployment of 2nd Scots Guards to the front line on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941.
Like today, a Chaplain’s work in the Second World War was enormously varied. Traditionally known in the British Army as Padres, amongst many other duties they were expected to undertake pastoral support, conduct services, tend to the sick, wounded and dead, organise funerals, prepare the men for battle and ultimately become the selfless spiritual glue that held battalion morale together.
Part of Headquarters Company, Clarke was in the thick of the action as 2nd Scots Guards took part in the seesaw nature of fighting in the Western Desert. Allied forces struck west and helped relieve the besieged town of Tobruk, before finding themselves reeling east once more under the pressure of a determined Axis advance.
The severest test for Clarke and the Battalion came during the Battle of Gazala in Libya. 2nd Scots Guards, supported by elements of 6th South African Field Battery, were dug in on a position known as ‘Rigel Ridge’, their infantry and anti-tank guns ready for any sign of the enemy. In the early afternoon of 13 June 1942, in the midst of a sandstorm, the ridge was attacked by the entire 21st Panzer Division, part of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Over the course of a few hours, despite fierce resistance and heavy fighting at point-blank range, German tanks and infantry gradually overwhelmed position after position. Covered by the sacrifice of the South African batteries, who fired until all their guns were destroyed, what was left of 2nd Scots Guards was forced to retire. Around 9 officers and 250 other ranks had become casualties – dead, wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
Clarke may have witnessed the ferocious close-quarter fighting, with thick, cloying smoke filling the sandy air, and the relentless cacophony of shells, bullets and the cries of the wounded assailing his ears. He may have felt the awful, gradual realisation that their situation was untenable. Perhaps he was with stretcher-bearers in the maelstrom, looking for the wounded and the dead to take back to the Regimental Aid Post. There, he would have moved from man to man, offering encouragement and support, or giving last rites. Clarke was fortunate to be one of those who got away. His Brigade Commander later wrote that ‘…he always accompanied the battalion into battle and his courage was magnificent.’ In recognition of his valour and dedication to duty, Clarke was Mentioned in Despatches.
The next day, the remnants of 2nd Scots Guards was ordered back to Egypt for a much-needed period of rest and recuperation. Clarke’s role as Padre was now more important than ever before, and he helped rebuild the Battalion. Yet Clarke was fated not to survive the year. The Regimental history of the Scots Guards records:
‘Few who served in the Battalion in that eventful year would disagree that three men stood out above their comrades… The third was the Reverend V. C. Clarke, the Padre. He served with the Battalion all through the campaign, longer continuously than any other officer. His self-imposed duties knew no bounds and went far beyond his ministerial ones, always untiring and undaunted, and in adversity, always ‘jogging along’. He had twice refused the post of Senior Church of Scotland Chaplain in the Middle East, in order that he might stay with the Battalion; the Guardsmen said his initials ought to be after his name. He was an irresistible influence for good, and it was with the most heartfelt sorrow that those who had served with him heard of his sudden death in hospital in Cairo on 22 September.’
125659 Chaplain Third Class The Reverend Vernon Callard Clarke was 28 years old, and died as a result of complications after an operation. He is buried at Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt.
So why was Clarke’s medal found in an antiques shop in north Wales? His parents were Bernard Callard Clarke and Elsie May Clarke. At some point, they moved to Llanbedr-Dyffryn-Clwyd (in present day Denbighshire). His parents would have taken charge of their son’s possessions after his death, including this gold medal, which they no doubt valued greatly. However, Clarke was an only child. When his parents died, once-prized items became scattered. Fortunately, the medal was found by Gaynor Weatherson. After some research, she realised the significance of the item and together with her daughter, Nadine Roberts, they kindly donated the medal to The Hunterian in June 2017.
22 September 2017 is the 75th anniversary of Padre Clarke’s death. This blog post was written to highlight his service and commemorate his life.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
We will remember them.