CLARKE, Lieut Mervyn Ephraim ” Dick “- 879- 11th Battalion.
“ Ultimate survivor against insurmountable odds, blinded during War Service at the Western Front, fine furniture maker for 60 years, devoted family man, true Anzac Hero”.
Dick CLARKE was born in Bunbury, WA on 31 May 1894, to parents Ephraim Mayo and Louisa Frances ( nee TEEDE ). His father was the first elected Mayor of Bunbury and was working as a farmer at Roelands,WA. Dick was one of 10 children ( 6 boys and 4 girls ), who shared an average size house in Stirling Street Bunbury, sleeping 2 or 3 to a bed. Food was fairly scarce in the community, so the family made their own bread, kept fowls for chicken meat and eggs and had a cow for milk. From five years of age, one of Dick’s chores was to milk the cow each morning to collect 2 buckets of milk for family consumption.
He started infants school at the Bunbury State School in Arthur Street Bunbury in 1899. His best friend at school was Cyril John PAISLEY ( who enlisted for War Service in the Great War of 1914-1918, also being allotted to the 11th Battalion ). Dick became dux of Bunbury State School in 1906. His parents then sent him as a boarder to Hale School in Perth in 1907. Scholastically, he proved to be very good at English and Maths. He flourished in School sports, becoming an integral member of the Australian Rules, Cricket and Rowing Teams at Hale School.
Despite his outstanding potential to succeed in many diverse walks of life, Dick always harboured a strong personal desire to be a farmer. He successfully planned his school holidays to spend his time at the ROSE family farm, Wedderburn. Farming tasks undertaken included carting large bales of hay and adopting various forms of farm labour, as he grew older and stronger. In 1912, after completion of five years of High School at Hale School, Dick elected to take up work on his Uncles farm at Roelands, WA. He remained in this employment until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
Dick CLARKE quickly responded to the call for volunteers and enlisted for war service at Helena Vale, WA, on 17 August, 1914. He enlisted alongside his brother Raymond Arthur CLARKE and family friend Thomas Hayward ROSE. The three of them were amongst the first troops to arrive at the site of the designated Blackboy Hill Camp. They joined with Cpl. Tom LOUCH from Albany, WA, to assist clear the ground and pitch tents to house fellow volunteers, many of whom were on their way to begin training. The first eleven weeks in camp were devoted to recruit training, in squad drill, rifle exercises and musketry training.
On 31 October, 1914, Pte. Dick CLARKE boarded the transport ship “ Ascanius “, which then anchored in Gage Roads for the next forty-eight hours. Once the complete armada of thirty-eight ships were assembled, the convoy embarked for Egypt on 2 November, 1914. There were almost 2000 troops on board and there was scarcely room to move, whilst there was restricted availability of water, which was being heavily rationed. Sleep deprivation was rampant. Food supplies were more varied than they had enjoyed in camp, however there never seemed to be enough to nourish the men.
The convoy berthed at Colombo, Ceylon, to take on desperately needed water supplies, before a further stop was made at Aden, to replenish coal supplies. The “ Ascanius “ finally arrived at Port Said, Egypt, on 6 December, 1914. The common belief amongst the troops was that they were to be trans-shipped to England, however, the British War Office had decided to hold the AIF troops in Egypt for additional training. ( The British were also fearing a potential Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, to which the Australians could respond ).
Pte. Dick CLARKE joined the 11th Battalion in numerous field training exercises in Egypt during early January, 1915. These training regimes were often carried out in stifling heat, accompanied by blinding sand and dust. The troops were being housed in tents. The desert nights could get bitterly cold and increasing numbers of men were suffering from common colds and the prevailing influenza. On 28 February, 1915 all troops marched into barracks in Cairo, for a short respite. Soon thereafter, the troops marched to the nearest railway station for entrainment to Alexandria.
On 2 March, 1915, Pte. CLARKE embarked from Egypt aboard the transport ship “ Suffolk “, bound for the Gallipoli Peninsula, as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Forces. The 11th Battalion anchored in Mudros Harbour, Lemnos for some weeks, awaiting arrival of the full contingent of Anzac troops. Plans were drawn up to engage in the strategic landings at Gallipoli to take control of the Peninsula.
Pte. Dick CLARKE and his 11th Battalion mates were honoured to be chosen amongst the first Anzac troops in the Dawn Landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, 1915. Official orders were to land on the beach, just North of Gaba Tepe, form up under cover, then move to seize the high ground. Capture of this high ground would enable the remainder of the Anzac Corps to advance, sweeping through the flat country. Unfortunately, troops had been landed in the wrong place, causing Officers to re-direct them toward a ridge on the other side of Shrapnel Gully.
Cpl. Tom LOUCH and Pte. Dick CLARKE, together with five other troops and an Officer ,were then selected to undertake a highly dangerous special tactical mission. They were instructed to reinforce an isolated small trench in front of the main firing line at the bottom of the gully. LOUCH, CLARKE and two others successfully made the daring crossing, under fire, to take cover in three small potholes, which were joined together. Sadly, the other four troops were shot down while attempting the crossing. LOUCH and CLARKE were then trapped in the potholes for four days, quickly ran out of food, surviving by eating dry tea and sugar. The other two soldiers had been shot earlier, whilst trying to rejoin their Unit. Compounding their thin thread on life was the minimal supply of water between them and the mind-numbing impact of lack of sleep. In desperation, both men utilized every last drop of energy and skill to survive the threat of the Turkish guns , escaping through the trench systems to safety at Shell Green. Pte. Dick CLARKE arrived forty-eight hours after Cpl. LOUCH, severely disoriented and in poor physical condition. These two men were the last of the stragglers from the Dawn Landing to reach safety. They had both been given up by the Battalion, as lost to the enemy.
Pte. Dick CLARKE spent the entire Months of May and June in a sector of the line, just South of Lone Pine. Much of this time was spent tunnelling forward to establish an elaborate underground trench system. He was to become part of a celebrated Gallipoli sniping team that included his brother Ray CLARKE, Tom ROSE and Harry BUSWELL, all from the Bunbury, WA district. These men operated from a well-hidden sniper post, in advance of the Australian front line, causing extensive grief to the Turkish snipers and Officers who they killed. A letter dated 9 August, 1915 from Cpl. Julian NORTH DCM to his parents in Bunbury was published in the local newspaper, and mentioned:- “ Ray and Dick CLARKE, Harry BUSWELL and Tom ROSE are sniping for us and a Turk only has to put his nose outside his hiding place to catch a bullet, they are all crack shots “.
Captain Walter BELFORD, author of Legs Eleven, the History of the 11th Battalion also paid special reference to the famous snipers of the 11th Battalion:- “Each of these men accounted for many of the enemy, as they were all wonderful shots and they took up the business in a methodical and efficient manner”.
On 19 August, 1915, Pte.CLARKE was admitted to the Second Field Ambulance at Gallipoli, suffering from the effects of Diarrhoea. He was successfully evacuated and admitted to the First Australian General Hospital at Heliopolis, Egypt. After treatment for Enteritis, he transferred to the Helouan Convalescent Camp, on 4 September, 1915. Medical clearance was issued for his discharge to the training depot at Zeitoun on 12 October, 1915. After this training stint was completed, he rejoined his unit at Sarpi Camp, Lemnos on 19 November, 1915. He was not to see any further action at Gallipoli, being shipped to Alexandria, Egypt, where he disembarked on 7 January, 1916.
Pte. Dick CLARKE endured further training regimes at the Overseas Training Base in Egypt, until embarking Alexandria on 29 March, 1916, bound for Marseilles, France , as part of the British Expeditionary Forces. Within two weeks of landing in France, he was admitted to the third Field Ambulance at Streziele, near Sailly sur La Lys , on 19 April, 1916, impacted by Influenza. Six days after being discharged from treatment for this illness, he was re-admitted to Hospital, stricken with Diptheria/Tonsillitis. He did not rejoin the 11th Battalion in the field in France until 14 May, 1916.
On 20 May, 1916, Pte. CLARKE was moved into the firing line at Petillon, France. Three weeks later , on 10 June, 1916, he was selected to be one of sixty raiders to undertake a special mission. In mid July, 1916, Pte. CLARKE and the 11th Battalion enjoyed a break from the line, being billeted at Naours, France ( famous for its underground caved city, with thousands of soldiers inscriptions and messages to home, emblazoned on the walls, and only discovered in recent years ).
Pte. Dick CLARKE and the 11th Battalion troops are also famously remembered as having led the Australian troops into the first battle on the Western Front at the Somme. On 19 July, 1916 they proceeded to Albert and moved up the line. Three days later, on 22 July, 1916, CLARKE was wounded in action during the Battle of Pozieres. He received gunshot wounds to the head and shoulder. He was initially transported/admitted to the eleventh Stationary Hospital at Rouen, France. The serious nature of his wounds necessitated prompt evacuation for treatment at the Graylingwell War Hospital at Chichester, England. He underwent six weeks of treatment and rehabilitation, before transferring to the Woodcote Park Convalescent Hospital at Epsom.
On discharge from Hospital, CLARKE was transferred to the third Training Battalion at Perham Downs on 5 November, 1916. He had been identified and acknowledged as a leader of men, prompting his transfer , for Officer Instruction, at Emmanuel/Pembroke College at Cambridge. On 30 March, 1917, he was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. He was granted leave at this time, visiting Ireland, whilst waiting for his pending commission. On 1 May, 1917, Second Lieut. CLARKE rejoined the 11th Battalion in the field in France. His quick progress in the role of an Officer, was again acknowledged, with further promotion to the rank of Lieutenant, on 29 July, 1917.
Lieut. Dick CLARKE experienced another setback on 20 September, 1917 when he was again wounded in action. During the Third Battle of Ypres, at Polygon Wood, Belgium, he suffered another gunshot wound to the head. He was admitted to the 20th General Hospital at Camieres, France. The extent of his injury demanded early evacuation to the 3rd London General Hospital in England. He recovered after four weeks of treatment and rehabilitation, being discharged to the No. 1 Command Depot at Sutton Veny.
On 11 November, 1917, Lieut. CLARKE rejoined the 11th Battalion in the field in France. They were holding the trench line , at the point, where the German Spring Offensive was eventually stopped in March/April 1918. CLARKE was admitted to the 25th General Hospital in France on 10 December, 1917, suffering from a severe bout of Scabies. He was discharged from Hospital on 28 December, 1917 and immediately took advantage of three weeks Leave. Shortly after resuming duty on 22 January, 1918, he was selected to attend the Brigade School, before being seconded to the School of Instruction from 9 June, 2018.
The South Western Times Bunbury newspaper of 16 May, 1918 quoted from a letter of a Bunbury soldier at the front, who said:- “ Lieut. Dick CLARKE has been specially selected for a raid which was considered so excessively dangerous that it was being specially Officered and organized “.
On 8 August, 1918, the great Allied Offensive was launched East of Amiens, France.
Tragically, two days into this offensive, during an attack on an enemy stronghold near Lihons, France, Lieut. Dick CLARKE was struck in the face by an exploding bullet. At the time, he had been stationed by an open window, operating a Lewis Machine Gun, when a German sniper’s bullet ricocheted off the gun frame. He was horrendously wounded, suffering severe facial injuries, losing his right eye and having the optic nerve severed in his left eye. Due to the intensity of the Battle and the proximity of enemy troops, Lieut. CLARKE was not found for two days. Other soldiers had passed by, thinking he was dead, until he thought it safe to call out. His cry for help was heard by two Field Ambulance Officers who carried out life saving treatment.
CLARKE was swiftly transferred and admitted to the 8th General Hospital at Rouen, France, where his condition was diagnosed as severe and life threatening. Medical Staff organized urgent evacuation to the 3rd London General Hospital in England. Lieut. CLARKE endured twelve months of procedures, recovery and convalescence. He underwent three operations in attempts to restore some vision in his left eye, each proving unsuccessful. There were also procedures of major reconstructive surgery carried out on his face. A bone from his chest was used to build a new nose and a flap of skin from his arm was used to rebuild his forehead. He amazed Doctors, Nurses and staff during his stay in Hospital, being renowned as a real joker.
The following Personal Notice appeared in the South Western Times, Bunbury dated 29 October, 1918:- “ Extreme sympathy was expressed yesterday afternoon and today for Mr and Mrs E. M. CLARKE of Bunbury, in regard to their son, Lieut. Mervyn E. CLARKE, better known as “ Dick “ – Mail arrived yesterday from Captain DONALDSON containing the unwelcome news that he was in Hospital in England, totally blind. It seems that he was wounded about August 9th by an explosive bullet which struck him in the nose and then exploded, splashing him all over the face. The newspaper reporter of the time then went on to add the following kind words:– “Dick CLARKE is one of the most popular of Bunbury’s younger generation and his affliction comes as a personal blow to those who have known him since his boyhood and loved him for his genial, happy personality. It is said that his courage since he lost his sight has been marvellous, and this can be well believed by those who have come into contact with him most intimately”.
On 7 November, 1918, Dick CLARKE’s mother, Louisa wrote a remarkably compassionate letter of reply, addressed to My Dear Captain DONALDSON, in which she stated:- “ Thank you for your kind letter of sympathy in our trouble. It is indeed terrible to think of our dear boy coming home to us blind. Sad as it is we have much to be thankful for. To think his life was spared when so many others were lost. If you could only read his brave unselfish letters trying to cheer us up, when he was the sufferer, we felt we must try and face it, and be brave too, for his dear sake. In one of his letters, the one before he was wounded, he described a flower garden, so magnificently laid out, and one mass of lovely bloom, it gave him unspeakable pleasure to have a good long look at that beautiful garden. I thanked God He allowed him to rest his eyes on such a lovely scene before all was darkness, one of His sweetest gifts to this sad world. It may help him forget other fearful sights “.
On 15 September, 1919, Lieut. Dick CLARKE was transferred to St. Dunstans Hostel ( a School for blind soldiers organized by Sir Arthur PEARSON ), which was located at Regents Park, London. He was determined to establish his independence from the outset, often going for long walks, with the aid of a walking stick. He had a wonderful time at St. Dunstans, becoming highly proficient in Braille, completed training as a Carpenter/Cabinet Maker and studying latest Poultry Farming practices. He also took great enjoyment in ice skating, when the opportunity arose. During his stay at St. Dunstans, he received a sad letter advising of his father’s death on 20 April, 1920.
Dick CLARKE embarked from England on 3 July, 1920, aboard the “ Orvieto “, bound for Fremantle, WA. When the ship docked on 6 August, 1920 he was welcomed on the wharf by two of his brothers and two sisters. The South Western Times, Bunbury dated 10 August, 1920, rather ineptly stated:- “ Lieut. CLARKE became a very proficient Braille soldier and an expert in poultry farming”. Another story read:- “There was a large gathering at the Bunbury Station on 7 August to welcome home Lieut. Dick CLARKE who was blinded in the fighting line in France. All along the railway home he received kindly greetings from his friends and the engine driver gave him a repeated welcome home as the train steamed past his old home at Burekup “.
SERVICE MEDALS AWARDED
1914/15 Star – No. 1188
British War Medal – No. 492
Victory Medal – No. 491
On return home, Dick CLARKE lived with his mother at 24 Stirling Street Bunbury. On 20 October, 1926, he married Irene Benson at St. Peters Church in Balingup, WA. Her father was the resident Doctor in Greenbushes, WA and she had been working as a School Teacher.
There were a number of occasions when Dick CLARKE’s special wooden creations were integral to honours, presentations and ceremonies held in Bunbury:-
1927 – A handsome tray , adorned with the School Crest, suitably inscribed, was presented to a popular Teacher,
1928 – A credence table was installed in the Chapel of the Seaman’s Institute in Bunbury,
1930- A handsome Jarrah casket was built to house a scroll bestowing freedom of the fair City of Bunbury to Colonel Herbert COLLETT ( Commander of the 28th Battalion at Gallipoli and the Western Front in France and Belgium ).
1931 – A tray made from W.A. woods was presented to the Governor of W.A, Sir William CAMPION at a Civic Reception in his honour by the Bunbury Municipal Council. The Governor had been the guest of honour at a parade of ex-Soldiers to the Bunbury War Memorial.
Dick and Irene were to become the proud parents of two sons- David & Benjamin and three daughters- Dicksie, Angela and Juliet. In 1934 they purchased vacant land at 12 Parkfield Street Bunbury on which they built a new family home, , including a carpentry workshop for Dick.
Daily life became quite regimented until 4.00pm, when Dick would down his tools and together with Irene, or one of the children, would start visiting hours. They would often walk to the Prince of Wales Hotel or the South Western Club, or to a Brother’s or friends house, for a chat and a drink or two. Dick had turned 47 years of age before the birth of his third daughter, Juliet.
In 1958, there was a local news promotion, which read:- “ Dick CLARKE turned out fine, solid and simple furniture in his workshop in his home in Parkfield Street since returning home from the War. He has enjoyed a ready market for his produce. He has made bedroom suites, nests of tables, most types of household furniture and also built fittings for a Church. During this year, Irene suffered a stroke, paralysing the right side of her body. Each of their children had left home by this time.
In 1961, Dick and Irene built a smaller home at 81 Beach Road Bunbury, which also included a large workshop for Dick to continue with his furniture manufacture.
His grandchildren thought him to be rather strict, particularly with the need to be always on time for meals. They remember his excellent renditions on either the organ, piano or violin, accompanied by the family singing. He remained very independent and was adamant that he should never be referred to as “ being blind”. His most prized possession was a tandem bicycle which almost everyone in Bunbury , at some time, must have joined him in a ride. He survived a number of accidents over time.
Dick CLARKE also loved to go fishing, often returning with good catches. He always kept about a dozen poultry at home and took pride in growing his own vegetables.
He and Irene were regular church goers on Sunday nights.
In 1971, Dick was devastated when Irene died two days after her 70th birthday. Despite the loss, he was determined to remain independent and preferred to do everything for himself. His youngest daughter, Juliet came home from Sydney in 1973 to live, and care for her father. When Juliet subsequently married Bill INWOOD, they chose to live nearby, particularly so Juliet could call and see her father almost every day.
Dick CLARKE was admitted to hospital in Bunbury in a frail condition, and after a few days he lost consciousness and died on 28 February, 1986.
There were many dedications to his life, following his death, many referring to the following common threads:-
“ Well-known and widely respected”,
“ Wide circle of friends “,
“ Led a happy and fulfilling life “,
“ Not discriminated against for his inability to see “.
Another memoriam read:-
“ He spent one of the happiest and best-loved lives of anyone in the District. Though he led a simple life, he set a shining example to us all. Through his family, his friends, his music and his own good nature, he led a happy and fulfilled life and is missed by many”.
Another dedication featured in ‘ Remembering Them – 7-30 April, 2017:-
“ His was a full, busy, good-hearted life, making fine furniture which he said gave him ‘great purpose all these years’. After his wife died in 1971, he lived another 15 years, still ‘bright and sunny’, disdaining adversity and absolutely unwilling to be treated as an invalid”.
Perhaps the truest reflection on the life and values of Dick CLARKE was portrayed in a Letter to the Editor from D.A.PARKMAN of Tuart Street BUNBURY, who wrote the following dedication after CLARKE’s passing:-
“ A wonderful man whose life reflected the true spirit of Australia. He was never daunted by the hardship of being robbed of his sight at such an early age. He enjoyed life to the full and had no time to feel sorry for himself.
When Irene was suddenly taken from him, there was no self-pity and it was characteristic of him that he insisted on living an independent life, supported by his family and friends.
He was truly an unsung hero: a fine Australian whose life was a shining example to all.
Dick CLARKE answered the call to serve his country and never counted the cost.
All who knew him were enriched by his life.
He fought a good fight and kept the faith.
So he passed as he lived, with courage and dignity “.
- The Silent Hero – A Biography of Mervyn Ephraim CLARKE, Bunbury’s Own Hero
by Charlotte INWOOD, 27 September, 1989.
- In the Ranks, 1914-1915, A Personal Record
by Brigadier Thomas Steane LOUCH, 25 April 1970, Perth, WA.
- Legs-Eleven, The Story of the 11th Battalion A.I.F in the Great War
By Captain Walter C. BELFORD.
- National Archives of Australia.
Australian War Memorial Canberra, ACT, incl. Unit Commander’s Diaries.