By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Mrs T Cooper Clarke, mother back in Blighty
'My Darling, We are so glad to hear from you although your notes contain so little news they convey to us what we chiefly want to that is that you are safe.' Words from a final letter to her son, Joe, sent on 16th March 1918. The letter was returned to sender with 'MISSING' written in red ink across the front of the envelope. Although this was standard procedure, it must have been a painful experience for Mrs Clarke to be alerted so abruptly to Joe's possible death.
For over a year Joe had been writing home, addressing his letters sometimes to his mother alone, sometimes to his 'Mum and Dad', sometimes including his sister Eileen who also received one or two letters of her own. It was Eileen who kept his correspondence and bequeathed them to the Imperial War Museum.
Joe was 18 when he joined the army as a Rifleman - not yet old enough to go to France, but old enough for training. He kept his mother informed of his progress in the Training Reserve in Northampton - 'From now on I will write regularly every Sunday evening,' - and described the experience with a positive attitude: 'I still enjoy soldiering very much and feeling better than I have felt for many a day.'
Although Joe admitted that he was looking forward to returning home for leave, he did not express any reservation about joining the war on the Western Front. In fact, he was itching to put his training to the test: 'Another draft of our chaps went to Harwich on Thursday last. A considerable number have now been sent and I would have gone too - had I been two months older.'
His letters were straightforward and cheerful with references to chums, meals and the temperamental state of the weather - as well as more detailed descriptions of what was expected of a Rifleman. Affection for Gyp, the family dog, was shared by the whole family; Joe wrote: 'So Gyp misses me does he? He is a funny chap and I do not suppose he will recognise me in khaki.' His mother responded, in her final letter, 'I think Gyp missed you. He runs up to every soldier he sees about your build and sniffs.'
Then on 1st March Joe finally wrote to say, 'We are off tomorrow Sat at 6am... I am feeling fit and well to see Fritz.' And in two or three very short notes he referred to his movement through France billeted in a barn one night. Mrs Clarke replied, 'Not a very comfortable place a barn but better I think than some of the places over there that I have heard of... We are so glad you feel well and hope you may continue so... What do you think of France. Can you remember your French?' She signed off, 'God [sic] bye dearie and God bless you - Love from all your afec. Mother'.
Within 40 days of writing that final letter, Mrs Clarke's son died of dysentery as a prisoner of war in a German field hospital. But it took until 15th July 1918 to discover the truth. Her determination to find out what happened and her reluctance to believe it are sad testimony to a mother's love.
She wrote letters to the King's Royal Rifle Corps, to the Red Cross, to the War Office and to a family friend, Lieutenant Kerwin, based at Le Havre. Kerwin met Joe briefly on his arrival in France and responded with great sensitivity to the family's fears for his well-being.
I personally telephoned to Head Quarter Casualties and spoke to the LAG himself.... He has promised to let me know tomorrow afternoon, but up to the present he has no news of Joe, so we must look on the bright side, as no news is good news. But, old sport [referring to his Joe's father] I'm not going to beat about the bush, you ask for news and I've done all I can and would willingly do more if I could. The news is this, Joe's battalion I understand was in the thick of fighting and there is still hope that is safe, or at most a prisoner, but the LAG said their casualties were heavy which included many missing.
On 17th May the family received a hasty postcard saying, 'Have good cheer. Made enquiries. Joe is all right. Will explain in letter later. In a hurry now.' But the Agence International des Prisonnieres de Guerre could shed no light on Joe's whereabouts in a letter dated 18th May.
Finally, on 15th July 1918, the Comité International de la Croix-Rouge sent the following: 'We are grieved to inform you that the following report appears on lists despatched from Berlin: [in red ink] 7.6.18 Rfm 41712 3rd R. R. R, died 22.4.18, result of dysentery at field hospital. Cugny. Buried in cemetery there, 222...'
Despite the news, Mrs Clarke continued her search and received in December 1918 a list of repatriated prisoners from the same battalion as Joe, enclosing their addresses. She wrote to all three and all three replied. One particular letter from Mr Powell suggested empathy for a mother's connection with her child: 'We had a rather rough time and fellows as I no [sic] for a fact were dying from this dysentery but I hope sincerely that you hear very shortly of him being alive. I am sure you are putting me to no trouble whatever I would only be glad to help you as I no [sic] what a Mother feels towards her son and also how my own mother was. If you do hear from him I should be glad to no [sic] if you finally let me no [sic]. I am, Yours Truly, Rfm E Powell'.
Still not satisfied that Joe was dead, Mrs Clarke put an advertisement in The Daily Sketch 'concerning a missing soldier'. The editorial staff informed her that a photograph could not be included. When she did finally accept that he was buried in France, she arranged through a French correspondent to have his grave tended. Then in 1920 Joe's body was exhumed and moved to a British Cemetery.
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