Veteran Extraordinaire

Prosperity is a great teacher, adversity a greater one. William Hazlitt

The return journey from a memorable visit to see 105-year-old Eugent Clarke, the oldest known World War 1 veteran in Jamaica, was a humbling experience as I reflected on his invaluable contribution to history.

When Clarke left Kendal, Manchester, at the tender age of 16 to seek his fortune in Kingston, he had no idea what the future would hold. After a stint as a tailor and then a gardener, the 22-year-old youngster enlisted in the Army, declaring confidently to his aunt, "I am ready." Clarke admits though, that his decision was influenced by the fact that, "men in uniform commanded great respect in those days," a sentiment echoed in that humorous Jamaican folk song that portrays the reaction of the Jamaican woman to 'man in uniform.'

On March 6, 1916, Clarke boarded HMS Verdala at Kingston Harbour with the Fourth Battalion of the British West Indian Regiment. He recalls feeling "proud to go do something for my country. I always wanted to see the places I saw on maps at m~ school and this was ms chance."

The Battalion was assigned to fight against Turkish forces in Egypt, first training in England and then setting off to Moscar Egypt. By this time a volatile war was in progress but, to their disappointment, the West Indians were primarily tasked as ammunition carriers. Their first major encounter with warfare was experienced at the notorious battleground of Ypres. He recalls, "We were all afraid but together we had to push forward. Near the front line we saw dead men, wounded men and some who wanted to turn back. But they were afraid of being court-martialed; in the army all orders must be obeyed without hesitation." And so the ammunition carriers were going at top speed through huge columns of dirt and debris that would rise high into the air from the explosions of German shells.

Of the legendary battle of the Somme, arguably the most fearsome battle in history, Clarke said, 'I had a rough, rough time, but wherever shells were needed we got them there quick." He was also witness to gas attacks and was a part of another historical moment, the first use of tanks in war. Dead comrades in mud, the smell of fear and the smell of death, having to pull two dead men on top of him to fend off the shells splintering around him and seeing his comrade who was sitting beside him on a tank blown off his seat, are all part of the realities of war and the memories that Eugent Clark lives with today.

After many other brushes with death, Clarke returned home in 1919 with two medals for bravery; the experience of being a member of the Guard of Honour when King George V of England visited the battlefield in France and having 'seen the world' even if under those prevailing circumstances.

Much to his dismay, as he was stepping off the ship with his girlfriend's brother beside him, he was told by a soldier on guard that his girlfriend Annie had married his old school teacher from Kendal. Having received no benefits after the war, apart from the offer of a small, unfarmable plot of land in Clarendon and with the death of his mother, Clarke left Jamaica to work on a farm in Cuba for $1.50 a day, less meals. "Cuba was rough" he said, "but as I was used to the rough life of the Army, I kept up OK." He eventually returned home and worked at Halse Hall and then at the Vernam Field Air Base.

In 1999, this distinguished World War 1 veteran was presented with France's highest award, the Legion of Honour in commemoration of his participation in the war. At the presentation ceremony, he closed his response with "I earned this in honour and I will wear it with honour."

Eugent Clarke's life is a prime example of triumph over hardship and adversity, an example for Jamaicans to emulate. When asked about his life, in retrospect Eugent Clarke declared, "I enjoyed my life, even though it's hard sometimes, you can't make that bother you, you just have to keep on going on." Good advice for all of us.*