is a great teacher, adversity a greater one.
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."
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."
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.*