Vieille-Chapelle - the Hong Kong connection to a village in France - Private May & Corp. Clarke.

The quiet village of Vieille-Chapelle lies just a few miles south of the Belgian border. Its eight-hundred residents enjoy some pretty countryside and moden buildings, including the large parish church of Notre Dame. But, like so much of this part of the world, its charm belies its earlier history. It saw conflict both at the opening of the First War and towards its close, and for two of the men who had come from Hong Kong to serve in the British Army, it was where their war ended.

Walter John May (1882-1914) had arrived in Hong Kong with the Middlesex

Regiment and then became a Warder in the colony’s Victoria Gaol. Now, in the summer of 1914 he was on his first long leave back in London. He had only a month or so of freedom before war was declared and he felt it his duty to reenlist. The Middlesex had been mobilised on 5th August, and on the same day as Walter signed up, the regiment arrived in Boulogne, slightly over 1000 men strong. Within 10 days, however, they were decimated, losing half their men at the Battle of Mons..


Reinforcements came from England, including Walter and during September and early October, the regiment were on the march, first down south close to Paris, then back to Abbeville and next east, arriving at Mont Bernanchon on 11th October. Here they received orders to go into action the next day, after a two-hour march to Vieille-Chapelle. For four days the battalion fought to push the Germans back across the fields and through the neighbouring hamlet of La Croix Barbet. On 16th, with the Germans still shelling the hamlet, the Middlesex were relived, soon leaving the immediate area. Fighting over the two miles of farmland had cost the lives of six officers and 18 of their men, and a total of 83 wounded.Amongst those killed, either on 13th or 14th October, was Private Walter John May. Before the battalion left, they buried their comrades in makeshift graves. Subsequently Walter was reburied in the New Military Cemetery just outside of the village centre at Vieille-Chapelle.

In April 1918, German troops were again pushing west, towards Dunkerque and the Channel. Now released from fighting on the eastern front, Germany was keen to make best use of the time before the arrival of the US army. Attempting to contain this, Belgian, British and French troops formed a 200-mile arc from the Channel to Épernay. The King Edward’s Horse (Dominions) Regiment were a small cavalry unit built primarily of men from the British colonies, and also included ‘dismounted’ troops. That spring they were protecting a tributary of the River Lys, including La Fosse, Vieille-Chapelle and La Couture. Germany’s big offensive in the area came on 9th April and the three squadrons of the regiment were sent out, B Squadron detailed to defend Vieille-Chapelle. There the fighting was fierce and soon the men were cut off from the command headquarters. Although the squadron inflicted harsh casualties on the enemy, the German assault was unremitting, and soon the village was rubble, and those of B Squadron who had not perished were taken prisoner.

Albert Edmond Clarke had joined the Hong Kong Police in 1912, while stationed there with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Lance-Sergeant 127 Clarke was keen to enlist when war broke out, but had to wait his turn, sailing home with the second contingent of police in November 1915. He signed with the King Edward’s Horse and trained at their base in Ireland. Albert went to France in the summer of 1916, as member of B Squadron. The regiment spent much of that year and next in support roles, with the men turning their hand to a multitude of jobs, but in 1917 morale was raised when B and C squadrons ‘had a crack at the enemy’ at the Battle of Cambrai. The following year, of course, Albert was with his squadron at Vieille-Chapelle. Here, on Tuesday, 9th April, he was hit by a shell, the lower part of his body was practically blown away. Somehow he survived the many hours before medical aid came. He was eventually repatriated and sent by rail to the First Northern Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne. About 100 miles from his home in Goole, Yorkshire, it was unlikely that he had many visitors. He was tended as well as was possible, but in the days before advanced antiseptics or antibiotics and with only morphine to fight the pain, he was in constant excruciating pain. Albert held on for an unimaginably grim eleven months before his strength finally gave way on 15th March 1919. He was 29 years old. Corporal 1405 A. E. Clarke was buried in Goole four days later, with full military honours, a 21-gun salute and a military band playing the ‘Dead March”. With thanks to Goole First World War Research Group (http://goolefirstworldwar.blogspot.com) for the details of Albert's injuries, hospitalisation and funeral, via a contemporary newspaper account, and for the photograph of his grave.


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