By Andrew Horrall
William Hew Clark-Kennedy was born in Dunskey, Scotland, on March 3, 1880, and began working for the Standard Life Assurance Company at age 16. He served with a British cavalry regiment in the South African War before moving to Canada in 1902 to work in Standard Life’s Montreal office. There he met and married Katherine “Kate” Reford.
Clark-Kennedy joined the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, at Valcartier, Quebec, on September 23, 1914, and arrived in France the following February. On April 24, 1915, an artillery shell landed near where he and two other men were standing. Clark-Kennedy’s companions were killed instantly, while he was buried by earth and mud. Clark-Kennedy’s comrades believed that he also had died and that his body had been either obliterated or buried. They reported that he had been killed in action. But Clark-Kennedy had suffered only minor injuries, and without anyone noticing, he dug himself out and resumed fighting. It took a couple of days to sort out the error and for Clark-Kennedy to cable his family and tell them he was fine.
Clark-Kennedy was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions while commanding the 24th Battalion on August 27 and 28, 1918, during the Battle of Arras. An excerpt from the London Gazette shows his exceptional bravery: “from the outset the brigade, of which the 24th Battalion was a central unit, came under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire, suffering many casualties, especially amongst leaders. Units became partially disorganised and the advance was checked. Appreciating the vital importance to the brigade front of a lead by the centre and undismayed by annihilating fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Clark-Kennedy, by sheer personality and initiative, inspired his men and led them forward. On several occasions, he set an outstanding example by leading parties straight at the machine-gun nests which were holding up the advance and overcame these obstacles. By controlling the direction of neighbouring units and collecting men who had lost their leaders, he rendered valuable services in strengthening the line, and enabled the whole brigade front to move forward.”
Clark-Kennedy showed equal courage the following day, despite a very serious gunshot wound to his right knee. The citation for his Victoria Cross ends with the declaration that “it is impossible to overestimate the results achieved by the valour and leadership of this officer.” (London Gazette, no. 31067, December 14, 1918)
In addition to the Victoria Cross, Clark-Kennedy was mentioned in despatches four times, received the Distinguished Service Order twice, was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
After the war, Clark-Kennedy returned to Canada and his job at Standard Life, and eventually became the firm’s director. He died in Montreal on October 25, 1961. Clark-Kennedy’s Victoria Cross is held by his family. Library and Archives Canada holds his service file.
“Officer, feared dead, continued to fight,” The Globe and Mail, October 27, 1961, p. 31.
“Lt.-Col. Clark-Kennedy VC, dies here in 83rd year,” Montreal Gazette, October 27, 1961, p. 4.
Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.