By Emily Monks-Leeson
We continue our series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients with the story of Sergeant Leo Clarke, Canada’s seventh First World War Victoria Cross recipient.
Sergeant Leo Clarke, VC, died of wounds, c.1915-1916 (MIKAN 3214037)
Leo Clarke, born in Waterdown, Ontario, on December 1, 1892, was a surveyor for the Canadian National Railway. He enlisted in February of 1915 at Winnipeg with the 27th Battalion and transferred to the 2nd (Eastern Ontario Regiment) Battalion after arriving in England.
On September 9, 1916, Leo Clarke and the 2nd Battalion took part in an Allied assault on a network of German trenches stretching from Martinpuich to Courcelette in northern France. Clarke’s battalion was to capture a 50-yard area between Mouquet Farm, a Canadian-held position, and Courcelette. An Acting-Corporal at the time of the attack, Clarke led a party to clear the left flank of a German trench and create a “block” to fortify the Canadian position. The trench was heavily defended and, following bitter hand-to-hand combat, Clarke was the only member of his unit not killed or wounded. Alone he fought off a counter-attack of twenty German soldiers and officers.
War diary extract from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion from September 1-9, 1916 describing the days leading up to and including the offensive (MIKAN 1883206)
Clarke’s citation from the London Gazette recounts that:
After most of his party had become casualties, he was building a “block” when about twenty of the enemy with two officers counter-attacked. He boldly advanced against them, emptied his revolver into them and afterwards two enemy rifles which he picked up in the trench.
One of the officers then attacked him with the bayonet, wounding him in the leg, but he shot him dead. The enemy then ran away, pursued by Acting Corporal Clarke, who shot four more and captured a fifth. Later he was ordered to the dressing-station, but returned next day to duty. (London Gazette, no. 29802, 26 October 1916).
Leo Clarke died in action a month later, on October 19, 1916. His Victoria Cross, posthumously awarded in the spring of 1917, was presented to his father by the Duke of Devonshire, Governor General of Canada, before a crowd of 30,000 gathered at Portage and Main in Winnipeg.
Bombing Platoon (2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force) at Scottish Lines near Poperinghe not far from Ypres. This photo was taken by Henry Edward Knobel – an Official War Photographer – while the 2nd Battalion was out in rest billets after fighting at Sanctuary Woods, Maple Copse (Battles of the Somme). Leo Clarke, VC, is in the front row on the far right. June 16, 1916 (MIKAN 34005888)
Sergeant Leo Clarke lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as did two other Victoria Cross recipients: Frederick William Hall and Robert Shankland. Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925 in honour of the three men.
Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Sergeant Leo Clarke.
Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.