Monday 26 October 2020

Black WW1 pilot's ID bracelet smashes estimate at Kent auction


With the BLM movement still very much at the forefront of people's minds these two interestingly linked articles are a welcome and timely reminder of the sacrifices made by black men and women for the cause of freedom in the many battles fought by the Commonwealth countries in support of the British war effort, in this case the stories of two Jamaicans who left their Caribbean home to fight in the First World War. 

William Robinson Clarke, c.1914
source - Wikipædia
The first report is of particular appeal inasmuch as it tells the story of an RFC sergeant pilot, William Robinson Clarke, who at the age of only 19 and out of his own pocket sailed to England to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps - in the process becoming what is thought to be the first black pilot to serve in that branch of the service.  Originally employed as a driver he retrained as a reconnaissance pilot in late 1916 and in April of 1917 was posted to No. 4 Squadron, based at Abeele in Belgium and operating the R.E.8.  The story of his time in the RFC is a fascinating one and I was pleased to note that he survived his run-in with five German scout aircraft and despite being wounded in the back made a full recovery - albeit subsequently only able to work as a mechanic - returning to Jamaica after the war to take up a building trade and eventually becoming the president of Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Force Association before passing away at the age of 86 in 1981.

source - B.B.C. News

Now his story has come fittingly into the limelight again thanks to the recent auctioning of his original RFC I.D. bracelet at - in of further interest to me personally - a local Kent auction.  Just what the link to Ashford is, or the reasons behind the sale, is not made clear.  It may just be that the owner had decided to sell and was based nearby, with the auctioneers being specialists in militaria.  Even so, their initial valuation of the bracelet seemed almost disgracefully low even by the conservative standards of most auction houses, so I am delighted to see that it sold for a much more respectable figure (over 30 times the estimate, in fact) and I hope whoever bought it appreciates it for the remarkable piece of black British military history that it represents (as I'm sure they must do to have paid such a sum for it).  I for one am grateful for it making the news as it has introduced me to the enthralling story of yet another World War One airman, as well has hopefully perpetuating his name and deeds far beyond the sphere of military or Jamaican historians.

The second article is of equal interest - and perhaps of even greater importance as it potentially has the scope to rewrite accepted First World War history that currently has Walter Tull as being the first black commissioned officer to serve in the British Army during the conflict.

2nd Lt. Euan Lucie-Smith, Royal Warwickshire Regiment
source - Eastbourne Herald

This is the story of another young Jamaican soldier, Euan Lucie-Smith, who enlisted in the Jamaica Artillery Militia in 1911 before shipping to England on the outbreak of war three years later to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (a full three years before Walter Tull was gazetted into the Middlesex Regiment with the same rank).  Arriving in France in March, 1915 Lucie-Smith was sadly killed in action on the Western Front barely a month later on the 25th April at the age of 25. 

source - Eastbourne Herald
His story may also have remained forgotten had it not been for the chance discovery online of his memorial plaque (issued to the next-of-kin of all fallen soldiers in the First World War) by a military historian, James Carver.  Now it has been unearthed thanks to Mr Carver's efforts and, as well as adding an important record to the annals of black British martial history also has the tantalising possibility of completely revising it.  While it is regrettable to note how the plaque had languished, seemingly overlooked, for so long I am pleased to see its importance recognised and hope that when it comes up for auction next month it receives as much value and appreciation as William Robinson Clarke's I.D. bracelet.

Both of these stories are very poignant reminders of just how strong a pull the "mother country" had over its outlying colonies - in the First World War and in other conflicts before and since - and the strong urge and desire of their young men to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles to join up and "do their bit".  They are incredibly relevant and apposite at this time of racial inequality and it is to be hoped that both accounts will take their rightful places in the history books as a result of these finds, which I trust will be suitably respected and preserved for future generations.

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