The First World War which was fought between 1914 and 1918 is one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in history.
Major European superpowers together with their allied non-European forces fought against each other for supremacy. The aftermath of the war resulted in emotional and physical ravaging damages.
The superpowers and their allies recruited millions of military personnel, including nearly two million Africans to fight in the war. In August 1914, after Britain joined the war, black recruits were found in all branches of the armed forces.
Majority of them had volunteered at recruitment centers while some who were from the Caribbean traveled to England to get involved in the fight against the Germans.
The case was similar for Jamaica’s William Robinson Clarke, who paid for his own travel to England to enlist. He eventually became the first black pilot to serve with the Royal Flying Corps during the war. His ID bracelet is up for auction, today.
Clarke, fondly known as Robbie, was born to Eugenia Clarke in Kingston, Jamaica on October 4, 1895. He was just 19 and was working as a chauffeur when he decided to join the war. He was a mechanic and was one of the first people in Jamaica to learn to drive.
Clarke left for England when the war broke out and on July 26, 1915, he joined the Royal Flying Corps. There, he was engaged as a mechanic before being given the role of a driver for an observation balloon company, helping it gather intelligence on the enemy.
But Clarke wanted to fly and so began pilot training in December 1916 in England. He won his ‘wings’ on April 26, 1917, receiving Royal Aero Club certificate number 4837, and was promoted to Sergeant. He was posted to No.4 Squadron at Abeele in Belgium by the following month and his duties involved flying RE 8 two-seater bi-planes over the Western Front — the decisive front during the war.
During a reconnaissance mission behind German lines some months later, a disaster struck and nearly took his life. On the morning of July 28, Clarke and his observer, Second Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, were flying an operational reconnaissance mission over Ypres when they were attacked by German scouts.
Clarke took a bullet through the spine but though he got seriously wounded, he was able to bring the plane back to base before losing consciousness. His observer then performed a forced landing inside British lines. Miraculously, Clarke survived the attack and later described the action in a letter to his mother:
“I was doing some photographs a few miles the other side when about five Hun scouts came down upon me, and before I could get away, I got a bullet through the spine. I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly any more … My observer escaped without any injury.”
Although Clarke did heal from his injuries, he was no more medically fit to fly. Thus, as a mechanic, he joined RAF’s No. 254 Squadron where he served before he was honorably discharged in 1919 and awarded the Silver War badge for his wounds.
At the end of the war, Clarke returned to his home country Jamaica. In Jamaica, Clarke first got involved in the building trade before becoming the Life President of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, a position that he used to provide comradeship and specialist care for serving personnel and their families.
On April 26, 1981, Clarke passed away in Kingston, Jamaica, leaving behind his aluminum ID tag which sources say was found on the Western Front after the war.
According to reports, Clarke’s ID tag has an oval disc stamped ‘SGT W R CLARKE RFC 7170’, and is currently on sale at C&T Auctions, of Kenardington, Kent, with an estimate of between £100 (about $130) and £150 ($194).
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