Belfast Telegraph

Back Then: Grave of Antrim soldier who died in Great War found in sleepy French village

The last resting place of a young Ulster soldier who was killed in the First World War's Battle of Arras has been discovered in a quiet little French cemetery.

He was Second-Lieutenant Edward Rupert Clarke (Ned) who was gunned down on the first day of the British offensive on April 9, 1917. He was leading his platoon in an attack on a fort called The Harp.

And after all this time his grave has been located in Tilloy-les-Mofflaines cemetery, just down the road from the former battleground, by Josephine Herbison and her husband Matthew, a retired insurance broker from Antrim town.

They and their daughters, Judith and Lynn, have just returned from a pilgrimage to Arras, inspired by a tablet (inset) in commemoration of this member of the King's Royal Rifle Corps in St Catherine's Parish Church at Aldergrove where Ned's father was the rector, Canon John Clarke.

"We have been to France a few times and at last we came across the Clarke headstone and paid homage to this young man who gave his life," says Josephine.

Her connection with St Catherine's is through her late grandmother, Annie Scarlett, who taught in the public elementary school at the church and who was married by Canon Clarke to farmer Henry Arbuckle in December 1901. Their youngest child was Josephine's mother who remembered as a little girl playing with Ned.

"From listening to my mother talking about Ned giving her piggy-back rides, I grew up to be intrigued by the soldier Clarke story and his gallantry in battle and my husband and I were determined to find his last resting place. We know that Canon Clarke and his wife Margaret left St Catherine's in 1922."

The Battle of Arras was a British offensive from April 9, 1917 until mid-May. British, Canadian, South African, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Australian troops attacked German defences near the French city of Arras on the Western Front.

Church walls bear testimony to young man cut down in his prime

The tablet which adorns a wall inside the church in memory of soldier Edward Rupert Clarke will be closely examined by visitors to St Catherine's on Heritage Weekend, Saturday and Sunday September 13 and 14 (3pm-5pm).

It was erected by family, parishioners and friends of his parents, Canon Frank Clarke and his wife Margaret, a few years after the battle.

If you take a keen look at the tablet and compare it with the picture of the headstone on the grave in France, you'll notice that the dead soldier has aged from 24 to 25 years.

The explanation is that Ned was first posted as missing before the War Office confirmed to Canon Clarke weeks or even months later that his son had been killed. And by the time Ned's body was removed from the mud and debris of the battlefield, he would have had another birthday.

A tragic set of events but they befell so many young men in the First World War.

St Catherine's Church is inside the Flying Station Aldergrove encampment which now houses both the RAF, the Army and the Army Air Corps. In fact, 502 RAF Squadron, which operated from the camp during the Second World War when it was known as RAF Aldergrove, has just been revived at the base.

In Ned Clarke's time, growing up at the St Catherine's rectory, the church was surrounded by green fields and a few houses.

RAF Aldergrove wasn't opened until 1918, 12 months after his death and was built around St Catherine's in the mid-1920s.

St Catherine's is the only civilian church inside a military establishment in the UK.

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