The name William Alfred Clucas (1889-1914) may not be one that immediately springs to mind in connection with the Manx history, but Alfred or ‘Alf’ as he was more commonly known, has something of an inauspicious honour (as far as my research can tell) of being the first Manxman killed during the First World War, a hundred years ago today (26th August 1914).
Like many who lost their lives in World War I, preciously little is known about Alfred’s life. A birth/baptismal record shows that Alfred was born on the 15th February 1889 in Laxey Glen, Lonan, Isle of Man. While the record show that his mother was Elizabeth Clucas, his father is not listed suggesting that he may have been illegitimate. Probably as a consequence of his illegitimacy the 1891 Census records that Alfred, aged 2, was living with his ‘aunt’, Isabella Clucas, at 24 Princes Street, Douglas. Confusingly the 1901 Census lists a 12 year old Alfred as the ‘son’ of Isabella, suggesting he may have been adopted, officially or otherwise, by his aunt (see also Peel City Guardian, 17th October 1914: 4). A brief biography given by Rev R D Kermode, Vicar of St George’s Church (Douglas), however shows that his mother was still recorded as living in Laxey during the war (Manx National Heritage Library MS 10003/3).
During his teens, probably around 1907, Alfred left the Isle of Man to enrol in the army and was certainly a well-established career soldier when war broke out. The 1911 Census shows Alfred as a Private soldier stationed amongst the garrison at the Grève de Lecq Barracks, St Mary’s, Jersey, with the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), but by 1914 he had had transferred to the 1st Battalion and had risen to the rank of Corporal.
Following the declaration of war on the 4th August 1914, the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) were mobilised for service in Dover, where it had been stationed, as part of the 12th Infantry Brigade, the 4th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. Prior to his deployment Clucas is pictured with the other soldiers in ‘A’ Company where he is listed as a Corporal
On the 23rd August the battalion travelled aboard the SS Saturnia from Southampton for Boulogne. Following their arrival they were transferred to the 12th Brigade of the 36th Division, before travelling the 130 or so kilometres to Haucourt. On the 26th August Alfred, and the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), took part in the Battle of Le Cateau; a rear guard action for British and French troops retreating from the Battle of Mons. Alfred’s ‘A’ Company, under the leadership of Second-Lieutenant JH Hardy, were surprised during breakfast by machine gun fire as the advancing German’s opened fire on the British lines and incurred heavy casualties. It is not known whether Clucas survived this initial attack, as casualties amounted to some four hundred, mostly from amongst ‘C’ Company who occupied the position between ‘A’ Company and the Lancashire Fusiliers. ‘A’ Company were able to take up their field position within hastily dug trenches, but continued to suffer relentless artillery fire throughout the morning. Under Hardy ‘A’ Company were able to make advances during the mid-morning, but were forced to retreat. When the German infantry advanced at noon, they successfully repelled the advance, despite being outgunned and heavily outnumbered. The British, with support from the French cavalry, were able to organise a strategic retreat during the late afternoon despite these overwhelming odds. The total British casualties at Le Cateau amounted to some 7,812 of all ranks, killed, wounded or missing; among these was Alfred.
Shortly afterward the Manx press succinctly reported “Lance-Sergt Alf Clucas missing” (Mona’s Herald, 14th October 1914: 5), while it took another 18 months before the War Office could confirm Clucas’ death.
Word has been received from the War Office this week that two Manxmen, previously reported missing, must now be presumed to be dead. The first is Sergeant William Alfred Clucas, of the King’s Own Rifles, who has been missing since August 26th, 1914. His home address is 46, Princes-street, Douglas (Isle of Man Weekly Times, 13th May 1916: 7)
A poem written in the aftermath of the battle about Captain Henry Clutterbuck, one of Clucas’ compatriots, provides an impression of the battle:
…Fiercer the deadly fight became,
Hot as the mouth of hell;
The air around was a sheet of flame,
And many a comrade fell.
Up stood the Captain as shrapnel burst
Over the men, who at it cursed;
In the charge he meant to be the first—
That was just like Clutterbuck.
Just a glance at the foe he threw,
On the hillside looming large,
Another glance at the lads he knew-
Out rapped the one word, “Charge!”
He didn’t look, when he’d said his say,
To see if his men sprang to obey.
But he rushed right on, and led the way!
It was just like Clutterbuck.
A ringing cheer in exultant notes
And fine North Country “burrs,”
Swells from the lusty, dusty throats
Of the King’s Own Lancasters;
Sheer up the hill each man-jack speeds,
Nobody falters save he who bleeds,
Racing hard—but the Captain leads,
And that’s just like Clutterbuck!…
(Ricardo. 1914. ‘Just like Clutterbuck!’ Reprinted from “John Bull” 19th September 1914).
Captain Clutterbuck was killed in same action that took Clucas’ life on 26th August 1914. Following the confirmation of his death he was listed amongst the list of fallen soldiers at a service at St Matthew’s, Douglas (Isle of Man Examiner, 17th June 1916: 3). Alfred was unmarried, but his service history in France shows that he attained the rank of Lance Sergeant and was eligible for the 1914 Star, the Victory Medal, and the British War Medal.
So as you go about your life today, particularly if you happen to pass Douglas War Memorial, or Alfred’s house on Princes Street, Douglas, spare a thought for the first of a long line of Manxmen who gave their lives during the First World War.