One of the largest and deadliest conflicts in history is the First World War which was fought between 1914 and 1918. With major European superpowers together with their allied non-European forces fighting against each other for supremacy, the war left nothing but emotional and physical ravaging damages in its aftermath.
Millions of military personnel, including nearly two million Africans, were recruited by these superpowers and their allies to fight in the war. After Britain joined the war in August 1914, Black recruits were in all branches of the armed forces.
Most of them volunteered at recruitment centers and some who were from the Caribbean traveled to England to get involved in the fight against the Germans. Such was the case for Jamaica’s William Robinson Clarke, who paid for his own travel to England to enlist, eventually becoming the first black pilot to serve with the Royal Flying Corps during the war. Today, his ID bracelet is up for auction.
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Born to Eugenia Clarke in Kingston, Jamaica on October 4, 1895, Clarke, fondly known as Robbie, was just 19 and was working as a chauffeur when he decided to join the war. A mechanic and one of the first in Jamaica to learn to drive, Clarke left for England when the war broke out and first joined the Royal Flying Corps on July 26, 1915. There, he was assigned as a mechanic before becoming 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. On April 26, 1917, he won his ‘wings’, receiving Royal Aero Club certificate number 4837, and was promoted to Sergeant. The following month, he was posted to No4 Squadron at Abeele in Belgium, flying RE 8 two-seater bi-planes over the Western Front — the decisive front during the war.
Then disaster struck during a reconnaissance mission behind German lines some months later that nearly took his life. Clarke and his observer, Second Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, were flying an operational reconnaissance mission over Ypres on the morning of July 28 when they were attacked by German scouts.
Though Clarke got seriously wounded — taking a bullet through the spine — he was able to bring the plane back to base before losing consciousness. His observer then performed a forced landing inside British lines. Clarke, who miraculously survived the attack, 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.”
Clarke did heal from his injuries but he was no more medically fit to fly. Thus, he joined RAF’s No. 254 Squadron as a mechanic before he was honorably discharged in 1919 and awarded the Silver War badge for his wounds.
When the war ended, Clarke went back to his home country Jamaica where he first got involved in the building trade before becoming the Life President of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, helping provide comradeship and specialist care for serving personnel and their families.
Clarke passed away in Kingston, Jamaica on April 26, 1981, leaving behind his aluminum ID tag which sources say was found on the Western Front after the war.
Clarke’s ID tag, according to reports, has an oval disc stamped ‘SGT W R CLARKE RFC 7170’, and is now on sale at C&T Auctions, of Kenardington, Kent, with an estimate of between £100 (about $130) and £150 ($194).