Leading Seaman Joseph Thompson Clark

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maryland.

The grave of Acting Leading Seaman Joseph Thompson Clark
The grave of Acting Leading Seaman Joseph Thompson Clark

Joseph Thompson Clark was nearby when HMS Natal  blew up in Cromarty Firth in 1915, was present at the Battle of Jutland, and survived being torpedoed in the Mediterranean only to drown in a swimming accident in Baltimore harbour in 1917.

He was born on 26 August 1896 at Cowpen, near Blyth, an industrial town in Northumberland, one of the three children of Fergus and Mary Ann Clark.[1] His father had worked variously as a miner, a boiler fireman and as a crane driver; Joseph, like his older brother, worked in a sawmill.

Just after the outbreak of war, Clark enlisted on 21 August 1914 into the British Army at Newcastle-upon-Tyne (4903, Private) and joined the newly raised 8th (Service) Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers, the first of the New Army battalions raised for the Regiment. He falsely gave his age as 19. His early service was somewhat ill-disciplined and he was discharged on 30 October as ‘not being likely to become an efficient soldier’.[2]

Clark then enlisted into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 23 June 1915, just before his 18th birthday—he again falsely stated his age, giving his birthday as 26 August 1895. He was allocated the number TZ/5463 and joined the training depot at Crystal Palace. After a period of training he joined HMS Shannon, a Minotaur-class armoured cruiser, on 30 September 1915. He was aboard her on 30 December 1915 when the armoured cruiser HMS Natal exploded nearby in Cromarty Firth with the loss of over 400 crew and civilian visitors—Shannon assisted in the rescue of the survivors.[3] Clark was also in HMS Shannon during the Battle of Jutland, although the ship did not see action that day.

HMS Shannon at Cromarty Firth, 1915
HMS Shannon at Cromarty Firth, 1915

On 31 August 1916, Able Seaman Clerk reported for duty ashore for training as a gunner on defensively armed merchant ships; he completed this training on 9 November and, having found his niche, was appointed Acting Leading Seaman. When the story of Clark’s death appeared in the Baltimore Sun, it was reported that he had served on the SS Bretwalda, and had survived her sinking on 13 December 1916, when she was attacked by UB-43, 220 miles east of Malta on passage from Calcutta to Boulogne with a cargo of jute. It was reported that he spent several days adrift in a lifeboat before being picked up and taken to port in Italy. Soon after he joined the SS Courtown, a general cargo ship built in 1909.[4]

Acting Leading Seaman Clark arrived in the United States in July 1917 as the chief gunner on the Courtown, which berthed at the Western Maryland Railroad pier at Port Covington, Baltimore. On 28 July, after lunch he and his friends decided to go for a swim near the grain sheds. Clark could not swim and he wore a life-belt. He was accompanied by another gunner, Able Seaman Herbert Crawshaw,[5] and Radio Operator Cyril Matthews. Crawshaw had survived the explosion on HMS Natal—he was on the upper deck when the explosion occurred—and had trained as a gunner with Clark, completing his training on the same day; he too had served in SS Bretwalda before joining the Courtown.

Port Covington, Western Maryland Railroad Yards, 1913
Port Covington, Western Maryland Railroad Yards, 1913

Clark decided that he had had enough practice with the life-belt and took it off to try and swim without it. Crawshaw swam to him to give assistance if needed but, before he could reach his friend, Clark disappeared under the water. Crawshaw tried to grab him and felt him tug at his body but he did not return to the surface. The other men dived to try and find Clark but they were unsuccessful. Having told the ship’s Master about the accident, the police were informed and the police boat Lannan was dispatched to drag for the body; it was found a few hours later. The coroner, Otto M. Bernhard, recorded a finding of accidental drowning.[6]

Acting Leading Seaman Joseph Thompson Clark was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Baltimore, on 30 July 1917.[7] He is commemorated there by a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. He is also commemorated on the Blyth war memorial.

Blyth War Memorial - the First World War memorial is on the right, the Boer War memorial is on the left
Blyth War Memorial – the First World War memorial is on the right, the Boer War memorial is on the left

His medals group comprises: British War Medal 1914-20, and Victory Medal.


1. (Back) Fergus Clark (1863-1936) married Mary Ann Shirran (1867-?) in 1885; James (1886); and Isabella (1894). Another sibling died in childhood.
2. (Back) His offences, mostly relatively minor, included absence overnight, gambling in barracks, smoking in the ranks, making an improper remark to an officer, talking in the ranks, and breaking out of detention while undergoing punishment. At this stage of the war, the Army could be selective with recruiting and Clark was discharged under King’s Regulation 392(iii)c: ‘Recruit within three months of enlistment considered unfit for service’.
3. (Back) A full account of the disaster may be found here: HMS Natal.
4. (Back) ‘Naval Gunner Drowned’. (29 July 1917). Baltimore Sun. p 14. This article contains a number of facts about Clerk’s service but it is evident when comparing it to his service record that they have been mixed up when recounted.
5. (Back) Able Seaman Herbert Wentworth Crawshaw was born on 9 July 1898 at Mirfield, Yorkshire. Prior to the war he worked as a miner. He enlisted on 15 March 1915 (numbered TZ/3981). Like Clark, he was underage and give his birthday as 9 July 1896. His career paralleled Clark’s and after his period on defensively armed merchant ships he served for the last nine months of the war in Gibraltar. He was demobilized on 1 May 1919. He died in Yorkshire in 1959.
6. (Back) Death Certificate. (30 July 1917). Health Department, City of Baltimore. Certificate number D7149. The certificate shows his name as ‘Joseph L. Clark’.
7. (Back) Plot E, Lot 172, Grave 11. The cemetery register incorrectly records his name as ‘James L. Clark’.

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