Clarence Raymond Watts was born on Wolfe Island, Ontario, January 3, 1890. He was the son of Rev. Asa Orlando Watts and Emma Augusta Miner Watts. He had four younger sisters and one older brother. His father was a Methodist minister who may have been preaching here on Wolfe Island when Clarence was born, the family moved around quite a bit in the following years. The 1891 census has the family in Stanstead QC, while the 1911 census lists their residence as Storrington, ON. At the start of the war his family was in Merrickville, which was his mother’s home town.
Like many Canadians, Clarence moved west at some point after 1911. The recently-created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta were booming and Clarence found employment as a bookkeeper in Regina. It was while he was there that he decided to enlist on the 24th of January 1916 just after his 26th birthday; however he did so in Winnipeg, joining the 179th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada. He was unmarried at the time of his enlistment and was 5 feet, 5 inches tall with a dark complexion, brown eyes and dark hair. He left a good job in Regina to enlist – we don’t know his reasons nor do we know if his parents in Merrickville were aware of his decision.
The 179th Battalion trained at Camp Hughes south of Brandon, MB during the summer of 1916 and shipped out for England in the fall. When it got there, like so many other units, it was broken up for reinforcements. Clarence found himself in the 43rd Battalion, Cameron Highlanders of Canada, a Winnipeg unit, in the 3rd Canadian Division.
Clarence missed the Battle of the Somme but would likely have participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 and at Hill 70 in August. He survived both these major engagements in which over 7,000 Canadians died. In October 1917, Field Marshall Haig ordered the Canadian Corps, the most effective formation in the British Army, north to Flanders where he needed Lt-Gen Currie’s experienced battle-tested troops to provide some sort of victory to close out the Battle of 3rd Ypres. This battle, also known as Passchendaele, remains one of the most controversial of the First World War. Over 500,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded in the battle that raged across the devastated landscape west of Ypres – the last major town in Belgium not occupied by the Germans. The rainiest summer in Belgian memory led into a rainy fall, as the British Army slowly pushed the Germans back at great cost to both sides. The water table of the low lying countryside was already shattered when the Canadians arrived in mid-October. Lakes of mud swallowed men, horses and guns whole, with progress across the battlefield measured in metres, and movement in the rear areas largely confined to wooden walkways called duckboards.
General Currie was not happy to be in the Ypres Salient that fall. He demanded and received from Field Marshall Haig, more time to prepare, more guns, and a switch in Army boundaries so he would not have to fight under a commander in whom he had no confidence. Currie could make these demands due to the great reputation of the Canadian Corps, a reputation earned in blood.
Clarence’s battalion the 43rd was scheduled to attack on the first day of the Canadian assault – 26 October 1917. They had to attack uphill through a sea of mud and capture Bellevue Spur, the high ground on the north side of Passchendaele Ridge. Their objective was one kilometer away – the Red Line. The attack went in at 5:40 am in a mist that quickly became a driving rain. After initial success the two battalions of the 9th Brigade – Clarence’s 43rd and the 46th, stalled about 600 m from their start point. They were falling back when Lt Shankland and his platoon seized the initiative and captured some stubborn German positions. Shankland would earn the VC, but Clarence Watts would be cut down and die that day. The terribly muddy conditions meant that his remains were not recovered and as result he has no known grave. He is instead remembered with honour at the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, in Ypres along with over 53,000 other Commonwealth soldiers. Each night at 8:00 pm the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate while buglers of the local Fire Brigade sound the Last Post in the roadway under the Memorial’s arches.
Clarence Watts was not on Wolfe Island for long, but he will be long remembered by the community where he was born. We will remember them. Thank you, Miigwetch, Nia;wan, Merci.