Teenage soldier’s sketches from the World War 1 trenches unearthed

They are sketches from hell.

Drawn by a British soldier in the trenches as the bloody horrors of war unfolded before his innocent teenage eyes.

Burning aircraft falling from the sky amid a hail of flak.

Shells exploding above his head even as he draws.

A wounded soldier enjoying a snatched moment of peace with a cigarette. A life of terror – captured in pastels.

And after the nightmare was over, the artist – Private Claude Clark – went back to home town Portsmouth thankful to be alive, put his sketches in a cupboard – and never again breathed a word about his experiences in the First World War.

Only when Claude died at 83, did this moving record of a soldier’s war see the light of day.

His son Barry found the dust-covered sketchbooks by chance when he was clearing out his dad’s belongings.

He said: “My dad was distant growing up and he never spoke about the war. Finding his drawings was emotional. I think that’s when I finally realised what he’d been through.

“What those troops endured cannot really be imagined – and it does make you think how lucky we are. I wish I could go back and speak to my dad about the war. It’s too late though.”

But Barry, 74, has done the next best thing in honour of his dad.

To mark the centenary of the Armistice tomorrow, we took him, his son Steve, 49, and 10-year-old grandson Thomas back to the Western Front where Claude arrived as an 18-year-old in 1916.

The three generations of his descendants will never know exactly where he fought because his army records were destroyed – by a Second World War bomb.

But a vital clue lies in his sketches of the trenches at Vimy Ridge, the site of a bloody battle in April, 1917.

One in three soldiers who went over the top that day did not come home.

The trenches have been preserved to commemorate the advance, which claimed the lives of 3,500 men and wounded 7,000 more.

Reminders of the conflict are everywhere. Gaping shell craters. Carved initials in chalk quarry tunnels where soldiers sheltered before the big push.

And the cemeteries of endless white crosses around nearby Arras in which Barry, Steve and Thomas stood remembering Claude.

“I think this has helped me understand him,” said Barry. “He had some shortcomings, and wasn’t very open with his love. But what he must have suffered and seen is unimaginable.”

In one haunting sketch, Claude drew anguished refugees fleeing a village close to Arras, which lies on what was the 440-mile front line.

His drawings show a barren land-scape wiped out by fighting.

His self portrait, in which he takes cover with his sketch-book in the trenches as a shell explodes above him, is particularly poignant.

Barry said: “My dad had only ever been five miles from home before he went to war. Maybe art was therapy to him, his way of coping.”

Steve, a writer, added: “Imagine being told to go over the top and face machines guns – it’s unthinkable. Our lives must have seemed so easy to my grandad’s generation.”

Claude was demobbed in February, 1919. Back in Portsmouth he founded a successful sign-making company, which Barry later ran.

When war broke out again in 1939, he volunteered as a camouflage supervisor, helping conceal invasion pillboxes.

Claude married Barry’s mum Margaret in 1940. The couple also had daughters Averil, Rosemary and Gill.

Throughout Barry’s childhood, his dad suffered jaundice and chest infections that doctors believed were the result of a gas attack.

But it was only on his death bed, in a delirious state, that Claude ever mentioned his war.

Barry said: “Just before he died, he started to shout about bombs coming in, warning people.

“I’m not sure if he had PTSD. He was not an angry man, but now it is obvious to me that the war had upset his life.”

Now Barry is anxious to make sure his own grandchildren do not forget what their great granddad and his comrades endured. Thomas has already produced a school project on Claude’s sketches.

He said: “I am really glad I went to see where my great grandad fought. Seeing all the graves of soldiers who lost their lives was astounding.”

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