Johnstone History Museum
A Project of Johnstone History Society
Charles Clunas 13th February 1894 — 8th February 1916
A brief history of a soldier in the Great War
September 28, 2017
On the list of Johnstones War Dead compiled by the late John Kenny there is an entry for Lance Corporal Charles Clunas, Service no. SPTS/1068, of the Royal Fusiliers. Date of Death, 08/02/1916.
Charles Clunas was born on the 13th February 1894, the third son of John Clunas and his wife Flora McLean. The family of five sons and one daughter lived at 17 Buchanan Street, Johnstone, their home for over 20 years, till about 1912 when they took up residence at 11 Thompson Avenue.
His father, John Clunas originally came from Ardclach, a hamlet and Parish to the South-East of Nairn. After a brief spell with the Paisley Constabulary he joined the Johnstone Burgh Police in 1888, was promoted to Inspector in 1901 and retired in1920 after 32 years service. He died at 9 Thompson Avenue on 11th November 1947
Charles had been a pupil at Johnstone High School and was a keen football player, he played for Clyde Football Club, made 21 appearances and scored three goals. In later years, 1920s-30s his brother William played for St. Mirren and Sunderland and had gained International Honours playing for Scotland against England and Wales
It would seem appropriate therefore that when Charles joined the Army to take part in the Great War, he was to be found in the 23rd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (also known as the City of London Regiment)
It was initially known as the “Hard as Nails Battalion” and was the first of two Sportsmans Battalions, hence the prefix SPTS attached to his Service number. His number, 1068, would suggest that he enlisted at the Central Hotel in Glasgow on Monday/Tuesday, 26th/27th October 1914.
It was noted in the comments/interests column of the Enlistment Register that Charles Clunas “helped with recruiting;” and “soccer.” was his interest. No inkling of coercion or undue pressure being applied.
The 23rd “Sportsmans“ Battalion was raised in early September 1914 at the Hotel Cecil in the Strand, London as one of Lord Kitcheners “New Army Battalions” at the instigation of Mrs E. Cunliffe Owen who had sought and received permission from Lord Kitchener as to its formation.
Differing from the usual “Pals” Battalions where recruits were taken from a small locality, the “Sportsmans” Battalions were mainly composed of men who had made their name in some form of sporting activities or from the world of entertainment .Enlistment was from anywhere within the British Isles and the Empire. Class and status was not an issue within the Battalion, volunteers came from all walks of life. Because of the perceived fitness of the enlisted men the maximum age limit was raised to 45 years. There was also a minimum height of 5ft 6ins.
The initial training camp was at Grey Towers, Hornchurch, Essex.
In June 1915 the Battalion came under the command of the of the 99th Infantry Brigade, 33rd Division. In July 1915 the various units had moved to assemble at the newly constructed training camp at Clipstone, near Mansfield, Notts. This was one of the largest built and could accommodate 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers at any one time.
The Royal Fusiliers were the first troops to be billeted there. After a few weeks training in trench warfare, night attacks and use of machine guns, the Battalion moved to Candahar Barracks in Tidworth for final training and firing practice on Salisbury Plain
On 15th November the Battalion, consisting of 31 officers and 1,006 other ranks, entrained at Tidworth and proceeded to Folkestone. By the following day they had crossed the Channel and disembarked at Boulogne. After one day at a rest camp at Boulogne they entrained again, their destination Steenbeque, where they spent the next four days billeted in barns and farmhouses. They moved again on 22nd to billets in and around Thiennes.
From 25th November 1915,the 99th Brigade was transferred from the 33rd Division, a New Army infantry division, to the 2nd Division, a Regular Army infantry division.
The 2nd Division were part of the British Expeditionary Force and had taken part in the Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat, and had also suffered heavy casualties in the first Battle of Ypres in November 1914
Prior to a new unit or Battalion taking over a line of trenches, it had to serve an “apprenticeship” . The procedure was to introduce platoons, then companies, then a half Battalion and finally the whole Battalion into the line to learn the work and what was expected of them. The 23rd Royal Fusiliers were moved to billets at Annequin and attached to the 6th Infantry Brigade for 12 days for such instruction, and to experience life in the trenches.
During this period the Battalion suffered its first fatality, on the 5th December one man was killed by shellfire. Two days later two men of a machine gun crew were also killed by shelling. As the month progressed so did the toll of deaths and injuries.
On return from the trenches on 9th December, the Battalion rejoined the 99th Brigade at Bethuen. The 99th had now assumed command of “Z” sector of the front line. Battalion training continued with a practical demonstration of Gas Defence by the Chemical Adviser to the 1st Army.
Different sectors of the front line had different attitudes to the enemy across no-mans land. Some were passive and adopted an unofficial “live and let live” policy” with the tacit agreement of their opponents. Shelling would be carried out on pre-arranged targets on recognised times.
The “Z” sector of the front line was an active sector.
During December the Brigade activities included an attempted gas attack with the subsequent exchange of artillery, machine gun and rifle fire, and also the blowing of a mine. Orders were issued to form raiding parties, made up of 1 or 2 officers and about 20 to 30 other ranks to carry out night time attacks on the enemy trenches. The Germans retaliated by throwing bombs and firing rifle grenades during the night..Trench mortars were another hazard, snipers were also a constant threat and irritant. Letters sent home by soldiers commented on the lack of hot food and the constant mud and water in the trenches
At last, on 19th December the Battalion marched to Cambrin support point to relieve the Royal Berkshires and take over a sector on its own. A gas attack.was attempted but initially failed due to the wind droping.down at the last moment. The wind was more favourable on the 21st and the gas attack went ahead on a front of about a mile. The following day the Fusiliers were relieved by the Royal Berkshires and proceeded to the reserve billets at Annequin (Fosse)
Christmas 1915 for the 23rd Royal Fusiliers was spent cleaning and repairing the support trenches as well as the fire trenches themselves in sector Z2. Other tasks included working on a “sap” or tunnel and installing barbed wire in no-mans land. These was a hazardous undertakings, as the work parties were subjected to constant harassment during night by bombs being thrown and rifle grenades fired by the enemy, and with snipers and trench mortars being active during daylight hours.
After five days in the trenches (this was about the limit they could stand) on the 29th they were relieved by the 18th Royal Fusiliers and sent back Busnettes for sixteen days rest. This was far enough to be away from the noise of the guns, the billets were deemed to be the best they had had since their arrival in France.
Rest did not equate with leisure, it meant more training, route marching, drills and kit inspection. Training commenced on 1st January, terminating on 17th January, so much for sixteen days” rest”
By 19th January 1916 the Battalion was back on duty at Le Touret. The 22nd saw them back in the trenches for four days, then withdrawn into reserve at Bethune.
The Battalion next moved into the trenches at Givenchy on 3rd February and continued working on the trenches. The Battalion diary reports casualties on a daily basis over this period, on the 8th February three other ranks wounded, one other rank killed.
The other ranker killed was Lance Corporal Charles Clunas. He was only five days short of his 21st birthday. His family back in Johnstone would no doubt have sent cards and presents in celebration of the event, making news of his death even harder to bear.
He is buried in the Guards Cemetery, Windy Corner, Cuinchy, Pas de Calais, France,with two other men from his Battalion. (Grave reference 11.K.6)