- Name: Azariah CLARKE
- D.O.B: 18th Nov, 1891
- D.O.A: 2nd Jul, 1937
- D.O.D: 17th Feb, 1975
- Award: George Cross
- Occupation at time of action: Miner/Overman and Captain of the Colliery Rescue Brigade, Holditch Colliery (Holditch Mines Ltd), near Chesterton, North Staffordshire
- Book: The Complete History - Volume 3
BETWEEN THE WARS 1919–39
The stresses of the First World War led to political revolution in much of Europe and, in extreme cases, social collapse. Even the victors, Britain and France, were not immune to the economic upheaval and labour unrest resulting from the transition from war to peace and the demobilization of hundreds of thousands of men. This made them extremely nervous of the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and they decided to send aid to the anti-Bolshevik forces. However, an Allied North Russia Expeditionary Force had to be withdrawn once it became clear that internal opposition to the Bolsheviks had been defeated. In Britain a postwar boom failed to prove long-lasting and in May 1926 there was a General Strike, triggered by a crisis in the Mining Industry. The Great Depression followed in 1929 and by 1931 Britain was forced to abandon the Gold Standard. In large parts of the country and especially in the traditional industries there was widespread unemployment throughout the 1930s, symbolized by the Jarrow Crusade of 1936. Conditions were much worse on the Continent and the interwar period witnessed the rise of the Dictators. The coming to power in Germany of Hitler in 1933 was to lead inexorably to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. In the years of increasingly uneasy peace between 1919 and September 1939 only eleven VCs were awarded and of these only one, the award to Captain G P Meynell in 1935, took place outside the period 1919-21. Of the eleven awards, five related to actions against the Bolsheviks, four to actions on the North-West Frontier of India and one to an an engagement in what is now Iraq. The remaining award was that in 1921 to the American Unknown Warrior. Of the Albert, Edward and Empire Gallantry Medals awarded in the same period, 142 recipients lived long enough for their awards to be converted to the GC. The geographical distribution of the actions that occasioned the awards is witness to the Global spread of the British Empire, which reached its widest extent after the First World War. However, some of the awards, for gallantry in India, Egypt and the Sudan, and Palestine, reflected both the stresses in maintaining that dominion and the duties it entailed. After service personnel and policemen, coal miners formed the largest group of recipients, demonstrating the central importance of coal to the British economy and the dangers inherent in securing it. Those who worked in coal and gold mines in India and Africa were also honoured. Both in the mines and in industry as a whole, the threat posed by poisonous gases led to many awards. New industries brought new hazards with them. Other dangers overcome were of a more basic sort. Awards were also made to those who, throughout the Empire, confronted mad elephants, rabid dogs and marauding sharks.
On the 2nd July, 1937, at about 5.45 a.m. a fire started in the holing of the Four Feet Seam at Holditch Colliery, North Staffordshire. The fire spread rapidly but of the 55 men employed in the affected area at the time all except two succeeded in withdrawing from the danger zone. As soon as it was found that the two men were missing, unsuccessful search was made for them. At 6.50 a.m. an explosion occurred and one of the search party was afterwards found to be missing. Meanwhile a call for the Colliery Rescue Brigade had gone out, and by 7.30 a.m. Azariah Clarke had assembled three others at the pithead and proceeded to lead them below ground. The party met the managing director of the colliery in the neighbourhood of the fire, and he instructed them to search for the man who had been lost after the explosion. They accordingly donned their breathing apparatus and started on their search in the direction of the face. The atmosphere was hot, dusty and foul with gas and smoke, and on reaching a fall which blocked the way into the face they retraced their steps, continuing meanwhile their search for the missing man, but without success. The Rescue Brigade – now increased to five by the arrival of another member – next went to search for the two men who had been lost at the time of the original fire. Still using their breathing apparatus, they stumbled in the smoke up a steep road, parts of which had a gradient of 1 in 2½ to 1 in 3. Soon after 10 a.m., while they were thus engaged, a severe explosion occurred resulting in the deaths of 27 persons most of whom had been sent down for the purpose of erecting stoppings to seal off the fire. The Rescue Brigade were but slightly affected by this explosion and, having made their way to a telephone, they arranged to come out to secure fresh breathing apparatus since their supplies of oxygen were running low. During the period of some two hours, during which the Brigade had been searching for the lost men under Clarke’s leadership, they had survived two other explosions of lesser intensity (as well as the major explosion to which reference has been made) and had been working throughout in conditions of the greatest difficulty and danger with the realisation, moreover, that further explosions might occur at any moment. Having secured new apparatus Clarke again led the Brigade into the danger zone. Travelling down the road over falls of ground and derailed tubs, and past other debris produced by the explosion, and extinguishing a fire encountered on the way, they came upon a number of badly injured men and dead bodies. They made the injured as comfortable as possible, and arranged for stretchers to be sent in. On the arrival of further assistance some members of the Brigade helped in evacuating the injured and the dead, while Clarke and others made a further examination of the workings with a view to ensuring that no living person had been left behind. By 3.35 p.m. all the men known to be alive had been recovered, and as it was thought that there was a considerable risk of a further explosion all the men were withdrawn from the mine. The Rescue Brigade had worked almost continuously in breathing apparatus since 7.30 a.m. Later on doubt arose as to whether there might still be some injured persons alive in the pit, and at 6 p.m. Clarke again led a brigade down the mine. After an exhaustive search they found no live men below, and returned to the surface at 8.30 p.m. In view of the serious nature of the brigade’s report on the conditions in the mine it was decided that no more men should be allowed to go down until the fire area had been flooded. The courage, initiative, endurance and qualities of leadership displayed by Clarke throughout these lengthy operations were outstanding.