This week on the Secret Library we are delighted to hear from Mick Ward, who gives us the fascinating and poignant story of his grandfather, Charles Ward: his military life in The Boer War, and First World War and the impact of those conflicts on him personally.
Last month was the 120th Anniversary of my Grandad, Charles Ward, carrying out the actions which resulted in him being awarded the Victoria Cross: the last VC to be presented personally by Queen Victoria.
Charles was born in poverty at Tulip Street in Hunslet on July 10 1876. His parents were not married, so he took his mother’s, Ann Ward, surname. (His father later became known as Ward to avoid scandal). Ann was a nail maker who ‘made her mark’ with an X on his birth certificate.
Like many working-class young men, his prospects were limited and he joined the army as a young man. From there he soon found himself in Britain’s imperialist war in South Africa – The Boer War.
The formal citation for the award of the VC reads:
On the 26th June, 1900, at Lindley, a picquet of the Yorkshire Light Infantry was surrounded on three sides by about 500 Boers, at close quarters. The two Officers were wounded and all but six of their men were killed or wounded. Private Ward then volunteered to take a message asking for reinforcements to the Signalling Station about 150 yards in the rear of the post. His offer was at first refused owing to the practical certainty of his being shot; but, on his insisting, he was allowed to go. He got across untouched through a storm of shots from each flank, and, having delivered his message, he voluntarily returned from a place of absolute safety, and recrossed the fire-swept ground to assure his Commanding Officer that the message had been sent.
On this occasion he was severely wounded. But for this gallant action the post would certainly have been captured.
When I think of my Granddad, I think of this act of bravery, and that he did this for his comrades, not for ‘Queen and country’ – especially that he returned to assure them that he had got through, despite been wounded on his return.
You can actually see the jacket he was wearing on that day, complete with bullet holes, on display in the regimental museum within the new Danum Gallery, Library and Museum, in Doncaster.
He returned to Leeds to be treated at the Leeds General Infirmary by local surgeon Berkeley Moynihan and he received a huge welcome from his hometown. This was extensively covered in the Yorkshire Post on December 10 1900: thousands turned out to greet him in City Square, with ‘An ovation lasting an hour’. Some of the language in the article both reflects the mood of the time, as well as a use of language you may struggle to find in today’s journalism. I particularly like ‘the young solider, smiling but tremulous’ ; ‘the cheers were more disconcerting than anything he met in South Africa’ And in particular: ‘ A tall man, loosely made, somewhat clumsy in movement, his face haggard from privation and suffering’. He then proceeded to an even greater reception as he moved to Hunslet. As the Yorkshire Post describes:
the warmth of the welcome was accentuated when Hunslet was reached. In all the big area which the name covers there was scarcely a street, no matter how mean, hardly a court, no matter how squalid, which was not brightened by at least one flag. It was by no means unusual to come across a street, far removed from the main arteries, which had been overhung with streamers, and there were dozens of small houses, the clean and cosy habitations of hard working artisans, from whose windows were suspended gold embroided cloths which bore “A welcome home to our hero”. Other cottages sported sketches, more or less crude, but well-intentioned, of Private Ward, and in more than one window he was honoured by having his photograph, copies of which were selling in the streets like hot cakes.
I am lucky enough to have a copy of one of these photographs, printed on card alongside the citation for the VC, produced by N.G. Morrisons of Leeds (see photo below) – though I would quite like to have a “crude, but well-intentioned” sketch!
The event ended at The Grove Hotel, where after many speeches Charles was prompted to speak himself, simply saying:
“I am only one of the Atkins family,” “and cannot address such a distinguished company as this as I should like to. In regards to my conduct, I only did my duty, and there are plenty more in South Africa who would do what I did if it came to the pinch.” He hoped his future life would justify their welcome.
Interestingly, the report in the Yorkshire Post notes that they were dissenters to this piece of military jingoism and of the Boer War as a whole:
As to the documents which had been circulated defaming the British Army, (Canon Thompson) said it was a very ill bird that fouled its own nest, and the person who wrote the words he, in common with other clergymen, had received through the post, was not fit to bear the title of Englishman.
A reminder that there have always been those who have opposed unjust wars.
Following this, Charles was formally invested with the VC by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on 15 December 1900. This was the last VC investiture by HM Queen Victoria before she died on 22 January 1901.
And of course, it was from this moment that his life changed completely. On the one hand he became a celebrity; on the other, his personal life was more complex.
There was a push nationally to promote war heroes to help justify the war, something that of course continued into the First World War (and indeed still today). Charles was awarded a specially struck gold medal by Mr. William Owen of Leeds and a cheque for £600 (equivalent to over £60,000 today – it was used to purchase a newsagent in Hunslet). He was called upon to open cinemas and fetes, and the Leeds Mercury published a poem in Leeds Dialect that had been specially written for him, titled ‘A Welcome from T’Leeds Loiner’:
A Welcome from T’Leeds Loiner, Leeds Mercury December 1900.
Good day to thee, Charles Ward, VC.,
Reight glad to see tha’ here.
On t’scroll o’fame tha’s carved thi’ name,
Dost’ hear wer Yorkshire cheer?
Tha’s fowt through thick, tha’s fowt through thin-
Dog of a feightin soart-
Bin praised bi F,M. General “Bobs,”
Bin praised bi t’Queen and Court.
And now tha sees owd Leeds agean,
Wi’ this long-range veldt-trained ee:
But tha’ll noan hev far to look, mi lad,
For t’friends ‘ais waatin’ thee.
Tha comes to us through Paareberg,
Ower t’veldt for monny a mile;
We’re cheerin’ thee through Meanwood Spruit
To t’Kopjes up Belle Isle.
Tha’s heard the roar o’ Brition and Boer,
Australia’s wild “Coo-ee.”
But that’ll be nowt to t’Parksides showt
‘At Hunslet hez for thee.
Tha’ll miss thi Pom-pom’s rat-tat-tat,
Tha’ll miss owd 4 point 7,
But tha’ll see a blaze through Taylor Foarge
Goa roaorin up to Heaven.
An’ warm and breet, in t’deep o’nest,
Tha’ll mark its cheerin’ glow,
Like monny a heart that’s warmed for thee
While tha’s bin feightin’ t’foe.
Soa here’s to thee, Charles Ward, VC._
She’s pinned it on thi’ breats-
Tha’s stood thi corner, fowt thi feight,
Tha’s fowt it- ay wi’ t’best
Then lift it, lads, wi a three times three,
A welcome hoam for Ward, V.C,
For hoam, sweet hoam – and rest.
There was a cigarette card of him (see photo below). And incredibly there is even a moving film of him! Made by the pioneering film makers Mitchell and Kenyon, it comprises of a silent interview conducted by. Ralph Pringle, the ‘stand-alone’ showman exhibitor of the North American Animated Photo Company, who had a long relationship with Mitchell and Kenyon. The film was shot in February 1901, probably near Charles’ parents’ home in Hunslet, and is available to view at the BFI site: (free to view) https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-ralph-pringle-interviewing-private-ward-vc-hero-in-leeds-1901-1901-online
However, war again soon called and Charles reenlisted in September 1914. According to an article in the Yorkshire Evening Post from March 1919, Charles had been a speaker at recruitment events around Leeds, served as a drill instructor at training quarters including Pontefract and Ripon, and went to France in the last few months of the war. According to his army pension record he was discharged from the army on 21 November 1918, he was considered to have ‘two disabilities; synovitis of the right knee, and ‘mania’.’ What form this ‘mania’ took was not recorded, however it would not take much of a leap to assume this could well be what we would now call ‘PTSD’.
Whatever form it took, Charles, in what was to be a short life, at that stage took a series of sudden and dramatic turns. He had moved to South Wales where he worked as a Gym Instructor, but his marriage to his wife of fourteen-years, Emily (a tailor from Leeds), with whom he had 4 children, was already breaking down when tragically she threw herself under a train on the Taff Vale Railway on 28 February 1919 and was killed. A verdict of suicide was returned after a coroner’s inquest.
Charles re-married again soon, just later that year in September, 1919 which was not unusual during periods of war and its aftermath. Marrying Annie Elizabeth McNally, again from Leeds, and indeed she was his cousin, and who was to be my Grandmother. They stayed in South Wales, living in Cardiff – which is where my father, Eric Ward, was born in March 1920.
However, Charles died shortly after on 30 December 1921 at Glamorgan County Asylum, Bridgend, Wales, aged just 45; the cause of death registered as ‘Myelitis and Mania’. Shockingly the army, despite Charles’ status as a hero and the diagnosis of Mania, refused a pension to support his surviving wife Annie and the children (Annie was also caring for the children from the previous marriage as well as my father), stating that ‘Soldier died of a disability neither attributable nor aggravated by military service.’
As a result of this, despite the initial financial donation he had received (what was left was used to pay for my fathers’ education) Annie became penniless and moved back with the children to Leeds, where she died in 1960; by then my father, Eric, had himself joined The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry from 1940 and fought with them in the Second World War and Korean War.
An interesting postscript is that Charles was buried with full military honours at St Mary’s Churchyard, Whitchurch, Cardiff. His grave was originally marked by a wooden cross but this eventually disappeared and the grave was unmarked for more than 50-years. However, in 1986 the Glamorgan Family History Society found it and, after considerable effort by John O’Sullivan, a South Wales Echo and BBC journalist, a series of events were arranged by the Royal British Legion and the Earl Haig Club at Whitchurch, culminating in a ceremony to mark the unveiling of a War Grave Commission headstone to the memory of Charles Burley Ward VC. Alongside the dignitaries present were my father and mother and other family members, including some who had emigrated to Australia.
I did not attend, as I thought it was too military, and too focused on celebrating war. I think if I knew then what I know now about Charles’s life, I would have attended to recognise his life.
The headstone is inscribed:
CHARLES BURLEY WARD, V.C.
DIED 30TH DEC. 1921 AGE 45
BOER WAR 1900
LAST MAN TO RECEIVE V.C.
FROM QUEEN VICTORIA
Please can I add my thanks to many others who have passed this story down to me, and done the additional research to get information to back-up these stories.
Of course to my dad, Eric (for whom this story was of course much more personal and with dramatic impact), to other family members, especially Martin Gilles (part of the Australian connection), to the BBC and BFI, to John O’Sullivan, and for the recent added pension and other related information to Lynsey Slater from Doncaster Museum and to volunteer researcher Ronnie Walsh