The Last Victorian VC: Charles Ward Working Class Hero

This is the story of Charles Ward, the last person to be awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Victoria.

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This is a portrait of Charles Ward in his regimental uniform. He can be seen wearing the recently awarded VC.

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Charles Burley Ward was born in Leeds in July 1877 and was the last VC awarded by the ailing Queen Victoria for actions in the South African ( Boer War) in 1900. He is seen wearing the VC.

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This is the citation for the award of his VC.

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.

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A contemporary magic lantern slide show which illustrates the ways in which both British troops and the Boer enemy were characterised in popular culture.

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The Anglo-Boer War marks a fascinating intersection between two colonial powers and the use of the press and associated news-carrying popular cultural forms as a means of shaping public opinion and demonizing Britain’s ‘enemy’. The publication of photographs in magazines and the popular press via the halftone process was a very recent development and coincided with a propaganda campaign to denigrate the Boers as an uncivilized and brutal colonial power and to legitimize benevolent British interest in the territories.

Simonp — 2 years ago

This slide illustrates the controversial issue of so-called white flag incidents in which the Boers were accused of abusing the conventions of surrender to attack British troops.

Simonp — 10 months ago

White flag incidents are still very controversial and occur regularly. Their use is banned under the geneva convention.

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A Sneaky Boer- one of a series of anti-Boer propaganda films made by the Mitchell and Kenyon Company in Blackburn Lancashire.

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White flag treachery

Press reports of the war were characterized by a constant series of references to abuses of military protocol by largely guerrilla Boer forces. One of the most sensitive aspects had been the status of the white flag as a means of seeking to surrender and the granting of quarter to those who used it. The abuse of the flag of surrender was part of a broader range of so-called atrocity stories that circulated in the press and which were frequently translated for stage and screen. The Boers were accused of a range of contraventions of international rules, as in the case of the following editorial in Black and White Budget:

Can it be true that the Boers, despairing of success in open war, are resorting to dastardly methods, such are described in the following extracts from letters? – ‘The Boers did poison the water above Ladysmith, and they cut off the other water, so that fresh could not flow in.’ ‘Some devil yesterday sent a lot of cigarettes to the wounded troops at Wynberg with poison in them.’ This really is too bad to be true. (Anon. 1899o, 6)

But what upset the military and civilian population more than anything else was the abuse of the white flag. An example from the Western Mail on 8 November 1899 gives a flavour of these reports:

Accounts given by native eye-witnesses of Thursday’s battle near Ladysmith show that the Boer force was caught in open ground, whereupon several white flags were raised. The British advanced without firing, in order to accept surrender, but as they approached the enemyhe enemy fired a volley into them at close range. Enraged at this achery, the Lancers, Hussars, and Dragoons, followed by infantry with fixed bayonets, charged through and through the enemy, doing great execution. (Anon. 1899e, 5)

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Not all response were as accepting of the demonisation of the 'enemy' and this contemporary account is indicative of a growing rejection of the jingoism evident in the popular culture of the time:

Songs have been sung and doggerel has been declaimed from the stage that have been quite unworthy of a sane and strong people. Audiences may have yelled themselves hoarse and frantic over the one and the other, but such applause is obtained with no credit to art, and certainly with no dignity to this great country. To judge from the bellicose rubbish that has found a place on the stage, one might suppose that all Europe was in arms against us. Rant of this sort is very deplorable indeed. Equally so is the opprobrium that is lavished on the two little republics. The Boers and their ally may not be highly civilised or wholly admirable people, but, at the least, they are brave men standing up against the resources of the mightiest of Empires. Though they may not be above reproach, though they may be very much in the wrong, vulgar abuse and revilement of them are inexcusable and in the worst possible taste. (The Stage, Anon. 1899, Page 14)

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A still taken from the Mitchell and Kenyon film of Charles Ward being interviewed by showman Ralph Pringle.

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War celebrity and ordinary 'heroes'.

As part of the mediatisation of the war ordinary 'heroes' were turned into media celebrities as a means of demonstrating the common sacrifice being made by British troops. Charles Ward was one such individual, he featured in this Mitchell and Kenyon film, but was also featured on a series of cigarette cards of VC winners and heroes.

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A Cigarrette Card featuring Charles Ward.

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A picture of the Bugler with the revolver that killed the Boers.

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Another example of this type of 'ordinary' celebrity came in the form of Bugler John Shurlock, who at the age of 14, became a national celebrity in the first weeks of the war by singlehandedly shooting three Boers with a revolver at close quarters. The incident took place on 21 October 1899 and was reported widely in the press from 23 October onwards. Within two weeks, his story had been commemorated in the song Only a Bugler Boy, sung by the ‘Coster Queen’, Kate Carney.

This review gives a flavour of who celebrity was celebrated in popular performance:

Hearty welcome is given to Miss Kate Carney, who in her song of ‘Wait till Bill gets hold of him’ dwells with considerable subtle humour on the droller side of the war, while the serious aspect is thrillingly described in the ballad ‘Only a bugler boy,’ for which the popular ‘coster queen’ now adopts the dress of a Red Cross nurse. At the last verse a curtain rises and reveals three ferocious-looking Boers, with levelled rifles, in the trenches, whom the gallant young Sherlock speedily dispatches with his revolver, notwith- standing the white flag which the last survivor cunningly displays. (Anon. 1900, 19)

John Shurlock subsequently became a role model for other boys and featured in a number of articles on boy soldiers and heroes. The Up-to-date Boys Journal noted that ‘Bugler J.J. Shurlock is as proud as Punch, and justly so. He shot three Boers. All readers of Up-to-date Boys should be heroes (Anon. 1899, 782).

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One of many popular representations of Shurlock in the heat of battle. These were often published in Boys Comics.

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Episode containing film of Ward and an interview with his grandson.

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Ward is awarded the freedom of the City and welcomed back to Leeds in mid December 1900 to public screenings of the Mitchell and Kenyon film. This is one of several poems that marked his return.

To Charles Ward, VC

A Welcome from T’Leeds Loiner

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.

J.H

Leeds Mercury December 1900.

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List of VC holders in Leeds, next to Leeds War memorial.

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The rest of Ward's life details are as follows:

After the award of his VC he achieved the rank of company sergeant-major and acted as a drill sergeant in the First World War. He later became a publican and died in
Bridgend, Glamorgan and is buried in St Mary's Churchyard, Cardiff. He died on 30 December 1921, aged 44.

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A BBC Archive programme featuring eyewitness accounts and recordings of those involved in the war.

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Here are some additional sources for the Boer War.

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War footage from the Boer War.

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