Military Monday Episode 5 – Charles Ward: Queen Victoria’s Last VC
Charles Ward was born in Hunslet, Leeds, in July 1876, although some records state his year of birth as 1877. Charles’ parents Annie and George were unmarried, so Charles used his mother’s surname of Ward, with his father’s surname Burley as a middle name. There seems to have been some confusion around his date of birth, as Charles listed his age as 19 years and 10 months old when he joined the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) in April 1897.
The 1st Battalion of the KOYLI were serving in Mullingar, Ireland in August of 1897 and Charles joined them there. In May 1899, Charles was posted to the 2nd Battalion.
Although there had long been tension between British forces and the Boer farmers of South Africa over British control in the area, the discovery of gold in the South African Republic upped the ante. Although there were some attempts at negotiations, it became clear to the Boer forces that Britain was not aiming for a peaceful settlement, and they decided to strike first. In early October 1899, the South African Republic demanded the withdrawal of British troops from their borders. This was rejected by the British, and the Second Boer War broke out later that month. Charles, along with other KOYLI soldiers, were thrown into action.
In June 1900, Charles was part of a group of soldiers who were surrounded by Boer fighters. Two officers were wounded, and all but six of the men had been killed or wounded. Private Ward volunteered to take a message asking for reinforcements, travelling from their exposed position to a signal station under heavy fire. At first, his offer was refused due to the certainty he would be shot. Charles insisted, and managed not only to deliver the message, but return under heavy fire to assure his commanding officer that the message had been delivered. During his return, he was shot in the arm. The official account in his medal citation states ‘but for this gallant action, the post would certainly have been captured.’ This action would earn him the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
Charles was invalided out of the army due to the wounds received during his VC action, and returned to Britain for treatment at Leeds Infirmary. By an unusual coincidence, Charles was treated by surgeon Berkeley Moynihan, whose own father Captain Andrew Moynihan was also a VC winner.
In December 1900, Charles was one of five men who were presented with their Victoria Crosses by Queen Victoria herself at Windsor Castle. As Charles was the lowest ranking soldier of the five, he was last in line. The Queen died just a few weeks later, resulting in Charles Ward being nicknamed ‘Queen Victoria’s Last VC.’
When Charles returned to Hunslet, Leeds, in December 1900 he was given a hero’s welcome. Greeted by hundreds of people at the train station, including the Lord Mayor, councillors and his family, Charles seemed overwhelmed by the attention. After travelling through crowds, with music provided by the KOYLI band, Charles arrived at the Grove Hotel for a celebratory luncheon. The Leeds Mercury newspaper reported that Charles was asked to say a few words, which was interrupted by a round of singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. He said “I am highly honoured by your flattering reception..” and with a ‘shy laugh’ said “I have only done my duty.” 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. The Leeds Mercury published a poem that had been specially written for Charles, titled ‘A Welcome from T’Leeds Loiner’, loiner being a slang name for someone from Leeds.
Charles ran a newsagents and Tobacconist Shop at 1 Church Street, Hunslet between 1902 and 1908. Later, he became a teacher of Physical Education at Bridgend Grammar School, Glamorgan, Wales, where he stayed until 1914. After the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the West Riding Regiment and served as a drill instructor training new army recruits. After the end of the war, he returned to Wales, teaching at Barry County School.
Although he was welcomed back as a hero, Charles’ personal life was complex. Charles married Emily Kaye in Hunslet in October 1904 and the couple had four children, Lillian, Edith, Charles Jr and Dorothy between 1905 and 1910. Their marriage broke down in 1918, and in a tragic turn of events, Emily committed suicide in February of 1919. Charles remarried later that year, and he and his second wife Annie had one child together, Eric Burley Ward. Charles’ military pension records detail that he was considered to have two disabilities at the end of his service; inflammation of the right knee, and mania. Charles Ward VC died on the 30th of December 1921 at Glamorgan County Asylum, Bridgend, Wales, aged just 46. He was buried with full military honours in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Whitchurch, in January 1922. Both the regiment, and the regimental association, were represented at the funeral.
Charles’ family moved away from Cardiff, but occasionally visited his grave, which was for some time marked with a small wooden cross. Over time, Charles’ grave was forgotten, but in 1986 a group of researchers identified its location. Working with Charles’ family and the Royal British Legion, they arranged for a headstone to be placed on the grave and it was dedicated on 20 September 1986, eighty years to the week since the news of Charles’ VC win was published in the London Gazette.
Charles’ jacket, complete with bullet hole in the left arm, is part of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Regimental Museum collection and will be on display in the new regimental gallery in the Danum Gallery, Library and Museum.
Thank you to Charles’ grandson Mick Ward, and West Yorkshire Archives volunteer Ronnie Walsh for additional information provided for this article.
You can also view a video interview with Charles at the British Film Insitute.