Bertram Etty Ward:
One of the Heroic Figures of the War
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 11 NOVEMBER 2023
Some time ago, in 2018, we published an article on Albert Midgley, a talented musician who in 1908, at the age of seventeen, moved down from his home in Perth in Scotland to study at the London music colleges. He was about to embark on a career as an organist and choirmaster, and seemed set to win a fine reputation, when the First World War broke out in 1914. He enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers, and in the closing months of the war, at the age of twenty-five, he died of wounds received while fighting in Italy.
The subject of this latest article, which also has the Great War as its setting, is another young man who went abroad to ‘do his bit’ for his country. He was a Londoner, the son of a Streatham family, and, although his route through the horrors of the war was not one that gets much attention in military histories, he was no less a hero for that. His name was Bertram Etty Ward, and he was a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving first as a driver and later as a stretcher bearer. And this is his story.
Bertram was born on 10 December 1893, and he was baptised early in the following year, on 3 February, in the church of St Leonard’s in Streatham. His father, John Barron Ward, had once been a wholesale stationer, but was now a diamond merchant, an occupation he would pursue until his death in 1905, when he was still only fifty years old. His mother, who gave him his middle name, had been Etty Maria Lawson at the time of her marriage. She would live well into her eighties, dying in 1945.
Bertram had two older and two younger sisters and two older brothers, and it will be seen that one of his brothers, Gordon Reginald Ward, might have influenced his decision to enlist at the start of the war. But another and possibly stronger influence was his schooling at Epsom College in Surrey, which he entered in September 1906 at the age of twelve.
Epsom College was established by Dr John Propert in 1851 and opened by Prince Albert in 1855 as the Royal Medical Benevolent College. Propert’s aim was to educate the children of medical families, and to provide other forms of support, at a time when many doctors not only struggled financially but also suffered the debilitating effects of diseases contracted from patients. In 1910, when Betram was still a pupil, the name Epsom College was adopted.
By this time the College had broadened its intake sufficiently to function as a regular public school, but it never lost its traditional association with the medical profession, and one pupil who lived by these professional values was Gordon Reginald Ward. He started at the school eight years before Bertram, in 1898, and went on from there to study at Westminster Hospital. By the time he was in his late thirties he was a fully qualified doctor, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. Significantly, he was also a reservist officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and he served in many battle zones of the First World War, including the Somme, Mons and Salonika.
As suggested earlier, it may have been his older brother’s example that persuaded Bertram to serve with the RAMC. However, his time at Epsom College, where he was a solid scholar — if a rather indifferent rugby player! — was not holding out the prospect of a medical career, and on leaving school in July 1910, and after a brief spell at the University of London, he found employment as an insurance clerk.
A curious family connection emerges from this period. When the 1911 census was taken, Bertram was visiting a certain Edwin Thomas Hamley, whose surname will sound familiar to many. Edwin was in fact a son of the William Hamley who founded the famous toy shop, but he was also John Barron Ward’s first cousin, and, together with his brother William Henry Hamley and Etty Maria Ward, administered John’s affairs on his death.
Interesting though this connection is — and see my article The Magic of Christmas for a Dickens angle on the history of the toy shop — it pales in importance alongside the decision Bertram made to enlist in the RAMC. In September 1814, barely weeks into the conflict, he signed up at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in Chelsea, and in March 1915 he went over to France with the 4th London Field Ambulance. An entry in the Epsom College memorial to those who served in the First World War pays fine tribute to Bertram, who served ‘continuously’ and ‘usually near or in the firing line’.
The same mud
Although the influence of Bertram’s brother, and indeed of the Epsom College tradition, cannot be discounted, it is worth asking why he chose not to enlist as a combatant. Quite possibly he had moral qualms, and it may not be insignificant that in the early days of the war the RAMC attracted men with personal or professional objections to killing, such as Church of England clergymen. Or, as a white-collar worker, he may have seen himself, or have been seen by recruiting sergeants, as unfit for combat duty.
Furthermore, when we look at the photograph of Bertram in the Epsom College archives, it is obvious that he had poor eyesight. Sight tests were required for all men hoping to be taken on as combatants, and, although the ducking and weaving of determined recruits is part of the mythology of the First World War, there can be no doubt that many found themselves disqualified. So it is not impossible that Bertram went to France in a non-combatant role more through necessity than choice.
We can speculate endlessly how and why Bertram was recruited to the RAMC, but the fact remains that the conditions and dangers the orderlies of a field ambulance had to endure were the common lot of all those who served in the trenches. They did not carry weapons or ammunition, but they were shot at and shelled quite as much as their armed comrades. They had to wade through the same mud and suffer the same cruel winters as the regular fighting troops. ‘The stretcher-bearer on the field,’ wrote Colonel H. M. W. Gray, a surgeon with the British Expeditionary Force, ‘is one of the heroic figures of the war.’
Gray stressed the importance of training stretcher bearers to administer life-saving first aid and generally care for the physical well-being of the wounded soldiers they were ‘carrying in’ from the scene of combat. But he was not the first medical authority to showcase the hardships the ambulances faced. For example, in 1917 the British Medical Journal published an article on the work of the RAMC, in which it pointed out that the zigzag formation of trenches presented the bearers with enormous challenges.
However, for a clear and unsparing picture of the realities of the work of the stretcher bearers, nothing compares with the personal diaries some of these courageous individuals brought back from the war. Sergeant Norman Fermor, for example, wrote extensively of his experiences as an NCO in charge of stretcher bearers on the Western Front, and the following extract, dated 1 November 1917, is one of many that capture the horrors of the trenches:
Posted to Pheasant Trench. Just a hole dig in the side of the trench, all water and mud. Had to stand all night. At dawn we could see a party coming up the duckboards. The Germans also saw them and some were hit. I turned the boys out to do what we could, and found an officer wounded with his orderly attending him. When I heard a shell which I could tell was coming right on top of us I shouted ‘Down’. We all went flat in the mud. The orderly still knelt there. The shell miss us by inches, went deep in the mud and exploded, the orderly getting a splinter in his throat which gave us another casualty. If the ground had been hard that morning I wouldn’t be writing this.
Not only did Sergeant Fermor risk his own life on a daily basis but he had to deal with the deaths of men in his charge. A few days before the incident in Pheasant Trench, he was sent out by an officer to retrieve casualties. He needed a volunteer to bring his squadron up to strength, and his call for assistance was promptly answered by
a fine well-built young man, who for his devotion was killed instantly on back of my stretcher. I was at the front. I heard the shell and shouted ‘Down’ but he wasn’t soon enough. This was heartbreaking. Here we were caught in barrage and all we could do was to drag stretchers and patient into shell hole and hope for the best and this we did for over an hour and hope for the best. I wrote to this young man’s mother and have still got her reply which was also heartbreaking. How these mothers must have suffered.
Another diarist, Private Herbert Empson of the 2/5 London Field Ambulance, had the following to say about his experiences in the trenches. On 19 September 1916 he had struggled to carry in a case of shell shock in wet weather:
One cannot realise how hard a stretcher bearer’s job is until it is experienced, & then it is impossible to have any doubt on the matter. Imagine the tortuous & twisting stretchers & then think of a party of four bearers manipulating a stretcher containing a heavy patient, & carrying the patient’s kit too! Think of them stumbling through mud & water & tripping over broken trench boards, striving to keep the stretcher steady & ensure comfort for the patient. At one point we had to lift the stretcher on to our shoulders & twist it round sharp corners with sand bags on either side, & as we were doing this one of our aeroplanes appeared overhead & soon pieces of German shrapnel were falling round us, but we kept on. We had about hour & a half of this & we have it every time there is a stretcher case. Who, after this, would call the stretcher bearer’s job an easy one? Very few, I think.
Early in April 1918 Bertram was at Martinsart in the Somme region of northern France. The hostilities at that time were principally skirmishes with the Germans in the neighbourhood of the Aveluy Wood, and there were significant losses on both sides. Then on 6 April, while carrying in casualties, Bertram was hit by enemy fire, suffering gunshot wounds in both thighs. Having been removed from the battle zone, he was transported to the coast, and he was one of the 322 wounded men who were sent from Southampton on two ambulance trains to Glasgow. The trains arrived on 11 April, and Bertram was among the casualties allocated to Stobhill Hospital, the others being taken to Merryflats.
The rationale behind the allocation of wounded troops to Glasgow was simple expediency. The number of casualties coming back from the war overwhelmed existing military hospitals, and many civilian facilities were requisitioned to deal with what had become a considerable logistical problem. Stobhill had been opened in 1901 as a poor law infirmary, but when war broke out it was immediately turned over to the care of servicemen. Many thousands were admitted in the course of the conflict.
Bertram, who had brought succour to so many in the course of his service in France, was now the deserving recipient of medical care. But two weeks after being wounded at Martinsart, at 7.20 pm on 20 April, he died of secondary haemorrhaging. The surgeon who certified his death identified him with all due propriety as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and for civilian purposes as an insurance clerk, and an unmarried man. He was twenty-four years old.
Gordon Reginald Ward was dealt a better hand than his younger brother. He survived the war and went on to pursue a successful medical career with a practice in Sevenoaks in Kent. But he continued to serve with the RAMC as a reservist, and in due course he attained the rank of major.
When he died, in 1962, he was hailed by the Sevenoaks Chronicle as ‘an incredibly energetic man’ with a fine record of achievement not only in medicine but also in history and philately. He published a number of books, some on medical subjects, others on local and regional antiquities. He served on many public bodies and was a Freeman of the City of London.
So Gordon Reginald Ward lived through both world wars, as indeed did his brothers and sisters, with, of course, one exception. There is something poignant about the birth and death dates of this Streatham family: six siblings living into their sixties at least and dying between 1946 and 1984, but one, poor Bertram, dying in his twenties in 1918. The figures tell the story — a story, alas, that is all too common.
No greater love
They buried Bertram on 26 April in a quiet churchyard in South London, not far from where he had been born only twenty-four years before. There was a cross once, which has now broken off at its base, but the inscription remains intact, and in a few brief words it tells a story of unassuming heroism:
BERTRAM ETTY WARD R.A.M.C.
DIED ON APRIL 20TH 1918 OF WOUNDS RECEIVED WHILE CARRYING IN THE WOUNDED AT MARTINSART ON APRIL 6TH 1918
GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS, THAT A MAN LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIENDS
For his contribution to the war effort he was given, posthumously, the Victory Medal and the British War Medal. He was also awarded a Wound Stripe, which, had he lived, would have entitled him to wear two inches of gold Russia braid on the left sleeve of his service jacket. He had made a will, and his widowed mother received effects worth £624 8s. 9d., which was considerably more than the £27 16s. war gratuity the government paid her as the mother of a man who made the ultimate sacrifice on the fields of northern France.
Perhaps, in the end, the greatest honour was to be buried in the same churchyard as twenty-six other local men who went to the war. One of these, Lance-Corporal Percy Chitty, is a particularly worthy companion, for he too served with the RAMC, and he too died in 1918 at the age of twenty-four. He was wounded on the field of battle, and died on 19 October, only days before the Armistice on 11 November. He almost made it, but his luck, like Bertram’s, ran out.
I would like to thank Rebecca Worthy, archivist at Epsom College, for permission to use the photograph of Bertram Etty Ward, and also for a great deal of valuable information about his time at the school.
We have little information for Albert Burnham for this period. When last seen — in the 1911 census — he was living in Worthing in Sussex. He was married with two sons and a daughter and was still working as a coachman. He was only in his mid-fifties when he died in 1926. But even though the records of his life are few, he has been remembered. For he was the man with the ladder, the man who did not hesitate to run into the railway cutting, where at no little risk to himself he pulled two young boys out of the water before they sank beneath the ice.
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