William E. Ward, Royal Army Service Corps

Our new blog follows a slightly different tangent – The NFYWH team recently had a diary brought in by the family of one ‘William E. Ward’: A Suffolk man by birth, Ward served with the Army Service Corps in the First World War. He had joined the army in the 1890s, enlisting underage with the false name of ‘Harry Smith’. By the beginning of the war, he had risen through the enlisted ranks to become a senior N.C.O. Although not himself a Welshman, Ward was with the R.A.S.C. supplying the South Wales Borderers at the siege and capture of German-held ‘Tsingtao’ in northern China in 1914 (also known as ‘Tsingtau’, modern name ‘Qingdao’). This was a combined operation of Japanese, British and Sikh troops attacking the port, which was a key German colony and the naval base for a substantial German Pacific fleet.

Ward was already in China when war broke out, having been shipped there in 1912 to undertake a tour of duty with the 2nd Battalion of the South Wales Borderers; they were stationed there to protect British trade interests in the city of Tientsin (now ‘Tianjin’) - Tientsin was close to the German colony of Tsingtao, which is why the SWB would be tasked with helping besiege the Germans there when war broke out. Ward kept a diary during the voyage from Britain to China, assiduously documenting his experiences whilst en-route to the Far East. Ward’s first impressions upon docking at Shanghai on the way to Tientsin were as follows:

‘The greatest of ports in the Far East. Called the London of the East and truly well named. Nearly all nations have concessions and warships under all flags are lying here to protect their respective flags.’

‘Visited old China Town. A very ancient old walled-in city of thousands of years standing. Very unsafe for Europeans after sunset, and like all Chinese cities full of vice, and reeking with disease and insanitation.’

Ward went on in his diary to describe his first impressions of the Chinese cultural customs that he observed:
‘Their customs are very peculiar, they worship false gods, God of Fire, God of Water, God of Blood and many others. Their temples are wonderful structures, beautifully curved and decorated and painted according to [the] colour of God…’

‘If a man is drowning, nobody attempts to pull him out. For should he succeed in saving him, he has to keep him for the remainder of his days. If the man is dead, the person that takes out his body has to go to the expense of burying him. If a person is taken fatally ill in the street nobody will touch him. Suppose a man touches him before he dies. The dead man’s father mother and wife must be kept for ever afterwards by the person who is important enough to touch a dying man.’

He also commented on the difficulties experienced with traversing the rural areas; a logistically-minded man, he was clearly unimpressed with China’s infrastructural development at the time:

‘The whole country is low lying and very flat. After 3 days’ rain hundreds of miles are under water, and there being no drainage it remains until the sun dries it up…before building a hut or village it is necessary to make a mound of earth, say about 10 ft high, to place the dwelling out of reach of the water…. In many cases when the rains are very heavy, whole villages are washed away (as in this year 1912). It was reported that 46 villages and 25,000 inhabitants perished… Many acres of millet and mealies destroyed. In such cases great distress is caused. For these crops are the native’s winter food and all he has to depend upon. Around Tientsin the place in which I am now stationed in this month of August 1912, we are able to row for many miles over corn fields…

An American firm is said to have offered to drain China for 3,000,000[?]. But [the] Chinese cannot see that this is necessary. There are no roads and after rain everybody is isolated for days. Just as China was thousands of years ago, so she is today… Nobody wants roads…so they exist contented in their old world ways.’

At this time, the British Empire (along with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the USA, Belgium, Austria-Hungary and Russia) had their own territories (known as ‘concessions’) in key Chinese cities, which the Chinese government had been pressured into ceding to them; they were essentially small colonies. Tientsin was a key ‘concession’ city, as it was a lucrative trade hub for coal and minerals, and had a rail link to important cities like Beijing and Shenyang.

Unfortunately for us, Ward did not write much in his diary while he was at Tientsin and gave no account of the Tsingtao siege, but he did take many photographs during his service, with a camera being sent by his fiancée inside a cake tin so that it would not be confiscated. He also recorded some key events occurring during the 2 years he was stationed in China. Many of the events involved the various other nationalities that had troops stationed in the Tientsin concessions:

‘26th May 1912: International sports [competitions]. All troops taking part. The variation of uniforms formed a very interesting sight. The chief honours of the day falling to the British in all eight first prizes. The French are exceptionally good at Tug of War and won easily. Two French teams pulling in the final.’

‘4th July 1912: Celebration of Independence Day by American troops. ‘Sports’ - baseball and free beer.’

‘14th July 1912: Anniversary of proclamation of the Republic of France by the French troops.’

‘30th Aug 1912: Visit of Sun Yat Sen [first president of Chinese Republic] to Tientsin.’

‘31st Aug 1912: Disturbance in Tientsin City. Rioting, some killed and wounded.’

17th Jan 1913: German Emperor’s birthday, celebrated by German troops. Ball given at Gordon Hall Tientsin.

Following a ~2-month siege from late August to early November 1914, Tsingtao was captured along with almost 4000 German troops, with the loss of 236 Japanese and 12 British. After participating in the siege, Ward left China in 1915 and, after marrying in London, shipped to Egypt and Palestine; he remained in the Middle East until the end of the war. At some point he became a Staff Sergeant Major, and was Mentioned in Despatches in March 1917. After the war, he was allocated a smallholding with 2 acres of land in Barnham, West Sussex, through P.M. Lloyd George’s housing act to provide: ‘Homes fit for Heroes’. He died in 1973.

William Ward’s daughter Eileen was featured on Radio 4 in 2011, speaking about her father’s experiences, you can find the programme here:

e will be uploading more photographs taken by William Ward into the archive - use the archive search tool for further details.