Article published in the Sunday Times (Malta) on 21st December 2014.
Malta’s best known role during World War I was that of ‘nurse of the Mediterranean’, tending to the injuries of young men who had seen action in Greece and Turkey, offering them respite and, in many cases, serving as their final resting ground.
But Malta’s involvement in the war was wider than that. The King’s Own Malta Regiment and Militia saw action on the Salonika Front in the Balkans; Maltese seamen served aboard ships which fought in the Battle of Jutland, in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean; others served in British, Canadian and Australian regiments on the western front and in Gallipoli. The official list published in the Malta Government Gazette in November 1938 includes close to 300 names of casualties from the various theatres of war around Europe and the Middle East.
The first Maltese victim of the war was 2nd Lieutenant Bernard Frederick Paul Bernard of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Bernard was born on November 4, 1894, in Southampton Street in Farnborough, Surrey, to Edwin and Beatrice Bernard. He came from a family with a long military tradition. His grandfather, Colonel Count P. Bernard, had been a commander in the Royal Malta Artillery. His father was a captain of the Army Service Corps who, in 1913, was attached to the Egyptian Army and seconded as financial secretary to the Sudanese government as Brevet Colonel.
The young Bernard attended Beaumont College, a Jesuit public school, in Old Windsor, Berkshire, from 1907 to August 1911, during which time he was a private in the college’s Officer Training Corps. He later moved to Combe Florey rectory near Taunton in Somerset. His name also appears in the roll call of Wimbledon College. On November 28, 1913, he applied to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst where he was admitted the following January.
Following Britain’s entry into the war in summer, 1914, Bernard was gazetted as 2nd lieutenant in the Second Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (today known as the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers) on October 1, 1914. The 2nd Battalion had been based in Malta for some time, having arrived on November 29, 1912 (from Portland, via Southampton) and leaving on August 4, 1914. His immediate movements are not known but it is likely that he went either to the regimental depot at Warwick or to the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion at Portsmouth.
He was soon to proceed to the front. The war diary of Bernard’s battalion records his arrival at the head of a draft of 98 men on November 20, 1914, (according to the medal rolls, Bernard landed in France on November 27, but this is probably incorrect). The First Battle of Ypres, which had ended earlier that month, had inflicted heavy losses on the British army, with some 56,000 men dead, wounded or missing. Bernard’s unit was in the process of receiving reinforcements to make up for the losses it had sustained.
The battalion was taking its turn in holding the front line in the vicinity of Fleurbaix in France, a few kilometres from the Belgian border. Conditions in this flat, low-lying part of the front were bad and likely to have worsened with the winter’s onset. When Bernard arrived, the battalion was billeted in Rue de Bataille in Fleurbaix, his first taste of life in the trenches coming when the battalion went back on the frontline on November 23. This seemed to have been a relatively quiet period, although the battalion’s diary records six men killed or wounded by a German shell or mortar on December 6.
The period of quiet was not to last long. The battalion’s diary records an Allied offensive on December 18, starting at 4.30 p.m. The attack began with artillery fire and a charge. Within minutes, heavy German fire cut down the attacking lines, causing some 320 casualties in the Warwickshire regiment alone, including the commanding officer. At 8pm, the order was given to withdraw, the attack having achieved nothing. Stretcher bearers and search parties worked all night to pick the corpses and wounded they could pick. “Trenches very full,” the battalion diary grimly notes. He was buried along with some 80 others in three communal unmarked graves dug in no man’s land on Christmas Day 1914
Witness statements in Bernard’s file indicate that he was one of the casualties during this attack (which would mean that the officially recorded date of his death – December 21 – is wrong). Private 2525 Saxby reported that a comrade, Lance Corporal Harborne, had seen Bernard killed on December 18 “while cutting the German entanglements. He had a revolver in one hand and plyers [sic] in the other, when he was shot dead”. He was 20 years old.
On December 22 the War Office sent a telegram reporting that Bernard had been wounded between December 18 and 19 to D. Ross Johnson, who appears to have been acting as a local contact on behalf of Bernard’s father. A later telegram, dated December 25, reported that Bernard was now considered to be missing. Behind the scenes, an enquiry had been made via the German Red Cross which confirmed that Bernard was not a prisoner of war. Enquiries were also made by Bernard’s cousin, Alfred Mattei.
Here, Bernard’s story links with one of the most poignant moments of the Great War. Following the attack of December 18, a local armistice had been suggested by the Germans to allow for the collection of Allied wounded and burial of their dead. This armistice was disrupted by British artillery fired by mistake. But a few days later, what became known as the ‘Christmas truce’ took place. At various points on the western front, soldiers from both sides unofficially stopped fighting and fraternised across no man’s land. The brigade war diary reports that Bernard’s body was found during this unexpected pause from fighting and hastily buried.
This was confirmed by the eyewitness accounts of Corporal Fish of the Wiltshire Regiment and Private Whittall of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. They reported that Bernard was buried along with some 80 others in three communal unmarked graves dug in no man’s land on Christmas Day 1914. “There was no time to remove the bodies to our lines and it was useless to put up any mark as the place was exposed to fire, but the spot will be recognised later by many.” The location was “a 100 yards in front of our trenches”.
On 28th December the War Office sent a second telegram to Ross Johnson reporting that Bernard was now considered to be dead. Lord Kitchener, then Secretary of State for War, sent a telegram of sympathy and thanks to Bernard’s father on 29 December. As a former commander-in-chief in Egypt and governor-general of the Sudan, Kitchener’s expression of sympathy was probably more than a routine affair. Bernard’s death was reported in The Daily Malta Chronicle of January 12, 1915 (with the date of his death given as December 19).
Having no known grave, Bernard’s name is inscribed on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing in the municipality of Comines-Warneton, Belgium. The memorial lists more than 11,000 names of UK and South African servicemen who fought in the area and to whom – to use the words inscribed on the memorial – “the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death”.
The last post is played at the memorial every month. Every year since 2010, the Maltese Embassy to Belgium and Maltin fil-Belġju asbl, the association of Maltese living in Belgium, have taken part in the ceremony, laying poppy wreaths at the memorial. This year, being the centenary year, wreaths were laid by Ambassador Ray Azzopardi, accompanied by Major Joseph Spiteri from the Armed Forces of Malta, myself and members of the Bernard family.
The intention behind the event is, first and foremost, to honour Bernard. But it is also intended to honour the other Maltese who fought and died during the Great War. That their number may have been small, considering the millions of people involved in this global conflict, should not detract from the fact that, despite its size, Malta had a important role in this sad chapter of European history.
Acknowledgements: The author thanks Chris Baker (www.fourteeneighteen.co.uk) for his research and Jacqueline Merry Bernard for the photos of Bernard and his family.
Franklin Mamo is president of Maltin fil-Belgju asbl.