The mystery of Alfred Duck Ward: alias Arthur Courtney

Lately I have been helping a friend with some research about a mystery person in their family tree. The subject came up over dinner when she mentioned having a great-uncle who enlisted in World War I under a false name. She knew he enlisted as Courtney but did not know his first name, only that his real name was Alfred Ward and he was about 27 years of age on enlistment. It was not unusual for men to enlist under a different name if they had something to hide or perhaps did not want family to know they had enlisted, but something about this case sparked my interest so I offered to search the National Archives of Australia website to see what I could find out about ‘Mr Courtney’.

Initially I was searching for Alfred Courtney, but having no luck I decided to go through each entry for Courtney. I finally picked one – Arthur Courtney – because he was about the right age. Bingo! There were 72 pages attached to Arthur’s enlistment form and we had to go through each page until just over half-way there was a letter from his mother stating that her son’s real name was Alfred Ward, not Arthur Courtney.

From his enlistment papers on the National Archives Australia website and information on Australian War Memorial and NSW Births, Deaths and Marriages websites, I was able to put together a brief history of the family.

The parents of Alfred Duck Ward (alias Arthur Courtney) were Thomas Ward and Ellen McBride/MacBride. They were married in Bourke, New South Wales, in 1879 and had five sons and three daughters, all registered in Cobar: George Mount Ward (1882); Thomas (1884); Ellen (1886); William (1888); Alfred (1891); Jim (1893); Maria (1896) and Rachel M (1898).

Thomas Ward (Snr) died in 1900, presumably leaving Ellen with the four youngest children aged 9, 7, 4 and 2, to support. George, Thomas and Ellen (Nellie) were by this time old enough to work (William had died in 1894 aged 6 years). As the eldest girl in the family, Nellie would have been expected to stay home and help look after the family. She married Walter H.M. Naughton in Cobar in 1904, aged 18. Her mother later married Aaran Wade in 1921 in Dubbo and then lived in Golgolgon.

Arthur Courtney 1

Alfred Ward filled out an attestation paper to enlist in Newcastle on 30 April 1917 under the name of Arthur Courtney. He listed himself as 26 years, 1 month of age; a shearer; next-of-kin listed was his sister Nellie Naughton of 4 Railway Street, Cooks Hill, Newcastle, NSW. The Witness to his Will, where he left ‘the whole of my Military and Deferred Pay to his sister Nellie Naughton of 4 Railway Street, Cooks Hill, Newcastle NSW’ was B.W. Alford. Interestingly, he stated his Service No as 6757 NOT 6857.

He was 5 feet 11 ½ inches in height, 150 lbs in weight, his chest measurement was 32” to 35.5”, fair hair, brown eyes, brown complexion; religion Church of England. Distinctive marks: a scar on right leg, under side above ankle, ‘…’ of shot in wound. His actual Application to Enlist in the Australian Imperial Force is dated 12 May 1917.

Alfred/Arthur embarked Sydney on ‘A72 Beltana’ H.M.A.T. on 16 June 1917 and disembarked from Beltana Plymouth (England) on 25 August 1917. After training, he was sent to France on 27 December 1917 on Fovant. He was admitted from England at Havre, France, on 28 December 1917 and proceeded to join his unit on 30 December 1917. Then sent to Belgium, he reported to hospital sick on 9 January 1918 with a hernia. He seems to have been in hospital for quite a while, then in recovery units until he appears to have been sent back to his unit on 20 June 1918 and killed on 29 August 1918.

Private Alfred Ward/Arthur Courtney, Service No 6857, was buried first in an Isolated Grave 1 mile West South West of Halle and 1 ½ miles West North West of Peronne. On 25 August 1919, his sister Nellie Naughton received a letter advising that: ‘In all cases where members of the A.I.F. are buried in isolated graves, the remains are to be re-interred in the nearest Military Cemetery. This work is done in the presence of a Chaplain with the greatest care and reverence.’

The family was advised that Alfred/Arthur’s body was reinterred and the official words read: ‘Killed in action, buried Assevillers New British Cemetery, Assevillers, Picardie, France Plot 2 Row F Grave 9’. His death is commemorated on panel 87 at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Two letters containing ‘the effects of the late No 6857 Private A. Courtney, 18th Battalion’, were despatched to Mrs N. Naughton (Alfred’s sister) one on 11 April 1919 and one on 20 May 1919 – one to the address in Newcastle and one to Nyngan and a Receipt for Consignment containing ‘the effects of the late No 6857 Private A. Courtney, 18th Battalion’, was signed by his sister (next-of-kin) Nellie Naughton on 21 August 1919.

There are various places mentioned in 1921 and 1922 as Defence Department tried to contact his mother, Mrs E. Wade, to deliver Alfred’s medals: Nyngan, Bathurst, Brewarrina, Golgolgon and Tarcoon. On 24 May 1921, Defence wrote to Alfred’s next-of-kin (his sister) at a Nyngan address to find out if there were ‘any nearer blood relations’. That letter was returned unclaimed on 6 July 1921.

It seems Defence then asked the Police to find any relatives and a claim for the medals was made by Alfred’s mother, Mrs Ellen Wade of Gongolgon, on 31 August 1921 – signature witnessed by Constable Albert E. Newton, 2nd Class. On 19 September 1921, a letter was sent to the Medals Section about disposal of Alfred’s war medals, with a note that medals were given to his mother, 30 September 1921.

On 22 November 1921, Alfred’s mother signed a receipt slip for a memorial scroll for ‘the late No 6857 Private A. Courtney, 18th Battalion’. On 20 February 1922, Alfred’s mother was advised that the inscription she had provided for his gravestone was too long and could she shorten the inscription to 66 letters or provide a shorter inscription. The inscription was to have read:

WHEN WE SEE THE BOYS RETURNING OUR HEARTS DO ACHE WITH PAIN TO THINK YOU ARE NOT WITH THEM DUCK AND NEVER WILL COME HOME AGAIN

On 21 March 1922, Alfred’s mother, Mrs Ellen Wade, sent a Statutory Declaration from Bathurst Street, Brewarrina, to Base Records in Melbourne to advise Defence that her son’s real name was Alfred Duck Ward NOT Arthur Courtney. She stated ‘He enlisted under the assumed name of Alfred Courtney…I desire that the name of Alfred Duck Ward be inscribed on the headstone.’ She enclosed an inscription that she would have liked to be included on his gravestone:

OTHERS RETURNING MAKE OUR HEART PAIN, TO SEE YOU DUCK NOT HOME AGAIN

letter from mother 1922

On 14 December 1922 Mrs Ellen Wade signed a receipt for a Memorial Plaque for ‘the late 6857 Private A. Courtney, 18/Bn, A.I.F’ and by 2 July 1923, Ellen Wade signed a receipt for a Victory Medal for ‘the late 6857 Private A. Courtney, stated to be A.D. WARD, 18th Btn.’

On 8 July 1923, Mrs Ellen Wade had sent postage stamps to Base Records, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne from Tarcoon, to cover the cost of postage for photographs of her son’s grave in France. On 4 August 1923, nearly five years after Alfred’s death, there was closure for the family when five (5) photographs of his grave in France were posted to her.

Finally, nearly 100 years after Alfred Duck Ward’s death, his great-niece has the story of his family, his enlistment in the AIF under an assumed name and the details of his burial in France.

Carol Roberts copyright 2020

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