George Robert Bernard’s childhood is shrouded in mystery and intrigue. By his own account, he was born on September 5, 1887 at 9 Young Street, Kensington and was the only son of George Arthur Bernard, a Stockbroker, and Madame Felice Bernard and was educated at Emanuel School, Wandsworth. However, there is no independent surviving corroborating evidence of any part of that narrative.
Indeed, George himself was unable to find any such birth record at Somerset House when he searched for it in 1914. But what George did not know is that there is a birth record for George Robert Wallendorff, born on September 5, 1887 at 9 Young Street, Kensingnton to Alexandrine Françoise Wallendorff, a 28 year old dressmaker, previously living in Paris, who signed her name as the anglicized “Fanny Wallendorff”. No father was named on the birth certificate, which was registered six weeks later, and a hand written note implies that the baby was adopted.
Three years later, a court dressmaker called Madame Fanny W. Dubois, the same age as Fanny Wallendorff, was living at the same Kensington address. So, it would appear that George Robert Bernard may have actually been the illegitimate son of Alexandrine Françoise Wallendorff, (who later reinvented herself as Madame Fanny W[allendorff] Dubois), and was adopted shortly after his birth by Madame Felice Bernard.
But whatever the truth surrounding his early life actually is, he was clearly raised as an affluent and well educated young man and from 1911 his story is clear. By 1911 he was renting a flat in Pimlico and working as a clerk in the pensions department of the Board of Trade, (whose responsibilities later fell to the Ministry of Labour, after it was established by the New Ministries and Secretaries Act of 1916).
In 1914 he was still working at the Board of Trade and was Secretary to the Local Juvenile Advisory Committee, Shoreditch Labour Exchange. It’s likely that this is how he met and became friends with the Rev. Robert Robertson Hyde, Chaplain at the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital, City Rd London, and a lifetime advocate for juvenile welfare.
At the outbreak of war, he secured permission from the Board of Trade “to serve with His Majesty’s force for the duration of the war” and subsequently joined the newly formed 18th Service Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, as a Private (3720) on Sept 15, 1914 and underwent basic training at Epsom. The 18th Royal Fusiliers were also known as the 1st Public Schools Battalion, part of the University and Public Schools (UPS) Brigade. Most of the men were educated at public schools and many were subsequently offered commissions. George was quickly singled out for promotion and on November 30, 1914 was appointed temporary 2nd Lieutenant in the 12th Battalion, The Essex Regiment.
All candidates nominated for a temporary commission were required to provide a signed certificate of good moral character for the prior 4 years from “a responsible person”. In George’s case, his friend the Rev. Hyde attested to George’s character indicating that he had known him since 1909. His educational reference was provided by the Oxford educated private Chaplain to Maurice George Carr Glyn J.P. then living at Albury Hall, Much Hadham, Hertfordshire. Providing further evidence of George’s privileged and socially well connected upbringing.
He deployed to Gallipoli, and on October 7, 1915 was attached to the 1/9th Battalion, Manchester Regiment along with 4 other junior officers from the Essex and South Lancashire Regiments. At this point in the campaign on Cape Helles, the positions of the Allies and the Turks were essentially fixed and well dug in. The primary means of attrition on both sides was through the digging of mine shafts and galleries under the enemy’s lines and exploding large amounts of munitions. Consequently, in mid-August the 8th Army Corps, under the command of Major Henry William Laws, formed a Mining Company with 4 platoons, each with 1 Officer and 2 Mining Squads of 2 NCOs and 24 men. Each Division in the Corps was required to contribute a platoon and the 42nd Division, of which the 9th Manchesters were a part, duly complied. 2/Lt. Bernard became temporarily engaged in the Divisional support of these mining operations and a letter from Capt. Oliver Jepson Sutton to his father relating to events in October, and published in the Ashton Reporter on November 27, 1915, highlighted the dangerous nature of the work:
Yesterday, whilst waiting for dinner, an explosion took place underground. I went off to find out where it was, and after travelling along the trench some way, found a man coming out of a shaft. He was a bit shaky, and said he had heard a man shouting below. I could get no candles or lamps, so I doubled back to the dugout and got the lamp you sent me. Without a light it was no use going down because the mines are complicated, and I had not been in before.
Wandering about below I came across the new sub., Bernard, and in a few moments, we discovered one of the men gassed and unconscious. It was hard work carrying him out, as the roof was very low, but we managed to get him to the shaft, and there he was hoisted out. He came round in a few hours, and is now none the worse for his experience. No damage was done to the mine, but the gas from an explosion 20 yards away was forced through the ground into our mine, and was too much for the man.
Throughout October and November, the demand for more personnel to support the expanding scope of the Mining Company’s offensive activities steadily increased and the 8th Army Corps made a request to GHQ for the addition of subalterns to each platoon in order to bring the operational structure more in line with that of the Tunneling Companies of the Royal Engineers, which had just started operating in Europe. Since the requested subalterns from England were not forthcoming, 2/Lt. Bernard became one of those subalterns already at Gallipoli who was attached to the 8th Army Corps Mining Company. On the evening of November 28, 1915, he was involved in the incident that would eventually see him awarded the Military Cross, on June 3, 1916. In the early morning hours of November 29th, the following signal was sent to 8th Army Corps HQ:
From OC 8th Corp Mining Coy
29 Nov, 1915
Fusilier Bluff borehole exploded under Turkish gallery from which gas was issuing last night. After firing, Lt. McNamara and two miners entered No 2 shaft to investigate and were immediately overcome with gas, presumably the gas produced by explosion of ammonal. Lt. Bernard attempted rescue and was also overcome. Regret to report Lt. McNamara and one miner died. Others have recovered.
Back in England, the 254th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers was formed. They sailed for Gallipoli and arrived at Cape Helles on December 7, 1915 where they quickly absorbed the personnel of the 8th Army Corps Mining Company, Major Laws, DSO assuming command as he was more experienced than the Tunnelling Company CO. A week later, most of the Divisional personnel temporarily attached to the Mining Company were allowed to return to their battalions and 2/Lt. Bernard re-joined the 9th Manchesters. But he had performed his duties with the 8th Army Corps Mining Company admirably and they would not forget him.
2/Lt. Bernard left the Gallipoli peninsular with the 9th Manchesters on December 28, 1915 and went with them to Egypt where he continued to serve until he was granted one month’s home leave to England, embarking at Alexandria on June 18, 1916. Back in England he stayed with his friend the Rev. Robert Robertson Hyde at St Mary’s Clergy House, Provost Street, Hoxton. On July 1st he married Eleanor Bertha Taylor at St. Mary’s Church and Rev. Hyde performed the marriage ceremony. George and Eleanor had a productive honeymoon; their son Geoffrey George Bernard being born 9 months later on April 24, 1917. George also produced a short manuscript, “Extracts from the Letters of a Temporary Tunneller” providing an account of his work with the 8th Army Mining Company and pulled from his letters home to Eleanor from Gallipoli. But before he could return to Egypt, he was seconded to the Royal Engineers by the War Office and attached to the 256th Tunnelling Company which had just been formed, and deployed to France in July.
He sailed to France and joined the 256th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers on August 21, 1916 while they were at Agnez-lès-Duisans, near Arras. Six months later, on February 12, 1917, 2/Lt. Bernard was transferred to the 254th Tunnelling Company, East of Bethune, arriving there on February 18. Seven weeks after arriving, in the early morning hours of April 8, 1917 at 2:15am, 2/Lt. George Robert Bernard was shot by a sniper’s rifle bullet and killed in action while working on wire entanglements on top of Willow Mine dump. He was buried the next day in the Bethune Town Cemetery, along with 6 other ranks of the 254th Tunnelling Company who also lost their lives the previous day when they were buried in a covered approach to Willow Mine that suffered a direct hit by a German Trench Mortar.
The following obituary appeared in the April 16, 1917 edition of the London Times:
2/Lt. Bernard was just 29 years old. Killed in Action two weeks before the birth of his son. 2/Lt. George Robert Bernard, M.C. is commemorated on the Board of Trade War Memorial, the Memorial to the Staff of the Ministry of Labour and at Emanuel School.
Many thanks to Emanuel School for their patience and their assistance in uncovering the murky details of George’s birth and (probable) adoption.