Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Bedford was cheerful during the day, recorded the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 7 August.
Riverside illuminations at night added a tone of gaiety when the band played the English, French and Russian national anthems. A large crowd waited for hours outside the newspaper’s office in anxious expectation. At the approach of midnight the message that war had been declared at 7.00 pm was announced and greeted with loud cheers. ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God save the King’ were sung.
Although the Kaiser had told his troops they would be home ‘before the leaves fall’, it appears now that the idea there was a widespread belief in Britain in 1914 that the Great War would be ‘over by Christmas’ is more myth than reality. It is certain the war didn’t end then and took a terrible toll over four long years.
During those years, many soldiers from many divisions and their regiments spent time in Bedford, with its central location, good rail links, plentiful accommodation for billeting, and suitable land around for training. Some paused only briefly here, others were stationed in Bedford for weeks or months for training.
Most then went on their way to war. Some though never left the town and rest in peace here today.
‘When the Welsh came to Bedford’ is a work in progress, telling the story of the Welsh divisions, their regiments and their soldiers who spent time in Bedford during the war. Many were Territorials here for training for service overseas or on the home front. We list:
- the Welsh divisions and their regiments we have identified that spent time here, looking too at Wales and the war, why Bedford, and the organisation of the Army;
- some of the individual soldiers from the Welsh divisions and their regiments with additional information about them where we have found it;
- the billets and camps they were based in, and the hospitals they may have worked and been treated in; and
- in the chronicle tell stories, some heart-warming, some sad, about their time in Bedford, with a summary timeline of arrivals and departures by month/year and division/regiment, about their experiences on active service overseas after leaving Bedford, about their families at home, and about women at war; and
- throughout the pages and in the gallery, there are photographs, and there are also examples of the many and varied posters issued by the Government in its extensive and wide ranging war time poster campaign.
We recount here something of the soldiers’ experiences in Bedford and on active service following their departure from the town, but our story of men and women to whom we owe so much is far from complete. Much of the information has been gleaned from local newspapers of the time and so is how it was presented then to their readers during the course of the Great War.
The war did end and the soldiers who had survived returned. Each had a story to tell, although some were only able to tell it many years later and some never felt able to talk about their war.
The contribution of the people of Bedford to the well being of the soldiers of the Welsh divisions stationed in their town is well summarised in a letter from the Mayor of Swansea to his local paper in November 1915: ‘Quite an army of voluntary workers in Bedford are all the time providing recreation for the leisure hours of our Territorials, doing their washing and mending, finding them hot baths, and generally promoting their welfare … .’
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