Billets

The Welsh troops were preceded in Bedford by the Scottish Highland troops, and the ‘Bedford Highlanders’ website tells us that each of the Highland Division’s infantry battalions and its support units was allocated specific billeting areas within the Bedford town boundary and each battalion was placed in its own block of streets. These were:

  • the district between Kimbolton Road and Bromham Road, including the Grammar and High Schools, ‘Black Tom’ and ‘Saints’ areas;
  • Queen’s Park;
  • ‘Poets’ Corner area, bordered by Bromham Road and Shakespeare Road, extending into Lansdowne, Road, Warwick Avenue and Conduit Street;
  • Castle Road, Newnham Avenue, Goldington Road and The Embankment area;
  • Ashburnam Road through to an area bounded by Midland Road and Commercial Road; and
  • south of the river, in an area extending out to Elstow and across to Kempston.

It’s likely there was a similar disposition of the Welsh troops that arrived in Bedford after the Scottish troops departed. Many soldiers were billeted with families in their homes, others were placed in empty properties of varying quality:

‘A Welsh Company pushed rather wearily up Clapham-road, and came to a halt opposite some big empty houses. An officer said they would be divided amongst the houses. He was sorry to say they were very dirty, and every man would have to set to to get them cleaned up. Welsh lightning flashed from every eye, and they invoked blessings on the head of the departed Scots. In the end we believe those men managed to get quartered elsewhere.’

‘Efforts are being made to avoid using the empty houses by the officers of some of the regiments, who know how hard it is for men to keep them clean, and doubly hard when they find them in a filthy condition to start with. It is a pity arrangements were not made to get all the empty houses well scoured out before using them again. There was a squad of men going through the streets near the Saints’ quarter on Wednesday with pails and brooms but what is one squad amongst so many empty houses.’

(The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Friday, 7 May 1915)

‘The “West Sussex Gazette” says:- “The regiment which preceded the 4th Sussex at Cambridge left its haunts dirty and very much damaged. Sussex went to scrubbing hard at first. “When they left Newhaven for Cambridge,” says the “Gazette”, they were three days without official supplies of food, not has the expenditure of their own money been made good. But as one of them said, “There’s plenty worse off than us.” ‘

(The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Friday, 4 June 1915, so Bedford was not alone in soldiers arriving to dirty billets left by the troops previously in residence. The 1/4th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment arrived in Bedford in May. )

Others also arrived to empty houses:

The 2nd Battalion of the Herefordshire Regiment moved from Northampton to Bedford towards the end of July 1915. The move was made on foot in the ‘pouring rain’, but the ‘Battalion remained in high spirits, singing lustily as they passed through villages’. The soldiers were generally billeted in large empty houses. On account of their wet condition and to ward off illness a ration of rum was authorised (and enjoyed by many) at the end of the march.

(The Herefordshire Light Infantry Museum)

The troops had to be fed:

‘Meat and dessert in the form of sausages and bananas were being distributed from the same truck on Saturday night to the Middlesex Regiment.’

(The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Friday, 4 June 1915 in ‘Queen’s Park News’, which was probably therefore the area in which the 2/10th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, which had arrived in May, was billeted)

But as with the Scottish troops, many families took the Welsh soldiers billeted with them in their homes to their hearts:

‘Mrs Edwards, late of Denant, received news that her son, Edgar, had been killed at the Dardanelles. He was about 28 years of age and enlisted the previous November, and went out with the 1/4th (Battalion of the Welsh Regiment). Mrs Edwards, who was a widow, was greatly distressed at the death of her boy. The news came from a woman with whom Edgar was billeted when in Bedford, and she in turn obtained the intelligence from another of her former lodgers, who wrote stating that Edgar Edwards and Phil Ashton, of Pembroke Dock, had both been killed.’

(The Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph of 15 September 1915)

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent carried regular news of the new arrivals:

In  its 30 July 1915 edition it reported that one Battalion of the RWF brought in with it on Saturday a goat, and another a dog, and on the wall of a house in Gladstone-street, in which the dog has been billeted, appears the notification to the ration dispenser “Dog and two men.”

The 6 August 1915 edition included a photograph ‘The 3rd Monmouths’ showing the 3rd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment, marching to their quarters in Queen’s Park, preceded by their band:

image

The Welsh Fusiliers in one of the large empty houses in De Parys Avenue, on Wednesday afternoon, whiled away the time during the rain with some admirable part singing, reported the paper on 3 September 1915. There are many worse ways of preventing time from hanging heavily on rainy afternoons, and few better.

At the beginning of November 1915 the eastern end of the town was awake nearly all Tuesday night, reported the edition of Friday, 5 November, awaiting the arrival of troops, or attending to the wants of those who had arrived. By Wednesday afternoon that portion of the town was full of artillerymen, and now the sound of the trumpet is heard in the land. (The 2/2nd Welsh Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, moved to Bedford in November 1915) 

A week before Christmas 1915 , a new canteen and recreation room in a converted farm barn was officially opened in Biddenham, near Bedford, for troops billeted in the village, by Colonel C J Markham, Commanding the 205th Infantry Brigade (the 2nd Welsh Border Brigade and part of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division), and a concert followed:

‘Colonel Markham said the canteen would be highly appreciated by the troops billeted at Biddenham.’

(The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Friday, 24 December 1915)

The Hereford Times reported after Christmas 1915 on how the 2nd Herefords had spent the Christmas period itself, with the sub-heading ‘Christmas Doings at Bedford’. The report included a comment on billets:

‘Christmas for the 2nd Herefords was necessarily rather quiet. People living in the comparative security of the west fail to realise how dismal the streets of eastern towns are under the Lighting Orders. It has been whispered in the Battalion that many people about Hereford are under the impression that all the “2nds” are in nice comfortable billets. If that idea is existing in the mind of Herefordians it is quite wrong; the greater part of the Battalion are in empty houses, which are not very conducive to great comfort. Only a small number of men were able to get leave for Christmas.’

The command headquarters of the 53rd (Welsh) Division whilst in Bedford in 1915 was at 54 Bushmead Avenue:

54 Bushmead Avenue, Bedford in 2015
54 Bushmead Avenue, Bedford in 2015

Records of the billets occupied by particular individuals include:

Men of the 15th Platoon, D Company of the 2/4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment were billeted in 10 and 12 Adelaide Square during their time in Bedford, arriving in June 1915 and leaving for Gallipoli in July – their stay in Adelaide Square was not without incident, as reported in ‘A miscellany of other news of the time’:

10 and 12 Adelaide Square in 2015
10 and 12 Adelaide Square in 2015

Sergeant W Ledsham of the 2/4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers was recorded in August 1915 as being billeted at 82 Clapham Road – whilst there he was presented with his Distinguished Conduct Medal, awarded for gallant conduct under heavy fire in France in January 1915, as reported, with photographs of the ceremony, in ‘A miscellany of other news of the time’:

82 Clapham Road in 2015
82 Clapham Road in 2015

Private Thomas Bauser of the 1/1st Battalion, Herefordshire Regiment, recorded in his diary that he stayed briefly in Bedford from 6 May to 13 May 1915, when he was billeted at 46 Marlborough Road:

46 Marlborough Road in 2015
46 Marlborough Road in 2015

W C Davies of the 2/1st Brecknockshire Regiment was billeted at 17 Palmerston Street in March 1916 when his infant son died, as reported in ‘A miscellany of other news of the time’:

17 Palmerston Street in 2015
17 Palmerston Street in 2015

Sergeant D J Evans of the RASC Supply Section, 53rd (Welsh) Division, who was stationed in Bedford from May 1915 prior to leaving in July for Gallipoli as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force recorded in his diary that mam and dad visited him in July and stayed at 22 Western Street, which could have been his billet:

 22 Western Street in 2015
22 Western Street in 2015

Gunner R Frederick Thomas of the Machine Gun Section, 1/4th Welsh, attached to the Cheshire Regiment, was billeted at 32 Park Avenue from May 1915 until leaving in July for Gallipoli – he wrote later to his local paper about the journey from Bedford and the hard reality of battle and life under fire, as reported in ‘Arrivals and departures from Bedford’ :

32 Park Avenue, Bedford in 2015
32 Park Avenue, Bedford in 2015

Whilst the soldiers were not always happy with their billets, neither were were property owners always happy with their lot. The Bedfordshire Standard of 27 April 1916 reported a meeting on 26 April at the Town Hall of over 100 property owners protesting against the way the military authorities were dealing with owners whose property was occupied by soldiers. There were some 230 large houses in the Borough occupied by the military with an average yearly rental of £41.

The owners were aggrieved at proposals under the Defence of the Realm Act to reduce the amount of rent to be paid for “empty” houses occupied by troops. A resolution was proposed and carried that the action of the military authorities in taking possession of houses for billeting soldiers without paying an adequate rent “shows a disregard of the property rights of civilians” and that where houses were taken for billeting on short notice the rent should be reasonable. Also on giving up possession the authorities should pay “a sufficient sum by way of dilapidations to put such houses in a state of tenantable repair”.

Claims were made that extensive damage had been done to property: some private houses had been used as stores; fences, railings and walls had disappeared; and extremely inadequate repair work had been carried out. Many thousands of pounds would need to be spent on these houses to put them in the same repair they had been in before August 1914. In addition a great deal of beautiful pasture land had also been ruined, for which the amount of compensation offered was “preposterous”. The resolution passed was to be sent to Mr F G Kellaway MP together with requests that he should forward it to the Secretary of State, and that he should receive a deputation of three of their number.