Category Archives: Soldiers

A busy day for Biddenham

First, Lord French reviews the troops …

‘Lord French, Bedford’s most honoured Freeman, paid a visit to Bedford on Thursday and reviewed the troops in training here’ reported the  Bedfordshire Times and Independent of Friday, 9 June 1916. ‘When shortly after 11 o’clock he motored over the Old Bridge, it was a different sight which met his eye to that gay scene of flags and bunting when, soon after the Boer War, the popular General came down to receive the Freedom of the Borough with which he has family connexions, and which honoured itself in honouring him. Then we had won the war. Now we are winning our way through the thick of it, and for the moment that is our only concern. The rejoicings will come later. The news of Lord French’s visit had been kept as quiet as possible, and few people probably recognised him in the large car which, followed by a smaller one, motored through the town via Midland-road, and Hurst Grove to the saluting base on Bromham-road where he and his staff were met by the GOC the troops here and staff.

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The Bedford Eisteddfod

You can now read the full report on the Eisteddfod, held in the Skating Rink on the Embankment on Easter Monday 1916, carried in five columns of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 28 April 1916. The photographs within the article in the newspaper are included on the page on the Eisteddfod.

The report includes extracts from the impromptu speeches, and from the winning poem by the chaired bard, Private the Reverend Alfred Jenkins; the judges comments on the various performances; the civilian competitions; and all else that the soldiers and Bedfordians enjoyed that Easter Monday one hundred years ago.

The Chaired Bard, Private Alfred Jenkins
The Chaired Bard, Private Alfred Jenkins

 

 

Conscription

The Military Service Act 1916, which came into force on 2 March 1916, introduced conscription and was possibly the most important piece of legislation placing the country onto a ‘total war’ footing.

Conscription under the Act meant compulsory military service for every British single male between 18 and 41 years of age unless they were widowed with dependent children. There were exemptions for those in essential war time employment, those deemed medically unfit, ministers of religion, and conscientious objectors.

Men or employers who objected to an individual’s call-up could apply to a local Military Service Tribunal which could grant exemption from service, usually conditional or temporary. There was a right of appeal to a County Appeal Tribunal.

Within a year of war being declared, it had become clear that it was not possible to continue fighting relying on voluntary recruits. Lord Kitchener’s campaign had encouraged more than one million men to enlist, but that was not sufficient to keep up with mounting casualties.

The government believed there was no alternative than conscription to increase numbers. Parliament was divided but, because of the imminent collapse of French Army morale, appreciated action had to be taken quickly. And thus the Military Service Act 1916 was enacted. A second Act in May 1916 extended compulsory military service to married men, and in the last months of the war a further Act raised the upper age limit to 51 years of age.

Conscientious objectors, who were amongst those exempted, were in most instances given non-combat roles at the front or civilian jobs.

Conscription was not a popular move and whilst many men failed to respond to call-up, more than one million did enlist in the first year of conscription. Overall during the war some 2.5 million men enlisted under conscription.

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The Great Storm of 1916

Storms have names now and in recent months have been battering the United Kingdom with monotonous regularity.

One hundred years ago an anonymous storm raged over the country on 27 and 28 March 1916, the ‘Great Blizzard’ said the Bedfordshire Times and Independent in its headline. ‘Gusty Boreas had his fling on Monday night and Tuesday’, readers were informed, ‘and wrought havoc over all the country.’

The reporter was even moved to quote Virgil ‘Ac venti, velut agmine facto, qua data porta runt, et terras turbine perflant’* which you don’t come across too often today in weather reports.

According to the paper ‘Biddenham felt the full force of the gale. Many houses were flooded out, and about 150 large elm and fir trees were blown down. Telegraph wires lay in all directions along the Bedford Road. The watercourse has overflowed its banks, and inundated a large area near Queen’s Park schools, and the allotment holders in Cox Pits expected a big flood.’

Villager Albert Church, a schoolboy in 1916, recalled the aftermath of the storm in his 1979 memoirs. Soldiers billeted in the village at the time (who would have been from the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division) provided manpower and horses to cut up and shift the fallen trees, work which took days. The children were sent home from school after one of two elm trees next to the school blew down, just missing the school playground. Nothing could get in or out of the village by road and farmers had to go through fields with their pony and float to get the milk to market. Albert said how lucky villagers were to have a shop and a baker in the village.

(Soldiers from the Division helped clear up the debris left by the storm in other Bedfordshire villages, and may have helped too in Bedford itself.)

The newspaper lamented the lack of night-time illumination in the town ‘Belated wayfarers were almost blinded by the blizzard on Monday night, and the weather was then pronounced, by those who experienced it, the worst they had ever experienced, but it might have been a little more endurable in the streets of Bedford if the lamps had been lighted as they might very well have been for all the risk there was of air-raid, where no air-craft could have lived for ten minutes.’

If Monday night had been bad, Tuesday was worse. From two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon the rain, which had taken over from Monday’s snow, turned into another snowstorm which ‘developed into a hurricane of well nigh unparalleled violence in this country’ and although the snowstorm subsided by six o’clock the ‘boisterous wind’ continued until about nine. ‘An alarming experience was the crash of falling trees on the Embankment and in St Peter’s.’

As well as the felling of trees and telegraph poles and wires, there was widespread damage to buildings, and ‘One driver of a M.R. van tells the story of how the blast caught him and his horse and van on the Embankment, and when it had done with them he found his horse trotting in the opposite direction!’

Rail travel was affected with snowdrifts of four feet deep reported between Bedford and Northampton and up to ten feet deep at the side of the track.

‘At quite an early hour’ the newspaper said ‘large numbers of wood-pickers, not woodpeckers, arrived in Newnham Lane, and prams, mail-carts, bags and baskets were soon filled with twigs and heavier portions of the fallen trees.’ “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any wood” the reporter commented.

The newspaper reported extensively on the damage and deaths across Bedfordshire from the storm. This was, however, not the first storm of 1916 for the newspaper added that ‘Tuesday afternoon’s storm laid low even trees which the violent hurricane of New Year’s Day had spared.’

In its next edition, on 7 April, the newspaper printed several photographs of the damage, taken on the morning of 28 March. The featured picture above shows wood-picking children in Newnham Lane out to ‘keep the home fires burning’ and the picture below shows four fallen poplars on the Embankment:

The Great Storm 1

*Translations have moved with the times:

‘The winds, as in a formed battalion, rush forth at every vent, and scour over the lands in giddy whirls’ or if you prefer:

‘And the wind, just as when a battle line has been made, where any door was given, they rush and blow over the land in a whirlwind’ or, if you can remember your Latin, try your own!

A Christmas treat for the Welsh troops at Bedford

In the second week of January 1916  thousands of soldiers of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division were given a Christmas treat by the town of Bedford where the Division was stationed.

Over four nights,  Tuesday, 11 January to Friday, 14 January, some 2,000 men were entertained each night in the Bedford Castle Rink and some 600 men each night in the Corn Exchange, with other troops from the Division being entertained in Kempston on the Thursday and Friday nights, and in St Neots on the Wednesday night.

The treat was organised by the Bedford Borough Recreation Committee which, Bedford being only a small community, had appealed to the troops’ home communities in Wales and elsewhere for funds to help provide the treat.  All the labour was voluntary with between 300 and 400 townspeople helping out with what was a substantial undertaking for the town. Each entertainment began at 6.45 pm and finished at 9.30 pm, and on the Tuesday evening at the Castle Rink the ‘ladies were still making sandwiches at 6.30 pm.’

Refreshments and entertainment were provided each night, including ‘a first-class variety concert with artistes engaged from London, and a fresh programme each evening’.

Mr Herbert Trustram Eve in proposing a toast to the Division in the Corn Exchange on the Tuesday evening said that this was the third division that had been in Bedford. Bedford wanted them to stop as long as they ought to, but when they went they wanted another division and another division. They never wanted to be without troops in Bedford during the war, because they liked to entertain them and make them as happy as they could.

There is a full report of the treat, including descriptions of the entertainment, the rousing speeches, the appeal for funds, and the units present at each venue.

 

 

Christmas doings at Bedford

This is the first Christmas for the ‘When the Welsh came to Bedford’ website. We wish all our followers and visitors a happy Christmas and a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year. Thank you for your support this year and we look forward to bringing you more in 2016 about the Great War Welsh troops and their time in Bedford and on active service after they left the town.

What was Christmas like for some of those troops 100 years ago?

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’. ‘Christmas for the 2nd Herefords was’ it said ‘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.

‘For several days before Christmas the Battalion postman was kept very hard at work, and his mails were so heavy that he had to have extra assistance to deal with the Christmas rush of letters, and especially parcels. One of them was heard to remark that he thought the Herefords had the heaviest mail in the Brigade. The serving out of the mails was a very animated scene, and many were the lucky ones carrying off parcels of every size to their billets.

‘On Christmas Eve (a Friday) evergreens were given to the mess orderlies in some companies, to decorate the mess rooms with, and on Christmas morning (Saturday) they had quite a festive appearance.

‘On Christmas morning the climatic conditions were not of the best. At 8.45 am, the Battalion fell in for church parade. Afterwards they were dismissed for the day: but had to remain under cover a good deal on account of the weather.

‘Dinner was at one o’clock, when the Battalion sat down to a good, substantial meal of roast beef, potatoes and peas, and “Territorial pudding”. Beer and cigarettes were issued after dinner. The mess rooms at this meal were inspected by the Colonel, who was anxious that every man had sufficient. Each man in the Battalion had a bag issued to him to keep his small kit in. The bags were kindly given by Mrs Wood Roe.

‘In the evening there was an entertainment at the Corn Exchange. There were numerous competitions, such as hat trimming, egg and spoon racing, etc, and one was very pleased to notice that the Herefords were not  unsuccessful. Hat trimming appeared to be their strong point, for they carried off several prizes, namely, the first, third and fourth. They also carried off several other prizes. After the competitions and pictures had finished, a little dancing brought a very pleasant and successful evening to a close. There was also an Anglo-Scotch concert party at the theatre; this party was undoubtedly one of the best heard in this town.

‘Over Christmas, tattoo was sounded at 9.30 instead of 9 o’clock. On Sunday the Battalion had church parade. Monday was not observed as a holiday.’

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Room for the troops in Biddenham

One hundred years ago a farm barn in Biddenham, near Bedford, was converted into a new canteen and recreation room for the troops of the Great War, and its formal opening on Friday, 17 December 1915 was reported in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 24 December. When the war was over, the transformation of the former barn continued becoming eventually the Biddenham village hall villagers know and cherish today.

As the paper informed its readers, on Friday, 17 December a concert was held in the New Canteen and Recreation Room in Biddenham which was formally opened by Colonel C J Markham, Commanding the 205th Infantry Brigade (the 2nd Welsh Border Brigade and part of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division). ‘In introducing Colonel Markham, Major Carpenter, Organising Secretary, referred to the generosity of the Trustees of the Biddenham estate, and Mrs Wingfield in the provision and alteration of the building, and the liberality of the tenant, Mr J Evans, who had given up possession of the building without compensation. The Organising Committee consisted of Captain Addie, Mrs Addie, Mrs Carpenter, Mrs Whitworth, Mrs Randall, Mr Herring (Secretary), and Mr Ingram (cashier), and several ladies offered their services as helpers. Gifts in kind had been received from Mr Whitworth (a piano), Mrs Carpenter, Miss Collie, Mrs Markham, Miss Howard, Mrs Spencer, Miss Street, Mrs Randall, etc, while the Bedford Borough Recreation Committee, through Mr Machin, placed at the disposal of the Local Committee many essentials in the way of furniture.

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

An interesting programme was arranged by Miss Norman, those taking part including Miss Turner (Bedford), Lieutenant Markham (5th Northumberland Fusiliers), Misses Spencer, Miss Helen Norman, Mrs Piercy, Miss Joan de Roboek, and Private Knight. The canteen is open to all soldiers between 12 noon and 1.0 pm, and 4.0 pm to 9.0 pm on weekdays, and from 3.0 pm to 9.0 pm on Sundays. Concerts will be given, and sing-songs organised by Messrs Chibnall and King.’

Biddenham village hall, some 100 years after it was converted from a straw barn to be opened as a canteen and recreation room for soldiers billeted in the village
Biddenham village hall, some 100 years after it was converted from a straw barn to be opened as a canteen and recreation room for soldiers billeted in the village

 

Saved by a cigarette case

John James Thomas, from Penygroes, enlisted at Brecon as a Private – service number 813 –  in the 4th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment in January 1915, having lied about his age: he was 15 years old.

He had started an apprenticeship with a draper but was more concerned with the war. After training with the Battalion, attached to the 53rd (Welsh) Division, including latterly time in Bedford, he sailed from Devonport with the Division landing on 9 August 1915 at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli.

There were many casualties in those first chaotic few days, but not Private Thomas although he would have perished had it not been for his cigarette case. Tucked away safely in his breast pocket it was struck, but not penetrated, by a bullet heading for his heart. Private Thomas survived that near miss and the war.

You can read more about him and Porthcawl and the Great War.

Private John James Thomas, middle row
Private John James Thomas, middle row

Brothers in Arms

Three brothers from Wales, born in Colwyn Bay and living in Caernarfon at the outbreak of the Great War, all enlisted in the army: George Edward Morris (Eddie) and Robert Parry Morris (Bertie), who both later spent time in Bedford with their units, and their younger brother, Charles Robertson Morris (Charlie). Their story is told in ‘WW1 Brothers in Arms’, a moving tribute by Eddie’s grandson, Will, armed with his grandfather’s earlier reminiscences and following painstaking and revealing research, which still continues.

Grandpa Morris (Eddie) with grandson, Will
Grandpa Morris (Eddie) with grandson, Will

Bertie, a trainee solicitor, and Charlie, a 17 year old schoolboy who had to ‘revise’ his date of birth, enlisted together in the 16th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in December 1914. Eddie, training for bank management and following an operation for appendicitis, was appointed to a commission in the 6th (Carnarvonshire and Anglesey) Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in June 1915, and as part of his training was then posted to the 2/5th (Flintshire) Battalion of the RWF stationed in Bedford.

There is extensive information about the brothers’ war in Will’s website, but to give a brief outline by October 1915 Eddie was ready to join the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in Gallipoli with the 6th Battalion of the RWF, attached to the 53rd (Welsh) Division. He left Bedford on 11 October and landed at Suvla Bay on 26 October. There is a vivid description of his experiences in the Gallipoli campaign in Brothers in Arms, including extracts from his notebook. But in November he became seriously ill with a re-infection arising from his appendix operation earlier in the year, was evacuated and eventually arrived at hospital in Liverpool to recover. He was declared ’unfit for service’ and relinquished his commission in April 1916.

Eddie's notebook, with 'Bedford' inscribed in the top left
Eddie’s notebook, with ‘Bedford’ inscribed in the top left

Bertie and Charlie were separated in January 1915 when Bertie requested a move to take a commission as a Second-Lieutenant with the Welsh (Carnarvonshire) Heavy Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery. After training at Artillery School he joined the Battery, attached to the 53rd (Welsh) Division, in Cambridge and at some point moved to Bedford, and he would have been in Bedford at the same time as Eddie. Bertie was reported in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 9 July 1915 as singing in a concert on the evening of 5 July given by members of the 1/1st Welsh Carnarvonshire of the RGA in Mill Meadows for which there ‘was a large audience’.

Robert Parry Morris (Bertie)
Robert Parry Morris (Bertie)

The Battery stayed in Bedford after the 53rd (Welsh) Division departed in July 1915 for Gallipoli. From Kempston, Bedford, Bertie moved with the Battery to Larkshill, then Woolwich and on to Southampton to sail for France, where they arrived in March 1916. The detailed description of Bertie’s time and experiences in France includes action near Vimy Ridge, many months on the Somme, Bertie’s promotion to temporary Lieutenant, his wounding in January 1917 and subsequent three months’ hospitalisation, his return to the front, and in June the award of the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous service in the field’ – the first member of the Battery to receive the honour.

In the autumn of 1917, the Battery was ordered to leave its guns behind and to use those of the 110th Heavy Battery at Ypres, a place described by Corporal Llewellyn Edwards, one of Bertie’s men, in his memoirs as ‘the graveyard of British hopes’. The Battery took part in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, Passchendale, and sadly Bertie, then an acting Captain, was killed in action on 27 October 1917, aged 26 years. Bertie was remembered by Corporal Edwards as fearless and gallant and much respected by the boys, who could hardly believe that he and his cheerfulness had gone out of their sight forever. Bertie is buried in Bedford House Cemetery, Belgium.

Robert Parry Morris' grave in Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres in Belgium
Robert Parry Morris’ grave in Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres in Belgium

During his three years and 147 days in the army young Charlie never spent time in Bedford, but the story of these three brothers is not complete without his chapter. His Battalion as then part of the 113th Brigade of the 38th (Welsh) Division moved to Winchester in August 1915 for final training and sailed for France in December, moving after four months to the Somme. By June 1916 the Battalion had moved to Mametz Wood, taking part in the ferocious fighting that followed. December 1916 saw the Battalion relieved and moved for rest, and Charlie managed some home leave. By January 1917 the Battalion was back north of Ypres and in March Charlie was promoted to Lance-Corporal. At the end of July, Charlie and the Battalion were amongst the men of five divisions poised for the attack to break out of the Salient.

Charlie’s war ended on 2 August when he was among the men wounded during a German counter attack. He suffered a shrapnel wound to his chest and a gunshot wound to his shoulder. After initial treatment in France he was moved at the beginning of September to hospital in Newcastle, where he remained until the end of December and was subsequently discharged from the army in May 1918 being ‘no longer physically fit for War Service.’ By March 1919 his health had deteriorated and he was recorded as being ‘wretchedly ill, anaemic and wasted’, a tragic decline that continued until his death at home on 24 June 1920, aged 22 years, the local paper reporting his death from ‘wounds received in France.’ Charlie’s sacrifice was more recently eventually recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which has accepted him into its records.

Charles Robertson Morris
Charles Robertson Morris (Charlie)

There is much, much more information about the three brothers and first-hand accounts of the actions in which they took part in Gallipoli and in France in the impressive Brothers in Arms website. 

(With grateful thanks to Eddie’s grandson, Will)

 

Inspection of the Welsh Division

On Thursday, 8 July 1915, there was an official inspection of the Welsh Division by General Sir Leslie Rundle.  Led by General Lindley, Commanding the Division, ‘superbly mounted’, the long procession of  troops, accompanied by their bands and including the horse-drawn heavy artillery, took one hour and forty minutes to march past the saluting base in De Parys Avenue.

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A full report on the Inspection of the Welsh Division was included in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 9 July.