Category Archives: Timeline

The 53rd (Welsh) Division comes to Bedford

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 7 May 1915 reported that ‘peaceful and forlorn have been the streets of Bedford’ in the early part of the week following the departure of Highland regiments. ‘The 4th Royal Sussex were the first of the new arrivals to enter the town as a unit, and they were immediately followed by three battalions of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, one of which had a goat. This brigade came in along the Goldington-road, and there was some fine singing among the Fusiliers. One machine gun section in particular was harmonising in Welsh, and there were some grand bass runs.’

‘It was fine to a Sussex man to hear that splendid marching song, “Sussex by the sea” sung as the hot and dusty column trudged up Kimbolton-road on Wednesday. It was not a good day for marching. The sun glared as if through ground glass. It was thundery, and dusty and the packs seemed very heavy. Most of the men turned up the sleeves of their tunics and bared their throats, and many had handkerchiefs over the napes of their necks. They had marched in from St Neots, and slept there the night before, after a good march from Cambridge. Most of them were very glad to get to Bedford, and their eyes sparkled at the hint of open-air baths. Till they went to Cambridge their training was done in huts at Newhaven.’

Two battalions of the Welsh Regiment had come up from Royston on Wednesday, one with a fine band and the other with a grand male voice choir. ‘One battalion claims the late Captain Haggard, whose dying words were, “Stick it, Welsh,” as its own. They are proud of that memorable speech, and it bids fair to become a battalion motto.’

‘It was strange to hear “Sing us a song of bonnie Scotland” from Welsh lips, but some of the men in Bedford have been in Scotland two or three months. It may interest the Bedford ladies to know that they have a high opinion of the women of Scotland, and appreciate their treatment there.’

‘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.’

‘In the long line of soldiers passing along Union-street was one bronze-faced man whose pack was surmounted by a little fox terrier.’

‘The horses of the Welsh troops, especially the officers’ mounts, were spoken of by good judges of horse-flesh as some of the best Bedford has seen.’

In its 14 May edition, the paper included two photographs of the Welsh Artillery – ‘A few of the 2nd Mon Battery’ and ‘Ammunition Column horses at dinner’:

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and in its 28 May edition, two photographs of ‘The Welsh ASC with their horses in the Bedford cattle market grounds’:

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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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Divisions & Regiments

There is more information revealed now about the composition of the two Welsh divisions that spent time in Bedford – the first line 53rd (Welsh) Division and the second line 68th (2nd Welsh) Division – and new regiments have been identified from which battalions were attached to the 160th (Welsh Border) Brigade of the 53rd (Welsh) Division.

More information has been included about the units attached to these two Welsh divisions from the Royal Regiment of Artillery, the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Royal Engineers, the Army Service Corps, the Army Cyclist Corps and the Army Veterinary Corps. New pages have been added and the section on the Welsh divisions in Bedford (in the Divisions & Regiments page) has been restructured to give easier access to information about the various regiments and corps that were part of the two divisions.

The timeline has been updated to include the new information.

Watch out too for future posts on the cigarette case that saved a young soldier’s life and the moving tribute to three brothers in arms compiled by the grandson of one of the brothers.

The photograph is of a commemorative plaque in Ramleh Cemetery in Israel.