Wales and the war
On 4 August 1914, Germany invaded Belgium violating that country’s neutrality. That was considered to be a decisive factor in the Welsh response to the war and, reinforced by Lloyd George’s ‘little five feet high nations’ speech of 19 September, a spur to recruitment to the Army. During the Great War, 272,924 men from Wales and Monmouth served at some time in the British Army, and nearly 35,000 of them died.
Bedford’s central location and good rail links, north/south and east/west, in particular made it an attractive place for the Army to station troops.
In the early days of the Great War in the event of the threat of invasion from the south and south-east coasts, Territorial Force troops stationed in this area, including Northampton and other towns around Bedford, could be deployed quickly and more easily to assist in the defence of areas where the enemy might land.
Bedford had been reconnoitred before war broke out by regular staff of a Scottish division and transport and billeting plans had been drawn up with the Borough Corporation, railway companies and local constabulary. These plans were put into immediate effect when war was declared, the movement of men, their associated equipment and transport to Bedford being facilitated by the pre-war construction of a railway siding/station on the southern edge of town, specifically for the Army’s use.
During the winter of 1914/1915, the focus of the first line Territorial troops changed from home defence to offence as it became clear troops would be needed to bolster the British Expeditionary Force struggling on the other side of the English Channel. Bedford’s central location and transport links now facilitated the speedy and efficient transport of large numbers of men to the south coast for service overseas not only in France but also, for many of the Welsh troops, in the Dardanelles.
The Welsh divisions in Bedford
After the outbreak of war, Territorial units were given the option of serving overseas. First line units were those composed of men who were both fit and who had volunteered to serve overseas, and second line units of those who, before 1916 and the introduction of compulsion, had declined to serve overseas or were unfit or raw recruits. This duplication was replicated at divisional level where for the Welsh division the first line division became the 53rd (Welsh) Division and the second line, the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division.
These two Welsh divisions were stationed for periods of time in Bedford – the 53rd (Welsh) Division, for a shorter time before going overseas, and the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division, for a longer period of time.
There is a full description of the organisation of the 53rd (Welsh) Division and of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division during the course of the Great War – not all the constituent parts were stationed in Bedford, depending when they joined and if and when they left the divisions.
Regiments, not only Welsh regiments but also English regiments, supplying troops to these two Welsh divisions during their time in Bedford included:
- The Royal Welsh Fusiliers
- The South Wales Borderers
- The Welsh Regiment
- The Cheshire Regiment
- The Herefordshire Regiment
- The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry
- The Middlesex Regiment
- The Monmouthshire Regiment
- The Royal Sussex Regiment
- The Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment
- The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment
The divisions also included, as detailed in their respective organisation descriptions, during their time in Bedford detachments from:
- The Royal Regiment of Artillery, including the Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Garrison Artillery
- The Royal Army Medical Corps, including Field Ambulance units
- The Royal Engineers, including Signals companies
- The Army Service Corps
- The Army Cyclist Corps
- The Army Veterinary Corps
Details are given of their movements before their arrival at and after their departure from Bedford and there is a summary timeline by month/year and division/regiment.
The majority of the infantry in the Great War was made up of regiments with county or other regional affiliations. In 1914 most had two battalions of the regular army: one usually overseas and the other training recruits in the United Kingdom. Most regiments, except those in Ireland, also had two or more battalions of the Territorial Force. Some infantry regiments, including the Monmouthshire Regiment, were composed exclusively of part-time volunteer soldiers of the Territorial Force and had no regular battalions. Regiments however didn’t fight as regiments but through their individual battalions, attached to brigades together with battalions from other regiments.
The organisation of the Army
The various names of organisational units in the army can be confusing, but a simple guide to the structure of the army in the Great War that works in most cases follows:
- a soldier in the infantry is part of a Battalion (about 1,000 men), commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, which is subdivided into companies, commanded by captains, which are subdivided into platoons, commanded by lieutenants, which are subdivided into secctions, commanded by lance-corporals;
- several battalions are under the command of a Brigade (about 5,000 men), commanded by a Brigadier General;
- several brigades are under the command of a Division (about 20,000 men), commanded by a Major General;
- several divisions are under the command of a Corps, commanded by a Lieutenant General;
- several corps are under the command of an Army, commanded by a General;
- several armies (the British eventually had five in France and Flanders) are under the command of a GHQ, General Headquarters; and
- GHQ is under the command of the War Office.
The arrangements and names are slightly different in the artillery:
- a soldier in the artillery is part of a Battery or Ammunition Column (which may be subdivided into sections);
- several batteries and an Ammunition Column are under the command of a Brigade; and
- several brigades are under the command of a Division, and then as above.
At the start of the Great War in August 1914, the British regular army was a small professional force of about 250,000 troops organised in Guards regiments and line infantry regiments, cavalry regiments, artillery and other support arms. Each infantry regiment had two regular battalions, one of which served at home and provided drafts and reinforcements to the other which was stationed overseas. Almost half of the regular army was stationed overseas.
The regular army was supported by the Territorial Force and by reservists. The regulars and reserves amounted to almost 700,000 men, although only 150,000 men were immediately available to be formed into the British Expeditionary Force. Conscription – compulsory military service – was introduced in March 1916.
At the outbreak of the war, each British infantry division consisted of three infantry brigades each of four battalions. They also had three field artillery brigades, one field howitzer brigade, one heavy artillery battery, two engineer field companies, one signals company, one cavalry squadron, one cyclist company, three field ambulances, four Army Service Corps horse-drawn transport companies and divisional headquarters support detachments.
Over the course of the war, the composition of the infantry divisions gradually changed, reacting to the changing nature of the war from the mobile war fought in the opening weeks to the subsequent static trench warfare. The infantry decreased as a percentage of the army while the artillery support and engineers increased.