A Christmas treat

Under the heading “Christmas treat for Welsh Troops at Bedford”, the 20 November 1915 edition of the Denbighshire Free Press carried a letter from F R Hockliffe, the Mayor of Bedford, and Henry Tebbs, the Chairman and Wm Machin, the Secretary of the Bedford Voluntary Recreations Committee:

‘It is suggested that a Christmas entertainment be given to the men of the 68th Welsh Division who are billeted in Bedford, to consist of a good evening meal of roast beef and plum pudding, and a concert or other entertainment after.

Last Christmas 14,000 Scottish troops were similarly treated, and nearly all the necessary money (over £1,000) was generously given by the people of Scotland.

It is thought that Welshmen will be pleased to follow this example, and so provide a link with home that will warm the hearts of the Welsh ‘boys’ here at Christmastide.

Will you kindly further the matter by making an appeal for the fund in your district?

The Committee has felt it a duty, as it has been a pleasure, to provide recreation of all kinds for Welsh troops since May last, but, as we are only a small community, this extra entertainment is beyond our resources.’

A postscript from R B Mainwaring, Brigadier-General, Commanding 68th (Welsh) Division confirmed ‘I approve this kind thought.’

The editor added ‘We gladly give publicity to this appeal. Any of our readers willing to help will no doubt communicate with the Mayor of Bedford or Mr W Machin, Hon Secreatary of the Fund, Town Hall, Bedford.’

The Cambrian Daily Leader in its 12 November 1915 edition reported that Swansea was to assist the Bedford Committee to provide the Christmas treat. Mr Machin and Mr Walter Shepherd, a member of the Committee, had been in South Wales seeking £1,000 for the purpose. The warm approval of the Mayor of Swansea, Ald. Thomas Merrells, had been secured and he had consented to open a local fund. A sum of about £250  from Swansea was hoped for, and it was considered that sum should be easily forthcoming.

The Bedford Borough Recreation Committee for the Troops established by Mayor Harry Browning and pictured on the steps of Bedford Grammar School's cricket pavilion on Easter Monday 1915
The Bedford Borough Recreation Committee for the Troops established by Mayor Harry Browning and pictured on the steps of Bedford Grammar School’s cricket pavilion on Easter Monday 1915. The Committee was established the day after the Scottish Highland troops arrived in Bedford, and performed sterling service for all the troops who passed through Bedford in the four years of the Great War. Ladies of the town were prominent in the Committee’s activities

The 19 November edition of the Leader included a letter from Alderman Merrells inviting donations to the fund from readers: ‘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, and I have no doubt we in Wales shall be able to help our brothers in a Christmas festivity. Donations should be sent to me at the Town Hall, and will be acknowledged in the Press.’

The Barmouth and County Advertiser of 18 November 1915 reported that Barmouth Council had acceded to the request of the Bedford Borough Recreation Committee to open a one shilling fund towards giving a Christmas Entertainment to the men of the 68th (Welsh) Division who were billeted at Bedford. The Cambrian News of 19 November noted that a collection was made in the room and the nucleus of a local fund was obtained.

The Bedfordshire Times and Independent of 14 January 1916 reported on the entertainment of the troops at Bedford, Kempston and St Neots. The plans of the Borough Recreations Committee for the seasonable entertainment of the 68th Welsh Division had materialised that week, sufficient money having come from the people of Wales and Cheshire to give ‘refreshments and a series of high-class entertainments’ to some ten or eleven thousand troops in Bedford, Kempston and St Neots. Commencing on the Tuesday evening (11 January), there were about two thousand men entertained each evening in the Bedford Castle Rink, and about six hundred in the Corn Exchange, for four nights, concluding on the Friday.

As detailed in the paper, the units of the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division entertained each evening were:

  • at the Castle Rink, on Tuesday, the 2/5th, 2/6th and 2/7th Cheshires, Divisional staff and the Divisional Cycling Company; on Wednesday, the 2/4th and 2/6th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the Signal Company, the Royal Engineers, and the 3/1st Cheshires; on Thursday, the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Monmouthshires; and on Friday, the 2/1st, 2/2nd, and 2/3rd Welsh Field Ambulance, the 2/4th The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, the Cheshire WFA, and the Clearance Section;
  • at the Corn Exchange, on Tuesday, the 2/1st Cheshire RFA; on Wednesday, the 2/7th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 2/1st Brecknocks; on Thursday, the 2/1st Herefords; and on Friday, the Army Service Corps;
  • at Kempston, split over Thursday and Friday, the 1/1st Glamorgans and the 1/1st and 2/1st Carnarvons Royal Garrison Artillery; and
  • at St Neots, on Wednesday, the men of the Howitzer Brigade.

Each entertainment began at a quarter to seven and finished at half-past nine. There was a first-class variety concert by artistes engaged from London, and a fresh programme each evening. The merits of the entertainment were guaranteed by the engagements of very eminent performers. The Bedford Tableaux party also took a share of the programme each evening at the Corn Exchange. The printed programmes were embellished with an excellent portrait of HRH the Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.

At the Corn Exchange a single unit was entertained each evening, with the Commanding Officer as Chairman and a prominent townsman as Vice-Chairman. For instance, on Thursday evening the guests were the Herefords, with Colonel Wood-Roe presiding, and the Vice-Chairmen for the four nights were Mr H Trustram Eve, Mr Charles Stimson, Mr W W Marks and the Rev C F Farrar.

The proceedings were opened with a selection by a band, and the following were assisting – the Band of the Bedfordshire Regiment, the Band of Haynes Park Signal Depot, the Royal Engineers, the Town Silver Band, the Midland Military Band, and the Borough Recreation Committee’s Orchestra. After the first part of the concert there were refreshments consisting of pork pies, ham and tongue sandwiches, mince-pies, and fruit, tea, coffee, and lemonade and cigarettes. All the labour was voluntary and there were between 300 and 400 helpers, all townspeople.

The Castle Rink had assumed a festive garb by Tuesday, the walls being decked with banners and Union Jacks, displayed on escutcheons and mantled with the flags of the Allies. The platform was beautified with palms and ferns. The two large skylights running the whole length of the roof had been carefully darkened by being covered with American cloth. A number of ladies were hard at work, to cut up sandwiches for 2,000 guests every morning for four days was no light task. A number of chairs were lent by several churches in the town and by the Headmasters of the Grammar and Modern Schools. Messrs Wells and Co decorated the hall and Messrs Laxton Bros supplied the plants.

The scene outside the Rink between six and seven o’clock recalled New Year’s Eve on the Embankment a little over one year since. There was little that was Scottish about it except the Scotch mist which became almost a Welsh drizzle, while the columns of khaki-clad were drawn up in the road, the men joking and passing time gaily enough, as they waited their turn to file into the hall, where they were shown to their seats in an orderly manner. The ladies were still making sandwiches at 6.30.

The Chairman on Tuesday was Major-General Sandbach CB, DSO, and the Vice-Chairman, the Mayor of Bedford, Mr F R Hockliffe. The entertainment was first-class and aroused the audience to a high pitch of enthusiasm. Mr Arthur Melrose struck the right key with his marvellous whistling solos or rather songs with warbling interludes. First he gave some popular military marches which were insistently encored, and in response he gave a humorous song in which the patter, so to speak, was whistled so distinctly as to be unmistakeable, and the effect was most comical – not to say contagious, for not a few mimics in the hall were soon calling to one another en sifflant – “How do you do-o-o!”

Next Mr Bert  Reyburn gave two songs in character, “Writing my name in the sand” and another which very much tickled the audience. Mr Bromley Carter, the clever reciter and story-teller, related some adventures of Alphonse, a French soldier, in the funniest way imaginable. Roars of laughter followed his rag-time rendering of the parson giving out the announcements for next week, and the patter of the quack and the butcher. Private Tudor Phillips had a very cordial reception for his finely rendered song. Mr Frank Hudson’s Living Marionettes were very cleverly worked, and created the liveliest amusement: the song, “I’m a pretty little girl from nowhere” was quickly taken up by the audience. Willie Rouse, the accomplished accompanist, entered into some “Alleged humour at the piano” and was soon at home with the little company roundabout. He is a raconteur of the first water and the stories he told, whether humorous or not, filled the hall with roars of hilarity. This ended the first lesson.

Major-General Sandbach then ascended the platform and was received with rousing cheers. He said they were very much obliged to the Mayor of Bedford and to the town of Bedford and especially to Mr Machin and his Committee for getting up these series of entertainments which were going to last for four days. They were also indebted to the Committee for the Sunday evening concerts, and had to thank their fellow-countrymen, whether in the border counties or in Wales itself, for sending funds in order that these entertainments might be carried out. The Mayors of Chester and Stockport and the Lord Mayor of Cardiff and other Mayors in South Wales had sent a special New Year’s greeting to the whole of the Division. Before many months were over the men would be going across the sea to fight the battles of the Empire in this great war (loud and prolonged cheers). He was perfectly certain that when they went abroad they would always have very happy and pleasant recollections of their stay at Bedford (cheers).

The ladies then advanced to the fray, each carrying a jug or well-laden tray. First went forward the food-stewards, taking pork pies and plates, closely followed by the cup-stewards with a tray full of cups. These having been received by the guests, the drink-stewards were immediately at hand to fill the cups with tea or coffee and supply sugar and milk, while other stewards passed along with jugs of lemonade for those who preferred it. Then the food-stewards returned to the ranks with supplies of sandwiches, and asked each man to take two, and still other stewards followed with mince-pies, apples, oranges and grapes. The guests did eat and were filled.

Meanwhile the band played selections of national airs with splendid effect. During these proceedings the mist had gradually cleared away, but soon the battery of pipes and cigarettes was again in full play. Before the hall became quite obscured with clouds of incense, Major-General Sandbach was again on the platform, supported by the Mayor, and gave the King, and the scene was very impressive as all rose to drink the toast and sing “God save the King.”

The Mayor said he had the pleasant duty of proposing the toast of health and success to the 68th Welsh Division (cheers). Their Division was not the first that had been in Bedford. In May, they had the privilege of welcoming the 53rd Division who had stayed a short time and went to Gallipoli. By the liberality of the inhabitants of the Principality, they had the honour and privilege of giving the present entertainment which he hoped they were thoroughly enjoying (cheers). The Recreation Committee had been only too pleased to promote social intercourse and provide entertainment for the troops stationed in the town, in the hope of mitigating some of the rigours of their arduous daily duty and helping to maintain their health (applause). As General Sandbach  had said, not long hence they were going to the front, and wherever they went he was quite sure they would maintain the traditions not only of the Celtic race, but of the British Army (applause).

They had read in the despatches of Sir Ian Hamilton of how the 53rd Division was landed in Gallipoli, and almost immediately rushed up to the trenches, and achieved the distinction which had been mentioned in general despatches. When it was the turn of the 68th Division to go, he was sure they would uphold the traditions of the men of Celtic blood and enthusiasm, who had given so much to the British Empire. He trusted they would add to the achievements of those Welsh Regiments which were so distinguished in history, and enhance the honour and glory of the British flag (cheers).He wished them all good luck in their enterprise, and hoped that not long hence would come that peace which they all prayed for. Every soldier in the country was wanted, and they knew that gallant little Wales was amongst the foremost to provide men for this great fight for liberty (applause).

The toast was received with great enthusiasm, the Band striking up “God bless the Prince of Wales”, the assembly joining in with fine effect.

The entertainment was then resumed with Mr Frederick Leonard giving some exquisite solos with sweet-toned handbells. Mr Bromley Carter followed with a humorous account in song of some of his dark deeds; being encored he related some funny episodes of life. Mr Melrose, the warbler, received a hearty welcome on his return, and after giving a whistling solo, he had to satisfy demands for more and made the house rock with laughter at his account of a waiter who could not talk but only whistle. Mr Willie Rouse repeated his “previous offence” as he described it and after telling stories in his own inimitable way, sang “He pushed ’em through the window”, the chorus of which was readily taken up. The boys wanted more but time would not permit. Then came Mr Reyburn, again in funny make up, this time as a parson, who explained with solemn mien several aspects of life’s activities, concluding with a chorus which gave immense amusement. Mr Hudson wound up with an extremely clever ventriloquial performance.

In the Corn Exchange on Tuesday, the Recreation Committee’s Orchestra, augmented by Mr Humphriss’ Band, opened with the King’s Guard March, and performed in admirable style during the evening. Tableaux were a pleasing and leading feature of the entertainment, the first being “The Rendezvous.” Descriptive verses were nicely sung by Miss Dorothy Taylor. Driver Carter sang “The Veteran” in his usual good style , and Miss Ruby Bower had another big reception for her recitation of “Jimmy”. The audience’s pleasure in Miss Helen Blain’s several songs was only equalled by her pleasure in singing to so appreciative an audience. The appreciation was mutual, it was obvious, and Miss Blain has never sung better in Bedford, which is saying much. Mr Panchaud followed with “I shear sheep” which is one of those terrible tongue twisters, which kept the audience in fits of mirth.

The second tableau, “A Briton’s Pride”, presented a scene in a harvest field. In the centre a stock of corn and at the sides two smaller stocks; reposing in graceful attitudes around these a number of girls in sun bonnets, and a warm sun shedding its golden glow o’er the scene. Meanwhile, Miss Helen Blain sang most beautifully “Land of Hope and Glory.” At the second chorus, the centre stock opened and disclosed “Britannia” and the audience went wild with cheering, joining lustily in the chorus. Mr Fred Leonard’s ventriloquial sketch with his Khaki Doll was immensely enjoyed, especially his smart sallies at army rations and the little ways of Tommy. Miss Blain sang “Fairy Pipers” and then there was a transformation scene, and fairies of a more tangible sort, but not less beautiful for being more useful, daintily distributed their favours in the form of pork pies, sandwiches, etc. It was a glorious half-hour, and the men having done themselves well, a halt was called.

Colonel Brackenbury proposed the loyal toast, the men thundered forth three ringing cheers as though it came from their own guns, and the Band struck up the National Anthem in which the men heartily joined their voices. Mr Eve then proposed the 68th Division. He said he felt honoured by the Borough of Bedford in being asked to take the vice-chair that night. Why he had been picked out he did not know; he could only think it was because he had a son in their first line who had done his bit, and had come back from Gallipoli (applause). They were indebted to the Borough Recreations Committee for all the excellent arrangements which had been made, but it was from their own homes in Cheshire that the money had come which had provided the good things (applause). He had a special message from those who lived in the towns and county of Cheshire, wishing them all well for the New Year, and all the good luck in the world. He had also a special message through the Recreations Committee to give them from the Mayors of Chester, Birkenhead, Stockport, Macclesfield, and Crewe. The Bedford Recreations Committee had been hard at it as they saw them that night, ever since war broke out. He thought it the finest thing he ever did in his life when, in August 1914, he proposed that the town appoint an Entertainments Committee, and that its members should be nominated by the Mayor of Bedford.

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 (applause). He was sure his audience were grateful to the stewards, who night after night through the war, had given up their lives to entertain the troops, and they were more than grateful to the fair ladies of Bedford, who night after night waited upon them (applause).

A piece of personal history here delighted the audience. After regretting that he was not himself in khaki, Mr Eve said that for 20 years before the war he was doing his bit. He was one of those despised volunteers. He started in the ranks and ended up as Brigade-Major (applause). There was a Colonel in the Highland Division who wrote to a friend of his out at the front in France, and asked him to give him five tips in the right order, as to what he should teach his men. The Colonel at the front wrote back: No 1, Discipline; No 2, Discipline; No 3, Discipline; No 4 Discipline; No 5 Discipline. He was sure Colonel Brackenbury would back him up when he said that the whole matter of soldiering was discipline, and if a man had discipline he had the lot (applause). The Colonel added: “You must teach your men esprit de corps.” That was very important. Mr Eve thought the men present were very lucky in having a Commanding Office by the name of Brackenbury (loud applause). When he used to study tactics he read a book by one Brackenbury, and he spent many nights trying to master it. There had always been Brackenburys in the Army, and he hoped there always would be. When some of his hearers were tired with a long day’s march, let them look up to their Colonel, and they would see that he was 66 this week and still going strong (loud cheering).

He would now ask the ladies, the stewards, the Band, and all the performers behind the scenes, to give three cheers for the 68th Division, and if the men would keep quiet they would see how the ladies could cheer.(Wonderful cheering by the ladies – and others.) He coupled with the toast the name of Colonel Brackenbury (long and continued cheering).

Colonel Brackenbury (who was obviously surprised and pleased by the warmth of his reception, for after giving him musical honours, the men broke out again in repeated cheering) said: Mr Eve and all the ladies, the Recreation Committee, and the helpers, let me thank you in the name of the Cheshire Brigade of the 68th Division for the very kind and hospitable way in which you have treated us tonight. The words Mr Eve has said to us we ought to take to heart. We shall always remember this night, wherever we go. I am quite sure myself, as your Commanding Officer, I can feel that wherever I go I have you all behind me (applause). I don’t know you all personally, I am sorry to say, but I have that feeling, that you would all come with me wherever we had to go (cheers). What the Recreations Committee have done is perfectly marvellous, and for the way they have entertained us tonight, and for the good refreshments, I am sure we are most thankful (cheers).

The program proceeded. “Cherry Blossom in Japan” was the title of an extremely pretty tableau. A Japanese man and maid were sitting in a cherry orchard, and as Miss Dorothy Taylor unfolded the amorous story in song,  they acted it. Mr Panchaud was again successful in his humorous song, and Miss Bower recited with good effect “The Route March.” Tableau IV depicted a gypsy encampment with groups of gypsies round the camp fire and playing cards, and this was enhanced by a graceful tambourine dance by Miss Burr. A skilfully played violin solo by Miss Henderson was followed by Miss Helen Blain in the ever- popular ” Annie Laurie” and Driver Carter sang ” Drake goes West” in capital style. The final tableau was fittingly ” The Allies.” Britannia, as the central figure was surrounded by representatives of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and disposed in other groups were the representatives of all our Allies. It was a striking tableau recalling to mind the fine spirit of unity of purpose which actuates the allied nations.

At its conclusion Colonel Brackenbury proposed three cheers for the Recreation Committee, the ladies and all who had helped, and Mr Eve called for three cheers for the Colonel, and, needless to say, the men gave vent to their feelings in hearty volleys of cheering.

The  subsequent evenings’ events proceeded similarly.

The Hereford Times reported on the treat and entertainment enjoyed by the 2/1st Herefords in the Corn Exchange on the Thursday:

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The report included a paragraph about the presentation to the entitled men of Princess Mary’s gift.

The Hereford Times also told its readers how the 2/1st Herefords had spent the Christmas 1915 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.’

In a full report on its activities in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard of 25 February 1916, the Dolgelley Soldiers Comforts Fund recorded that it had subscribed to a fund at Bedford for the entertainment of Welsh troops there at Christmas.