Soldiers then stationed at bases in Britain were not always treated kindly when home on leave, as this letter published in the Hereford Times in January 1916 from two unhappy privates in the 2/1st Herefords, part of the 205th (2nd Welsh Border) Brigade in the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division stationed in Bedford, describes:
The previous month, Lieutenant-Colonel Percy B Ford, Commanding 2/3rd Monmouthshire Regiment, also part of the 205th (2nd Welsh Border) Brigade, had written on 22 December from the Battalion Headquarters in Bedford to the Editor of the Abergavenny Chronicle (published on 24 December 1915) as follows: ‘Sir – In consequence of all kinds of extraordinary rumours floating about Abergavenny, will you kindly give me the courtesy of your columns to state, for the benefit of all concerned, that every officer, NCO and man on the strength of this battalion has accepted, and signed, the Imperial service agreement, and is liable to be sent overseas at any moment. I wish to make this statement in consequence of information received by a member of this battalion who has recently been to Abergavenny on leave.’
The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality of 12 November 1915 included an article from the Rev Ben Jones who had been invited by the Senior Chaplain, the Rev T H Richards MA, vicar of Clynnog, to address the soldiers of the Welsh Army stationed at Bedford. The morning service was held in St Paul’s church, capable of holding 1,100 people. Crowded chiefly with the Cheshires and Herefords, it was a sight never to be forgotten to witness the sea of brave faces in every corner of the church, and all so devoutly joining in the service. In the afternoon a short service was held in the hospital.
In the evening Rev Jones attended the Welsh service in St Cuthbert’s Hall, where a good muster of Welshmen had come together to worship in their native tongue. The service was conducted by Chaplain Hughes (late of Carnarvon). The lessons were read by General Mainwaring in English and Colonel Jones Roberts (of Penygroes) in Welsh. A solo was rendered by Private Llewelyn Jones (Llew Colwyn) ‘The Sailor’s Grave’, and the accompanist was Bandsman Owen Evans of Dinorwic. Colonel Jones Roberts was very popular with the men of the Division, who were mostly Welshmen and he and Mrs Jones Roberts saw that they got every comfort possible.
Several services were conducted in English and Welsh during the day in different churches, besides the services held by the Non-conformist chaplains. On Sunday evenings and one week-night, Chaplain J T Phillips trains a large male voice choir at St Cuthbert’s Hall.
One day, Rev Jones visited Kempston where the artillery men were stationed and came across Captain Savage, of Bangor, Sergeant- Fitter Moses David Jones, of St Ann’s, and Gunner Pritchard, of Glanogwen.
In September 1915 and subsequent months local papers in Wales carried a number of stories about the fighting in Gallipoli and letters from soldiers in the 4th Welsh.
The Cambrian Daily leader of 18 September 1915 printed an article headed ‘How 4th Welsh sailed – story of the voyage and baptism of fire – shells for breakfast’ including a long letter noted as having been ‘Passed by Censor’ from Gunner R Frederick Thomas, of the Machine Gun Section, 1/4th Welsh, attached to the Cheshire Regiment, from Llandovery, describing the journey from Bedford – which they left on 6 July, via Malta, Alexandria, Port Said and Lemnos eventually to reach the Dardanelles, landing on 9 August – and the hard reality of battle and life under fire.
On leaving Bedford, the soldiers were handed a leaflet bearing ‘what most of us at the time regarded as an insignificant headline. It ran: ‘Are you prepared to die?’ … I can safely say that few of the men of the gallant 4th then even dimly realised what the future held in store for them.’
Under the heading ‘Shots whizz past us’ the Haverfordwest Journal and Milford Haven Telegraph of 29 September 1915 carried extracts from letters from the Dardanelles sent by Private J Oliver to his friends at home. He was then in trenches not far from the Turks and ‘shots whizz past us very often but they mostly go over our heads. …. but some chaps got hit yesterday. One had his leg broken by a bullet about 20 yards from us.’ He also comments on the risky business of acting as orderly to a listening post about 200 yards in front of the lines. He received copies of the Telegraph every week and had been interested to read an account of ‘our send off from Bedford.’
Lieutenant George Adams (below) from Haverfordwest also gave his impressions of the campaign in the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Advertiser of 24 November 1915. He described an occasion when the Turks had disguised themselves as Gurkhas. An officer spotted them and shouted ‘they are Turks, there are no Gurkhas near here’. Instantly the enemy heard this, they shot and killed Lieutenant Adams’ friend and turned and fled back towards their trenches. But not one reached them, all being shot dead before they had gone many yards.
The 1/1st Battalion of the Herefordshires, in the 53rd (Welsh) Division, had spent only a brief time in Bedford in May 1915, moving quickly on to Rushden and then in July embarking for Gallipoli.
In December 1915 the Battalion moved to Egypt and were continuing to serve in eastern Egypt on the banks of the Suez Canal in October 1916. That was a relatively quiet month and many men took the opportunity to visit some of the local towns and have their photographs taken.
The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Drage, presented a silver cup to be awarded to the winning company in the Battalion football competition. The cup is now held in the Regimental Museum.
The 2/1st Battalion, in the 68th (2nd Welsh) Division, had arrived in Bedford in July 1915 and continued during October 1916 to send reinforcements to France to make good losses suffered on the Somme. The men would have been aware of activities on the Somme and the prospect of a posting to a unit in France. There was still a need however for troops to remain in the defence of the country and the 2/1st Herefords continued in this role, departing Bedford for Lowestoft in November 1916.
On Wednesday, 16 August 1916 at the Bedford Borough Sessions Annie Tully, aged 20 years, of Union Street, Bedford, was charged with bigamy. Annie confessed to marrying Private Herbert Parry whilst her husband, Charles Tully, was alive.
Annie had married Tully on 14 March 1914 in Llanelly, Monmouthshire, yet two years later on 2 August 1916 she married Parry of the 2/1st Brecknocks at Trinity Church, Bedford. Parry was billeted at 72 Chaucer Road, two streets away from where Annie lived in Union Street.
However, on 7 August 1916 Annie turned herself in at the Police Station saying ‘I have come down to admit that I have committed bigamy. I want to get it over.’ She was charged and cautioned and then made and signed a statement in which she said that Tully had ‘knocked her about’ three days after they were married and also about seven months later during her pregnancy, and her baby had been born dead that night . Annie left him the next morning, taking the bed sheets to pay for lodgings.
Some weeks later Tully had begged her to return and she did. But the night she returned he swore to throw her in the canal. She left him again and had not seen him since January 1915.
Parry testified that he had known Annie for about two years, so it would seem they had met not long after Annie married Tully. It is possible that Annie met Parry when his regiment was formed in Brecon, Monmouthshire, in September 1914 and that she followed him and the regiment to Bedford in 1915. It would be quite a coincidence if they happened to be from the same part of Wales and ended up a few streets from each other in Bedford.
Annie was committed for trial at the next Bedfordshire Assizes.
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.’
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.