Sunday 31 August 2014

The Fear of Uhlans

A German uhlan in ceremonial dress

Monday 31st August 1914: Today the 1st Bedfords have marched to Crépy-en-Valois, around twenty three miles. Our contact with the battalion reports that they had originally advanced much further: “We went through Orrouy and then a scare was raised that Uhlanswere all around us so the Battalion sent scouts out all round".

“We went about twelve miles through Bethisy-Saint-Martin where the billeting party halted as we heard that a squadron of Uhlans were about and that there were some in Bethisy-Saint-Pierre which was only about a mile ahead. We waited about but nothing happened so I formed up the fellows who had bicycles and rifles in the billeting party into a sort of Advanced Guard and we rode off up the road expecting to be attacked with the rest of the part some distance behind. We arrived safely in the village and immediately sent Caulfield in a car with the Requisitioning Party. We also met Alfred Parsons who commanded a squadron of the 19th Hussars who were Divisional Cavalry** and who had been sent on with his squadron to hunt the Uhlans out. He had, I believe, driven a few off and was looking for more”.

“We then heard that owing to the proximity of the Uhlans the billeting area was changed and so we had to go back eight miles to Crépy. Here I did a good forage and got a lot of stuff. Picked up Hanafin (the Medical Officer) but we had lost Pierce. Hanafin and I went off and had a good drink in an estaminet with a lot of French generals”.

“We had a fairly quiet night but heard that a German Army Corps was advancing on Paris and is not so far from us at this time”.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

German cavalry which were armed with lances.
** Used for scouting.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Two Wounded Woburn Soldiers’ Reminiscences

The Market Square Woburn [Z1130]

Sunday 30th August 1914: Two men from Woburn have contacted us with their experiences at the Battle of Mons, fought last Sunday and afterwards. Private F. Pickering of 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was in action for nine hours alongside a canal. During the retreat he had to fight at intervals as the Germans pressed close behind until Wednesday morning when he sustained his wounds. A bullet passed through his arm and then through his thigh, making a nasty wound in its exit near the groin. He happened to be carrying a knife in his pocket which belonged to his lately deceased father and in his opinion that knife saved him from more severe injuries, as the bullet struck the haft, chipping part of it away, and thus being deflected. The wound bled profusely, but he struggled along, at times dropping from loss of blood. A corporal of the 5th Lancers, with two troopers, noticing that he was badly hurt, cut away his trousers from the wounds and bandaged him up. Private Pickering gratefully accepted the corporal’s offer of a ride, and after going between five and six miles, they reached an army ambulance*. He was then conveyed on a stretcher to the train for le Havre, and afterwards by hospital ship to England. He said the enemy’s charges were terrific, and their fire unceasing. They had no time to finish and occupy their trenches and a great part of the fighting and retirement was in open country. The final impression before exhaustion was some neighbouring troops calling out “Good old Cornwalls”. It will be a lifelong regret to him that he did not ascertain the name of the corporal of the 5th Lancers, to whom he is confident he owes his life**.

Private W. Stanford joined his regiment, 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, at Newcastle. He was in the street fighting at Mons and was among the company that lined the now famous canal. It was during the fighting on Sunday afternoon that he received a wound in the leg from shrapnel shell, in addition to injuries from a sprained ankle. He crawled through two potato fields – the firing being so incessant that to expose oneself meant certain death – and reached safety. He was taken to the base hospital at Rouen and reached Southampton on the hospital ship saint Patrick. He says that he saw men who had had their hands cut off by the Germans. Only those who have been in the thick of it can realise the horror of fighting, and the piteous sights to be seen on every side. The fighting in the trenches was terrible – his own rifle was smashed to pieces in his hands, and he thought his time had come. On one occasion the man next to him, who had just been talking to him, was killed instantly, uttering never a word. Like his townsmate Private Stanford has gone back cheerfully to face it again and fully expects to be in the front within a week***.

Today the 1st Bedfords marched another thirteen miles or so to the village of Croutoy, leaving in pitch darkness at 2.30 am. Our contact states that his company is billeted in the local chateau: “The place is owned by a very decent old man (a carpenter) and his wife by the name of Veillet. The company itself is in the orchard. The billets are very much overcrowded as there are about 4,000 men in the village which could only really accommodate about 1,000. We are, however, very comfortable in a wood shed”.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 2nd October 1914

Not in the modern sense of a conveyance but a post where men were assessed and treated or moved on to a hospital with greater resources.
** Sadly Private Pickering did not have long to live. He rejoined his battalion and died of more wounds received on 16th April 1915, he was 31 years old. He is buried in Aeroplane Cemetery, Ypres.
*** Private Walter William Henry Stanford was killed in action on 28th February 1915, aged 28. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres.

Friday 29 August 2014

1st Beds Sleeping in the Open

Bedfordshire Regiment officers [X550/1/195/1]

Saturday 29th August 1914: Today the 1st Bedfords continued their march arriving at the town of Carlepont this evening, only around six miles, which must have come as a welcome relief. Owing to a mistake in arrangements the men were not allowed to inhabit the billets originally set aside for them and will have to sleep in the open in the High Street of Carlepont tonight.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

Thursday 28 August 2014

The Retreat from Mons Continues

Sir John French

Friday 28th August 1914: Today the 1st Bedfords continued their march through Noyon to the town of Pontoise-lès-Noyon, a distance of twenty five miles. Our contact stated: “Nothing much happened during the day, as we were going hard all the time, being sometimes held up by transport. Outside one of the towns Sir John French stood at the side of the road and watched us go by”.

It is to be hoped that the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force took heart from the undiminished spirit of the men he watched, as our contact says: “Everyone in the best of spirits but tired and hungry. The heat was tremendous during the day and the dust appalling”.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

A Tragic and Accidental Death

Saint-Quentin during World War One

Thursday 27th August 1914: We are saddened to hear of the death of Private Benjamin Hedley Seabrook of 5th Bedfords. He was guarding a railway bridge at Manningtree [Essex] and was killed by an express train at 8.30 this morning. He was the son of Benjamin and Eliza Jane Seabrook of 68 West Street, Dunstable and was just eighteen years old.

All day the 1st Bedfords have been continuing their retreat from Mons. They left Estrées about 4 a.m. and marched through the city of Saint-Quentin reaching the town of Eaucourt just after midday. This journey of around twenty miles must have been shattering to men who have hardly slept since Sunday and have been in action. Our source with the battalion tells us that many of the men were marching whilst asleep.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 28th August 1914

Roll of Honour 27th August 1914


5th Battalion

  • 3388 Private Benjamin Hedley SEABROOK, 18, son of Benjamin and Eliza Jane Seabrook of 68 West Street, Dunstable (Dunstable Cemetery)

Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Bedfordshire Yeomanry Training and the Battle of le Cateau

British dead at le Cateau

Wednesday 26th August 1914:  We have received this morning a letter from a member of the Bedfordshire yeomanry: "It might interest many who have their sons with us to know that all are well and very cheerful. Very few are unable to take their full share of hard work".

Another man writes: "We arrived here at Hatfield Peverel yesterday after having a pretty rough time of it from Winslow. We have had to sleep in barns every night except one when we slept in the Workhouse at Epping. We left Winslow on Wednesday morning and arrived in Edlesborough at night Thursday, at Kimpton Friday, at Hertford Saturday, at Epping Sunday, at South Weald Monday near Chelmsford. We have been treated extremely well by the people residing in the different villages through which we passed. These people stand by the side of the road and hand us fruit as we pass. In one village practically the whole of a troop had bunches of big black grapes given to them. When we were going into Hertford a lady gave us all two cigarettes each. As we were going through a town some men made a remark about three old soldiers who are in the Yeomanry, and have not yet received their uniform. They asked one of our fellows who they were, and he replied that they were three spare colonels. It is not known how long we shall stay here, and we don't know where we are going next".

No doubt the Yeomanry think themselves lucky when compared with the 1st Bedfords who, after a few days in continuous action have today fought a very important battle at le Cateau. It has become necessary for the British Expeditionary Force to retreat south-westwards owing to the overwhelming numbers the Germans have brought to bear on our army. To do this successfully General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, decided that a stand had to be made to administer a bloody enough nose to the enemy to prevent him following too closely on our army’s heels. That battle has been fought and, despite terrible casualties, has been brought to a successful conclusion.

The 1st Bedfords were mostly in good trenches, begun by French civilians and finished by our men the day before. When the enemy attacked the troops on the battalion’s right were eventually driven back leaving the right flank exposed. One of our sources in the battalion reported: “The advance was a most wonderful sight and we got up and, taking off our caps, watched it over the parapet. It was a splendid object lesson and we could point out all the mistakes made in Company training when advancing under fire. Their casualties were tremendous and our shooting wonderful as shrapnel simply swept them away”.

“We saw the guns of what must have been practically a German Army Corps appear on the high ground away to our left and slowly and quite calmly unlimber and get into position. There were simply hundreds of guns there and I started to open fire on them but the range was too far. We then knew that we were very properly in for it”.

“The Germans had also begun to advance on our front so we kept our heads low and opened fire at them. It was however very difficult shooting as the country in front of us was littered with corn stooks and we could see very little. Each corn stook concealed several Germans who made splendid use of them. A battery of enemy guns also opened fire on us from a wood to our front”.

“Their machine-guns opened on us then, mostly from the house on the road a few hundred yards to our right front, which must have been filled with them and the whole of our parapet so spattered with bullets that it was impossible to raise our heads except at very short intervals”.

“At about 4.30 pm we discovered that everybody on our right and left had retired – there was no chance of getting in touch – and we were apparently left all alone. I sent a runner to verify this and then made arrangements to retire too”.

A retirement in the face of a determined enemy is not easy. However, the battalion had remained in the front line long enough to cover the retirement of our artillery in the rear, which suffered considerably. The withdrawal from the trenches was very difficult because the country is flat and open. Fortunately, our source states, “the enemy's fire was rather wild”. Something of the harum-scarum nature of the withdrawal is evident from my source’s continuing account: “Sniping was going on at us from all sides and we could see nothing to fire at. We had some more casualties, one man being hit beside me and rolled over like a rabbit; one of my sergeants seized him and dragged him across the road to some haystacks under cover”. Our informant then set off with a colleague to try to find an officer who had been wounded but was unable to reach him.

“Bullets were getting a bit thick, about then a German Field Gun appeared at short distance away and started to open fire so we started back. We had to run most of the way and were peppered hard. I got a bullet through both my puttees. We were so tired that at times we could not run so had to walk and eventually fell into a trench. Here we found quantities of ammunition which we tried to bury and a very welcome bottle of brandy. This we drained and then ran back to the road and almost collapsed on it and were both as sick as cats! We remained on the road for a bit but the shelling got a bit too thick and we decided to clear out”.

“We beat a retreat and Lilley [an officer in the Dorset Regiment] and I had to marshal a small army of stragglers back which we picked up on the way. Some were very badly wounded and some had their legs almost blown off so we had to carry them in”.

“As the roads were being shelled hard we had to keep to the fields and had to climb walls and barbed wire fences by the score. I cursed the day I threw my wire cutters away but emptied nearly all the contents of my haversack including my Field Service Pocket Book”.

“We reached a farm house and found in it a cart and horse in the stable which we promptly tried to harness into it. The horse thought better and refused to go in so in a rage I kicked it on the backside and sent it off! We dragged the cart with us full of wounded men”.

“We had by then quite a large party and pushed on and much to our relief crossed the railway and then came across a lot of weeping Royal Scots[1] who told us that they had lost the whole of their Battalion”.

“We then pushed on into a village where we found a Field Ambulance. Here we deposited our wounded and warned the doctors that the Germans were close behind us, but they said that they must stay where they were as they had such bad cases”.

“We then marched on back and came across the rest of the Division with Sir Charles Ferguson (commanding) at a crossroads directing the stream of troops in the right direction himself. Most of the 15th Brigade got together and we marched on into Estrées arriving about 9 pm. The sides of the roads were a most strange sight, littered with material which we could not move and huge dumps of meat which had to be left behind to make room on the wagons for the wounded”.

The battalion has suffered one officer and about thirty other ranks as casualties. Altogether the corps has lost about 700 dead, 2,500 prisoners and about 4,500 wounded. The enemy must have lost around 5,000.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 28th August 1914

[1] 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots of 8th Brigade, 3rd Division.

Roll of Honour 26th August 1914

Killed in Action

1st Battalion

  • 7986 Private William GUNN, 34, son of Mary Ann Gunn of Wrights Green, Little Hallingbury [Essex] (la Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)
  • 8690 Private William Thomas HILL, born Aldenham [Hertfordshire], lived at Radlett [Hertfordshire] (la Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)
  • 8363 Private Arthur HULL, 28, husband of Sarah Mulley (formerly Hull) of High Street, Hemingford Grey [Huntingdonshire] (memorial in Troisvilles CommunalCemetery)
  • 8970 Private Arthur PASCALL alias CATCHPOLE, son of Eliza Pascall of 11 The Mount, Ipswich [Suffolk] (la Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)
  • 9734 Corporal Harold Henry SHUTTLE, 19, son of Frederick and Emma Matilda Shuttle of 5 Smeaton Road, Woodford Bridge [Essex], born in Chigwell [Essex] (la Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)
  • 7875 Private Arthur SMITH, born in Birch [Essex] (memorial in TroisvillesCommunal Cemetery)

Monday 25 August 2014

The Retreat from Mons and the Death of a Henlow Soldier

Henlow High Street [Z50/58/3]

Tuesday 25th August 1914: By the early hours of this morning the battalion, now reunited, found itself two miles west of the town of Bavay with the rest of 15th Brigade. During the day the battalion fell back on the town of le Cateau-Cambrésis where, very tired, they dug in, fortunately the trenches had been begun well by French civilians. There may be more fighting here tomorrow.

It is with profound regret that the village of Henlow learned of the death of Private Edwin James Bywaters, 10333 of A Company, 1st Bedfordshire Regiment. He was the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Bywaters of High Street. The bereaved parents received a letter from the war Office informing them of his death, and that he was killed in action but the date of death was not given [it was, in fact 23rd August]. It is believed he fell during the retreat of the British from Mons and efforts are being made to obtain further details. “Eddie” as he was always called by his friends, was 22 years of age, and joined the 1st Bedfords nine months ago. Before the declaration of war he had been stationed in Ireland in view of the serious situation there and previous to leaving Ireland, “Eddie” wrote home to his parents referring to his departure for the front. His letters showed the fine sense of duty which inspired him. He was a tall, handsome lad and, from what is known of him, it is certain that had he been spared he would soon have risen in the profession of arms. He was one of the most promising young players in the Henlow Cricket team and had rendered good service to the Football Club. He was the eldest of a family of ten children.[1]

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 25th September 1914

[1] The Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry for him calls him Edward John Bywaters. He was indeed killed on 23rd August and is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial, having no known grave - see the entry for 23rd August

Sunday 24 August 2014

Rearguard Action at Mons

Monday 24th August 1914: At Paturages the enemy attacked the 1st Bedfords soon after daylight about 4 am. C Company holding houses and bridges on the railway line was the first to be engaged. Eventually the company was driven back slowly as houses were knocked down by German shells. The enemy attacked strongly on the battalion’s right, which rested on a high heap of slag occupied by other units, this being a mining area. The slag heap shut out all view to that flank and about 11 a.m. it was discovered that the battalions on the heap had either withdrawn or retired leaving the Bedfords’ right flank in the air, with the enemy in close proximity.

The Battalion commenced a retirement westward in three columns, covered by a small rear guard. A considerable portion of the battalion was detached in the confusion of the action. It is reckoned that 66 other ranks have been killed[1]. Altogether it is thought that about 1,600 British soldiers have been killed and wounded. The great majority of these seem to have come from two battalions, the 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment  and the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders of 8th Brigade, 3rd Division. We have no ideas how many enemy have been killed but figures such as 3,000 and 5,000 are being mentioned. The Bedfords, though not much engaged on Sunday have, with their fellow members of 15th Brigade (1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment, 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment) performed an invaluable service to the army today, acting as rearguard and covering its retirement south-west.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

[1] In fact just four – see Roll of Honour

Roll of Honour 24th August 1914

Killed in Action

1st Battalion: retreat from Mons

  •  8967 Private Walter Stanley BENNETT, 24, son of Robert Walter and Charlotte Bennett of Stratton [Suffolk] (Cement House Cemetery, Ypres)
  • 8230 Private Harry MOULSTER, 26, husband of Rachel Moulster of Plumstead, London; born in Kensworth, he lived in Colchester [Essex] (le Ferte-sous Jouarre Memorial)
  • 10102 Private James NEWMAN, from Bromley [London] (Cement House Cemetery, Ypres)
  • 8004 Private Samuel Gibson PECK, born in Peasenhall [Suffolk], lived at Halesworth [Suffolk] (la Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)

Saturday 23 August 2014

The Battle of Mons

The Place Leopold in Mons [Z1247/5]

Sunday 23rd August 1914: Today the first major battle of the war involving British troops took place in and around the Belgian town of Mons. Reports are still a little sketchy but it looks as if hordes of Germans descended on our gallant forces and, by sheer weight of numbers, drove them south out of the town. The Bedfords seem to have taken a minor role in the action so far though they have suffered their first casualty, a man from Henlow.

Having spoken to our contacts with the 1st Bedfords we hear that about midday half the battalion (A and B Companies) proceeded to Wasmes south-west of Mons. No immediate fighting was expected and the men began to dig trenches. Then the enemy shelled the area. One of our contacts with the battalion told us: “We later heard that A and B Companies were under fire and having a hot time and shells were starting to fly about. Everyone turned out to see the fun and we heard that quite a large number of civilians were hit. Excitement rose higher and parties of civilians were collected to go off and dig. They were wandering about in their Sunday clothes and looking at things with much interest”.

“At 5 pm we were ordered out to go off and help the other two companies who, we heard, were having a desperate time. After a pathetic farewell of our hostess we marched for a solid two hours through various villages being greeted with “Vive L’Angleterre” and finally reached the railway station at Paturages. Here we halted and lay down at the side of the road and tried to get some sleep. We did not know in the least what was happening, the whole situation being very obscure”.

The two halves of the battalion were still separated from each other and not reunited until after dark as those at Wasmes made for Paturages. The enemy was reported by inhabitants to be approaching in force on a road on the battalion’s right flank. A patrol was sent out in which our informant took part. His is an exciting narrative: “After saying good-bye to everyone as we did not expect ever to return, we started off at 9 pm with our party and interpreters. All of the latter however soon got the wind up and faded away!”

“The night was very dark and the road was fenced on both sides by rows of houses, some of which were burning as a result of the day’s bombardment. Civilians in the houses soon spotted us and kept jumping out and shouting “Vive L’Angleterre” and made an awful noise. I had to run ahead and tell them to be quiet and shut and lock them in their houses”.

“We had no maps and so could only hope we were going right. When we had done about one kilometre I heard someone running up the road in front away from us. We halted and thought it over but expected it was only some civilians. We went on and came up to a gasworks on the left of the road which was on fire and burning hard”.

“In front it was pitch dark and I was just going to give the halt to my party so that I could explore by the light of the fire when we were suddenly challenged out of the darkness ahead in English. It gave us an awful start and we at once answered and stood still. A party then came out of the darkness dressed in khaki consisting of an officer and about twenty men. The officer came up to me in the middle of the road and placed his loaded revolver to my head asking me questions while each of his men placed his bayonet at the stomach of my men”.

“He asked me such questions as – who are you? What Regiment? When did you land in France? Where were you stationed in England? And then said “Thank God, we nearly shot you!" We said “Thank God you didn’t!” They were the Northumberland Fusiliers of 3rd Division and had placed a barrier across the road and had orders to shoot anyone coming up the road we came along without challenge!”

“They told us that they had had very heavy fighting all day and a lot of casualties and that the Germans had drawn up field guns to within 50 yards of them over the bodies of their own dead and fired point blank at them”. The situation was reported to divisional headquarters by breaking into the railway station and using the telegraph and telephone!

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

Roll of Honour 23rd August 1914

Killed in Action

1st Battalion: Battle of Mons

  • 10333 Private Edwin John BYWATERS, 21, son of Harry and Emma Bywaters of High Street, Henlow (le Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial)

Friday 22 August 2014

The First Clash is Close at Hand

Alexander von Kluck

Saturday 22nd August 1914: The 1st Bedfords have moved up to camp in a wood called Bois Boussu. This is some six miles south-west of Mons where, we are now given to understand, the leading regiments of the army are now billeted. The Germans are very close. Our cavalry encountered a strong force of them early this morning at a place called Casteau to the north-east of the town. They charged a group of German uhlans[1], and drove them off, killing a number, the first Germans, we believe, killed by British troops in this war.

These Germans are, we believe, their 1st Army commanded by a man named von Kluck. This name has given our lads some ribald amusement and has quickly given rise to a song, to the tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, in which the men express the view that they couldn’t give a very vulgar expletive “for old von Kluck”!

It seems very likely that there will be a battle tomorrow. The French army is on our right around the town of Charleroi and our I Corps will take up positions along the road leading from Mons to Beaumont angled rather north-west to south-east. The II Corps, in which 1st Bedfords find themselves, is on the left, lining the Mons-Condé Canal. The army is thus formed nearly at right angles with II corps formed up west to east facing north and I Corps facing north-east or east.

Source: X550/2/5

[1] Uhlans were light cavalry armed with a lance as well as a sabre. They had a fearsome reputation.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Our Lads at Home and Abroad

Friday 21st August 1914: The 1st Bedfords have reached a town named Gommegnies, south-west of Bavay where they have been billeted. We still have no exact knowledge of where the enemy is but he must be somewhere to the north, close to the town of Mons. There is a rumour that a reconnaissance team of cyclists encountered the Germans near the town of Obourg just north-east of Mons earlier today. One of their number, we believe, was killed*. The men, our contact with the Bedfords tells us, are in good heart and spoiling for a fight with those who have already committed so many dreadful acts of murder, rapine and arson against a peaceful population whose only crime was to happen to live on the Germans’ way to France. The universal view is, we understand that the Germans must be stopped here and now and that our boys are the boys to do it. God Bless them in the days ahead.

There is great but unobtrusive activity going on at the Bedford Depot in connection with the Second Army**. Colonel Tilly, the Commanding Officer and an efficient staff have been working night and day to make matters go smoothly. Judging from observations at present 500 or more men in Barracks are being made as comfortable as possible, and there is no delay about clothing the men as the articles are received. Recruiting must be going on very satisfactorily and large numbers of recruits sometimes arrive late at night, but our representative heard no word of complaint. There is a quiet earnestness of purpose manifest.

We hear that the 5th Bedfords have had a pretty stiff time at Romford and have found the weather somewhat trying. They are nearly always in full marching order on every parade, and carry 100 rounds of ammunition, which "hang heavy". Then many of the men have had to have new boots and there have consequently been lots of blistered heels and galled feet. The men, however, are in good spirits, and make the best of the situation.

Sources: X550/2/5; Bedfordshire Times 21st August 1914

Private John Parr from Church End, Finchley serving with 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. He is buried at Saint-Symphorien Cemetery. He was the first British soldier killed whilst on active service during the war and he was just sixteen years old. His grave is opposite that of George Edwin Ellison of 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He fought in the Battle of Mons in 1914 and was killed ninety minutes before the Armistice on 11th November 1918, the last British casualty of the war, aged forty. These two were separated by 1,543 days and 886,937 other deaths.
** This was the designation for newly raised troops answering the call for volunteers since the outbreak of war. It bears no relationship to the Second Army of the British Expeditionary Force which was created on 26th December 1914 and served for most of the war in the Ypres salient in Belgium except for a spell in Italy between November 1917 and March 1918.

Roll of Honour 21st August 1914


2nd Battalion

  • 9077 Private William CRAWFORD, born in Stoke [Suffolk] (Cape Town (Maitland) Cemetery)

Wednesday 20 August 2014

1st Bedfords Approaching Mons

The Cottage Hospital, Woburn [Z1130]

Thursday 20th August 1914: We understand that 1st Bedfords are marching towards the enemy who have, today, taken the Belgian capital, Brussels. The Bedfords, with their division, seem to be heading for the town of Mons just inside Belgium close to the French border.

In Woburn the Duchess of Bedford has granted permission to use the Hospital for military purposes, and has placed 25 beds therein and, if necessary, will fit up the gymnasium or a wing of the Abbey as a temporary Hospital.*

Sources: X550/2/5; Luton News 20th August 1914

This was Mary, the famous “Flying Duchess” who had been instrumental in getting the hospital built between 1901 and 1903. It served as a hospital, latterly called Maryland, until 1964 when it became an adult education centre. It closed around the year 2000 and is now divided into flats.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

A Change in Command

Sir James Grierson

Wednesday 19th August 1914: The 1st Bedfords have been billeted in Le Pommereuil all day as they await the arrival of the rest of their division, the 5th, which is part of II Corps, now commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Sir Horace is from Hertfordshire and was a survivor of the Battle of Isandhlwana, that great disaster of January 1879 when the Zulus overwhelmed a British force and annihilated it almost to a man, only fifty British soldiers making their escape. Until two days ago II Corps commander was General Sir James Grierson, an appointment which, it is commonly viewed in the army, was a mistake. This was no slur on Sir James’ ability but on his state of health. He had very high blood pressure and was, it must be stated, not the most slender of figures. He had a heart attack on the morning of 17th on a train near Amiens. We understand that his body has been repatriated to Scotland. How many more of his former command will follow him in the days to come?

Source: X550/2/5

Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien

Monday 18 August 2014

1st Bedfords Nearing the Front

Tuesday 18th August 1914: The 1st Bedfords will soon reach Le Pommereuil. They left Le Havre about six o’clock this morning and their train reached Le Cateau at ten this evening where our friendly officer rang us to tell us the news. They are about to march off to Le Pommereuil, which is a few miles east of Le Cateau and not far from the Belgian border. They should reach their destination about midnight.

Source: X550/2/5

Sunday 17 August 2014

The Bedfordshire Yeomanry’s Travels

Bedfordshire Yeomanry [X344/163]

Monday 17th August 1914: Our contact with the 1st Bedfords tells us that they are due to march to Le Havre station late this evening en-route to Heaven knows where. No doubt it will be towards the fighting. We understand that the French armies are hard pressed by the German hordes steam-rolling their way through Belgium, burning, raping and looting as they go.

At midnight the Bedfordshire Yeomanry left Swindon [Wiltshire] for Winslow [Buckinghamshire]. Horses were saddled and boxed in the darkness, a task which a facetious correspondent describes as "no light one". The journey from Swindon to Bletchley [Buckinghamshire] occupied seven hours, and on arrival at the latter town the men and horses detrained and proceeded by road to Winslow, a distance of ten miles. This place was reached just after noon. During the train journey one of the horses of D Squadron was killed.

The men were loath to leave Swindon was the people of that town had shown them every kindness. About fifty members of A Squadron are billeted at Winslow Workhouse, where special arrangements were made. The weather continues perfect and the men are in the best of health.

Sources: X550/2/5; Bedfordshire Times 21st August 1914

Saturday 16 August 2014

1st Bedfords in France

Sunday 16th August 1914: The 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment landed safely at Le Havre this morning. They marched straight to a rest camp on top of a hill overlooking the town in order to recover from the journey. Speaking with one of the junior officers by telephone he told us that they had exchanged water for mud but at least mud does not go up and down and cause nausea.  They are stout fellows.

Source: X550/2/5

Friday 15 August 2014

The Bedfords at Sea

Southampton Quay, le Havre

Saturday 15th August 1914: This afternoon the 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment left Belfast on board SS Oronsa, heading for France. We understand that the 2nd Battalion is also on the high seas, heading to England in a convoy of steamers protected by two cruisers. We all pray that the convoy will arrive safely and that it does not meet the Kaiser’s warships or any of his vile U-Boats.

George Smith, a Biggleswade veteran, who fought in the Crimea and Indian Mutiny would dearly like to go with the Expeditionary Force on to the Continent. As he is 82 years old there may be some truth in his sorrowful admission that “perhaps he could not hardly be equal to it”. “But,” says the old fellow, “I could cook for the chaps: I could make a pie or pudding with any of them”.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/3/4; Luton News 20th August 1914 

Thursday 14 August 2014

The 1st Battalion Leaves for Active Service

Bayonet fighting practice [X550/1/195/1]

Friday 14th August 1914: We hear that the 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment left Mullingar in Ireland at two o’clock this morning. We understand they are on their way to Belfast where they will board ship for France. We wish them God Speed.

A Bedford man with the 5th Bedfords, a Territorial Army unit which is in training in Romford [Essex] has written to us as follows. "Everything is carried out strictly under war conditions and the men are only allowed out when not engaged in duty, for a short time in the evening. The men attended church parade with rifles and ammunition and afterwards were exercised in drill and had a route march in full marching order. The commissariat and the health of the men are good. One lamentable accident occurred to one of the Cambridge men when, by some chance, a man dropped or caught his rifle in something and as it was loaded it discharged, the bullet entering his leg. The leg had to be amputated but the poor fellow died. The inhabitants are very kind to us and are only too pleased to oblige us in any way possible. There is much speculation as to how long we are going to stop here but everything is secret and what talk there is can only be supposition".

A Sandy man in the same battalion has written: "The men are quartered in schools and are daily getting in trim. We are having a strenuous time, carrying full marching order of 56 lb weight and 200 rounds of ammunition. Today we have had a sixteen miles march in the hot sun. It was gruelling! The health of all the local men is excellent. We have been sleeping on the floors of schools, with greatcoats only. Now we have a blanket, which is very nice. Today an order came from the General Officer Commanding calling for volunteers for foreign service. The local men of D Company responded to the number of 56. Biggleswade, Sandy, Saint Neots and Potton are represented in numbers. Every officer in the regiment offered his services. Now we want more men to fill their places and it is up to the men of Sandy and Biggleswade to respond. So, men of Sandy, do your duty! You are urgently requested to do so by your country. Apply at Headquarters, Gwyn Street, Bedford".

Sources: X550/2/5; Bedfordshire Times 14th August 1914

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Villagers’ Kindness to 5th Bedfords

Bedfordshire Regiment personnel at camp [X550/1/195/1]

Thursday 13th August 1914: A letter has reached us from a member of the 5th Bedfords: “We have seen a bit of rural England. A week ago we left Romford for a long march, which we finished last Friday night. We have been through and halted at the following places, sleeping out in the open with only a topcoat and blanket; Chelmsford, Braintree, Halwell*, Sudbury and Bury Saint Edmund’s. From there we came to this place, having travelled over 85 miles. Water is very short here, one pailful having to do for sixty men to wash in, so you can guess there is a rush for the first wash. We are having Army and Navy biscuits and jam for breakfast one day, and bread and cheese every other day. For dinner we get meat and bread. There is a big shortage of potatoes”.

“We do not know from day to day where we are going. Every morning we have nothing less than a six-mile march with full pack and 100 rounds of ammunition. One thing that has helped us along has been the very kind receptions we have met with at every village we have been through. Last Wednesday we stayed at Halwell and were allowed out for four hours. A party of us went into the town for grub and could not find a café anywhere, so I went to a grocer’s and asked him if he could recommend us a place where we could have a good feed. He invited us inside and fed us like kings. After tea he took us upstairs into his room and handed round his cigars, so we had a very pleasant two hours. That is typical of how we are being treated by the people. When a fellow has a box of eatables from home there is a big rush and he can, if he is short of ready cash, soon make a little fortune”.

“We get some very heavy dews now in the morning, and most of us have got bad colds … I have now to go about two miles to get some drinking water”.

Source: Bedfordshire Times 28th August 1914

This is clearly a mistake for Halstead, on the A131 between Braintree and Sudbury. Kelly’s Directory for Essex for 1914 lists the following grocers in the town: E. and T. P. Doubleday in the High Street and Trinity Street; Percy F. Evans, 19 High Street; Frank Rayner, 43 High Street; John and James Seymour, 63 and 65 High Street and Eli Wright of 17 Tidings Hill. 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Bedford Boys’ Journey Across France

Zermatt and the Matterhorn [JN76/28]

Wednesday 12th August 1914: The following interesting account has been written of the experiences of A. A. and J. H. Linsell, sons of J. Linsell of 2a Chaucer Road, Bedford, in getting home from Zermatt last week: “At the time of the crisis my brother and I were staying at Zermatt, in Switzerland, where news was both late and unreliable. In fact, we should probably have stayed on there if we had not received two urgent telegrams from home and when we eventually left (Sunday, August 2nd), there were still several English there and more were arriving. Once on the main Simplon line, however, we noticed a change. In the villages, horses were being commandeered for the Swiss army, bridges and level-crossings were guarded and everything was in the hands of the military. On the platforms of the different stations, there was a hopelessly overwhelming amount of luggage, belonging to – and apparently in most cases, abandoned by – returning tourists. It was not however, till we reached Lausanne, that we received our first check, which was in the information that the trains had ceased to run in connection with French railways. This left us with two alternatives, firstly to find out the nearest British Consul, and secondly, to get on as far as possible to the French frontier in the hope of being able to get some conveyance to the nearest French station. Thinking that the British Consul would have probably enough English subjects already on his hands and would not be able to help us, on account of our numbers, we chose the second alternative and took the next train to Valorbe, arriving there at 1.30 on Monday morning. In the train there were crowds of others in the same plight as ourselves – mostly French but some American and one or two English. We were herded into the waiting-room for the rest of the night. Both the air, which was decidedly unhealthy, and the snoring of my fellow passengers, made sleep impossible for me. In the same building, lying about the stairs and in the hall, there were hundreds of Italian workmen, with their families. They were, of course, very poorly clad, and the sight was rather awful. They were able, however, to get a special train to take them on early the following morning. We, on the other hand, were stranded, as far as trains were concerned, and were forced eventually to walk to Pontarlier – a distance of twenty miles. Pontarlier was the nearest French station of any use to us. Another English tourist, my brother and myself left Valorbe, therefore, at 5 a.m. carrying our luggage between us. At the frontier we were received with enthusiasm by the Customs’ Officers on account of our nationality. Soon afterwards we came up with a French lady and gentleman, also tramping to Pontarlier and then with three English (two ladies and a gentleman). We all joined forces, and arranged to share a wheelbarrow for the conveyance of the luggage. At the different villages we passed through there was a considerable waste of time on account of the police, whom it was necessary to satisfy before going on. The barrow was also very cumbersome and difficult to manage, as it was very much overloaded. Afterwards, we succeeded in changing it for a four-wheeled conveyance, and finally we were able to hire a horse and cart, by means of which the luggage and the ladies of our party eventually reached Pontarlier. The French on the way did their very best for us, but the whole countryside had been upset by the preparations for war - all horses and sorts of conveyances had been commandeered and most of the men had already left for the front".

"At Pontarlier, where we expected to be able to get a train through to Paris, we found ourselves indefinitely "held up", as for the next three days, we were told there would be only troop trains running, and after the next three days …? That night we were billeted on the inhabitants. We reported ourselves to the Town Hall, and obtained a passport permitting us to return "as soon as possible" (which was little comfort). In the meantime, the English gentleman we picked up on our tramp had managed to get himself arrested as a German. I believe he was afterwards released, but I was not present at the incident. We spent the rest of the evening in worrying the officials and with the help of an English officer who had a special permit to travel by troop train, we succeeded in the end in obtaining a similar permit (as being liable to service in the British army). Our being able to obtain this was pure luck - and the result of persistent worrying. the English officer, my brother and myself, were the only ones to get through, and we left numbers of British subjects despondently waiting at the railway station. By a series of troop trains we managed to reach Boulogne, travelling to the following times: Pontarlier departure 6.30 am, Tuesday, Paris arrival 1.30 am Wednesday, departure 5.15 am, Wednesday; Boulogne arrival 2 pm, Wednesday, departure 11.30 pm, Wednesday: Charing Cross arrival 3 am Thursday".

"As we had left Zermatt on Sunday afternoon, our whole journey which, under ordinary circumstances, would not have lasted over 24 hours, had taken us over 85 hours, and at the same time we had every reason to consider ourselves exceptionally lucky. From Dôle to Dijon we had to travel by goods train (a matter of three or four hours). Several times we had difficulty in getting our passports accepted, even at the last moment on Boulogne quay. On the journey, of course, eating and sleeping was a secondary matter, the chief thing being to push on as fast as possible".

"As, however, all this time we were travelling with French soldiers, we had excellent opportunities to form a good idea of their keenness and enthusiasm. The trains were decorated with branches and flags, and in some cases, also with flattering pictures of William II[1]. Our train was labelled "Express to Berlin!" People unknown to each other would shake hands and give each other a rendezvous in some town in Germany,  and on account of our nationality, we came in for a considerable amount of shaking hands too. At the same time, one could not overlook the serious side; the farewell scenes, which repeated themselves at each station, where we took up fresh soldiers - when young mothers with babies in their arms, broke down hopelessly, in spite of the hearty encouragements from the men, always optimistic. "I have said adieu to no one" one of our fellow passengers boasted, "only au revoir". The women and children, however, will not lack work during the war. They have the harvest to see to, and already they have converted most of the stations into Red Cross hospitals. The nurses have been seeing that the soldiers on the troop trains have everything in the way of refreshments".

"This enthusiasm on the part of everybody; the general stoppage of traffic; the good humour of civilians unable to get home; these and many other sights we came across, could not but convince us of the complete and united turning-out France is under-going for the war. In their own expression, "il faut aller jusque' au bout”[2]".

[1]  i.e. cartoons of Kaiser Wilhelm II
[2] “It is necessary to see it through”

Monday 11 August 2014

Local Recruitment

Bromham Vicarage

Tuesday 11th August 1914: Mr Sidney Richard Quenby left Oakley yesterday to join the Force as a volunteer, Mr. Quenby was once attached to the Hertfordshire Yeomanry. He is a very fine horseman. Mr. Quenby will be much missed from the cricket field, and in fact from the village generally as he was very popular.

A number of doctors on the Bedfordshire panel have volunteered for active service and fourteen have left the county already. Other doctors in the county are acting loyally in the manner and are treating the insured persons on the panels of their colleagues.

Bromham is considerably affected by the war. In consequence of the horses being commandeered, grooms have been dismissed. Altogether Bromham has nine men in the Army and Navy: Captain Allen and Lieutenant Stobart in the Regular Army; Walter Mortimer, private in the regulars; Herbert Mortimer in the Navy; A. Swan, H. Robinson and J. Tysoe in the Bedfordshire Yeomanry; A. Waller Naval Reserve and Jack Browning, the vicar’s son, in the Canadian Volunteers*. Two others have volunteered since the war broke out. The friends of the Vicar (Canon Browning) are wondering how he is getting on in Switzerland, where he went to take a chaplaincy for August.

Sources: Bedfordshire Times 14th August 1914 and 21st August 1914

Captain John Francis Allen of 1st Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment died of wounds on 5th November 1914 aged 32. He was the son of W. H. Allen, who owned the Bedford engineering company and lived at Bromham House and he is buried in Ypres Town Cemetery. Company Sergeant Major Walter James Mortimer, MM, of 11th Battalion, Essex Regiment, died on 6th April 1918 as a prisoner-of-war, having been captured in 1917, and is buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery. Lieutenant William Stobart, Royal Flying Corps previously 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, was killed in a flying accident on 24th August 1916, aged 21 and is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinge. Two more Mortimers were killed: Harry, of 12th King’s (Liverpool) Regiment on 20th November 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial. Private William S. Mortimer of 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment, was killed on 27th July 1916 during operation in Delville Wood and is buried at Delville Wood Cemetery, Longueval.