Bedford’s Tartan Army: August 1914 – May 1915
In August 1914, just as Bedfordians were coming to terms with the news that Britain was at war with Germany, the relative peace and quiet of the town was shattered by the friendly invasion of thousands of soldiers from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Between 15th and 18th August 1914 around 17,000 Scottish soldiers of the Territorial Force arrived in Bedford where they would spend the next nine months training and preparing for war. These were men of the (1st) Highland Division – later re-designated, 51st Highland Division – whose kilted infantry units carried famous and evocative names such as Gordon, Seaforth, Argyll & Sutherland and Cameron Highlanders. As well as infantry the Division brought with it Territorial elements of Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Army Medical Corps, Army Service Corps and Army Veterinary Corps.
By the time it left the Town in May 1915, the Division numbered over 22,000 men. To set this in context, at the outbreak of war Bedford’s civilian population numbered somewhere in the region of 39,000.
The kilted troops became a familiar and welcome sight in the town and surrounding countryside, accompanied by the sound of bagpipes and drums. They were certainly a curiosity with their Highland dress and strong regional dialects. Indeed, many of the soldiers spoke Gaelic as their first language.
Largely as a consequence of the dispersal of billets throughout the Borough, Bedfordians took the Highlanders to their hearts. Strong, genuine and lasting bonds were forged between the Town and its Scottish visitors. To this day, several Bedford families can trace their connections back to Highland Division men who returned to the Town and made it their home after the war ended. Bedford should take enormous pride from the manner in which it welcomed the soldiers and looked after them, particularly through the work of the Borough Recreation Committee for the Troops and the dozens of civilian volunteers who supported it.
From the scrupulous records kept by the Committee we know that between August 1914 and May 1915, the women of Bedford laundered 30,408 and repaired 20,000 garments for the Highlanders. The records also tell us that, during the period the Scots were in Town, 2cwt (100kgs) of porridge were being served each night by volunteers running the soldiers’ canteen in the Corn Exchange.
“What a lot the division owed to Bedfordians – and to the women particularly. We thrived on their kindness. Seventeen thousand men on full pay bring a lot of money into a town; and while our thoughts were engrossed on training for war every big and little shop blossomed into a canteen, and every public house thought how it could increase its stature. But all of the natives of Bedford were not shopkeepers and publicans, and a least half of the inhabitants were making no wealth from billeting. We can have brought neither pleasure nor profit to a goodly proportion – to the old gentlemen who made us welcome at their clubs; to the middle-aged ladies whose peace of mind we shattered. Yet we received from all the greatest kindness.”
‘Behind the Lines‘; Col W.N. Nicholson, CMG, DSO – Jonathan Cape Ltd 1939
The busy and highly effective Committee also organised recreational facilities and entertainment for the troops, much of this being provided by the local population, reinforced by talent sourced from the ranks of the Division itself. One of these was a Private E. Smith who was said to be able to extract charming music from a bicycle pump.
Among its many accomplishments, the Committee was responsible for organising two major events for the Division; the Hogmanay suppers provided to all 22,000 of the Highland Division’s men at New Year and the Highland Games which took place on Bedford School’s playing fields on Easter Monday, 1915.
In the cold, wet winter of 1914/15 measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria ran through the Highland Division’s ranks and men from the more remote areas of the Highlands, who lacked immunity having never been exposed to these diseases before, were particularly hard hit. The majority who fell ill survived, but it is reckoned that eventually around 130 fatally succumbed, often to bronchial pneumonia which is one of the main complications of measles. Their remains were either returned to home locations for burial, or interred in Foster Hill Road Cemetery.
Of these, thirty-one were victims of disease. Private Arthur Charker died as a result of being stabbed with a bayonet during a drunken altercation in billets.
Corporal James McDonald who hailed from Aberdeen survived the war, despite being seriously wounded in 1917. On being discharged from the army he returned to Bedford to settle with his wife, Dorothy (nee Roberts) – a Bedford girl – and their young son in Westbourne Road, Queens Park. He died on July 6 1919 while undergoing corrective surgery on his wounds.
The main group of Highlanders’ graves is located in the Cemetery’s military plot. However, the graves of Arthur Charker and the Geddes brothers are to be found, grouped together, on the boundary with the Park.
The Cemetery is also the final resting place of Jane Frost O’Connell, the 18 month old daughter of Company Sergeant Major O’Connell, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. She died of ‘measles and bronchopneumonia’ and was buried on 26 January 1915. Her grave is now unmarked, but is thought to be number 1150 in section C.
The Highland Division received orders to move to France in late April 1915 and in early May left Bedford as quickly as it had arrived. It is sobering to reflect that many of the men who were in Bedford with the Division would become casualties between May 1915 and November 1918. At the War’s end, the Division’s Battle Honours included Ypres, Festubert, the Somme (High Wood and Beaumont Hamel), Cambrai, Arras and the Marne. It earned a reputation for being one of the hardest fighting formations in the British Army, but in the process it sustained nearly 45,000 casualties – killed, wounded, or missing.
Although the Highland Division was only in Bedford for eight months, its presence left a long-lasting impression on the town. There were some in the local population who felt that the Highlanders had been treated almost too well, but these critics must have been in a small minority. The majority of townsfolk warmly welcomed the visitors into their homes and hearts. Other troops came and went in large numbers during the course of the war, but none seem to have made anywhere near the impression made by the lads from the Highlands and Islands.
“Our good-byes were parched upon our lips, for Bedford had mothered us, and we had grown up as her children”
Captain Robert B. Ross, Gordon Highlanders
“The people of this Borough will never forget the visit of the Highland Division … I need hardly say how much we shall miss you. The friendships formed during the last nine months will last for many years to come.
We shall watch for news of the Division as if they were our own people.”
Mayor Harry Browning to Major-General R. B. Allason, May 1915
(Unless stated otherwise, all photographs contained in this article come from the author’s own collection.)
August 04, 2021