Training at Bedford.
It had been estimated that Territorial Battalions would require at least six months’ training after mobilisation before being ready for overseas service. (In reality it took on average nearer to eight months.)
The first detachment of the 5th Battalion left Peterhead on 10th August 1914 to begin this period of training. After spending two weeks in Perth, the men eventually arrived at their war station in Bedford, a town about 50 miles from London. The battalion was part of the 1/1 Highland Division (Renamed 51st (Highland) Division on 11th May, 1915) initially under the command of General Colin Mackenzie.
The Division found itself obliged to make do with the out of date equipment, inadequate training facilities which included no rifle ranges and scarcely any practice ammunition, obsolete transport and a shortage of trained staff. Almost immediately after arrival General Mackenzie was transferred to a New Army Division and his place taken by Major-General Bannatine-Allason.
It was not just a lack of suitable equipment that hampered preparations. The inexperience of the officers and NCOs was also a major handicap in instilling the discipline and training required of a fighting unit. The following excerpt is taken from 'The Gordon Highlanders in the First World War 1914-1918', by Cyril Falls and outlines some of the problems faced by the unit in its early days:
Lieut.-Colonel Arthur Grant, of Monymusk, commanding the 5th Gordon Highlanders in the 51st Division, kept a private diary throughout the period of home service. It begins with the mobilisation, the arrival of the troops at the drill halls, measures for the defence of Peterhead, all the details with which a commanding officer had to cope in the briefest possible time, with inexperienced officers and non-commissioned officers. One of its main themes is the contrasts between this weakness [i.e. inexperience] and the enthusiasm of the men. As early as August 21st he writes: ‘The men improve, but the officers … do not know their work,’
Under September 16th is the entry: ‘I went out as usual at 6.30, getting up at 5.45, and find that my n.c.o.s give their orders a little better – when I am looking on. I am almost in despair at times. Progress is so slow.’
This lax discipline was a common complaint in regard to Territorial forces. ‘To a large extent such criticism derived from a failure to understand its different ethos. The recurring phrase in Territorial histories is ‘family’, with the idea that, since officers and men might well be social equals in civilian life, discipline must be based upon something other than a rigid code.’ (Becket and Simpson 'A Nation in Arms'. p.144) It took some time before even many officers could be made to understand that an ‘order in the field did not admit to heated argument before execution; and the rank and file had to learn that training was not a recreation to stop when they got tired.’ (F.W Bewsher, 'History of 51st Division'. p.5.)
At Beford, the troops were billeted in private home and in unoccupied dwellings. In his book 'Behind the Lines' Walter Nicholson, a staff officer, provides a vivid description of life at Bedford with the Highland Division, the peculiarities of dealing with Territorials, and the way in which the local population assisted the troops.
"The Regular soldier, like Peter Pan, has no maternal relations; but what would the Territorials do without their mothers? Our men wrote home to their mothers to ask if they had had measles; to inquire whether they might enlist for Imperial Service; they even asked what their age might be. Their mothers decided everything; and the women of Bedford acted as their deputies. The latter nursed their lodgers, for from two to four men were billeted in some occupied houses, they washed and mended their clothes, saw that they wrote home, drafting letters where the need arose. Then having learned all there was to know about their lodgers, they looked next door. I remember a visit from one such delightful old lady who came to see me on what she believed to be the neglect of the health of the troops. She did not, as I expected, point a finger of scorn at our Measles Hospital; but dealt with minor details in billets. She wanted to take men out of empty houses when they had colds, and nurse them fit again. She hinted, ever so delicately, at sanitation and baths, and vermin, and soda for scrubbing floors, and the lack of coal."
Nicholson, W. N. (Walter Norris), Behind the lines, London : Jonathan Cape, 1939 pp.4-41.
Photograph of 3 NCOs taken at Bedford 1914
One of the more notable events during the Highlanders’ stay in Bedford was the outbreak of a measles epidemic. During the first winter in Bedford [December 1914 to January 1915], several hundred cases of measles were diagnosed by the divisional Medical Officers. Inoculation against the disease was not available at that time, and antibiotics had yet to be discovered. The number of deaths from measles appears to vary between sources - later authorities putting it as high as 58 while contemporary accounts place the death toll at 27. Men from the more remote regions of the Highlands and Islands suffered the greatest number of casualties.
The following account is from the 'Bedford Times and Independent' and reproduced in the 'Campbeltown Courier' [Argyll] of 23rd January 1915 and was brought to my attention by Mike Morrison from The Great War Forum:
In last week's issue of the 'Bedfordshire Times and Independent' the measles epidemic among the troops was dealt with at considerable length, and as the statements made and the statistics given are of uncommon interest and importance to many of our readers, we take the liberty of reproducing the article from our English contemporary.
So many rumours have been prevalent of late, many of them grossly exaggerated, as to the number of deaths of Scottish Territorials, that it seems desirable to give the actual figures. This we ('The Bedfordshire Times') are enabled to do, having before us, by the courtesy of Major Keble, D.A.D.M.S., H.D. (T.F.), the vital statistics relating to the Highland Division T.F., in Bedford from August 17, 1914 to January 9, 1915.
The deaths during that period from acute infectious diseases number 33, viz.-
From Scarlet Fever 3
From Diphtheria 3
From Measles 27
In addition, there have been 3 fatal cases of pneumonia, 1 of uraemia, and 2 of violence, making the total number of deaths from all causes up to January 9, 1915, 39. These figures should at once and definitely put a stop to all the talk of 'hundreds of deaths.' The average number of troops quartered in and around Bedford during the past five months has been about 17,500, and the total number of deaths works out at the low rate of 2.22 per 1,000.
The largest number of deaths, it will be seen, is due to measles, and it may be said at once that this danger was foreseen. The real difficulty as to measles, and some other infectious diseases, arises in the case of men like the Camerons, who come from the Western Highlands and Isles, where such diseases are unknown. They have no such resisting power as is built up in town-bred populations which for generations have been subject to the disease. When they get measles it goes very hard with them, and the disease is utterly unlike that which we know in the case of our children. This is unavoidable, according to the official military medical authorities. All that can be done is done. The men who have been in contact with measles and are susceptible are removed to the Huts at Howbury. Then, if they are attacked, they are removed to the Measles Hospitals at Goldington Road and Ampthill Road. The official medical view is that the number of deaths, deeply regrettable as it is, is not large under the circumstances; and all the evidence goes to show they are right. The statistics, brought up to January 9th, 1915, show that the first case of measles occurred on October 13 and from this till January 9 there were 416 cases - 8 in October, 72 in November, and 336 in December and the early days of January. The cases and deaths were thus distributed:
Unit No. of cases No. of deaths 4th Camerons 141 14 8th Argylls 101 4 4th Brigade R.G.A 51 4 6th Gordons 33 3 5th Seaforths 30 1 4th Seaforths 26 1 6th Seaforths 19 0 4th, 5th, & 7th Gordons 12 0 Field Ambulance & Lovat's Scouts 3 0 TOTAL 416 27
By the end of January the epidemic had run its course and final toll for deaths from measles was 65 from 529 cases reported.
Below are the names of members of the various Gordon Highlander Battalions who died during this period of training at Bedford.Peter BEATIE
Embarkation : 'Every man sober!' On 13th April 1915, the War Office advised that the Division was to prepare immediately for overseas service. On 29th April orders were received for the troops to proceed to Southampton and Folkestone for Le Harve and Boulogne during the next few days. Colonel Grant’s diary records the heartening entry for 2nd May as he left Bedford for the front: 'We left at 5.25. Every man sober and there was a large crowd to see us away from the station, many saying goodbye and God speed to me.’ A post war memoir of James Mort, a sergeant in 1915, later commissioned into the battalion, states:"To France - train to Folkstone thence the Invicta packet boat to Boulogne." The War Diaries for the 5th Battalion state that: ‘Battalion left Bedford on 2nd May and arrived at Boulogne at 12 n.n on 4th’. By 5th May all the forces had arrived and the Division was concentrated in billets in the area around Busnes, Robecq and Lillers. 5th Gordons Leaving Bedford May 2nd '15 | Previous |
Photography courtesy Bedfordshire and Luton Archives Service, via Richard Galley
Embarkation : 'Every man sober!'
On 13th April 1915, the War Office advised that the Division was to prepare immediately for overseas service. On 29th April orders were received for the troops to proceed to Southampton and Folkestone for Le Harve and Boulogne during the next few days. Colonel Grant’s diary records the heartening entry for 2nd May as he left Bedford for the front:
'We left at 5.25. Every man sober and there was a large crowd to see us away from the station, many saying goodbye and God speed to me.’
A post war memoir of James Mort, a sergeant in 1915, later commissioned into the battalion, states:"To France - train to Folkstone thence the Invicta packet boat to Boulogne."
The War Diaries for the 5th Battalion state that: ‘Battalion left Bedford on 2nd May and arrived at Boulogne at 12 n.n on 4th’.
By 5th May all the forces had arrived and the Division was concentrated in billets in the area around Busnes, Robecq and Lillers.
5th Gordons Leaving Bedford May 2nd '15
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