Thousands of soldiers from Scotland descended on Bedford as the Great War started - discover more of this forgotten story at borough’s virtual library

Billet in Beaconsfield Street, Bedford.
Billet in Beaconsfield Street, Bedford.

Orchids are found in Foster Hill Road cemetery, near Bedford Park, and if you are lucky you can hear tawny owls at night.

In the burial area lie the graves of 33 brave Scottish soldiers of the Great War. The peaceful setting belies the astonishing story of the men’s regiment The Highland Division, forever known as the Bedfordshire Highlanders, and their relationship with the town hundreds of miles away from their home.

Within days of the outbreak of the First World War on August 4, 1914, thousands of part-time Scottish soldiers as part of a Great Britain defence force were to be based in our region. These lads were nicknamed the ‘Saturday Soldiers’ as most of their army training took place on weekends prior to the outbreak of war.

The Highland Division had chosen Bedford because it was a prime central location, which saw transport and billeting plans with Bedford Borough Corporation, railway companies and local police.

Once war commenced the project started immediately, explaining why, in so small a time frame, 22,000 Highlanders came to the town, staying at permanent, or tented accommodation.

Bedford’s population, which stood at 39,000 that summer, quickly rose to 61,000 over the winter of 1914/15 with the influx being soley attributed to the 22,000 Scotish soldiers, which saw an incredible 17,000 arriving in just two weeks to August 15.

A report of their arrival said: “During August, 1914, the all-kilted Highland Division streamed into Bedford in trainload after trainload, and the skirl of bagpipes was heard throughout the land. From the wild straths and glens we errupted overnight into a Cowperesque landscape where the sluggish Ouse lazed through flat meadows bounded by thick hedgerows. Age-old churches, with square Saxon towers or graceful spires, dotted the countryside, and around them nestled thatched cottages with white-washed walls.”

There was even an element of humour, when a rumour swept Bedford saying the ‘Russians were coming’. Thankfully it transpired when a local had asked where a Highlander was from, the man replied in a strong Scottish accent ‘Ross-shire’ - which was heard as Russia. Another soldier who was washing his socks in a strange water filled contraption saw his valued possessions disappear down the pan when he required more water by pulling the chain.

Richard Galley, who is a local expert on the Bedfordshire Highlanders told bedfordtoday: “We should be very proud of Bedford and the way the town took the soldiers to their hearts. Trades people welcomed the extra business and local women and landladies made sure the young lads - many of whom were away from home for the first time - had food and regular baths whilst they were billeted in the town.

“A number of Bedford lads even signed up to fight with the Bedford Highlanders instead of their local Bedfordshire regiments.

“For a small town in wartime to almost double in size between August 1914 and May 1915, and to welcome these new additions was a phenomenal effort by the people of Bedford that should be applauded.”

Local women fell in love with these dashing visitors leading to a number of wartime weddings - with a report from Aberdeen stating later: ”In the evenings we punted on the Ouse, or when feeling romantic – for the harvest moon was full – played the part of kilted Romeos to the Bedford Juliets”, with another account describing: “The short stretch of river by the Embankment Hotel was like a seaside esplanade, where every kilted visitor had seemingly found his local girl.”

The Bedford Times wrote in 1915: “The Officer Commanding publicly expressed to the people of Bedford his grateful acknowledgement of the many acts of kindness bestowed on the men. There was no trouble in billeting them. People who had never been known to take in lodgers gladly threw open their doors, and took the strangers in. Every empty house was commandeered and filled before householders were called upon.”

Richard said: “The Bedford Times even reported on their progress in France as well as on our local regiments - which was a relatively rare notion.”

However, as the expected quick victory failed to materialise, Bedford’s prime location and transport links saw the realisation large numbers of soldiers could be sent to ports on the south coast by train, ahead of sailing to fight in France. Many never made the journey because in the terrible winter of 1914/15 more than 1,000 Highlanders contracted measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria. An entire battalion was quarantined on the edge of Bedford. In total 135 men died, with 33 buried at the Foster Hill Road cemetery.

There was even one death involving a bayonet, as Richard explained: “Two pals who had too much to drink on pay day got into an argument, as the first man went to thrust his bayonet into the man, another friend jumped in front with tragic consequences. The man didn’t die immediately and loyally pleaded the case for his companion, saving him from execution by having his sentence cut to hard labour - before the man died of his injuries.

“It is sobering to reflect that many of the men who were in Bedford with the Highland Division would become casualties by the autumn of 1916. At the war’s end, the Division had earned a reputation for being one of the hardest fighting in the British Army, but in the process it sustained nearly 45,000 casualties – killed, wounded and missing.”

Thanks to the expertise of Richard Galley, Bedford Borough’s Virtual Library has a host of information on the topic of the ‘Bedford Highlanders’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I which focuses on the Highlanders’ stay in Bedford in 1914/1915. The content is now available to view and features incredible photographs which are beautifully described by Richard, from where they came from and the reasons why, to the residents of Bedford saying farewell to the troops as they were sent off to the front.

With the centenary of the Great War coming up, the next time you pass Foster Hill Road cemetery give a thought to the 33 men of the proud Bedfordshire Higlanders, their incredible tale and our town’s stirring reaction to them - it is the least they deserve.

As Richard says: “Many people in Bedford don’t know about this story, which at the time it was a huge thing. However over the last 50 years or so the story has been lost. It would be great if people knew about it again - people from Bedford should be very proud of what we did here for those brave Highlanders.”

With thanks to Bedfordshire Highlanders expert Richard Gallery. For more information on Richard’s superb research and the Highlander’s story featured in Bedford’s Virtual Library visit - click on ‘Virtual Library’, and then click on the photo of ‘Wee Jock’