Exhibition reveals more about 22,000 soldiers who arrived in Bedford and were welcomed by townsfolk

The Seaforth Highlanders marching down De Parys Avenue, past John Bunyan's statue, from their training ground and camp at Bedford Park in 1914.
The Seaforth Highlanders marching down De Parys Avenue, past John Bunyan's statue, from their training ground and camp at Bedford Park in 1914.

A new exhibition has opened revealing more about the impact that thousands of soldiers from Scotland had when they trooped into Bedford during the First World War.

Billeted In Bedford is now running at the Higgins and will be accompanies by talks and special events, and admission is free.

Up to 22,000 soldiers from Highland regiments arrived here and given that the population of Bedford was approximately 39,000, this was a very significant number.

Alex Rule, a member of 1/4th Gordon Highlanders wrote: “The quiet old county town was shaken to its foundations. We doubled the population; sheer weight of numbers alone made us a disturbing factor in its civic life.”

However, the Highlanders soon become a welcome and familiar sight in the town, with many local families opening their doors to welcome the soldiers.

As well as lodging, the soldiers also needed space for training and recreation and the town’s parks, open spaces, church halls and school rooms were all given over to training.

Practice trenches were established at the fields above Cemetery Hill, Clapham Park and Stagsden.

Within a few months there were as many as 47 recreation centres and canteens established. The Borough Recreation Committee for the troops organised concerts and entertainments.

During Easter 1915 the Recreation Committee organised Bedford’s first Highland Games for the troops.

The Games were held on Easter Monday on the Bedford School playing fields. The full range of Highland Games activities were on offer from tossing the caber to piping and dancing competitions.

More than 1,400 entries were received and more than 9,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians were spectators.

The Highland troops were affected by Scarlet Fever, diphtheria and measles and as many of the troops were from remote areas of Scotland they had not previously been exposed to these diseases. Some of those that succumbed to illness are buried at Foster Hill Road Cemetery.

The remaining troops began the journey to France with most of the troops leaving the town by May 1915.

Divisional Commander Major-General Allason wrote to the Mayor of Bedford as the troops prepared to leave: “The Highland Division owes much to the town for the manner they received and have treated us during the nine months invasion of this peaceful place. This we cannot adequately repay, but we shall be grateful if you will make known these sentiments to those concerned. To you, personally, I am much indebted for advice and assistance of all sorts and I trust the good people of your town will understand we wish them all good luck and fortune, and hope that they will ‘to our faults be blind’.”

Local historian Richard Galley has assisted The Higgins with research and images for the exhibition.

He was inspired to research the Highlanders in Bedford upon the discovery of Private Hugh MacArthur’s Diary and is in the process of writing a book.

Billeted in Bedford is part of the First World War Centenary Partnership, led by Imperial War Museums (IWM). The exhibition is open until May next year.