The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
Other Ranks' photographs and biographies from the 1st Battalion (2)
Thanks to the information and photos retained by Chris Shreeves and his family, it has been possible to put together the story of his ancestors - the Freer family - whose service within the regiment spans several generations and over a century that we know of.
A Private called Robert Freer served in the Regiment around the turn of the Nineteenth century when titles were exchanged between the 14th and 16th Regiments of Foot. Although his ancestors' connection may well go further back than this, Robert is the first firm family link to the regiment that continued into the twentieth century.
Lance Corporal 17, later 1827 Robert Freer
Robert was born around 1852, or possibly in January 1854, in Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire. He was the son of Thomas Freer, and grandson of the Robert referred to above.
Declaring himself as a 20 year old Groom at the time, Robert enlisted into the 16th Regiment of Foot on 29 January 1874, becoming Private 17 in the 1st Battalion. His service number being so low tells us that he was among the first men to enlist into the regiment after the formation of the 33rd Brigade District which saw the regiment assigned to a permanent geographical area, and also saw the start of the impressive building outside of Kempston that would became the regimental depot when completed in 1876.
Robert married Mary Kent on 12 October 1878, and re-enlisted for the full 21 years in 1886, when the service number 1827 was issued. He was awarded with his first Good Conduct award on 27 January 1890, and sailed for Malta with the 1st Battalion on 12 February 1890. Presumably while still on the island, he was convicted by civil court for "Furious driving" and fined 5 shillings on 28 August 1890, but no action was taken inside the regiment as it was deemed a purely civil matter so he retained his Good Conduct pay.
Between 20 December 1890 and 30 March 1893 Private Freer was in India with the 1st Battalion until he was posted back to the regimental Depot in England. While in station at the depot that September, his eldest son John enlisted, aged 14 although he was posted to the 2nd Battalion.
From 20 April 1894 Robert was posted 2nd Battalion, perhaps by request to join his eldest son, and 1 January 1895 saw him elect to extend his service with the colours to 26 years.
While in station at Lichfield in Staffordshire, his second son - Robert - enlisted into the regiment aged 14, and joined his father and older brother in the 2nd Battalion.
The three Freer's became four when Robert's third son - Walter, also 14 at the time - enlisted in April 1899, while his father and brothers were stationed in Dublin.
Following the 2nd Battalion's overseas deployment to the South African Wars which saw his eldest son - John - go abroad to fight in the war, on 14 December 1899 he was once again posted to the regimental Depot. On 2 May 1900 Robert gained promotion to Lance Corporal before his discharge on 20 August 1900. At the time of his discharge, he was serving in A Company, was 46 years old, and had managed a remarkable 26 and 206 days of service with the colours; his conduct was recorded as "Exemplary".
In December 1901, Robert's eldest daughter, Mary, married the 2nd Battalion's Corporal Albert Ginn, who had joined him in that battalion in 1894, which would have been where the romance was fostered.
Robert was a resident of Hythe in Kent during the 1901 and 1911 census', giving his occupation as an Officer's Servant and General Servant at the School of Musketry respectively; to doubtless confuse those attending the school, his second son - also Robert - was a civilian subordinate at the school by December 1915 and served as a Qualified Musketry Instructor there while waiting for his call up papers in 1916.
Robert Freer died about 1915, having spent almost his entire adult life in and around the military.
Company Sergeant Major 4640 John Thomas (Jack) Freer
Jack Freer was born in Athlone, Westmeath (Ireland) on 16 July 1879, the eldest child of Robert and Mary Freer; his father was a soldier in the 1st Battalion, 16th Regiment of Foot who were stationed in the area at the time, which regiment would become the Bedfordshire Regiment two years later.
With his father being a career soldier, Jack enlisted into the Bedfordshire Regiment for 12 years on 13 September 1893, aged 14 years, 2 months. His rank was given as Boy, with the service number 4640 being allocated to him. Standing 4 feet, 10 inches tall he was posted to the 2nd Battalion despite his father being attached to the regimental Depot at the time, although he would be joined by his father the following year, presumably at his father's request given that he had been a 1st Battalion man to that point in his service.
Reaching the age of 18, Jack became Private Freer on 13 July 1897 and on 16 December 1899 sailed with the battalion for the South African Wars, where he would served in the Mounted Infantry until returning home on 17 July 1900, once the First Boer War had reached its conclusion. On 4 November 1900 he returned to South Africa with the 2nd Battalion to fight in the 2nd Boer War, was promoted to Corporal on 1 August 1902 and returned to England on 8 April 1903 once hostilities had come to a close.
30 June 1903 saw him posted to the regimental Depot and on 28 July 1904 he was promoted to Lance Sergeant. Jack re-enlisted for a second period of service on 15 September 1904, extending to 21 years and on 11 February 1905, he was seconded as a Sergeant to the West African Frontier Force, arriving in Northern Nigeria on 1 March 1905. He completed his tour on 5 July 1906 and was posted back to the 2nd Bedfords after landing on English soil again on 17 July.
16 February 1907 saw him posted to 1st Battalion to join his two brothers who were already in station there, arriving in India on 16 February. On 28 February 1907 he was promoted to Sergeant and returned to England 24 December 1908, with his two younger brothers on the same boat.
On 3 February 1909 Sergeant Freer married Annie Elizabeth Upton at the Parish Church in Folkestone, although their three children were all born at Kempston Barracks between late 1909 and late 1913.
18 August 1912, Jack was posted as a Sergeant to 3rd Bedfordshires based out of the regimental depot, and on 18 September 1913 he was permitted to continue beyond the 21 years service, being the usual upper limit.
When war broke out, he was posted to the 3rd Battalion from 25 August 1914, also as a Colour Sergeant like his younger brother Walter, became an Acting Company Sergeant Major from 7 September 1914, and from 24 October 1914 was a full Company Sergeant Major, also like his younger brother Walter. Both brothers would have been in the Sergeant's group photo from 1915 here.
December 1916 saw the three brothers' service start moving in different directions, with the other two being sent abroad. Although over active service age and facing compulsory discharge following his long service, on 11 April 1917 CSM Freer enlisted for Voluntary National Service, giving his home address as 13 Cleveland Street in Bedford, although he was still physically stationed at Landguard with the 3rd Battalion at the time.
From 6 May 1917 Jack was transferred into the Class P Army Reserve, although he was still attached to the Harwich Garrison, so was presumably classed within a lower medical category as on 26 March 1918 he was discharged under Kings Regulations 392, paragraph xvi (being "no longer physically fit for active service").
With more than 24 years of service behind him CSM Jack Freer sported a collection of rank and specialist insignia in addition to the Africa General Service Medal with clasp (Northern Nigeria 1896), the Queen's and King's South African medals with clasps, the British War Medal (according to his Medal Index Card; although no obvious overseas service is recorded in his service record, presumably he took drafts to France at some stage to have qualified), a Long Service and Good Conduct medal (this would have been accompanied by five Good Conduct stripes if he had been a Corporal or lower, but being a Warrant Officer, he did not qualify) and the Silver War Badge, as he was discharged as a result of wounds or illness attributable to his service.
Jack died around 1957, in Hythe, Kent.
Sergeant 6048 Robert Freer, MM
Robert was born in Shorncliffe, Kent on 15 November (or 21 October) 1882, the third child (second son) of Robert and Mary Freer; his father was a soldier in the 1st Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment at the time.
Aged 14 years, 9 months and giving his occupation as a Groom, Robert enlisted at Lichfield (Staffordshire) on 11 August 1897. Being given the rank of Rank Boy his service number was issued as 6048 and he was posted to the 2nd Battalion at Lichfield. His older brother Jack was already in the 2nd Battalion and had just been granted the rank of Private, having reached 18 years of age the month before.
On 1 July 1898 he was posted to Dublin and on 15 November 1900 reached the age of 18 and became a Private. Promotion to Lance Corporal followed on 1 July 1901 and he sailed to South Africa on 4 November 1902, among the Details which would be attached to the 2nd Battalion who were deployed in the South African Wars. On 4 November 1902 he transferred into the 2nd Battalion permanently and returned to England on 9 April 1903.
From 19 September 1903 Robert was posted to the regimental Depot, joined the 2nd Battalion on 9 December 1903, gained promotion to a full Corporal on 27 February 1904 and on 23 November 1904 transferred to 1st Battalion, when he shipped off to India.
Arriving in India on 16 December 1904 he was promoted to Lance Sergeant on 23 November 1906 and stationed at Nowgong from 21 February 1907, 50 miles south-east of Jhansi. Robert became a full Sergeant from 26 June 1907 and on 5 December 1907 left India on board the H.T. Assaye. From 11 December 1907 he was posted to Aden, returning to England on 24 December 1908 with his two brothers on the same boat.
After his older brother's wedding that February, and having completed his 12 years of service on 10 August 1909, Sergeant Freer was discharged and returned to civilian life, and becoming a Groom once more. On 28 August 1914 Robert married Beatrice Maud Bowles and enlisted under the Derby Scheme on 4 December 1916, returning to the Regiment as Private 29918. Giving his address as 3 Military Road, Hythe in Kent, he served as a Civilian subordinate at the Hythe School of Musketry while waiting for his call up papers, which eventually arrived on 1 June 1916.
With an instant promotion to Sergeant, Robert was a Qualified Musketry Instructor at the Hythe School and later served in the Harwich Garrison alongside his two brothers, where he also qualified as a Sergeant Master Cook.
On 10 December 1916 he went to France, followed two days later by his younger brother, Walter, although on 19 January 1917 Robert joined the 8th Bedfords in the field whereas Walter went into the 1st Battalion.
Acting Company Sergeant Major Freer was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry during the Battle of Cambrai but when the 8th Battalion was disbanded in February 1918, he was posted back to the 3rd Battalion from 12 February 1918. What caused this is not documented as his papers were damaged in the blitz but his brother Walter - recovering from wounds sustained near Ypres - joined him 6 days later!
From 6 April 1918 Robert was posted to No.5 Officer Cadet Battalion in Cambridge, although he was not commissioned as an officer. 15 September 1918 saw him posted to the Pioneer Depot, until leaving for France again on 24 October 1918.
On arrival he was posted to the 1st/1st Hertfordshires and fought in their last battle of the war - The Battle of the Sambre on 4 November 1918.
After the end of hostilities, the regiment was wound down in France and on 27 February 1919, CSM Freer returned to England and was discharged to the Class Z Army Reserves
Robert was issue with the British War and Victory Medals to complement his Long Service Medal and the Military Medal.
On 20 May 1919 the War Office wrote to him as part of a conversation to try and include the presentation of his Military Medal during a Mayoral presentation by the Mayor of Hythe on 26 May 1919. Whether or not he got his wish is not recorded but it would have certainly been a fitting end if he had.
Robert died around 1944, having spent the better part of two decades in military service and having survived two wars.
Acting Regimental Sergeant Major 6521 Walter Freer
Walter was born in Colchester on 25 January 1885, the third son of Robert Freer, a soldier in the Bedfordshire Regiment, and Mary Freer (nee Kent).
He enlisted at Dublin on 4 April 1899, aged 14 years, 1 month, as had his two older brothers before him. Being just 14 years old, he was given the rank of Boy, and the service number 6521. Posted to the 2nd Battalion where his two older brothers were already serving, on 27 November 1900 he sailed to South Africa and served with the battalion during the 2nd Boer War.
Promotion to Private came on 4 March 1903, having reached the age of 18 years and the following month he returned to England. From 1 July he became Lance Corporal until promotion to full Corporal followed on 21 March 1905.
Walter served at the Regimental Depot from 3 July 1905 until being posted to the 2nd Battalion on 6 November 1906. Soon afterwards, on 9 January 1907 he transferred to the 1st Battalion in India, were he would serve alongside his two older brothers. 15 May 1907 saw a promotion to Lance Sergeant and he returned to England on 24 December 1908, on the same boat as his two older brothers.
After his eldest brother's wedding in February, a posting to the Regimental Depot followed on 23 March 1909 and promotion to full Sergeant came on 18 October 1910; nine days later he transferred back into the 1st Battalion and on 27 January 1911 was re-engaged for the full term of 21 years.
From 15 December 1913 Walter joined his eldest brother as a 3rd Battalion Sergeant based out of the depot, became Colour Sergeant on 8 July 1914 - weeks before his eldest brother was promoted to the same rank in the same battalion - and married Caroline Louisa Rowsell at Portsea on 29 July 1914, just six days before war was declared.
With the army swelling in size, Walter was promoted to Company Sergeant Major on 12 September 1914 - again just weeks before his older brother gained the same rank in the same battalion. He was posted to the Regimental Depot on 14 December 1914, and went to France two years later, on 14 December 1916.
After the traditional two weeks of localised training, on 30 December 1916 he joined the 1st Battalion in the field.
On 23 April 1917, his battalion were engaged in the action to capture La Coulotte within the Battle of Arras, which cost his division dearly. In the post battle report, the commanding officer recommended him for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing how he "showed great coolness and resource under fire and personally led a bombing party and drove the enemy out of the trench. During the whole day from 4.45 a.m. to 3 p.m. he took an active part in the fighting and rendered his Company Officer valuable assistance."
Although no medal was issued in the end, Walter was promoted to the highest non commissioned rank possible; following the assault on La Coulotte, Walter was the 1st Battalion's Acting Regimental Sergeant Major from 31 May 1917 to 10 June 1917, and again between 13 September 1917 and 9 October 1917, when he was wounded at the Battle of Poelcapelle.
Suffering from shrapnel wounds to his left eye, left ankle and left abdomen, Walter landed in England on 5 November 1917 and from 11 November 1917 was administratively posted to the Depot while he recovered. From 12 January 1918 he was deemed fit enough to be posted to the Ampthill Command Depot for light duties and rejoined the 3rd Battalion on 18 February 1918 - curiously, 6 days after Robert arrived with the battalion!
Not fit enough for full, active service, Company Sergeant Major Freer joined the 12th Battalion on 23 April 1918, where he remained until rejoining the 1st Battalion on 19 August 1919.
On 1 May 1920, having completed his full 21 years, CSM Freer was discharged from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regimental Depot, still suffering from several disabilities, namely a GSW (gun shot wound) to his left eye, left ankle, left abdomen, all sustained at Poelcapelle in October 1917. His character was recorded as "Exemplary" and it is believed that he was the local secretary of the British Legion and organised the memorial ceremonies at Wootton and Stewartby in Bedfordshire.
Although recommended for DCM at La Coulotte, no award was made to go with his British War Medal, Victory Medal, Long Service Medal and his Queens South Africa Medal with clasps.
After the war Walter seems to have worked for the London Brick Company in Stewartby, including organising their social events. He was also active in the local Royal British Legion branch. In November 1929, The Beds Times referred to him as being 'in command' of the parade who marched from the Wootton War Memorial to the church service, and then from the service to the local school so his days as a Sergeant continued in various guises long after hostilities had ceased.
Walter died in 1954, with a full 21 years of military service in many countries behind him, and having survived two wars despite his wounds from 1917.
Walter in later life
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