The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
The 4th (Special Reserve) Battalion
The 4th Battalion were the 'Special Reserve' battalion of the regiment, sometimes referred to as 'Extra Reserve' and 'Extra Special Reserve', but essentially the second reserve battalion. The origins of this battalion go back to 1757, when it was originally formed as one of the two County Militia battalions. Part of Haldane's reforms (called the 'Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907') saw the raising of a secondary Reserve Army under different terms and conditions to the existing Reserves, and the two Militia units were redesignated as the 3rd (Reserve) and 4th (Special Reserve) battalions of the regiment.
The 4th Battalion's service in the Great War
The battalion was based at Bedford when war broke out on the 4th August 1914, and were moved to Felixstowe to provide home defence around Harwich as well as drafts for the front line battalions. After the disaster on the Somme in July 1916, the 4th Battalion, along with the equivalent units from other regiments, was mobilised and sent to the Western Front. They landed in France on the 25th July 1916 and were formed - with other similar battalions - into the 190th Brigade of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, where they would remain until the end of hostilities. The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was a three brigade division, of which the 190th Brigade was comprised:
- 4th Battalion, the Bedfordshire Regiment.
- 7th Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers.
- 1st Honourable Artillery Company [left in June 1917].
- 1st/28th Battalion, the London Regiment [known as "The Artists Rifles", who joined 28th June 1917]
- 10th Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers [left in October 1917].
Although their front line service was relatively short, 855 officers and men were killed while serving in the 4th Battalion, with around 3,600 more being wounded during the war. *
*According to the "Official History of the Great War, medical services, casualties and medical statistics" by Major T.J. Mitchell and Miss G.M. Smith (1931) there were 2,977,801 British Army casualties, including 704,803 deaths (23.67%). This factor (4.22) is used in the approximation of regimental casualties.
The battalion was engaged in the following major battles throughout the war:
In 1916 they were engaged in the Operations on the Ancre (also called the Battle of the Ancre) in November.
In 1917, they were involved in the continuing Operations on the Ancre, specifically at the actions at Miraumont in February. During the Battle of Arras they were heavily engaged in the Second Battle of the Scarpe (when they captured Gavrelle) and the phase of Arleux in April. In the Battles of Ypres 1917 (also referred to as the Third Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele), the battalion were engaged during the Second Battle of Passchendaele in October and November. Their final battle of the year was a localised defensive battle called the Action at Welch Ridge in December.
In 1918 the battalion were again heavily engaged in a series of major battles. They were in the opening phases of the First Battles of the Somme 1918 (also called the German Spring Offensives, Operation Michael or Kaiserschlacht), specifically during the Battle of St Quentin and the First Battle of Bapaume in March, as well as the Battle of the Ancre in April. The Second Battles of the Somme 1918 saw the battalion engaged in the Battle of Albert in August, and during the Second Battle of Arras 1918 they were engaged at the Battle of Drocourt-Queant in September. They were next involved in the Battles of the Hindenburg Line, specifically at the Battle of the Canal du Nord in September and the Battle of Cambrai in October. The final action of the war would be during the Final Advance in Picardy, namely at the passage of the Grand Honelle.
There are many people of interest who served in the ranks and file of the 4th Battalion, two of whom are:
- Captain (Acting Lieutenant Colonel) was the Battalion's Commanding Officer from late in 1916 until his death in March 1918, earning the deserved reputation as one of the regiment's finest leaders of the war. He won both the Distinguished Service Order and the battalion's only (posthumous) Victoria Cross whilst serving in the Battalion.
- Hollywood Actor and Director Charles Laughton of the Hunts Cyclists and later the 4th Battalion of the Bedfordshire regiment, who's war record has been researched in detail by Martyn Smith and Gloria Porta and can be seen here.
Commanding Officers of the 4th Battalion
The following Officers led the battalion throughout its service during the Great War:
- Lieutenant-Colonel James Edward Hubert GASCOYNE-CECIL (The Rt. Honourable Marquis of Salisbury) commanded the battalion from the 29th October 1892 to 8th January 1915, when he retired.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Page CROFT took over from 8th January 1915 to 4th September 1916. He took the battalion out to France.
- Major Aynsley E. GREENWELL commanded between 4th September and 20th October 1916.
- Captain (Acting Lieutenant-Colonel) John Stanhope COLLINGS-WELLS, V.C., D.S.O., from 20th October 1916 to 27th March 1918, when he was killed winning the Victoria Cross during the Spring Offensives.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Gabell MacDONALD, D.S.O., took over between 22nd April and 3rd May 1918, at which time he was promoted to the General Staff.
- Captain Richard Brodnax KNIGHT commanded between the 3rd and 20th May 1918.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick William SMITH, D.S.O., D.C.M., 20th May to 22nd July 1918, when he returned to England ill.
- Major Arthur Gracie HAYWARD, M.C., 22nd July to 22nd September 1918, after which he moved on to command a Devonshire battalion.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cecil HARMAN, D.S.O., M.C., from 22nd September 1918 until the battalion was disbanded in 1919.
The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division
The 63rd Division was a unique unit, as it was originally formed from the "surplus reserves" the Navy found it had in August 1914. As the extra men could not be physically fitted into the maritime activities of the British Navy, they were used to form an additional land based division and named the Royal Naval Division. Coming under the command of the Admiralty as it did and in keeping with the traditions of the Royal Navy, most of the battalions within this division were not given numbers but named after Naval commanders, with the rest being Royal Marines battalions.
With hardly any personal equipment, armed with ancient weapons and with no supporting units, the hastily improvised division was shipped to help with the defence of Antwerp early in October 1914. Despite a gallant attempt, the outcome was never in any doubt and they were overrun, with the survivors being returned to Britain for retraining and re-fitting, as the division was all but rebuilt.
The following year saw them moved to take part in the fighting on the Gallipoli Peninsular. Again, the division suffered heavy casualties and were moved to the Western Front upon their evacuation, where they served the rest of the war. In April 1916 the division was moved to the command of the land armies and, despite their objections, was renamed as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division. That July also saw the structure change further, with the introduction of an infantry Brigade (the 190th), which included the 4th Bedfords.
The Division was extremely well led from the top down, with the units within it being very highly motivated and displaying a tremendously stubborn streak when events transpired against them. As a result, by the armistice in November 1918, the division had suffered almost 48,000 casualties but had earned themselves a reputation as one of the British Army's top divisions, with some arguing that they were the best.
Although the Division itself was disbanded and would never be reformed again, today's Royal Marine Commandoes have kept their 'elite' status very much alive.
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