The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
The Bedfordshire Training Depot and Bedfordshire Command Depot
Between 1914 and 1919 much of the area known as Ampthill Park was set up to train and later heal soldiers on their way to, and returning from, the Great War. Although the story itself only lasts a matter of a few years, the depot was an integral part of the Bedfordshire Regiment's activities during the Great War, and was brought about by the remarkable personal determination of The Duke of Bedford.
Ampthill Great Park lies to the west of Ampthill itself and courtesy of a geological quirk which left the area set in sandstone, it was never useful for farming purposes.
The parkland was granted to King William I's standard bearer from the Battle of Hastings, one Robert de Todeni, and after passing onto the D'Albiny family became a park where deer were grazed and hunted. Wealth earned as a result of the Battle of Agincourt gave Baron Millbrook sufficient funds to build a castle on the ridge crest, which was visited by Kings of England who enjoyed hunting deer in the park. However, by the mid 1600's the castle had fallen into disrepair, quickly becoming too costly to restore it to a useable condition.
Instead, a lodge was built on the edge of the park area, called Great Park House, which continued to welcome nobility and royalty for centuries to come. 'Capability' Brown was commissioned to landscape the grounds in the 1700's, many of the features still being visible today. That century saw the land sold to The Duke of Bedford who permitted public access to the area for the first time in its history, and from 1895 the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment were authorised to use the park for their annual field training / Summer Camp.
The 11th Duke of Bedford
Herbrand Arthur Russell KG, KBE, DL, LLD, FRS, FSA, the 11th Duke of Bedford, was the youngest son of the 9th Duke of Bedford. Not anticipating to be raised to the Dukedom, he went through university and then into the British Army, as was often the case with the younger sons of the nobility. Serving as a Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, he was reputed as being the last British soldier to carry colours into battle and saw action in Egypt in addition to serving around the Empire and becoming the Aide de Camp to the Viceroy of India.
In March 1893 his older brother, the 10th Duke of Bedford, died unexpectedly. This not only resulted in his impromptu return to England to assume the duties of the 11th Duke, but also led to him collecting a string of titles and awards during his lifetime; these included being the Deputy Lieutenant of Bedfordshire, the Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, the Mayor of Holborn, the Militia Aide de Camp to King Edward VII and King George V, not to mention becoming the Colonel of the Bedfordshire Regiment and many others besides.
The Duke also had a well documented love of animals which not only saw him keep a wide variety of species but he was involved in saving the Pere David deer from extinction and was instrumental in the creation of Whipsnade Zoological Park in Bedfordshire.
Apparently a man of many facets, his strong sense of duty and interest in helping those he saw as being within his care saw him build a great degree of integrity throughout his life, although his Grandson later described him as a "selfish, forbidding man". However, one of his many generous, duty driven actions was the creation of the Bedfordshire Training Depot from his own funds.
1914; The Great War breaks out
In September 1914, Kitchener's 'call to arms' created a famous rush to join the colours, but what was often not reported on was the conditions the new recruits suddenly found themselves in. The pre war regimental structure for dealing with unanticipated numbers of new recruits was simply incapable of handling so many people and quickly fell apart.
Lord Ampthill, the Duke's cousin, was the Lieutenant-Colonel of the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion when the influx of men started arriving with his battalion. An extract of the letter dated 10 September 1914 (taken from 'Walking in Tommy's Footsteps' by Ian Church, 2008) reveals Lord Ampthill's private concerns clearly:
"As a commander of the Special Reserve Battalion, my first duty is to get as many men fit for active service in the shortest possible time. I have to teach them to march and shoot, but I cannot even begin this instruction until they have boots and rifles. I have now over 800 men who are unclothed, unarmed and unequipped. Many have been in this deficient state for over a fortnight and every few days I receive a further batch of recruits, who are sent from the Depot in the same destitute condition. They are sent here with less regard for their health and comfort than is generally shown to herds of cattle. No clothing, boots, necessities, equipment or arms can be provided for them ..."
Lord Ampthill delved deep into his own pockets to personally fund the supply of basic washing and clothing items for his new recruits, behaviour which his cousin would repeat in the near future.
Around the same time, in September 1914, Lord Kitchener remarked during a speech that "if any retired officer competent to train troops has not yet applied, I hope he will communicate with me in writing at the War Office." Colonel of the Bedfordshire Regiment, The Duke of Bedford replied immediately and, using his own funds and land, formed 'The Bedfordshire Training Depot' in the Ampthill Park grounds.
The depot would form part of the Bedfordshire Regiment and initially men between 19 and 38 years old enlisted at their local recruiting offices or at the Kempston Depot for a period of 3 years or the duration of the war. Ex soldiers enlisted for one year or the duration and could be between 19 and 45. Once the new recruits' applications to serve were approved, they reported to the regimental depot at Kempston to be kitted out before heading for the Training Depot at Ampthill. After training at the camp and having been passed fit for 'foreign service', the new soldiers were posted to the 3rd Battalion at Felixstowe, who would despatch them to whatever unit abroad needed their presence.
The Bedfordshire (Ampthill) Training Depot; 1914 to 1916
Initially the camp was comprised 6 accommodation huts, cook-houses (with the mass of food supplied and cooked by Messrs Dudeney and Johnston), bath-houses, a recreation room and a canteen. A complex and highly efficient system of drains ensured the sanitary conditions were maintained and even a specific, isolated water supply was laid on to feed the camp.
According to the Bedfordshire Times and Independent (27 November 1914) within two months the camp was completed and boasted incredibly comfortable conditions for such an establishment at the time. Although initially constructed from wood, by November, all buildings had corrugated roofs and walls built around an iron frame, with match-boarded and varnished floors. Felt was packed between the iron and the boards for insulation and the structures had been specifically made to be draught proof. Accommodation huts were split into sections; the main hall or ward was 20 yards long by 10 yards wide, heated by two large stoves and lit by rows of generous windows. Ventilation was achieved by inlet tubes at intervals along the walls (each being fitted with a regulator), by opening fan-lights on the windows, and by outlet vents in the ridge of the roof. Acetylene gas lights illuminated the rooms at night.
Each of the twenty men who shared a hall had his own 'spring-mattressed' bed, shelving and storage compartment next to his bed. A rifle rack was kept in the corner of the hall and long tables split the room down the middle while the dining building was still under construction. Not only were the accommodation blocks thoughtfully built but wet canteens sprung up serving hot and cold drinks including local beers.
Over the first winter, accommodation became overcrowded and although building continued at a great rate, the recreation hall was taken over with bedding for the influx of men. As the camp continued developing to meet the sheer volumes of recruits being sent, the population of Ampthill even put themselves out, providing additional sleeping space as needed in their own homes.
Millbrook Rifle Range was nearby and provided the facility for basic weapons training, with a Miniature range being set up in the camp itself. Covered shooting galleries and a drill shed were built to enable training to continue at full pace during the winter months
Aside from the luxury of each man getting his own shaving kit and a "multum in parvo known as a 'Housewife'" (a kit with cotton, darning thread, needles and other essentials), each had their own cutlery set, uniform, set of clothes, towels and every other item they could need. With all other buildings being furnished and decked out in similarly comfortable style, many of the young farmhands and factory workers setting foot in the surroundings for the first time could be forgiven for not realising they were about to be trained for war. The Duke of Bedford ensured that effort was made to see the men were "well fed, well clothed, well housed, well entertained, working with a clear conscience for the noblest of causes".
Even the diet laid on for the trainees was extremely good, each meal consisting of meat and vegetables, with around seven tonnes of potatoes being used in the camp each month. The unfamiliar, new-fangled invention known as electricity was even supplied to the camp, made even more remarkable by the fact that Ampthill itself did not see this new invention until the 1920's.
All these comforts considered, it is perhaps not surprising that the initial groups of recruits were dubbed 'The Duke's Pets' although not all were entirely happy during their time at the camp.
An article printed in the Bedfordshire Times and Independent in February 1915 told how "Frederick Ward, soldier, Ampthill Park, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by taking poison on January 23rd. Mr H.G. Langley appeared for the accused - Corporal James Bell gave evidence that the man Ward stated that he had taken poison, and it was found that he had swallowed some liniment, which Dr. Gurney said was a turpentine lotion supplied for rheumatism and sprains, of which a bottle full might be poisonous. Mr Langley explained the circumstances of trouble, which preyed on the man's mind. Captain Gretton said the man was of good character, and would be taken back to camp, whereupon the accused, who expressed his regret, was discharged." What troubled Mr Ward was not recorded
Recruits were initially kitted out in the 'Kitchener's Blues' uniforms, although former Territorial soldiers were permitted to wear their khaki kit if they still had it. A white canvas fatigue dress was also issued, although keeping them clean in a muddy, working environment such as an infantry training camp was extremely difficult.
With areas for every imaginable type of infantry drill springing up all over the camp, the new recruits were trained to a high quality by the time they were passed for service and shipped out to join the Reserves. As 1915 went on, training for Zeppelin raids and the evacuation of Ampthill in the event of a major raid even became part of their routines.
In spite of his already extremely full life and long list of responsibilities, the Duke personally oversaw every detail of work and training on a weekly basis, even down to checking on the quality of the food being served.
The men who trained in the camp were never intended to serve as a single battalion in the field. Their purpose was to provide reinforcement drafts for the front line battalions although, to the Duke's annoyance, several drafts found themselves in the Machine Gun Corps and the South Wales Borderers.
All in all, £22,000 of the Duke's funds were put into the camp, which was a huge sum of money for the time, and some 2,235 men were trained in the camp between October 1914 and October 1916, at which time the camp's function changed.
The senior staff
The Duke took his post as commander of the facility which was initially intended to train and provide recruits for the two Regular battalions already engaged in France and Belgium. South African War veteran and Bedfordshire's Chief Constable Major Frank Augustus Douglas Stevens was the depot's second in command with the Adjutant being Major A. Nelson. The officers present in 1915 can be seen here.
The original Sergeant's Mess was comprised; Quartermaster Sergeant J.W. Russ, Sergeant Major G. Bass, Company Sergeant Major W. Dyer, Company Quartermaster Sergeant Blanksley, Orderly Room Sergeant Yarrell. Seven Drill Sergeants - all Colour Sergeants - and around twenty further Sergeants completed the complement by the end of 1914
The Bedfordshire Command Depot; 1916 to 1919
The Military Service Act in 1916 essentially resulted in all men between 19 and 41 being seen as having automatically enlisted. Later that year, changes to the structure of the army saw the camp become redundant but, not content with that, the Duke applied to the War Office once more to make the site available to the country's war efforts.
On request of Sir Neville Macready, the site was changed into Number Nine Regimental Command Depot. Known locally as the Bedfordshire Command Depot, it became a depot for nursing wounded soldiers back to health. As had happened two years earlier, the Duke bought the best equipment available; this included entire gymnasiums and the unusual, modern idea of massage rooms to aid recovery.
During the Command Depot's life, over eight thousand wounded soldiers were treated on site, with almost half of them returning to the front line via the newly raised training battalions or the regiment's reserve battalion stationed at Landguard Fort.
Once it became clear that the armistice would lead to peace being struck up, the camp effectively became redundant. Being a fully equipped site, it was offered to the War Office but they declined and on 8 January 1919 it was closed, although activity and decommissioning continued in to March 1919.
Once the site was clear, The Duke decided that it would be appropriate to erect a memorial cross on the site, to honour the 707 men who had been through his camp but had not returned, many of whom he would have personally seen or met at some point.
The park remained an open public area until Bovril bought the grounds in the 1940's and in 1947 the Urban District Council purchased the park for £11,000.
A disgraceful theft, and the rededication of the memorial
In 1970 the 13 phosphor bronze plaques bearing the names of all 707 men who were killed were stolen. At the time, they could not be replaced as no-one had thought it necessary to record the names.
Following a determined research and fund raising process that started around 2006, the names on he plaques were identified and the plaques themselves were remade.
The latest stage of the site's remarkable story came in a re-dedication ceremony in September 2013, when the memorial was restored to its rightful condition. Once again it stands proud, in grateful thanks to those men who passed through the Bedfordshire Training Depot and later lost their lives during the war.
Site built by Steven Fuller, 2003 to 2023