Bedford's Highlanders 1914
In August 1914, as Bedfordians were coming to terms with the alarming news that Britain was at war, the peace and quiet of the town and surrounding countryside was shattered by the friendly invasion of thousands of soldiers from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Between 15th and 18th August around 17,000 Scottish territorial soldiers arrived in Bedford for training in preparation for reinforcing the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. These were men of the Highland Division (later to become the 51st Highland Division) whose infantry units carried famous and evocative names such as Gordon, Seaforth, Argyll & Sutherland and Cameron Highlanders. Among them were the Morayshire men of the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders and their close neighbours in Banffshire, the 6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders.
By the time it left the Town in early May 1915, the Division numbered over 22,000 men. To set this in context, at the outbreak of war Bedford’s population was about 39,000.
The kilted troops became a familiar and welcome sight in Bedford and the villages around it. They were billeted with local families, or in unfurnished premises in and around town. Accompanied by the sound of bagpipes and drums the soldiers were certainly a curiosity with their Highland dress and strong regional dialects. Indeed, many of the men spoke Gaelic as their first language.
Largely as a consequence of the dispersal of billets throughout the borough, Bedfordians took the Highlanders to their hearts. Strong, genuine and lasting bonds were forged between the locals and the Scottish visitors. Several Bedfordshire families can trace their connections back to Highland Division men who returned to the town and made it their home after the war ended.
Bedford took enormous pride from the manner in which it welcomed the soldiers and looked after them, particularly through the work of the Borough Recreation Committee for the troops and the dozens of civilian volunteers who supported it throughout the county. Between August 1914 and May 1915, the women of Bedford laundered 30,408 and mended 20,000 garments for the Highlanders. Recreation rooms and canteens for use by the troops sprung up across the county and 2cwt (100kgs) of porridge were served in the Corn Exchange … each night!
In the winter of 1914 tragedy came in the form of disease to which some of Bedford’s Highlanders fatally succumbed and their bodies were either returned to Scotland for burial or interred in the Town’s Foster Hill Road cemetery, which is the final resting place for thirty-three Highland Division men.
You can read more about Bedford’s Highlanders and see a large selection of photographs at:
Bedford Library has also developed an online resource dedicated to the Highland Division’s stay in Bedford. This can be viewed at:
Source: Richard Galley