The Bedfordshire Regiment in the Great War
Researching a soldier from the Great War?
Over and above the years spent on researching the regiment, I have also been a full time military and family history researcher in addition to having worked as a cataloguer for the Imperial War Museum, so thought it may be helpful to share the basics I have learned along the way.
I would suggest collecting the information available on your ancestor from those sources show below, then expanding on the essence of their service by reading books and watching the films available from my reading list (below), which is tailored to suit research into servicemen from the Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire Regiments.
The guidance below is as accurate as I can possibly achieve without going into excessive levels of detail! Bear in mind that the records from that generation of our ancestors are around 90 years old now and, as such, have been thumbed through by millions of people, bombed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and reclassified and filed. Despite the best efforts of the archivists over the years, there are bound to be errors, missing information and some illegible records.
What type and detail of information can be discovered?
Some "basic" information is available from the National Archives on every person who served in The Great War at the very least. Identifying them, their Service Number(s) and what unit they served in will give you essential information that will allow you to develop their story further. Bear in mind that certain surnames will be a lot harder to pinpoint, such as the proverbial "John Smith"; narrowing down the options can be extremely difficult unless a Service Record exists that enables you to know exactly which one of the options is the person you are looking for! However, getting the following information should allow you to explore their activities as far as you wish to take it:
Medal Index Card.
This contains basic information, such as the rank, service number, unit(s) served in and their medal entitlement (along with a reference to the "Battalion Medal Rolls" under which the medals are recorded). Other notes such as references to Kings Regulations, Killed in Action etc. can also be gleamed from the card, if they are recorded. Soldiers entering a theatre of combat before January 1916 also have their date of entry and theatre entered recorded on this card. Left is an example of one such Medal Index Card.
It tells us the Regiment, soldiers service number, and the fact that he was 'K in A' (killed in action). In addition, the middle left section show the Battalion Medal Rolls under which his medals were issued (see below) as well as the first Theatre of War he entered and the date he first set foot on foreign soil.
Members of 'ancestry' have acess to their collection of these cards. They can be searched for free on line here and downloaded for a charge.
Battalion Medal Rolls.
By using the references recorded on the Medal Index Card and converting them into today's National Archive reference (which can be done by a cross reference index held at the National Archives), the Medal Roll Books can be ordered and studied. They are several hundred pages per book, but by finding the correct page (shown on the Medal Index Card) you will see your ancestor listed amongst their comrades, along with (sometimes) additional snippets of information.
Left is a 1914 Star Medal Roll page from the 1st battalion of the Regiment. Some rolls are listed alphabetically (as above), others are listed according to the service number and others are split by a mixture of both. The 'flow' of the page will become evident once you see the page you are looking at. The info contained on the pages varies according to the rolls and who compiled them but they are always worth collecting. Star Medal rolls usually have the person's initials only but Victory and British War Medal rolls usually have the soldier's forenames in full too, rather than just initials, so between them you have a collection of useful evidence.
Please note that I have the entire collection of Bedfordshire Regimental Medal Rolls, covering the 1914 and 1915 Stars as well as the Victory and British War Medal rolls. I also have several of the Silver War badge rolls, Long Service Award rolls, Territorial Force War medal rolls and various other books, all in digital format. Just ask!
If you can provide me with the page and roll number, whether in its original form (e.g. 'K/2/104B1 p121') or the new format (the equivalent of the previous example would be 'WO329/927, page 121'), it would make life a little easier and my reply a little quicker. However, if you do not have them, ask anyway as hopefully they will be on one of my databases or I can look through them as I understand the flow of their layout all too well!
Battalion or Unit War Diaries.
As you may have already noticed, the War Diaries for the Bedford Regiment are all on this site, so if they served in the Bedfords, then much of the more laborious, "hard work" is done!
Once you have been able to establish what unit they served in and between what dates, looking at the War Diary of the relevant unit will enlighten you as to what happened during their service. Be prepared though - they were sometimes written by candlelight in a dugout or similar, so can occasionally be hard to read. Each month is usually represented by between 5 and 10 pages, dependant on what they were doing at the time.
There are also Appendices to the diaries (although not all have survived) that may reveal further detail not contained within the pages of the Diary itself, so worth looking through.
Left is an example of an appendix from the 8th battalion. This one is nicely typed and legible but don't always expect that to be the case!
The proverbial 'Holy Grail'! Although only 25 to 35% of the records have survived (depending on what source you believe) it is ALWAYS worth looking for it.
"Standard" records (Infantrymen and the like) are on microfiche at the National Archives and searchable within five categories ("WO363", "WO363MISSORTS", "WO364", "WO364 MISSORTS" and "PIN26""), in Surname order. However some are available on line via Ancestry.com now so if you are a subscriber, look in the Military section for the codes mentioned. In theory, the WO364 sections contain those men who received a pension as a result of wounds (etc.) received during the war, whereas the people within WO363 didn't. To be sure, check all of the categories in case they were miss-filed.
Officers, Airmen and other categories are traced through working through two or three layers of Indexes, which give you access to the original documents and are ordered to be viewed in the Reading Room.
The Ministry of Defence still holds the service records of those with post 1920/1921 service, so you will need to approach them for copies of the documents.
The Archives have help sheets and archivists / assistants on site to help should you need assistance.
Left is a solitary page from an officers record, giving important information that will help to piece his movements together.
Local newspapers from the time
Over and above the "basics" mentioned above, it may be worth searching Local Newspaper Archives of the time for obituaries, photographs or news from their families that may have been published. Expect to spend quite a long time doing this though as they can be fascinating and it is easy to get distracted from the task at hand!!
Left is an example of an article I came across in the Bury Post. Although most of the time you will be looking for specific information on an individual, keep an open eye as little gems such as this will jump out at you
Additional 'Medal Rolls'
If your ancestor was awarded any other decoration (such as "The Silver War Badge" for example) then extra information can often be gleamed from their records.
Left is an example of a Silver War Badge Roll which shows enlistment dates, discharge dates and the reason they were discharged - all useful evidence if you have no service record to work from.
These are available from the National Archives, but have recently been added to ancestry.com as part of their military records collection.
If there was any 'event' that may have seen your relative recorded in the Times Newspaper (such as a casualty, promotion or such like) try searching here. It may surprise you to learn what was recorded during the war. If you are a library member, it may be that your membership card will give you access to this site, which hold the original digital scans of the paper and makes for interesting reading. With both sites, bear in mind that their search engines may not be perfect! The typing is small and software is only as good as the environment it operates within, so you may end up putting several variations of the name into the search facility before winning.
Above is an example of a casualty list from the Times on line archive. It shows a small section of the 15th August 1915 casualties suffered by the 5th battalion on Gallipoli but if you are sensitive, be prepared for staggeringly large lists that leave you thinking how anyone was left to carry on fighting ...
When you know what battles (etc.) your ancestor was involved in, I would suggest building a story by the 'usual' sources; reading book(s), magazines and searching for internet sites on the particular subject should give you a clearer idea. By using a search engine such as Google, you may well be surprised what you can find! There is also a growing selection of Video's and DVD's on the Great War which are both eye opening and informative. Again, be warned, as the details can often be quite harrowing if you have not read around the Great War before. Section 4 lists potential sources of information.
Officers will also be shown in the Army List books from the time, as is the case with all serving Officers. The National Archives have the entire collections so remember to look there!
Although a long shot, also look in the National Roll of the Great War at the archives, as there may have been an entry placed in there by the soldier or their next of kin after the war. For the sake of a few minutes looking at the Index of names, it is worth the time!
is also an extraordinary resource with a huge amount of information contained within it! The link takes you to a research page and the home page is here.
My personal databases and archives
I have information on tens of thousands of men who passed through the regiment, from the time of the Great War and before. The quality and quantity varies wildly between individuals but if you woudl like me to see if I have anything on the person or people you are interested in, drop me a line.
I have also collected every article from several county newspapers of the 1914 to 1919 era, with information on serving men, whether in the regiment or not. These include the areas around Bedford, north and central Bedfordshire, Royston, Letchworth, St. Neots, Biggleswade and others. Indexing them is an enormous job so some have been indexed and others have yet to be tackled.
Other information I hold includes:
Soldiers who were killed or died in service
If your relative lost their life in the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission hold basic information on the casualty and the records of "Soldiers Died in The Great War" adds more including what town they lived in (if the information was recorded). Ancestry members have acess to this database within their membership, the Naval and Military Press sell CD copies, or asking on the Great War Forum will usually give you the information you need if funds are tight.
The National Archives at Kew, West London
Their website is here and will give you much more detail than I would even try to produce on this page! As mentioned above, Medal Index Cards can be searched and downloaded on line here if you do not subscribe to Ancestry or a similar site that gives access to them. If you are a new visitor, you will need to register as a Reader and get a card to access the research areas, which needs to be done when you visit - read this page and take some identification though. Once you have this card, you will be able to pre-order documents in advance of following visits, so they are ready and waiting for you when you get there.
Take a digital camera if you use one as it will save you both time and copying costs. Also, expect to spend some money on printing costs, just in case. And most importantly, plan your trip so you know what you are looking for, otherwise you may find yourself sitting there with a blank mind!
When you walk in and venture upstairs through the security barrier to where the research can be done, on entering the main research room (1st Floor) you will note there are 3 distinct sections. The far left (through the security barriers) is the Reading Room, the middle section is the Research Enquiries room and the right section is the Microfilm Readers Room. The left is where you will collect and read any original documents, the centre is where most of the main indexes are held and the more generalised helpdesks are located and the right is where Medal Cards, Service Records and other such info is held on microfilm and fiche. Most of your time will be spent in these 3 rooms, unless you need to view large or older documents, which they will advise on if required.
Remember though, ask the helpdesk people rather than struggle your way through things and missing something! That's why they're there and they do not mind helping.
BLARS (formerly the The Bedford County Records Office)
Nigel Lutt and his excellent colleagues at the Bedford County Records Office are an invaluable source of information and experience, and have such a genuine interest in the subject (amongst others) that no job seems too small for them. Martin Deacon from the CRO, as well as compiling and editing the book "The Shiney Seventh" (on the adventures of 7th Battalion in France), has spent many hours transcribing the diaries of the Regiment. Once I realised he had been engaged in the same project, I stopped doing it myself and the gaps in my own transcriptions have been filled with his painstaking efforts.
The archive became the regimental repository when the Royal Anglian's cleared their own archives out, so the wealth of specific information held by them is certainly worth checking.
Having searched their on-line catalogue, if you need to contact them directly, email them on firstname.lastname@example.org
The Great War Forum
I would also point those in search of info in the direction of The Great War Forum as the collective knowledge available on there is incredible. There are thousands of people like yourself there looking for or happy to share info. Most are everyday folk with an interest but some are more 'professional' historians or have been researching the subject for so long, they are 'experts' in their own fields of interest by default.
Ancestry and other sites
Personally, I subscribe the Ancestry for the purposes of extending the research into the Regiment, but there are other options available, all with their own benefits and restrictions. Find My Past hold the pre war Militia records amongst others and others, as I understand it, offer similar services so which one is the better option is really down to personal preference. Look out for trial offers and the like to test them out beforehand.
If you go with any subscription site, remember that when you are searching, the results are only as good as the data you enter and the individual who created the catalogue entry on behalf of the site. Therefore, if your searches return 'no results' think a bit laterally and try different spellings and the like. For example, the Medal Index Cards on Ancestry appear to have been catalogued by people who do not appear to live in the UK so, whilst we may think that it is obvious that 'Beds' means Bedfordshire, do not assume everyone else does!! One of my favourites under the County heading was 'Beols' which, had it been catalogued correctly, would have been listed as 'Beds'. I have seen many examples of strange and wonderful places in the UK that only exist in the minds of the cataloguer (who apparently knows little of our geography).
Further Reading and Understanding
There are not a huge number of books on the Bedfordshire Regiment available, so specific regimental books can be rare and relatively expensive. Therefore I have tried to establish the best 'reading list' possible to cover the areas of the conflict that are readily available and won't cost a fortune. Most importantly, remember your local library as they can sometimes help out with little or no cost to yourself.
'The story of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire regiment (the 16th regiment of foot)' in two volumes. By the Royal Anglian's Regimental History committee.
420 and 730 pages respectively. Two A4 sized volumes using large print, so not usually cheap! Try ordering a copy from your local library in the first instance, as this is by far the most detailed compilation on the history of the regiment, as suggested by the sheer size of it. The Great War period is predominantly taken from the regimental journal 'The Wasp' and is essentially the war diaries written out in longhand. However, some areas (such as the early phase of the 1st battalion's war) contain personal accounts to add more details to the story.
'Historical Record of The Sixteenth, or, The Bedfordshire Regiment of Foot: containing an Account of the Formation of the Regiment in 1688, and of its subsequent Services to 1848'. Compiled by Richard Cannon, Esq., Adjutant-General's Office, Horse Guards.
45 pages, published by Parker, Furnivall, & Parker in 1848. This book briefly sumamrises the period from 1688 to the 1840's only but is an interesting read.
'The 16th Foot. A History of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment'. By Major-General Sir F. Maurice, with a foreword by General, The Earl of Cavan, Colonel of the Regiment.
240 pages, published by Constable & Company Ltd., 1931. A slightly more detailed summary of the regimental history, but still very limited.
'A guide to the history to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire regiment', by J.D. Sainsbury.
32 pages, 1987. This is very brief summary of the regiment, with no specific details of individuals or engagements.
'The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire regiment' by G.W.H. Peters, from the 'Famous Regiments' series and edited by Lt-General Sir Brian Horrocks.
Published by Leo Cooper Ltd., 1970. 100 pages giving a brief summary of the regiment's history. A brief, summarised history of the regiment with some interesting elements, although there is not enough space to go into huge levels of detail.
'The 54th Infantry Brigade, 1914-1918. Some Records of Battle and Laughter in France' by E.W.J. Rowan, published by Gale and Polden, 1919.
The 7th battalion served in this Brigade from 1915 to May 1918 and the 2nd battalion served between May 1918 and the end of the war and the book can be downloaded for free here. This book is written from a particular perspective but contains details on the brigade's activities, with many individuals covered. Although not specifically about one of the regiment's battalions, this provides a good context to their activities and includes numerous references to their part in various engagements, as you would expect.
'The Doings of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade: August 1914 to March 1915'. By Brigadier-General Count Gleichen, K.C.V.O., C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.
Published by William Blackwood & Sons Edinburgh and London 1917. This book was written by the Brigade's commander and covers the period from August 1914 to March 1915. It provides a good record of the Brigade in which the 1st battalion served and can be downloaded free here.
'Cap Badge: The Story of Four Battalions of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment (T.A.), 1939-47'. By R.H. Medley.
352 pages, published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 1995. Hard to find and usually relatively expensive when you do find a copy.
'Biggleswade and the Great War; our own flesh and blood' by Kenneth Wood.
'Marjorie's War. Four Families in the Great War 1914-1918', by Reginald and Charles Fair
A new book relevant to the Hertfordshire Regiment is available, which includes letters from two of the regiment's officers, Phillip Dodgson and Reggie Secretan, from February 1917 until the armistice. Written by Charles Fair, the book is based on a family archive of some 800 letters and 400 photos written by his grandmother and six young men from the four interconnected families. It consists of 450 pages with nine maps, and index and over 90 photos, the back cover reading:
'Marjorie's War tells the story of Marjorie Secretan and her two wartime romances which were divided by tragedy. Through letters and diaries we obtain an intimate view of both relationships. Letters which were sent from home and survived the trenches are rare, and those presented here give a female and Home Front perspective on the war and its impact on Edwardian England.
However, it is not just her story. Marjorie was the central character who connected the lives of four families. Drawing on an archive of unpublished letters and photographs, the book also gives insight into life and death in the British Army as seen through the eyes of nine young men from the four families. They all volunteered in 1914 and served as infantry and artillery officers. Unusually, the correspondence spans almost the entire duration of the First World War, since at least one of the letter-writers took part in each of the major battles on the Western Front from early 1915 onwards. The letter-extracts are supported by original research and extensive footnotes which describe their context, such as certain key actions affecting the letter-writers.
The book will therefore appeal both to specialist historians - particularly those of the battalions and divisions featured - and to those with little knowledge of the conflict who may prefer to follow the broad narrative and human side of the story without dwelling on the detail.'
The paperback version RRPs at £22.95, with the hardback at £32.95, and £1 from each book goes to the Western Front Association.
It can be ordered directly from the author by emailing him, or through Amazon and other retails channels.
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