Dunstable And World War One

Dunstable And World War One

Dunstable And World War One - Outside Dunstable Town Hall During War Week 1914
Dunstable And World War One – Outside Dunstable Town Hall During War Week 1914 (www.dunstablehistory.co.uk)

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By Paul Heley

This year sees the centenary of the signing of the Armistice which concluded “The War to end all Wars” – how hopelessly optimistic that sentiment turned out to be.

But in 1914 when it all started (and my father was a 10 year boy at Totternhoe who was, mercifully, too young to take part), Dunstable was a sleepy little country town more rural than industrial. It had its cattle market on the Square and there were numerous small businesses associated with the surrounding countryside.

But on a national scale, there had been political rumblings for some time suggesting that all was not well in certain parts of Europe. However, such concerns were not in the forefront of Dunstable thoughts since things went on as they had for decades despite the Boer War 10 or 15 years previously.

But when some hot headed Bosnian Serb nationalist shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, this was the trigger for all out war. The problem was that different countries were allied to others in some form of imperialistic or nationalistic group. For example Britain, France and Russia were the mainstays of the Triple Entente whilst Germany, Austria and Italy were allied with the Austro-Hungarian group in the Triple Alliance (or Central Powers). These alliances were intransigent in their attitudes and the Sarajevo shooting was enough to spark Germany into quick aggression such that WW1 started a month later on July 28, 1914.

Although Britain had a standing army resulting from the Boer War, it was by no means big enough to engage in a full scale European war; consequently rapid conscription was necessary. There is the famous poster showing Lord Kitchener pointing directly towards the viewer with the words “Your country needs you” underneath. It is one of the most powerful recruiting posters ever. And with this message came the inducement of the “king’s shilling” if you signed on (a shilling (5p today) was the basic daily pay for a British “Tommy” in 1914).

Dunstable And World War One

With hindsight it seems like madness, but recruitment was high and there was a real attraction for young men – who might never have left their home towns or villages before – to “see the world”. Allied with this was the fact that many other young men – often little more than boys who lied about their age – joined together with friends from their immediate locality into so-called “Pals’ battalions” with the promise that they would stay together and not be dispersed into other regiments or duties. There is no record of a Bedfordshire Pals’ battalion but there is record of the Dunstable Boys of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry.

Dunstable And World War One. Dunstable Yeomanry
Dunstable And World War One. Dunstable Yeomanry (www.dunstablehistory.co.uk)

The principal local regiment was the Bedfordshire Regiment which had been in existence since 1688 during the reign of King James 2nd. Over the centuries, it had been involved in many battles and skirmishes throughout the world but at the outbreak of WW1, it was mobilised for war on 16 August, 1914 and raised 21 Battalions. During the course of WW1, these different battalions were engaged in at least 30 separate battles and received 74 battle honours and 7 Victoria Crosses. Famous battles in which one or more of the battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment were involved are such as :- Ypres, Passchendaele, Ancre and the Somme. Of the approximately sixty thousand men who were involved, roughly half were injured and more than 7000 never came home – a great sacrifice for one of England’s smaller counties.

Dunstable And World War One

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Battalions of the Bedfordshire Regiment were also engaged in other theatres of war, e.g. Gallipoli (where heavy losses were incurred against the Turks), Italy, Egypt and Palestine.

So far as Dunstable is concerned, there were 186 servicemen who perished (mainly soldiers but also a few sailors and one or two airmen). The majority were Dunstable men although some were from other local areas like Houghton Regis, Totternhoe or nearby villages whilst some were the husbands of Dunstable women who had moved to the town. Some received notable gallantry medals: men such as Capt. Jock Henderson – Military Cross ; Commander Charles Benning – Distinguished Service Order ; Sergeant Percy Ives and Sergeant R Fearn – the Distinguished Conduct Medal. There is the tragic case of a Mrs Smith who lost both her sons – although she could take some comfort in knowing that her son, William, was awarded the Military Cross. Numerous other men received lesser medals and Dunstable can be proud of the sacrifices made by so many of its sons.

Another group from Dunstable who made the ultimate sacrifice were some of the Old Boys of the Grammar School. Sixty three of these young men fell in a number of different regiments according to their home areas since many of these men had been boarders at the school. Because DGS was a minor public school at the time, many of its Old Boys were immediately given the rank of 2nd lieutenant and these people, unfortunately, were usually required to be the first “over the top”, ie the first to leave the trenches – and the first to be mown down by machine gun fire.

One of the Dunstable School Old Boys, Lt-Colonel Edward Henderson, received the Victoria Cross posthumously following a particularly heroic action.

We have all seen pictures of the horrific scenes of this war: scarred landscapes, water filled bomb craters, trenches filled with mud. It is recorded that, altogether, there were thousands of miles of trenches on the Western Front stretching from the coast to Switzerland.

Dunstable And World War One
Dunstable And World War One. The trenches.

And not only was artillery bombardment the cause of many soldiers suffering from “shell shock” (perhaps for the rest of their lives – as experienced by some local ex-soldiers), there was also the horror of gas attack causing internal injury, death, or blindness. The whole experience must have been hell on earth as recorded in the epic poems of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and others.

For the people left at home in Dunstable, there was a telling precursor to something which happened in the UK during World War Two. It was that German submarines were causing havoc with food ships crossing the Atlantic and sending many of them to the bottom. The net result was food shortages in Britain and the introduction of Ration books. But perhaps the scheme wasn’t so well controlled then as during the 1940s because in 1917 and ’18, there were food riots in Dunstable and Luton (and many other places). Another similarity between the two wars is that women had to take a prominent role in the supply of armaments and various other jobs associated with the war effort. But during WW1, this was virtually the first time that women escaped from a purely domestic life style – and many relished the “freedom” offered. Yet another similarity was the enforcement of the “black out” at night when any light from buildings must not be seen. There is the amusing story of when the Mayor was publicly reprimanded for some slight indiscretion in this respect.

After four long years and four months, this terrible conflict came to an end and the Armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, namely at 11 o’clock on November 11th, 1918. But in those days there was no radio, no TV, and so it took a further two days before the news could reach Dunstable so that the Dunstable Borough Gazette could proudly announce “Peace”.

Dunstable And World War One. Refurbished Dunstable War Memorial.
Dunstable And World War One. Refurbished Dunstable War Memorial (Dunstable Rotary Club)

Dunstable And World War One

Dunstable Downs WW1 Beacon Lighting

 

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Dunstable And World War One

Dunstable And World War One

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