Thirty members of the Gordon Highlanders Association of Aberdeen received a warm welcome when they visited Bedford this month.
In 1915 Bedford played an important role in preparing the Scottish Highland Division for active service during the first nine months of the First World War when they were quartered here.
The visit was the first part of a weekend pilgrimage that also saw division veterans pay their respects at the regiment’s memorial at the Staffordshire National Arboretum.
While in Bedford, visitors spent the morning at the Gordon Arms on Castle Road, a place with a strong connection to the history of the Highland Division.
Local historian Richard Galley gave an illustrated lecture on the Highland Division’s time in Bedford and the impact this friendly invasion had on the town.
“Given the fact that many of these brave men had come all the way from Aberdeen to be here, overcome with all the history behind it, we felt it crucial to recreate the historic picture from the start of the First World War, there is over 100 years old,” said Daniel Hicks of the Gordon Arms.
“We were able to do a comparable ‘then and now’ item to show our lovely community the rich history we have on our doorstep and, most importantly, pay homage to them and those who came before them.
“The team and I would just like to thank everyone who made the trip, it was a memorable day to say the least and we look forward to your return.”
After lunch, the veterans visited Foster Hill Road Cemetery where they were greeted by the Bedford Pipe Band.
Visitors held a moving ceremony to honor the Highlanders who are buried in the cemetery after succumbing to disease in the winter of 1914/15.
The visit to the cemetery ended with a tea generously offered by the Friends of Bedford Cemetery.
Historian Richard Galley said: “The visit had taken several months in the planning and it was a privilege to be able to play a part in making it happen.
“It was a truly memorable day. The Gordon Arms provided the perfect venue and the weather couldn’t have been nicer when we visited the cemetery.
“I am extremely grateful for the help and support provided by the Bedford Pipe Band, Friends of Bedford Cemetery and our local Royal British Legion standard bearers.
“Visitors were undoubtedly overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome they received from all they met and the hospitality shown to them, perfectly reflecting the experience of the Highlanders who have come to Bedford 108 years ago.”
During the first nine months of the First World War, 3,000 men of the Gordon Highlanders were stationed at Bedford as part of the Highland Division which numbered some 22,000 men when it left the town for the Western Front in May 1915.
The vast majority of these soldiers were stationed in the city center and mainly within households.
The bonds forged between the Highlanders and the Bedfordians were immensely strong and particularly enduring.
Bedford Mayor Harry Browning was instrumental in establishing the Borough’s Recreation Committee for the Troops, which did an outstanding job of providing for the soldiers in their spare time.
The Division suffered greatly from the effects of disease (measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria) during the winter of 1914/15 and a number of men died, 33 of whom are buried in Foster Hill Road Cemetery. 14 of these men were Gordon Highlanders.
The Gordon Arms was frequented by men from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders whose cantonment area encompassed the area bounded by The Embankment/Russell Park, Goldington Avenue, St Cuthberts and Newham Avenue.
What is now the Ent shed is believed to be the only recreation hall built by the War Office for use by the Highland Division in the winter of 1914. Several of these large wooden buildings were erected in the scattered cantonment quarters in the city.