ON the battlefield of Ypres in 1914 newly trained men of the 1st Hertfords fought alongside regular Irish Guards to stem the German offensive in Belgium.
This first action so impressed the Guards Commander he sent a message back from the front saying “the Herts Regiment is beyond all praise”.
The Regiment stayed at the front fighting in some of the worst battles of the Great War including Loos, Passchendale and the Somme. At the River Ancre in 1916 their courage won for them 29 awards for bravery in two days. Sadly by 1918 the Regiment was badly depleted following heavy casualties in a gas attack. To make up the numbers, Bedfordshire men were drafted in and the Herts Regiment fought on for another six months until the armistice of November 11th.
A year after the war the two regiments amalgamated to become the Beds and Herts, which was appropriate, due to their long and close military association. It came about because peacetime cuts in the army’s strength prevented Hertfordshire reforming its own regular infantry regiment. It was different with Territorials and, when mobilisation came in 1939, two battalions of the Hertfordshire Regiment were soon available.
The 1st Herts went to the Mediterranean ending up fighting in the bitter Italian campaign with the Americans. At Fiesole they tangled with crack German paratroops at close quarters and won the day – to the surprise and respect of the German commander. This was only the beginning for, ten days later, they were the first to break through the Gothic line. Heavy losses had already been suffered by the allies before the 1st Herts arrived. The objective was formidable: a 2,000 foot mountain heavily fortified by enemy bunkers with mortars and machine guns as well as artillery. At the base of the mountain was a 200 foot ravine with water at the bottom. Every move the attackers made could be seen and brought a swift response. The task looked impossible, everything was in the German’s favour, but the 1st Herts cunningly put up a smokescreen believing the enemy would assume they were attacking through the smoke. Sure enough the Germans concentrated their bombardment at the smoke. In the meantime the Hertfords climbed down into the ravine, crossed the stream and came to within a few yards of a forward post. They slipped past it without being seen, came in from behind and quietly dealt with the occupants.
Ahead lay the mountain: much of it could not be climbed because of sheer rock faces, and in other parts scrub was impenetrable. They had to make detours around these obstacles, and, once discovered, they came under heavy fire from the enemy above. Undaunted they fought their way to the top a step at a time until the mountain was theirs. It was dedication of this quality which won for the Herts Regiment a proud reputation as well as many awards for gallantry. including the American Silver Star.
The second Battalion Herts Regiment first took up defence duties then underwent lengthy training in combined operations for the D Day invasion of Normandy. They were responsible for a beach head designated Number 9 Beach Group around Ver Sur Mer. After the bridgehead involvement the battalion acted as reinforcements for the front line which put them in the thick of the fighting.
During this time the 1st Battalion Beds and Herts Regiment were in Burma fighting the Japanese, many operating behind the lines with Chindits, harassing the enemy at every turn. This was jungle warfare fought under terrible conditions against a fanatical enemy. Living rough. being supplied by air and always on the move, that was the lot of the Chindits. The Beds and Herts had the distinction of destroying the largest amount of Japanese supplies in the whole campaign. This was fitting. for, unknown to them, most of their comrades in the 5th Battalion had been lost, but not through normal military engagement.
They had arrived at Singapore just as the city surrendered to the Japanese and their fate was sealed. Out of 1,000 men, over a third died of starvation and disease and most of the others were drowned at sea. This happened when a Japanese ship taking them to Tokyo was sunk by the Americans. The men were left in the water, clinging to anything that would float. In such conditions they could not survive for long – and only a few were still alive when help finally arrived five days later.
Hertfordshire Yeomanry in the Royal Artillery also endured captivity; the 135th Field Regiment fought hard to defend the Malay Peninsula and continued the action on Singapore Island before they had to destroy their guns and surrender. Records show that 150 soldiers of this fine group died unnecessarily as prisoners after their commendable performance.
In Europe the Herts 86th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, took their 25 pound guns to Normandy on D Day and reports describe their service as gallant and distinguished. Advancing from Normandy the 86th twice fought with the Americans and took part in the ferocious Ardennes conflict before crossing the Rhine into Germany. Records show that in all theatres of war and in all the campaigns they fought, the men of Hertfordshire always justified their nickname “Herts Guards” given to them at Ypres in 1914.
Together and separately, the Beds and Herts Regiments have played a part in shaping British history. Their beginning can he traced to two old regiments of foot soldiers – the 49th of 1744, called Trelawney’s and the 16th named Douglas’s, raised at Reading in 1688. Joint Battle Honours spread from America to Burma and South Africa to Europe. In 1958 the Beds and Herts amalgamated with the Essex Regiment to become the Royal Anglian Regiment of today.
Story byDenis Bidwell published in Hertfordshire Countryside July 1988