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Attestation Books

   

Attestation Books of the Bedfs & Herts Regiment

Over the past twenty years researching army ancestry has become one of the most popular ways of fleshing out the bare bones of a family tree. If you are lucky you can find out where a soldier served (for many it was the first time they had been overseas), together with a physical description, personal details (age, place of birth, next-of-kin) and details of service (postings, promotions/reductions, illnesses, wounds, educational attainments and medals awarded).

Up until now, researchers have looked for pre-1919 records with some chance of success, but hit a brick wall thereafter. Pre-1914 service papers are at the National Archives (TNA) Kew, while surviving (c.30% only) World War One service papers are also at TNA, together with the WW1 medal cards. All these sources are supplemented to some extent by records held by the appropriate regimental museums.

Until mid-2002 the Ministry of Defence (MOD) at Hayes held post-1920 soldiers’ attestation and discharge books for most army regiments, but only released information to proven next-of- kin. However, on the closure of their office some records were distributed to the regimental museums, or in default to the National Army Museum, Chelsea (for the Middlesex regiment, for example).

Here at BLARS we are unusual in being one of the few archive services designated as a repository for regimental records, having held the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment collection since 1977. The corresponding medals, uniforms and militaria are held by Luton Museum, Wardown Park, where a selection is on display in the regimental gallery there.

On average, we receive 2-3 enquiries every week mostly relating to ancestors who served in the Regiment. The existing sources are quite scanty, consisting of patchy collections of named photographs (c.1860-1939), regimental magazine obituaries/biographies (1922-c.1964) and some nominal rolls, especially for the 5th Battalion and its predecessors [Ref. X 550/6 catalogue].

Against this background the regimental books received from the MOD were a revelation. In 1919/20 the War Office decided to replace soldiers’ individual regimental numbers with new army numbers, and each unit was allocated its own unique block of digits. Consequently, all serving soldiers in the Bedfs & Herts Regiment, together with new recruits, were allocated army numbers in order commencing with 5942001 in 1919 through to 5962980 in c1942, nearly 21,000 men in all [series Ref. Z 910/11]. Detailed information (in the early years at any rate) was to be recorded for each soldier, and each volume of about 1,000 men has its own A-Z index by first letter of surname. Incidentally, army numbers were changed again in 1942 with the introduction of a single sequence for the entire army commencing at 14 million.

The very first entry gives an idea of the level of detail involved: [Ref: Z 910/11/1] Number 5942001 (formerly 7625) Bandmaster Ernest A. Baxter, born at Curragh Camp, Kildare, joined the army at Dover on 13 January 1883, aged 14. He had no trade on enlistment. On 20 January 1893 he married Annie Stewart, a widow, at Glasgow. Four children were subsequently born to the couple, Jepthah (Shorncliffe, in 1894), Henry (Cherat, 1900, enlisted in the 2nd Bedfs and died at Cherat in 1940), Ellen Kathleen (Hounslow, 1903) and Alice (Gibraltar, 1907). On 11 June 1903 Ernest transferred from the Royal Scots Fusiliers to the Bedfordshire Regiment. He received the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, and was discharged at Warley on 31 August 1922, with a character described as ‘exemplary’. His pension was 55 shillings a week for life. His address on discharge was initially in Battersea, but later amended to Park Road, Kempston.

Ernest Baxter’s army career is not typical; it is unusual for a boy soldier enlisting in 1883 still to be serving in his fifties in the early 1920s, particularly without having seen any campaign service. The later entries in the first book contain details of a handful of South African War veterans (1899-1902) as well as several hundred men who served in the First World War. Among the latter was George Emery Fowler, number 5942096 (formerly 9323), a former farm labourer from Cardington who joined in 1908 aged 21½ years. He was wounded twice during the First World War and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry as well as his campaign awards. He married Clara Elizabeth Smith, spinster, at Kempston in 1919, but their only son George, born at Kamptee, India, in 1924, died when he was just five. George Fowler was discharged as RSM at Bedford in 1930, conduct ‘exemplary’, and afterwards lived at Kempston.

These records are nearly as detailed as any service papers you might find in the National Archives; the only details lacking are the physical description of the soldier and a list of his postings. Unfortunately, these early standards were not maintained; by 1923 the details of any marriage and children is omitted, together with the address on discharge. After about April 1928 many personal details are omitted, including the soldier’s age, place of abode and trade on enlistment and his place of birth. By the outbreak of the Second World War even the date of enlistment is left out; all that is recorded is the soldier’s army number, full name and details of any transfer/discharge, with date.

The books are simple to use, particularly if you have a soldier with a Bedfs & Herts Regiment army number in the given range. If not, you can still persevere using the A-Z indices for each volume. 

However, there is a problem in that some soldiers transferred into the Bedfs & Herts Regiment from other units, retaining their original army numbers. These men are listed in a similar series entitled the ‘odd number’ books [Ref: Z 910/12] which contain about 12,000 men serving between c1919-1946. The A-Z names’ indices are the only way into these volumes as the ‘odd’ numbers are recorded at random, not sequentially like the Bedfs & Herts Regiment ones. Apart from that, the level of detail is the same, initially good before declining in the 1920s and again in the late 1930s.

It is also possible to use the main series of regimental books [series ref. Z 910/11 covering numbers 5942001 on] to calculate probable dates of enlistment for men for whom no service details survive either here or at TNA.   For instance, 7602 Pte. Edward Warner of the 1st Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment won the Victoria Cross at Hill 60 near Ypres on 1st May 1915, but died the following day. We don’t know when he joined up, but fortunately the first number book [Ref: Z 910/11/1] gives us a clue. When the new 594 series of numbers was allocated in 1919/20 they were fortunately given to serving soldiers in order of enlistment, so the soldiers’ previous regimental numbers are also mostly in order. So we have 5942037 (ex. 7601) Pte Harry Cox, enlisted 22 June 1903, next to 5942038 (ex. 7681) Pte George D Bradford who joined on 8 September 1903. From these two entries we can deduce that Edward Warner probably enlisted in June 1903 as his number 7602 is adjacent to that of Harry Cox whose old number was 7601.

There is another series of attestation books which is worth mentioning, those for the home service battalions of the Bedfs & Herts Regiment raised during the Second World War. We have volumes for training staff [Ref. Z 910/13/1], and the 9th [Ref. Z 910/13/2] and 7th [Ref. Z 910/13/3] Battalions.

All three series of attestation books I have described so far [Ref: Z 910/11-13] cease in the period 1942-1946, but fortunately there is a run of annual discharge books [Ref: Z 910/9] which go from 1921 right up until 1958 when the Regiment amalgamated with the Essex Regiment to form the 3rd East Anglian Regiment (3rd Royal Anglian Regiment from 1964).

The discharge books do not contain much detail, just army number, surname and initials and remarks (e.g. desertions, deaths, re-enlistments and transfers). The do contain, though, discharges of men in the 1st Hertfordshire Regiment TA, which continued as a separate unit after the Bedfordshire Regiment extended its title to be called the Bedfs & Herts Regiment in 1919. Some volumes give dates of birth, or details of men discharged having attained the age of 45 years (so a date of birth can be deduced). Each annual volume has an A-Z names index, but it is still a lengthy task consulting them unless you have a precise discharge date in mind. Finally, the MOD records here also contain the officers’ commission parchments for various local regiments [Ref: Z 910/1-8] and, more importantly, index cards of Second World War awards (but not the actual citations) made to men of the Bedfs & Herts Regt. and 1st Herts regiment TA as notified in the London Gazette.

Altogether the availability of the service records I have described represents a major breakthrough in researching Bedfs & Herts Regiment personnel for the period c1919-1942, and to some extent for the pre-1919 era as well. Further information on post-1920 soldiers is held by the Army Personnel Centre, HQ Secretariat, Historical Disclosures, Mail Point 400, Kentigern House, 65, Brown Street, Glasgow G2 8EX, but information is restricted to the personnel concerned, or to proven next-of-kin (a fee payable if the enquiry is from the latter). A precise date of birth, or preferably an army number, is essential before research can be done. Please be patient if you contact them, for their office receives around 70,000 queries annually, with welfare enquiries taking priority.