For many years, Mrs. Amy Bradford attended the annual Armistice Day service at the War Memorial in Folkestone, Kent. Like so many other grieving mothers, she wore the medals of her children killed in the Great War. She had lost three of her four sons, but, like no other mother, she wore two Victoria Crosses, in memory of George and Roland, who were the only brothers to gain the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
"The Fighting Bradfords" as the four brothers came to be known, were the sons of George Bradford, a mining engineer and colliery owner of Milbanke, Darlington and his wife Amy, who was from Willesborough, Kent. They had one sister, Amy, the youngest of the family. The youngest and most remarkable of the "Fighting Bradfords" was Roland Boys Bradford. He was born on 23rd February 1892 at Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland. In August 1914, as the Great War began, he was a twenty-two year old Second Lieutenant serving with the 2nd Battalion DLI
2 DLI landed at St. Nazaire in France on 10th September 1914. Ten days later near Troyon, it fought its first action and suffered, in a few hours, nearly as many casualties as the Regiment had lost in the Boer War. In "D" Company, the only officer to survive was Roland Bradford. A few days later he was promoted to Lieutenant. By the end of the year, he was one of only four original officers of the Battalion to have escaped death or wounding.
In February 1915, Lieutenant Bradford was awarded the newly-created Military Cross "Jar services rendered in connection with operations in the field" [Citation] and, in May, was sent as Adjutant and Temporary Captain to the 7th Battalion DLI. There he was to learn exactly how a battalion worked.
At the beginning of May 1916, he was made Temporary Major and appointed as second in command to the 9th Battalion DLI, a Territorial unit from Gateshead. He took full command - as Temporary Lieutenant Colonel - in August, though his permanent rank was still only Lieutenant and he was only twenty-four years old. During the next sixteen months, Roland Bradford was to turn this Battalion into one of the finest fighting units in the British Army and show that he was capable of even greater success.
On the Somme in July and August 1916, it had been Kitchener's New Army that had born the brunt of the fighting. In September, it was the turn of the Territorials. On 15th September, Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Bradford was wounded as he led his 9th Durham’s, as part of the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division, into battle for the first time against the German held trenches east of Martinpuich.
Then on 1st October, the 50th Division was ordered to capture Eaucourt l'Abbaye and the trenches east of Le Sars. The assault was timed for 3.15pm and was to be led on the right by the 6th Battalion DLI with 9 DLI close behind in support. As the Durham’s waited in their trenches for the attack to begin, they came under heavy German artillery and machine gun fire and Major Wilkinson, commanding 6 DLI, was badly wounded in the arm. As he was going back to the casualty clearing station, he met Roland Bradford and asked him to take command of his Battalion.
Once permission had been given by Brigade Headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Bradford rushed forward from his Headquarters to the front line. Meanwhile, as the artillery barrage lifted from the German front line, the 6th Durham’s attacked Flers Line. They were on the extreme right of the 50th Division and immediately came under withering machine-gun fire, as the Division on their right had been unable to get into position on time. The attack ground to a halt, as men desperately sought cover in shell holes from the flying bullets. At that critical moment, Roland Bradford arrived. Ignoring the dangers, he immediately went amongst the soldiers, encouraging, organising, and giving new, clear orders.
Though notification of the award of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant (Temporary Lieutenant Colonel) Roland Boys Bradford appeared in the London Gazette on 25th November 1916 - "For most conspicuous bravery and good leadership in attack" [Citation], he was too busy to go home. He had a battalion to run. He was finally presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V during an open air ceremony in Hyde Park on 2nd June 1917.
On 10th November 1917, Bradford was given command of the 186th Brigade of the 62nd (West Riding) Division and, reluctantly, left his 9th Durham’s. The career of Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford VC MC, however, lasted just twenty days. During the Battle of Cambrai on 30th November 1917, he was killed by a stray German shell near his Brigade Headquarters in Bourlon Wood and was buried in Hermies British Cemetery. He was twenty-five years old.
One evening in July 1917, whilst in reserve resting after the Battle of Arras, Roland Bradford had ordered his 9th Durham’s on parade. He then told the assembled soldiers -
"I want you to sing the hymn the band will now play, every night at retreat, whether you are in the trenches or in billets."
The band then struck up "Abide with Me." It became the Battalion's hymn and was soon adopted by the entire Regiment. It is still the Regimental hymn.
In December 1917, just a few weeks after they had learnt of Bradford's death, the 9th Durham’s left the horrors of the Ypres Salient and moved into billets. That night, after "Last Post" was sounded, came "Abide with Me."
A soldier newly arrived in the Battalion sneered -
"What's this? A bloody Sunday School!"
He was immediately punched to the ground by Private Bobby Davidson, a veteran soldier wearing the ribbon of the Military Medal, who told him -
"That hymn was taught to us by a better bloody soldier than you will ever be."
When he died, aged still only twenty-five years old, Roland Bradford was the youngest Brigadier-General in the British Army. It is impossible to guess what higher rank he might have achieved by the end of the Great War had he lived.
And what of the Second World War?
In 1942, when General Montgomery looked over the 8th Army in North Africa, he was-already fifty-four. Roland Bradford would have been just fifty years old.
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