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When Uncle Roland won his V.C. (in addition to his M.C) he was still only a Lt. Colonel. He was the youngest brother in the Bradford family, the most decorated family in Britain in World War I.
In May of 1994 my son Christopher and I visited Colonel Rodney Gee, M.C., D.L.I., Roland's Adjutant in 1917, who was living in a home for the elderly at Clifton near Bristol. Upon entering Colonel Gee's very spacious bed-sitting room it was a great surprise and pleasure to see the very familiar photograph of my uncle hanging upon the wall above the bed. It seems that Roland had been something of a hero to the young adjutant, who took pleasure in telling us a lot about him and of those years in France. At the time Colonel Gee had been a Captain of 19, and Roland had been 24.
Colonel Gee has thankfully led a very full life, having been a teacher at Clifton College until the age of 71.
Roland and George were the only brothers in the war to each win a Victoria Cross, the greatest wartime honour.
Roland, the most famous of the four, joined the DLI in 1912 and went to France in September 1914 with the second battalion of the regiment.
He had a meteoric rise, winning the Military Cross at Armentieres for leading an attack. As leader of the ninth battalion of the DLI he was made a Lieutenant Colonel in 1916 and won his VC at the Somme.
On November 10 1917 he was made a Brigadier-General at the age of only 25. He was and may still be the youngest man ever to have held that rank in the British Army.
Less than three weeks later he was killed at Cambrai, France, in the first major tank battle in history as he led infantry troops behind tanks advancing across enemy trenches. [Not correct... see below * Ed.]
In his honour a plaque was placed in St Cuthbert's Church, Darlington, and a porch at the town's Memorial Hospital was dedicated to him.
George, the second oldest Bradford brother, was killed in the Zeebrugge blockade in April 1918, and was awarded his VC posthumously.
He was a Lieutenant Commander with the Royal Navy and had been in charge of assault forces attacking a concrete arm built into the sea.
The aim had been to draw German fire while ships were sunk in the canal running from the port inland to Bruges, to prevent U-boats harboured there from entering the sea.
James joined the Northumberland Hussars as a private in 1913 and the next year went to France with them.
He then joined the 18th battalion of the DLI and was made a Second Lieutenant in September 1915.
In March 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross for his role as a bombing officer in charge of ground troops throwing bombs into enemy trenches.
On May 10 he was wounded and died four days later at Arras.
Only Thomas survived and went on to have a full life until his death at the age of 80 in 1966.
He served as a Captain with the eighth battalion of the DLI and was in Ypres from April 1915, where he was wounded in battle. The following January he was given the Distinguished Service Order, the highest award for an officer after the VC.
He was made Brigade Major and spent the last two years of the war training officers from the Yorkshire and Lancashire regiment.
In peacetime he lived in Aden Cottage, Durham, married twice, stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative MP for Seaham and Durham, was a Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham and worked as a surveyor for the National Coal Board.
The lecture will be held at the DLI Museum and Art Gallery, Aykley Heads, Durham City at 2.30 p.m.
* The matter of Roland's death is the subject of various conflicting reports. It is remarkable how inaccurate some newspaper articles can be. Sometimes they are not even capable of reporting a basic matter like Roland's age correctly....... we have even seen one newspaper article which claimed that he never lived to collect his VC!!.... Hmmm .. so it is hard to explain how it was that he was photographed sitting next to Capt. A.C.T. White in Hyde Park in seat No 14 on 2nd June 1917 as they both waited to receive their VCs from the hand of King George V! ... but we digress... we are considering the matter of Roland's death.
The account of his death in the above article is probably the least plausible of any which have circulated.
Another account states that he was killed by a stray German shell near his Brigade Headquarters in Bourlon Wood.
The account which states that he was killed by a direct hit from a shell on his H.Q. sounds to be doubtful as there must have been other casualties and perhaps survivors who would have verified the correct account. In fact it sounds doubly doubtful if you take into account the researches of one of Roland's cousins well used to gathering precise details due to being in the police. This relative, Mr Robert Chambers, says that his researches have shown that the 186th Brigade H.Q. was in vaults of some kind below Graincourt Church.
Probably the most exact account is one similar to the second one above, which Vera Bradford obtained from a man she knew. He claimed to be the last one to see Roland alive and said that Roland left his H.Q. on horseback, and as he wasn't heard from for some time a search party was sent out to find him. They found him later, having been killed by a piece of shrapnel from a shell.
The description of his action (at Flers Trench near Eaucourt l'Abbaye in France) on September 15th 1916 was published in these words:-
"For most conspicuous bravery and good leadership in attack, whereby he saved the situation on the right flank of his Brigade and of the Division.
Lt. Col. Bradford's battalion was in support. A leading battalion having suffered very severe casualties, and the commander having been wounded its flank became dangerously exposed at close quarters to the enemy. Raked by machine-gun fire, the situation of the battalion was critical. At the request of the wounded Commander, Lt. Col. Bradford asked permission to command the exposed battalion in addition to his own.
Permission granted, he at once proceeded to the foremost lines. By his fearless energy under fire of all description, and his skilful leadership of the two Battalions, regardless of all danger, he succeeded in rallying the attack, captured and defended the objectives, and so secured the flank."
During the same period of leave, when he visited his home town of Darlington, the Mayor asked him if he might arrange a public welcome. Roland's response was that if anything of the sort were done he would get straight into a train and return to London. No discourtesy was intended, but the fact was that whatever personal ambition Roland had ever had was entirely obliterated by his love for and pride in his men. The honour conferred upon him was an honour to his battalion even more than to himself.
John Buchan wrote that: “... in the long roll of the young dead Roland Bradford is in some ways the most conspicuous figure....”
Field-Marshal Haig wrote: “I knew Bradford quite well.... He was an officer of outstanding talent and personality ... I feel that a National Memorial to such a gallant officer and gentleman would be a most fitting tribute to his sterling qualities......”
This remark not unnaturally caused the subsequent conversation to be more than a little animated. It was written of this incident that "For a little time the General eyed Bradford up and down as though he would place him under arrest and then told him that leave for the men was his first consideration, and that the leave was properly allotted". It is said however that Roland refused to be convinced, and that it was perhaps fortunate for him that the man with whom he was dealing had a considerable knowledge of human nature as well as some sense of humour. The incident ended with the General patting Roland on the back and remarking that he was damned glad someone was as interested in the men's leave as he himself was.
In May 1917 Roland became commanding officer of the 9th D.L.I., a battalion with which he stayed till November 1917. It was then he became Brigadier-General and took over the command of the 186th Brigade of the 62nd (West Riding) Division. He was 25 years of age, but had only a few weeks to live. He was involved in the attack on the Hindenburg Line and was killed by a stray shell that hit his Brigade H.Q., near Graincourt, on St Andrew's Day, November 30th 1917.
Roland was a man full of compassion for his men and for others, as Captain Birt, D.L.I. recalls when speaking of an incident which occurred very early in the campaign near the Soissons area in 1914.
“Roland and I were in the closest contact for seven bad weeks, and I never saw him ‘down’ a bit except once somewhere near Compiegne. We had been marching all night, and about 6 a.m. came upon the poor wretched refugees, old men, women of all ages and children on their way to Paris, with all their belongings on ‘prams’ or in bundles. Roland was marching in the rear of the platoon, and suddenly he came up to me and said: ‘Do you mind if I fall out for a few minutes? ’On my liberating him he asked me for the spare bully beef and all the money I had (about 2 frs 85), and he fell out, to rejoin about a quarter of an hour later, hot from his run and evidently cut up. After tramping at my horse’s side for a few minutes he said: ‘Did you see that last lot of refugees before I fell out? . . . There was a woman among them who reminded me of my mother.’”
Stephen Shannon, in his booklet 'Beyond Praise' gives us a little glimpse of what all this meant to "the Durhams" of the 9th Battalion. He tells us:
"just a few weeks after they had learnt of Bradford's death, the 9th Durhams had 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."
Yes 'Abide with me' had become their hymn, and Roland Bradford had been one of them. They had adored him. He had earned their love and respect because he had been through thick and thin with them and had led them from the front, not from behind. That was why they had not only been prepared to go with him to hell and back, they had done it.. So now they missed him deeply, and they didn't mind showing it.
At the end of addressing some of the men newly arrived from England, Roland had once told them:
"Upon behalf of the gallant lads whom I have the honour to command, I welcome you to our midst. You are now of us, and will work with us and for us.
"My friends, I am going to arrange for the Band to play one verse of the hymn ‘Abide with me’ every evening. I would like all of you then reverently to join in the words. It should mean more to you than the singing of a well-known hymn. ‘Abide with me’ should be no mere catch-phrase with us.
"It means we realise that there is Someone who really abides with us, and who will help us to help ourselves. Someone who is with us in all our sorrows and hardship, and every man in the world has a fair share of that.
"We soldiers should find great comfort in that fact, however much our comrades and those about us may overlook our work, there is Someone who sees and appreciates it. He is with us, I say, just as our friends, Sergeant Caldwell, Corporal Guy and Private Halley are now serving with Him."
He was extraordinarily helpful under shellfire, and he humbugged me for not ducking quick enough when they came along. We found the dugouts, and then proceeded to bury some Australians who were lying near. Of course this was under enemy observation.”
"In 1942, when General Montgomery took over the 8th Army in North Africa, he was already fifty-four. Roland Bradford would have been just fifty years old."
This comment by Mr Shannon follows on from his consideration of Roland Bradford that "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?"
[Acting Lieutenant-Colonel B L Montgomery DSO (see note below), survived the Great War to become the most successful British general of World War II. It is more than a little interesting to note that Montgomery's success at the Battle of El Alamein has been attributed to:
a) the way he made himself known to his troops, making each man feel that he had an important part to play, and
b) to his personal thoroughness in preparation
..... exactly mirroring Roland Bradford's apparent methods of success in World War I]
"We have been brought up on snippets of Bradford high standards & eccentricities!.... [My father] served as his ADC for I think about 7 months in 1917 - you probably know this - and I think the relationship was one of mutual respect if not close friendship. It seems that your uncle inspired adoration, almost reverence, in all who served under him - my father was certainly no exception."
This is a photograph of Mrs Sarah Albion's father, Colonel Rodney Gee, M.C., D.L.I. It was taken in his Living Room in Clifton in the summer of 1994 when he was 97 ..... he had been adjutant to Roland Bradford in 1917, nearly 80 years earlier. After all those years Roland's photograph can be seen hanging on the wall behind him!
Only five and twenty years old. It is the age of a subaltern, a lieutenant's age. I have remarked that the majors and the colonels seem younger than they were. I can remember when the major seemed to be of an earlier generation, when colonels were patriarchal warriors. Now I talk with majors who are younger than I am: the colonel at the dinner table seems to be my fellow in age. But the general remains venerable.
Yet Roland Boys Bradford was a general; and he is dead at five and twenty. Not even the boy's book will dare more in its brave fancies. Wolfe was a young general, but he was two and thirty when he fell on the Plains of Abraham. Roland Boys Bradford was five and twenty.
My newspaper tells me little more than that he is dead, that and the number of his years. There is his name, and it is a name that has a valiant sound this thousand years, since the dying Roland blew the last blast on his horn in the valley of Roncevaux. The first Norman knight who fell among the axes at Hastings was singing of Roland as he rode. If we could find a poet with the old skill he should make a song of Roland the young general who is dead. I dare not say of him that he was not as the boy in the book, that all did not go right with him to the end.
November 11th 2007
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