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Bedford Highlanders

Death and Disease

Places > Bedford > First World War > Regiments | Bedford Highlanders Home

Quarantine camps

Although the division's time in Bedford was largely trouble free in terms of disciplinary matters, tragedy came in the form of disease. Scarlet Fever, diphtheria and measles ran through the ranks of men who had never been exposed to these diseases in the more remote areas of Scotland. The majority of men who contracted these diseases survived, but some did not. At the time, the numbers of deaths became grossly exaggerated and it was rumoured that considerable numbers of men were dying in large measure as a result of incompetence and lack of concern on the part the Authorities.
The landladies who had sick soldiers living in their homes would often not permit the men to be sent to hospital, trusting themselves to do a better job than the authorities of tending the sick.
"Measles broke out among the machine gun men and the signallers and machine gun men were isolated at Howbury... unfortunately I managed to catch the measles. After spending 2 days of torture in the tent I was sent to Clapham Hospital... and was there 3 weeks. Meanwhile most of the other companies in the 1/8th Battalion had caught the measles too and the Battalion was isolated at Howbury (under canvas) with Howbury Hall as Head Quarters."
The personal diary of Private Hugh McArthur, Signaller, 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
This photograph (Bedford & Luton Archives and Records Service) shows the tented quarantine camp in the grounds of Howbury Hall, Renhold. Nearly 1,000 men of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders lived in these tents for most of the winter of 1914/15 while the measles epidemic ran its course.
(photo: Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service)

Funeral procession on junction of Foster Hill Road and Park Avenue

It is reckoned that just under 150 men died of disease during the winter spent in Bedford. In the majority of cases, their bodies were returned to Scotland for burial, but some 33 are interred in the military section of Bedford's Foster Hill Road cemetery.
This photograph is of a Seaforth Highlander's funeral procession and was taken at the junction of Park Avenue and Foster Hill Road. The firing party, with rifles reversed, are just turning into Foster Hill Road to lead the cortege up the hill to the cemetery. The firing party is followed by the pipes and drums. During the winter of 1914/15 Bedfordians became very familiar with the strains of 'Flowers of the Forest', a traditional Highland lament, played by the pipers as the bodies of the dead soldiers were carried through the Town either to the railway station to make the journey home to Scotland, or up to Foster Hill Road cemetery.
Such was the public concern over the deaths among the Highlanders that the authorities felt compelled to publish a full explanation in the pages of the Bedfordshire Times.
So many rumours have been prevalent of late, many of them grossly exaggerated, as to the number of deaths of Scottish Territorials, that it seems desirable to give the actual figures.
This we ('The Bedfordshire Times') are enabled to do, having before us, by the courtesy of Major Keble, D.A.D.M.S., H.D. (T.F.), the vital statistics relating to the Highland Division T.F., in Bedford from August 17, 1914 to January 9, 1915... the total number of deaths from all causes up to January 9, 1915, 39".

(photo: Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service)

Highlanders burial

"These figures should at once and definitely put a stop to all the talk of 'hundreds of deaths.' The average number of troops quartered in and around Bedford during the past five months has been about 17,500, and the total number of deaths works out at the low rate of 2.2 per 1,000 men.
The largest number of deaths, it will be seen, is due to measles, and it may be said at once that this danger was foreseen. The real difficulty as to measles, and some other infectious diseases, arises in the case of men like the Camerons, who come from the Western Highlands and Isles, where such diseases are unknown.
They have no such resisting power as is built up in town-bred populations which for generations have been subject to the disease. When they get measles it goes very hard with them, and the disease is utterly unlike that which we know in the case of our children. This is unavoidable, according to the official military medical authorities. All that can be done is done
The men who have been in contact with measles and are susceptible are removed to the Huts at Howbury. Then, if they are attacked, they are removed to the Measles Hospitals at Goldington Road and Ampthill Road.
The official medical view is that the number of deaths, deeply regrettable as it is, is not large under the circumstances; and all the evidence goes to show they are right.
This photo which is next in the sequence shows the coffin, draped with the Union Flag and borne on a gun carriage belonging to the Highland artillery. Such scenes were reasonably commonplace in Bedford during the winter of 1914/15.
(photo: Bedford and Luton Archives and Records Service)

Page last updated: 30th May 2014