BRIGADIER-GENERAL ROLAND BOYS BRADFORD, VC, MC:
HIS PHILOSOPHY & APPROACH TO LEADERSHIP
An article by
David A. Thompson, MLitt
Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford, VC, MC was a remarkable man from a remarkable family. Born of Northumberland Border stock, his father George Bradford, a qualified mining engineer, later managed two collieries in County Durham before developing a small colliery of his own. His mother originated from Kent and Roland, his sister and three older brothers were all educated in Darlington. Captain Thomas Bradford was the oldest (born 1886) and the only brother to survive the war. In April 1915, he went to France with 1/8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI). He was wounded during the Second Battle of Ypres and, later, he was Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Lieutenant-Commander George N. Bradford, RN (born 1887) was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC) for his actions in the attack on Zeebrugge during the night of 22-23 April 1918. James Bradford (born 1889), an officer with 18th Battalion, DLI, was awarded a Military Cross (MC) for his actions in the Hébuterne sector at the beginning of March 1917 but, on 14 May 1917, he died of wounds received.
Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford, VC, MC
The tremendous reputation gained by 1/9th Battalion Territorial Force, DLI as a fighting infantry unit was by no means due to the efforts of one man alone but it would certainly be true to say that Roland Bradford, in his time as battalion Commanding Officer (CO), had a marked impact on the battalion. As second-in-command then as CO, Bradford remained with the battalion until November 1917, a period of eighteen months during which time he enhanced its reputation and helped create in it a fighting spirit that made it famous throughout France, so much so that it was viewed as a role model for others to follow. Bradford was rewarded with promotion to the rank of Brigadier-General and, on 10 November 1917, he assumed his duties as General Officer Commanding 186th Brigade (62nd Division). On 8 November, 1/9th Battalion’s war diary recorded:
Over a year beforehand, after it had moved forward to old German lines near Mametz Wood, on 15 September 1916, the battalion acted as 151st Brigade’s reserve but was soon ordered forward to support part of 149th Brigade. In the ensuing action, Bradford, then the battalion CO, suffered a nasty flesh wound but his second-in-command, Major E. G. Crouch, DCM, later wrote:
That wound was the first of three sustained by Bradford while he was with 1/9th Battalion, DLI. He was also wounded on 16 January 1917 and, again, during the night of 4-5 November 1917, immediately before he left the battalion. On that last occasion Second Lieutenant V. P. Robinson recorded in his diary:
Bradford remained at duty each time he was wounded.
Roland Bradford, who was born in 1892, won his VC for actions on 1 October 1916 during the capture of Eaucourt l’Abbaye and the trenches east of le Sars. Initially held in reserve when the attack on 1/9th Battalion’s front stalled and the CO of the attacking battalion, its sister 1/6th Battalion, was wounded, Bradford used his initiative and had the foresight to secure permission to command both battalions, which he led forward to secure their objectives. By his actions on that day, his force protected the division’s flank, which had lost contact with the adjoining 47th (2nd London) Division. A London Gazette exert from Bradford’s citation read:
1/6th Battalion, DLI’s attack on 1 October 1916 was planned to begin at 03:15 hours but at 01:30 hours Major G. E. Wilkinson, that battalion’s CO, was wounded by enemy shellfire. There is some uncertainty about precisely what happened next. Wilkinson wrote later that, as he was making his way back to a casualty clearing station, he saw Roland Bradford and that it was he who suggested that Bradford go forward to take command of 1/6th Battalion. Wilkinson also claimed that Brigadier-General N. J. G. Cameron and the Brigade Major were told of his proposal and that they approved his actions. Wilkinson’s report and Bradford’s citation differ slightly but it is probably not now important to establish which was right and which was wrong. Bradford took command and the rest is history. He ensured that strong trench blocks were constructed and he organised the two battalions to repulse an enemy counter-attack, following which patrols were sent towards the maze of trenches known as the Tangle, which were held in force by the Germans. Harry Moses contends that Major Veitch’s report, below, must have related to 2 October as Bradford was fighting with his men throughout the night of 1-2 October and into the following day. Veitch, second-in-command of 1/8th Battalion, DLI and, later, author of that battalion’s history during the war, wrote some notes that threw a strong light on Bradford himself and on what his presence meant to others:
Bradford’s account of the battle on 1-2 October gave casualties as seventy men killed (all ranks) plus four hundred wounded. After the capture of the Flers Line both 1/6th and 1/9th Battalions were reduced to fifty per cent of their normal strength so they were merged for a short time during which period they captured le Sars (7 October 1916).
In the days before the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt, the whole battalion was employed for working parties, to repair Rutherford Alley. On 3 November, it moved into the frontline and began preparations for the attack, which was fixed to start at 09:10 hours on 5 November. The assembly trenches were two feet or more deep in mud and water, and without trench boards. Whilst the Butte provided the enemy with good observation of the ground towards High Wood and Martinpuich, Roland Bradford was not alone in considering it to be of little or no military value. Unknown to the British, the enemy was about to relieve the 24th Bavarian Division in the line with the 1st Guards Reserve Division. At the time of the action, therefore, both divisions were in a position to meet the assault. Bradford’s report on it revealed that Maxwell Trench, the British frontline, lay immediately east of the Albert – Bapaume road. It was separated from the Butte by a distance of about two hundred and fifty yards although the average distance between the two frontlines in this sector was a little further, perhaps three hundred yards. The three attacking battalions of 151st Brigade, from left to right 1/9th, 1/6th and 1/8th Battalions, DLI, with the 5th Battalion, Border Regiment in reserve, each attacked on a three-company frontage, with their reserve companies remaining in Maxwell Trench until called forward. 1/9th Battalion, DLI’s war diary described operations in relation to the Butte:
A German dugout on the north-east corner of the tumulus held out throughout the action and proved troublesome. The first enemy counter-attack was at about noon but it was a half-hearted affair. Several bombing attacks were repulsed during the afternoon but a more determined counter-attack developed at about 18:00 hours. By this time, the battalion’s reserve company had moved forward as reinforcements. The German Prussian Guards Division delivered the decisive counter-attack at 23:00 hours on 5 November. An extract from the diary entry for the following day:
Harry Moses (The Gateshead Gurkhas… pp. 68 and 69, and The Fighting Bradfords:… pp. 65-69) gives slightly different casualty figures, no doubt reflecting more accurately those who died of wounds. His figures are six officers killed, eight wounded and three ‘Missing’, plus thirty-six other ranks (ORs) killed, over two hundred and twenty wounded and one hundred and fifty-four ‘Missing’. Of course, many of the ‘Missing’ were later found to have been killed. At 16:00 hours on 6 November, the remnants of the battalion were subjected to a heavy enemy bombardment of Maxwell Trench, which sheltered ninety-four officers and men who had come out of the battle and the many wounded who could not be moved. At 23:00 hours the battalion was, finally, relieved and moved to a camp to the north-west corner of Mametz Wood, which it reached at about 03:00 hours on 7 November. Conducted in darkness, yet subjected to continual enemy shelling, the relief was very difficult to complete. At one stage, the relieving battalion had to take cover in Pimple Alley until the bombardment subsided.
In his report, Bradford highlighted several reasons for his battalion’s inability to hold the ground gained:
More damning, perhaps, he contended that the results to be gained in the event of success were of doubtful value and did not justify the losses suffered and the sacrifices made. He expressed the opinion that it would have always been awkward to hold the objectives, which were badly sited in relation to German support positions and for defence. According to Bradford, from their existing positions the British could prevent the Germans from using the Butte as an observation post, and it would be of little use to the British for the same purpose. However, he acknowledged that the feature had become something of an obsession to the British High Command – seemingly, everybody wanted it.
Many of Bradford’s ideas were original, a more extreme example of which was his order that, during the summer months, men should sunbathe. Concerned over their health, after consultation with the regimental Medical Officer who confirmed the benefits of sunbathing, Bradford issued an order that, whether in the line or resting, they should sit naked in the sun for an hour each day. The initial reticence to comply was, perhaps, understandable, so Bradford took the initiative and lead such that, soon, the difficulty was to get the men to put their clothes on again at the end of the hour!
Another example of Bradford’s approach was his use of music as a stimulant. He was instrumental in forming the battalion concert party, ‘The Green Diamonds’. Although devoid of musical talent himself Bradford was a great lover of the medium and he introduced a custom whereby every night, whether in rest billets or in the trenches, men of the battalion sang verses of ‘Abide with me’, which was often done spontaneously, starting in one shell hole and taken up by the next post until the whole line joined in. When news of his death, on 30 November just twenty days after his promotion to the rank of Brigadier-General, reached the battalion, ‘Abide with me’ was sung at night, in his memory.
Bradford left some rough notes, which illustrate his modus operandi. These follow, much as he left them:
This modus operandi would not be out of place in today’s Army or in a business or commercial environment. At twenty-five years of age when promoted, Roland Boys Bradford was, at the time, the youngest Brigadier in the British Army. Who is to know what he might have achieved had his life not been cut short so soon after his promotion. He certainly left his regiment with a proud legacy.
DLI archives held at Durham Record Office, in particular: D/DLI 2/9/1 (1/9th Battalion war diary to 1918); D/DLI 098/24/12 CHECK (‘Vane Papers’); D/DLI 2/9/33-243 (Papers of Lieut-Col Ernest Crouch); D/DLI 2/9/37-51 (Reports & papers of Lieut-Col R. B. Bradford)
Anon, Brigadier-General R. B. Bradford, VC, MC, and His Brothers (Newport: Ray Westlake – Military Books, 1993)
Anon, Officers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919 (Polstead: J. B. Hayward & Son, 1988)
Creagh O’Moore and Humphries, E. M., The V. C. and D. S. O. Book, Volumes I, II and III (Uckfield: The Naval & Military Press Ltd, all 2001)
Moses, Harry, The Gateshead Gurkhas: A History of the 9th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, 1859-1967 (Durham: County Durham Books, 2001); The Fighting Bradfords: Northern Heroes of World War One (Durham: County Durham Books, 2003)
Shannon, Stephen D., Beyond Praise: The Durham Light Infantrymen who were awarded the Victoria Cross (Durham: Durham County Council Arts, Libraries and Museums Department, 1998)
Ward, S. G. P., Faithful: The Story of The Durham Light Infantry (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1962)