Brig-Gen Roland Bradford VC - An Appreciation by John Buchan
of "The 39 Steps" fame
and later to become Governor General of Canada
It is customary, when we count the cost of war, to dwell especially upon the sacrifice of youth. The young men who would have shaped the future have perished in laying its foundations.Gifts of inestimable value to the world have been lost to it before they could find scope or fruition. Poets and thinkers have died, mute but not inglorious; men of action, statesmen, builders of society have passed before they could reveal themselves, leaving only an inheritance of "unfulfilled renown". But there is another side to the tragedy. There are many of the dead whom we can think of as having been born for the Great War, as having always been in training for it. Boys fresh from school or college have found in a few years of campaigning a far richer career than most men who reach the full span of life. In a short space they attain perfection, for
in bulk, doth make man better be. "
Who, in retrospect, can say that lives like Francis Grenfell's or William Congreve's were not fully lived? Our first feeling, when we hear of such losses, is of a tragic waste; but our later and wiser thought is of a most complete and splendid fulfilment.
In the long roll of the dead Roland Bradford is in some ways the most conspicuous figure. In three years of war he had made a great career, and he fell at the age of twenty-five, the youngest General in the British Army. His family, which contained both Durham and Kentish strains, had a battle record which few could equal.
One brother, Captain T.A. Bradford, of the 8th Durham Light Infantry (and later of the York and Lancaster Regiment), went through the First Battle of Ypres and won the D.S.O. A second, Lieut. J.B. Bradford, of the 18th Durham Light Infantry, won the Military Cross, and fell in the Arras fighting of May, 1917. A third, Lieut-Commander G.N. Bradford, Royal Navy, was killed in the great raid at Zeebrugge on St George's Day, 1918 [where he also won the Victoria Cross posthumously].
Roland Bradford was educated at Darlington Grammar School and Epsom College, where he had the career of the typical English schoolboy. He excelled in games, loved sport of all kinds, read widely, and took an active interest in his school O.T.C. Before joining the army he was a 2nd-Lieut in his local territorial battalion, the 5th Durham Light Infantry. On May 2nd, 1912 he was gazetted to the 2nd Regular Battalion of that famous regiment. He went to France with it in the autumn of 1914, where it formed part of General Congreve's 18th Brigade in the 6th Division of General Pulteney's Third Corps. He served as Platoon Commander during the winter fighting around Armentieres, and in the northern action, subsidiary to the battle of Neuve Chapelle, in March 1915, won the Military Cross. In May of that year he was gazetted Captain, and was presently transferred to the 7th Battalion as Adjutant with the rank of Major. This Battalion was part of the 50th Division of North of England Territorials which, it will be remembered, was flung into the Second Battle of Ypres at a critical moment to help the remnant of the Canadians to re-form the line.
During the rest of 1915 and the first half of 1916 the 50th Division was not engaged in any major operation. Roland Bradford was wounded more than once, but never left the regiment, and his perfect health was unshaken by the vicissitudes of trench life. He took the keenest interest in his profession, especially in those new developments of warfare which have been grafted on our traditional military science. Before the Battle of the Somme began he was transferred as Second-in-Command to another Battalion in the same Division, the 9th Durham Light Infantry, the unit with which his name was chiefly to be associated. The Somme gave him his first great chance to reveal his qualities. The 50th Division, it will be remembered, was the central one of the three Divisions of the Third Corps in the operations of September 1917. During the great attack of September 15th, when the Scottish 15th Division took Martinpuich and the 47th London Territorials took High Wood, the 50th cleared the difficult trench system between the two main objectives. Before the end of the month it captured Destremont Farm and the Flers Line, and later assisted in the taking of Eaucourt-L'Abbaye. In October Roland Bradford succeeded to the command of his Battalion, [Editor comments "In fact he was given command before this"] and a few weeks later he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his work in the autumn fighting. This is the official record of the deed which won the greatest honour that can fall to a soldier of Britain:
He commanded the 9th Durham Light Infantry for a little more than a year. It was a year of hard fighting for the British Army, for it saw the struggle on the Hindenburg Line, the great battles of Arras and Messines, and the long-drawn-out agony of Third Ypres.
A Battalion Commmander's first duty is to keep his battalion in good discipline and good heart. No man ever better fulfilled this task than the young lieutenant-colonel. With the authority of an old campaigner and the easy intimacy of a comrade he used to address his men, and in all his short speeches there shines a humble and soldierly trust in God. The religion which lifts a man through battle must be pure and undefiled, no soft thing of phrases and rites, but a living communion with the Unseen. Take this from an address of welcome to a new draft:
Or this from his address to his Battalion when he first took over the command:
....."Alas! I am sorry to say a few of our friends are up there. But there is one thing I would tell you and that is that those brave lads, although we cannot see them here on parade, are yet, we can feel confident, with us now, just as we are with them in spirit. And one day we will all be united in that Eternal Blighty in a happiness far greater than we have experienced on this earth."
In the beginning of November 1917, he was gazetted Brigadier-General Commanding the 185th Brigade in General Braithwaite's 62nd Division of West Riding Territorials. It was a grave charge for the young General, for the affair of Cambrai was in preparation and the 62nd Division was to be the centre of the British attack. A record exists of the few words with which he introduced himself to his new Brigade:
His men were soon to be justified in the confidence which their leader bespoke. Before dawn on the morning of November 20th the British tanks crept into the mist, silently, without any artillery barrage, and after them moved the British infantry. In the first hours Havricourt had fallen to the 62nd Division, and in the afternoon it swept northward, carrying the Hindenburg Reserve line and the village of Graincourt, and before dusk fell seizing the outskirts of Anneux. "The attack of the Division", said the official despatch, "constitutes a brilliant achievement in which the troops concerned completed an advance of four and a half miles from their original lines, over-running two German systems of defence and gaining possession of three villages."
The day's work was the most considerable advance that any British Division had made so far in the war. Next day the 62nd completed the capture of Anneux, and in the afternoon seized Cantaing with some hundreds of prisoners.
This is not the place to tell the complicated tale of Cambrai. As all the world knows, the German counter-stroke was launched on November 30th and robbed us of some part of our gains. On that wild day, when Divisions had to fight often with their flanks turned, the 62nd did not fall below its high record, General Bradford fell, killed instantaneously 'while cheering on his men'.
[Editor writes: this statement is not correct . . . General Bradford was killed instantaneously by a stray shell, but the event did not occur during an attack.]
For him there was to be no growing old, no slow ebbing of the joyful energies of youth. "In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the highest point of being, he passes at a bound on to the other side." He was buried behind the line at Hermies [British Cemetery]. The enemy tide has long since flowed over the countryside which he won, but his grave and those of his fellows are the pledges which we hold for our ultimate triumph.
So died one of the most brilliant and well-beloved of British soldiers.
"A genius for war" he was called by his Divisional General, who also wrote, "I have never met so young a man with such power of command."
The British Commander-in-Chief, who does not use words unadvisedly, has written: "The example of his unselfish courage and devotion to duty is, in my opinion, worthy of being kept in continual remembrance by the nation he died to serve."
Sir Douglas Haig's is the praise which he would have sought; and if we seek an epitaph to link Roland Bradford's deeds with the earlier days of that great English story which never ceases, let it be that which Clarendon wrote of Falkland: