30 November 2017

Casualties of Cambrai: Brigadier General Roland Boys Bradford VC

Today marks 100 years since Brigadier General Roland Boys Bradford was killed during the Battle of Cambrai. Here we share the story of the Victoria Cross recipient, who at the age of 25 was the youngest Brigadier General in the modern history of the British Army to lead a combat formation.

Depiction of Roland winning his VC in October 1916. Photo courtesy of the Durham County Record Office 

Depiction of Roland winning his VC in October 1916. Photo courtesy of the Durham County Record Office

Brigadier General Roland Boys Bradford VC

186 Brigade, 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division

Killed: 30 November 1917

Aged: 25

Buried in: CWGC Hermies British Cemetery, F 10

Born on 23 February 1892 in County Durham, Roland was the youngest son of a mining engineer. He was educated at Epsom College in Surrey, and in 1910 he joined the Territorial Army. Two years later he transferred to the regular army, serving with the 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Roland travelled to France with the British Expeditionary Force, landing at St Nazaire on 10 September 1914.

He was a charming, good looking, kind young officer, much liked by his men. He had outstanding military abilities, and his sparkling intellect and tactical awareness as a leader saw him fast-tracked for promotion. In 1915, he was awarded the Military Cross and in May was promoted to Captain.

One year later he was promoted to Major and was transferred to the 1st/9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, part of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. In August he was given full command of the battalion. Three years of war had seen Roland, at the age of just 24, promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He forged close links with his new battalion and led them in combat throughout 1916 and much of 1917.

On 1 October 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the 50th Division was ordered into action at Eaucourt l’Abbaye. Roland’s battalion went into action at 3.15pm and it was for his actions during this battle that he would be awarded the Victoria Cross. The London Gazette recorded the following:

"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. Lieutenant-Colonel Bradford's Battalion was in support. A leading Battalion having suffered very severe casualties, and the Commander 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, Lieutenant-Colonel 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 objective, and so secured the flank."

Roland was presented with the medal by King George V, during an open-air ceremony in Hyde Park on 2 June 1917. On his return to the front he ordered that the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ be sung every night by his men. The tradition grew and was taken up by the entire Durham Light Infantry (DLI), and it remains the hymn of the regiment to this day. 

On 10 November 1917, Roland was given command of the 186 Brigade of the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division. At 25-years-old he was the youngest Brigadier General in the modern history of the British Army to lead a combat formation. Just 20 days later, on 30 November 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, he was killed. On hearing the news the 1st/9th DLI sang ‘Abide With Me’ in remembrance and respect for their former commander. Roland is buried in CWGC Hermies British Cemetery.

The CWGC also cares for two of Roland’s brothers. Second Lieutenant James Bradford MC, who died of wounds during the Battle of Arras in 1917 and is buried in CWGC Duisans British Cemetery. Lieutenant-Commander George Bradford died in 1918 during the Zeebrugge Raid and was also awarded the Victoria Cross. He is buried in Blankenberge Town Cemetery. Roland and George are the only brothers to both be awarded the Victoria Cross and no other family is more highly decorated in the history of the British Army.


Photos courtesy of the Durham County Record Office

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