Brief Historical Overview of The Cambridgeshire Regiment
Below, you will see that I have included a brief synopsis of the history of The Cambridgeshire Regiment, from its beginnings as a 'Volunteer' regiment in the 19th Century. I should add though that there was once a 'Regular' army regiment from this county, The 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot. The 30th saw distinguished service at Waterloo as well as many other famous actions, but was reorganised and changed title in 1881, and with this change disappeared from this county forever, becoming known as the 2nd Battalion, The East Lancashire Regiment.
Perhaps I should explain that 'Volunteers' were not professional full-time soldiers like the regular army but a second-line formation, recruited to add to the Nation's defence in times of emergency and crisis. In 1860 there such a crisis when there was a perceived threat (real or imaginary) that France might be an enemy. The relatively small regular army was committed to secure the Empire overseas, and Britain would need many more trained riflemen if she was to defend the homeland, therefore soldier-citizen units were created – the Volunteers.
The lineage ought to begin in 1860, with the formation of the CambridgeshireRifle Volunteer Corps. Components of this Corps were established in Cambridge, Wisbech, Cambridge University, Whittlesey, March, Ely, Upwell, Newmarket and Soham. Each of these formations were raised independently and uniform and accoutrements were a matter of C.O.’s fancy rather than of a universal pattern. Some followed the rifle green, while others adopted the fashionable grey worn by other Volunteers in the Country.
By 1872 the Volunteers were rationalised and from this date until 1880 they became known as 1st Administrative Battalion The Cambridgeshire Rifle Volunteers. From 1880-1887 there were further changes, the components of the old ‘Corps’ were amalgamated to become, 1st Cambridgeshire Rifle Volunteer Corps.From this time dress was the universal scarlet, but with dark blue facings, with the home service blue cloth spiked helmet and white metal fittings with bugle horn ‘rifles’ buttons.
With the Cardwell Reforms of 1881, the Regular Army bore the brunt of government intervention, and massive changes swiped away many distinguished regiments, e.g., the 30th Foot. All single battalion regiments were married with formations of a similar standing and given new titles (the number system went, and the county title came in). With this wide sweeping change the Volunteers were later bought to heel and integrated into a system that bonded a closer relationship with their Regular counterparts and from 1887 until 1908 the Cambridgeshires began their first association with the Suffolk Regiment, to be known as the 3rd (Cambridgeshire) Volunteer Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment. It must be remembered that the County had no Regular Army presence, therefore Suffolk was deemed as the nearest location to link its Volunteers with a standing regiment. Whilst white metal ‘Suffolk’ buttons and insignia were now adopted, the unusual Cambridgeshire dark blue facings were retained in favour of the Suffolk’s yellow.
With the commencement of hostilities during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, high casualty rates in the opening phase of the war resulted in an exodus of Volunteers joining the Colours to serve alongside their Regular brothers in South Africa. In 1900, a party of 43 officers and men of 3rd (Cambridgeshire) Vol Bn Suffolk Regt sailed for the Cape and served for one year, integrated with the 1st Bn, Suffolk Regt. During this time they served on the western front in the Orange Free State, under the command of General Roberts, and later Kitchener. This detachment saw their share of action, but most of their experience was participating in the hard flanking march up-country that led to the capture of Pretoria. They later served in the Transvaal before returning home to Cambridge in May 1901. Each of the returning Volunteers were granted the Freedom of the Borough and presented with a silver goblet and framed scroll to commemorate the event as well as receiving the Queen’s campaign medal later.
When in 1908 the Territorial Force was born, the old 3rd (Cambs) Bn Suffolks were disbanded, to become 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment. Their new cap badge was unique to them, displaying the Castle of Cambridge, with the Arms of Ely superimposed on a central shield in the centre. A further distinguishing mark was the Battle Honour, “South Africa 1900-01” included on a scroll on the badge, as well as on their new Colours presented by King Edward VII in 1909.
Interestingly most T.F. units were affiliated to a Regular Regiment, but there were others that enjoyed a special independent status, having their own insignia and character. These were: Monmouthshire, Hertfordshire, Herefordshire, The London Regiment and Cambridgeshire.
With the beginning of hostilities in August 1914 the Cambridgeshire's were expanded and comprised of the following elements;
1/1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment. T.F. The ‘parent’ unit that was deployed on the Western Front continuously from 15/2/15.
2/1st Battalion1st Reserve Battalion, recruiting and training men for active service with 1/1st Bn.
3/1st Battalion2nd Reserve Battalion, receiving men who had recovered from wounds with the 1/1st, and recruiting and training men for posting to the same.
4/1st BattalionTraining and supplying drafts of men for 1/1st Bn, and other regiments.
During the Great War approx. 10,000 all ranks served within the 1/1Bn in France and Flanders. Of that number 159 officers, and 4,088 N.C.O.’s and men were killed or wounded. The Regiment gained in excess of 300 personal gallantry awards, many individuals being decorated two and three times successively. Although not being officially awarded the Nation’s premier decoration, the Victoria Cross, one of the Regiment’s many ‘stars’ was C.S.M. Harry Betts who earned the MC and DCM ( Bar). He was recommended for the V.C. (and arguably had earned it) but it never materialised, instead his family received his posthumous Military Cross. The Regiment earned 27 Battle Honours, borne on its Colours.
One of many notable actions that particularly stands out was when the 1/1st Bn were involved in the fighting on the Somme. On the 14-15th October, 1916, the Cambridgeshires advanced and swiftly stormed the heavily fortified Schwaben Redoubt, a feature that had defied all previous attempts to take it, and held on to it despite successive counter-attacks. The fact that they did with only light casualties was down to the brilliant leadership of their C.O., Colonel Riddell. Haig himself celebrated the Regiment, announcing the action as, “One of the finest feats performed by the British Army.”
The names of all who fell between 1915-1918 are commemorated on several wooden screens that can be seen in the Regimental Chapel in Ely Cathedral.
In the few years of peace, and lack of public interest in things military that followed, the Regiment reverted back to its earlier status, being down-scaled to a single Battalion and back to part-time soldiering.
Following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, the British Government doubled the strength of the Territorial Army (it had changed from the T.F. in 1921). The Cambridgeshire Regiment now expanded and gained a second battalion. The 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment was raised in the County of Cambridge, and the 2nd Battalion recruited from the Isle of Ely. Their first Annual Camp was in August, 1939, where 1500 all ranks were present.
On mobilisation, both battalions were incorporated into the 18th division and the spent the following year carrying out defence duties along the Norfolk coast, training intensively in Scotland, the North East and Midlands, before embarking for overseas in October 1941. Kitted for service in the Middle East (North Africa and Iran were mentioned as proposed destinations) both battalions were diverted while in transit as a result of Japan now joining the conflict. The 2nd Battalion sped to Singapore Island while the 1st headed for India.
The Japanese had already advanced deeply throughout Malaya and had gained the tactical advantage by sweeping through the jungles and swamps, often bypassing defence lines held by British Indian and locally raised volunteer units. British air power was negligible and the loss of the ‘Prince of Wales’ and the ‘Repulse’ had further compounded the problems that British strategists faced.
2nd Cambs arrived at Singapore Naval Base on 13th January, and within three days were pushed up to Malaya as reinforcements to the town of Batu Pahat.
Soon surrounded, the garrison of Cambridgeshires, Leicesters, Norfolks, East Surreys, a Gunner Battery and a company of the Malay Regiment fought on a against a Japanese Imperial Guard Division for ten days until ordered to break out. Successfully breaching the Japanese cordon at Senggarang, 30 miles south, some 500 survivors from 2nd Cambs managed to fight through the jungle back to Singapore, the last arriving 30th/31st January. The battered 2nd Cambs were now reorganised and redeployed into the final defensive perimeter.
1st Cambs arrived from India 29th January and were immediately thrown into the line to participate in the final battles for Singapore. Despite constant assaults from Japanese infantry and tanks, 1st Cambs were still holding out although surrounded for two days when the cease-fire was ordered.
2nd Cambs made their last stand, attacked both front and rear, and lost its Headquarters. When the end came on 15th February the Battalion was reduced to a series of isolated pockets, still fighting with determination.
For the next three and a half years the men of The Cambridgeshire Regiment endured the deliberate policy of ill treatment, neglect and all the harshness that their Japanese captors could inflict upon them. As slave labourers they survived or died working on the Death Railway, before being transported to mainland Japan or other Japanese occupied territories to work in mines and other industries.
24 officers and 760 all ranks died either in action or as POWs.
The Singapore Drums
Before the final surrender on 15th February, Sergeants Kitson and Morgan were tasked with guarding various Regimental possessions, including the Drums that had been presented to the Regiment in the Great War. Before being re-called to take up their last positions in the defensive line, Kitson and Morgan ensured that the Drums were put in a place of safety within an outbuilding of the Goodwood Hotel. There the Drums remained undisturbed and forgotten, until after the war when they were discovered by a British Red Cross Welfare Officer, Mary Taylor. Mary had family connections with the Regiment and on spotting the emblazoned badge on the Drums made arrangements for them to be returned to England. The Drums can now be seen in Ely Museum and within the Cambridgeshire Regiment Gallery at IWM Duxford.
Mention must also made of the others that also wore the Cambridgeshire Regiment badge during the Second World War: the Home Guard. From 1940 11 battalions and two Independent Units were raised in the County, totalling 22,000 men, many of whom had already served with the Fen Tigers during the Great War.
Following the peace, changes in organisation and role of the Territorial Army (particularly the Infantry) were many. Many of the war raised ‘duplicate’ battalions were disbanded or merged and some were converted to the Royal Artillery. In 1947 the Regiment became 629 (The Cambridgeshire Regiment) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA (TA). Although now ‘Gunners,’ they were still allowed to retain their Colours, badge and Drums. For this new role the Regiment were equipped with Bofors 40mm AA Guns, and were trained for the air defence of East Anglian airfields, part of 1 AA Group of Anti-Aircraft Command.
In 1954 Anti-Aircraft Command was disbanded, and the Regiment was selected for duty with 16 Airborne Division (TA). With the title, 629 (The Cambridgeshire Regiment) Parachute Light Regiment RA (TA) and armed with 4.2 inch mortars. 140 all ranks qualified as parachutists, earning their red berets and ‘wings’ in 1955. This role was however short lived, for in 1956 their airborne artillery commitment was redundant (due to external reorganisation of 16 Airborne Division) and the Cambridgeshires became re-rolled to infantry once more.
Four years later following more national changes to the TA, it was announced that 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment (TA) were to be amalgamated with The 4th Battalion The Suffolk Regiment, to become The Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Regiment (TA). Both ‘old’ battalions retained their traditions and Battle Honours (receiving new Colours in 1963) but were issued with a new cap badge to reflect this marriage. The Cambridgeshire Regiment cap badge, worn continuously since 1908 and despite all the changes so far, thus went out of existence. Lasting only six years, the new regiment was reduced to an administrative cadre in 1967, before being finally disbanded.
In 1971 when a new Territorial Battalion was being formed to be a component of The Royal Anglian Regiment, a rifle company was designated as the rightful successor to the Cambridgeshires. Inheriting the Regiment’s traditions and lineage, ‘D’ (Cambridgeshire) Company, 6th (Volunteer) Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment went on to produce worthy men to follow in their predecessor’s footsteps. Based at Cambridge and Wisbech, the new unit gained the support and encouragement of veteran Fen Tigers, being honoured the right to wear the Cambridgeshire's regimental tie. Links were cemented further still by the right of the Company Commander’s wife to wear the ‘Lyon Brooch.’*
In 1992 ‘D’ Company reinstituted the ‘Cambridgeshire flash,’ a strip of blue/black/blue ribbon to be worn on the right upper arm of combat and service dress by all ranks, echoing the battalion flash worn by Cambridgeshires on the Western Front from 1917.
Following the end of the Cold War another reorganisation took place in 1992 and ‘D’ Company were re-roled, now to be known as 3 (Cambridgeshire) Company, 5th (Volunteer) Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment. This change was to be brief, for in 1995 they reverted with much satisfaction to be back to being ‘D’ (Cambridgeshire) Company 6th (Volunteer) Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment. Four years later, in April, 1999 the Company was finally disbanded, thus ending the County’s link with the part-time Riflemen that had begun in 1860.
With the disbandment of ‘D’ Company, the Cambridgeshire Army Cadet Force have inherited the traditions and Battle Honours of the Regiment but in more recent times, with irony, it is the Regular Army that now embraces links with the County more, with D (Cambridgeshire) Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Anglian Regiment celebrating and doing great honour to the past.
* A tradition that had begun when the wife of Colonel A.J. Lyon (C.O. 1902-1911) who had designed the badge for the Regiment, was presented with a diamond studded gold version for wear on official occasions. She directed that after her death, the wife of the succeeding Officer Commanding would wear the brooch in perpetuity.
Battle Honours Awarded to The Cambridgeshire Regiment
‘SOUTH AFRICA 1900-1901’ ‘SOMME 1916,1918’
‘YPRES 1915,1917’ ‘THIEPVAL’
‘GRAVENSTAFEL’ ‘ANCRE HEIGHTS’
‘FREZENBERG’ ‘ANCRE 1916’
‘MENIN ROAD’ ‘ROSIERES’
‘POLYGON WOOD’ ‘LYS’
‘ABLERT 1918’ ‘BAPAUME 1918’
‘HINDENBURG LINE’ ‘EPEHY’
‘ST.QUENTIN CANAL’ ‘PURSUIT TO MONS’
‘FRANCE AND FLANDERS 1915-1918’
‘BATU PAHAT’ ‘JAHORE’
What to see and where St George’s Chapel, Ely Cathedral
The Roll of Honour, featuring 5,320 names of the fallen of both world wars.
Colours of the following;
30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment of Foot
1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment
1st Battalion The Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Regiment (TA)
The Cambridgeshire Regiment Collection, Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridge CB2 4QR
Features a comprehensive collection of uniforms, badges, decorations and items associated with the Regiment from 1860-1999, most having never been exhibited to the public before the Gallery was established in 1997. Of special significance are three of the Cambridgeshire ‘Singapore’ Drums.
Other items can be seen displayed at The Suffolk Regiment Museum, Bury St. Edmunds; Ely Museum; and The Wisbech and Fenland Museum.
Elements of the Regiment’s archives are held at County Record office, Shire Hall, Cambridge.
‘The Cambridgeshire Regiment, A Guide’ is a colour brochure that features elements of the regiment’s history and features many colour photographs.
‘Storming the Schwaben Redoubt’ was produced to mark the 90th anniversary of arguably the Cambridgeshire’s finest moment when the 1/1st Battalion successfully stormed and held the defiant German position on the Somme, gaining a record 42 awards for gallantry.