William and James Geddes Brothers in Arms

William and James Geddes Brothers in Arms

When thousands of Scottish Highlander soldiers arrived in Bedford for training in August 1914, the military authorities were concerned that an outbreak of infectious diseases such as measles could be life threatening for some of the men. Many of them came from remote areas in the Western Highlands and Isles where diseases such as measles were rare and their immune systems had a low tolerance to infectious diseases.

In November 1914, there was an outbreak of measles among one of the regiments in Bedford. Soldiers who had been in contact with the disease were moved into the Huts at Howbury Hall. It was then decided that those soldiers at Howbury Hall who had gone down with the measles must to go into the hospitals in the town. As there were no beds available in the town hospitals, the military authorities requisitioned two schools, Ampthill Road and Goldington Road for use as Fever Hospitals. On the 1st December 1914, two wards opened at the new Fever Hospital at Goldington Road School.

The Bedfordshire Times of January 1915, reported, “As of the 17th August 1914 and 9th January 1915 the number of soldiers from the Highland Division who died were, twenty-seven men to measles, three to scarlet fever, three to diphtheria, three to pneumonia, one to uraemia. Measles claimed the largest number of deaths.”

The majority of Highlanders who died were returned to their families in Scotland for burial. Some of the dead who were not repatriated were buried with military funerals at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. During the winter of 1914 and 1915, the people of Bedford became used to the sound of the lone piper playing the traditional Highland lament “The Flowers of the Forest” when played at the funerals.

First Highlander’s Funeral
Private William Geddes was a farm worker at Culloden near Inverness and had joined the 4th Seaforth Highlanders in 1911. He was the first of the Highlanders buried at Foster Hill Road Cemetery, who  died of an infectious disease. He had been ill for some time. The actual disease he died of is unknown. William died aged 24 years on the 10th October 1914 at the Fever Hospital, Bedford.

William’s funeral, with full military honours, set out from Commercial Road to the Cemetery. Thousands of people gathered along the route to watch the cortege pass. Sir John Fowler, Colonel of the 4th Seaforth Highlanders and Adjutant and other officers attended the funeral. William’s younger brother, James Geddes, of the 4th Battalion Queens Own Cameron Highlanders was chief mourner.

Private James Geddes
Private James Geddes was William’s younger brother and was born at Bora, Sutherland. Before joining the Cameron Highlanders he lived at Munlochy, Rosshire, Scotland, where he worked on a farm. He enlisted at Culloden, near Inverness.

Sadly, James went down with pneumonia as a complication of measles. He died aged 22 years on 12th December at the Fever Hospital at Goldington Road. He was described as a ‘braw’ laddie and it had been thought unlikely that an illness would prove fatal for him.

James’ funeral, with full military honours, set out from the Borough Mortuary around noon. The Cameron tartan plaid covered his coffin. Placed upon his coffin were his glengarry, belt and bayonet. The Highland Divisional Artillery carried the coffin on a gun carriage. Corporal Falconer led the firing party of twelve under the charge of Sergeant J Cameron, followed by the Battalion Pipe Band, under the charge of Drum-Major Matheson, playing the sad lament “The Flowers of the Forest.” Alongside walked six pallbearers, from the 4th Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. The only mourner was his younger brother, whose name is not recorded. He walked behind with Lance-Sergeant Abercromby, who commanded the section, and the Rev. D. Macfarlane, Chaplain to the Seaforth and Cameron Brigade B Company.

Crowds lined the route as the procession made its way along the High Street and De Parys Avenue to the Cemetery. The burial took place not in the military section of the cemetery but in a wooded area just over the hedge from the park. His grave was at the foot of his brother’s, and close to the grave of Private Arthur Charker who was one of the first Highlanders’ casualties to violence.

The Rev. D. Macfarlane conducted a short service and then the firing party was marched to the side of the grave. Three volleys rang out accompanied by Lance-Corporal Shirran playing a few bars of “Lochaber No More.” The service ended with “The Last Post.” A massive wreath with the inscription “In memory of James Geddes, with deepest sympathy from his Comrades-in Arms B Company, 4th Camerons was placed upon his grave.


Bedfordshire Times & Independent Friday December 18th, 1914
Bedfordshire Times & Independent 15th January 1915
Bedfordshire Times & Independent Friday 26th November 1915
Bedfordshire Times & Independent Friday 4th December 1914

Linda S. Ayres

James Geddes Grave Ref: K2.68
William Geddes Grave Ref:  K2.67