Ampthill Camp during World War 1 [BLARS - Z1306/1/32/4]
A perhaps romanticised view of life in the Duke of Bedford's training camp at Ampthill was given by an unnamed Lutonian in an article published in the Luton News.
It was 10 o'clock at night and silence reigned over the camp, he wrote. There was not a light in any of the huts I passed on my way to a large building situated right on top of the hill. It appeared to be big enough to serve the purpose of a Zeppelin shed. In reality it was a large dormitory for soldiers.
When I tugged at one of the large sliding doors it groaned and creaked as though it had understanding and wished to arouse the sleepers within. I tiptoed as noiselessly as I could down one of the gangways in order to find my bed, but had not got far before I lost my sense of distance. All around was darkness, only relieved by a belt of dull grey on one side, high above the beds, where in the daytime light streamed through the glass.
On all sides were the sounds of heavy breathing, broken ever and anon by dry coughing ot the turning about of some restless sleeper. I struck a match and was able to locate with some degree of certainty the place where I stood. I stepped forward, and ere long the match went out. I felt again for my matchbox, and found there was only one match left. As I struck it a familiar voice called my name and asked, 'Are you lost?' I confessed that I was. The sound of the voice reassured me, and I discovered my bed just as the feeble rays of the match expired.
I was agreeably surprised to find that the mattress, pillow and blankets were not folded as I had left them in the early evening, but had been properly arranged to afford warmth. You may be sure I lost no time getting my greatcoat and spare tunic off the shelf and putting them on the bed so that I might be comfortable for the night.
That is how I went to bed one night not long ago in the building known as Olympia at Ampthill Camp or, to give it its official name, the Bedfordshire Training Depot. It was established in the early days of the war by the Duke of Bedford, who is Colonel of the Battalion and takes a keen personal interest in all its affairs. He is to be seen in the camp almost every morning, having motored over from Woburn Abbey.
At Ampthill many hundreds of men who are now fighting for the Empire in France or in Egypt learned how to drill and had instilled into them that sense of discipline which is so valuable an asset in the control and comparative safety of men when face to face with the enemy.
One great advantage of the camp is that it affords a suitable training ground for Bedfordshire men, and in this connection it is worthy of mention that all those who behave themselves may, unless something unusual takes place, obtain a pass to be absent from camp every weekend, a privilege not enjoyed by any other battalion of a county regiment in the whole of the United Kingdom.
The men come not only from all parts of Bedfordshire but the counties around, for it is a well known fact that the conditions here are better than in most camps, thanks to the generosity of the Colonel in command.
The men are chiefly country-bred and are of a type that can be turned into excellent soldiers. There are now about 1,200 men in the camp. Most of them at present in training attested under the Derby scheme and joined the Colours before their groups were called up, so as to be sure of getting to Ampthill. A few went there and attested a day or two before the Military Service Act came into operation.
A week or two ago over 100 men were sent elsewhere for machine gun instruction before proceeding to the Front, and drafts for France are now awaiting orders.
Reveille sounds at 5 o'clock, and the first parade is at 6 o'clock. Breakfast is at 7 and the second parade at 7.30. From then until about 1.30 the men are engaged in squad drill, handling arms, musketry, firing or physical drill. On some mornings the whole of the men take part in battalion drill.
On Monday mornings there is usually an inspection by the Colonel Commanding. Most of the parades last half an hour, at intervals of a quarter of an hour, but this is none too long when, as sometimes happens, the man are dismissed five minutes late and have to take off puttees and tunics and fetch sticks for physical drill.
When the welcome cookhouse call is heard, four men from each hut - a hut accommodated 24 men and some from Olympia chum in for meals - go to fetch the food, which is afterwards dished out in the open if the weather is favourable. Usually the meal consists of boiled meat, greens and potatoes, with date pudding or macaroni to follow.
After the meal all the men are supposed to lend a hand at washing the plates or scrubbing the tables and forms. Each man keeps his own knife and fork.
In the afternoon there is usually a route march, and recruits generally suffer with sore feet, but in course of time they get used to a blister or two and regard a march in much the same light as their more hardened comrades. Full pack is carried and the men may get tired, but they look almost as fresh as ever when they return through Ampthill, all in step with the band.
Upon returning to camp the men are eager for their tea, and it is an interesting sight to see them gather round the urns with their tin mugs, whilst the slices of bread disappear from the baskets with amazing celerity and are as quickly spread with butter and meat paste.
After tea the men clean up prior to going into Ampthill or spending the evening in the recreation room. Here there is a plentiful supply of daily papers but, strangely enough, they are limited to three publications - the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror. There are in addition a few of the pictorial weeklies and a magazine or two.
Occasionally some of the men may be seen playing at draughts. Concerts have been held weekly during the winter. These have not been discontinued, and the men display great interest in sports, of which football is the chief. There are canteens in the camp, and also two or three soldiers' rooms in the town.
The order to 'Stand by your cots' is heard at 8.30, and the bugle blows 'Lights out' at 9.15.
The camp is situated on the highest part of Ampthill Park, and the spot where formerly Ampthill Castle stood. Here in 1773 Lord Ossory [Lord Lieutenant of Bedfordshire] erected a monument consisting of an octagonal shaft raised on four steps and surrounded by a cross bearing a shield with the arms of Catherine of Aragon. On a tablet inserted in the base of the cross is an inscription written by Horace Walpole.
Queen Catherine [first wife of Henry VIII] was residing at Ampthill - separated from her husband and daughter - when the commissioners for her divorce met at Dunstable Priory in 1533, and here Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, pronounced sentence of divorce on May 23rd. The sentence was communicated to Catherine at Ampthill. She was offered the title of Princess Dowager and to be treated as the King's sister, but she solemnly protested that she would never consent to give up her title of Henry's wife. She was removed from Ampthill, almost by force, and was taken to Kimbolton to die.
The present Ampthill House is some distance away below the summit of the hill, but nevertheless so high that it commands a fine view of the vale of Bedford.
One of the Dukes of Bedford gave to Ampthill an alameda such as we find outside Spanish towns - a charming place for sitting, walking or chatting if our climate would allow us to enjoy an outdoor life. We pass from the road into a wide avenue planted with trees on both sides and turfed, with seats under the trees.
Walking along for some distance - for it is long - we reach at length a piece of land on which grows a fine grove of pine and fir trees. This is a delightful spot, with hilly rises and miniature dells. The ground under the pines is thickly strewn with their needles, and their peculiar perfume is on the air. It is a lovely spot for reclining on the turf in the shade of a hot summer day, and listening to the aerial music that breathes through the pine stems, as sweet and mysterious as the sound of an Aeolian harp, while from high in the heavens the lark's song falls, adding a greater charm to the place.
[The Luton News: Thursday, April 27th, 1916]