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From the Cambridgeshire Times 12th November 1999. Reporter, John Andrew.

Harry Betts, MC, DCM & Bar - Unsung Hero of the Fens

Harry Betts might have been a farm worker or a railwayman, working at March loco-sheds and marshalling yards. Instead he joined the army and became the unsung hero of the Fens.

He was born in 1896 and by the time he was 18 was living with his family, which included four brothers and four sisters, at twenty Foot Sidings, a bleak and lonely spot near March.

The sidings were of great importance for the loading and distribution of crops and produce from farms and holdings in the surrounding area at the time, and Harry’s father, Jim, was in charge. He also looked after the level crossing gates.

Whatever plans young Harry might have had for himself, were dashed by the Kaiser. Like hundreds of thousands of other young men he answered the call to serve his country, inspired by pride and patriotism. And like them, he had no warning of the terrors and carnage to come.

It was on September 7th, 1914, that he took the oath and joined the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Soon recognised as a soldier of great ability, by the age of 21 he had been promoted to Company Sergeant Major, the youngest of that rank in the British Army, and had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and bar.

It was not long after signing up that he came face to face with the horror of the war to end all wars, and between 1915 and 1916, he kept a diary, making entries every day. Over a period of one year, he painted a stark picture of life at the front. The language was simple, the effect gripping:

April 2nd 1915 – Left Westoutre about three o’clock in the morning. Arrived at Ypres at about 11 o’clock in the morning. Lay in old cells all day. Started out for the trenches as soon as dark. Relieved No. 25 trench. Rained hard.

May 4th – Building dugouts all day. Germans shelled us with high explosives. No rations.

May 5th – No rations.

June 26th – Relieved D Company by holding a farm called Hobbs Farm. Germans shelled farm as soon as light. One shell dropped into the trenches burying our machine-gun section, killing the corporal. Four wounded. Capt. Sindall died from wounds. Had only just joined B Company.

July 1st – Several wounded after dark by rifle grenade. One private died from wounds. Lieut. Cookham died from wounds from the same grenade.

October 27th – Private Benton shot by a stray bullet. Died a day later. Only me and my mate left out of the section of 13 men.

Harry Betts survived, was promoted and by 1918 was displaying outstanding acts of courage and heroism. The book The Cambridgeshire Regiment describes on episode in March 1918.

"We were lying in the open, flat, sweating profusely and vainly trying to shovel up soil in front of us. I quite expected we should be annihilated when suddenly a miracle took place. CSM Betts rose to his feet with a blood-curdling yell and ran forward straight towards the machine guns, which ceased as if by magic.

We all followed, but Betts arrived first and chased about 30 of the enemy towards a dug-out. He laid out six with his bayonet before we arrived, and would have gone for the rest of them if Mr Driver had not arrived and ordered them to surrender.

Betts had to comply with this order, and about 20 were made prisoners, Betts relieving the officers and NCO’s of their field glasses, which he festooned over his equipment."

In August, he again displayed his bravery, forcing a machine-gun crew to surrender. This action allowed two companies to continue their advance and all objectives were captured. "The success of this whole operation was mainly due to the gallantry and initiative displayed by Betts," says the book. "For his services in this action he was recommended for the VC."

The award of a Military Cross was announced later, but he never lived to wear it. On August 22nd, 1918, less than three months before the blood bath ended, he died at the Battle of Bapaume.

"Just as the attack was starting, an enemy machine-gun opened up only a short distance in front. Impulsive as ever, Betts could not resist the challenge and sprang over the parapet, doubtless intending to work round and take the machine-gun from a flank. He had only gone a few yards when he fell, and with him Cambridgeshire lost one of its bravest sons, and the Battalion a devoted and fearless warrant-officer."

He was 22, and was buried in Beacon Cemetery, Sailly-Laurette in France, a bleak and lonely death far from the family he had left behind in Twenty Foot Sidings, a family still proud of their unsung Fenland hero.

This item is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor of the Cambridgeshire Times.

A new memorial to Harry Betts in Guyhirn churchyard dedicated in August 2018
on the 100th anniversary of his death. Paid for by his family.
Photograph Copyright © Bob Bottrell 2018

Last updated 9 December, 2018

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