Special service to commemorate Harry Betts, a truly inspirational and never to be forgotten hero from the Fens
PUBLISHED: 14:30 27 August 2018
A special service to commemorate a truly great Fen hero took place in Guyhirn.
It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death – in action – of company sergeant major Harry Betts. He was killed on August 22, 1918 at the Battle of Bapaume, part of the Battle of Amiens, the final turning point of World War One.
The memorial service was held at the Chapel of Ease, Guyhirn and conducted by Rev. Matthew Bradbury assisted by Rev. Ryk Parkinson.
Also present were his descendants Brian Betts, Brian’s daughter Sarah, Colonel Mark Knight of the Cambridgeshire Cadet Force and three members of George James Funeral Directors (March).
“I am especially grateful to George James Funeral Directors who helped and supported me through a complicated procedure,” said Brian.
“This was an especially important occasion to me as I am the ‘last in the line’ of the Betts family.”
Harry Betts was born in Warboys, son of a rail worker who came to live at Twenty Foot Siding near March before the war and worked on the land.
Retired teacher David Prestidge researched the story and recalls that in 1914 CSM Betts joined the 1st Cambridgeshire Regiment Territorial Force and as a member of “D” Company (March) embarked for France on Valentine’s Day 1915.
David recalls that Harry Betts won his first medal in the late summer of 1917and his bravery earned him a Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.)
On March 21st 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive against British, French and Commonwealth forces in northern France.
The German offensive shook the British and French, and threw them back from the positions astride the Somme which had been won at such high cost in 1916.
Thus it was that the Cambridgeshire Regiment were fighting in the region of Cayeux-en-Santerre, well to the south of the River Somme, and a few miles south-east of Villers Brettoneux. They were part of the 39th Division, and were fighting alongside the Hertfordshire Regiment, and the Black Watch.
Colonel M.C. Clayton takes up the tale (extract from The Cambridgeshires’ 1914 to 1919.): “We were in the open lying 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.
“C.S.M. Betts rose to his feet with a blood-curdling yell and ran straight towards the machine-guns, which ceased as if by magic. We all followed, but Betts arrived first and chased about thirty of the enemy towards a dugout.
“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 twenty were made prisoners, Betts relieving the officers and N.C.Os of their field-glasses, which he festooned over his equipment.”
The German offensive was eventually halted in the summer of 1918, and after August 8, which became known as ‘The Black Day Of The German Army’, the Allied forces began to push the Germans back eastwards. It was slow, and resulted in the highest casualty rates of the whole war, but it was relentless.
Colonel Clayton writes, “And so it turned out that both companies soon found that further advance would bring them into direct enfilade fire from the nest of machine-guns firing from the southern end.
“Without hesitation Betts, who was C.S.M. of ‘D’ Company on the right, dashed off alone. Taking advantage of a hedge running across the front, he worked his way resolutely forward until ‘D’ Company had lost sight of him.
“When he reappeared he was in the rear of the enemy position which was causing all the trouble. There were about thirty of the enemy all engaged in firing at ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies.
“Superior numbers had no terrors for Betts; practically single-handed he had recaptured a position in March 1918. With a blood-curdling yell he dashed in with his bayonet at the nearest machine-gun crew.
“This unexpected attack from the rear was the last straw; those who had survived Betts’ frenzied onslaught meekly surrendered and were handed over by him to some men of The Buffs who happened to arrive before the astonished enemy had regained their wits.
“The success of this whole operation was mainly due to the gallantry and initiative displayed by Betts.”
The Allies slowly battled their way eastwards across the ground which had been won at such a high cost in the summer of 1916.
David Prestidge writes: “Harry Betts must have thought he was invincible. His heroism was now a byword in the regiment. He had two gallantry awards to his credit. In late August, the Allies were engaged in what became known as The Battle of Bapaume.”
Just before a vital offensive, Clayton wrote; “The CSMs of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies reported their arrival.
“All four CSMs were to remain at H.Q. until the situation was clarified to be used if needed to pull together Companies depleted of officers. Betts of ‘D’ Company had not arrived. Where was he?”
Later, Clayton wrote,” I found out why C.S.M. Betts had not reported to H.Q. with the other CSMs. Just as the attack was starting, an enemy machine gun opened up only a short distance in front.
Impulsive as ever, he 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.”
Harry Betts is buried in Beacon Cemetery, Sailly Laurette.
The official records state: No 325753. Son of James & Alice Betts, Twenty Foot Sidings, March. Recommended for Victoria Cross for 9/8/18, but awarded MC. Also DCM (26-9-17, Tower Hamlets) and Bar (Acting-RSM, Hill 90, 28/3/18). CSM, Killed in action 22-8-18, age 22.