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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
4th – Building dugouts all day. Germans shelled us
with high explosives. No rations.
5th – No rations.
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
1st – Several wounded after dark by rifle
grenade. One private died from wounds. Lieut. Cookham
died from wounds from the same grenade.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.