To mark the unveiling of a new memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in Halifax town centre next May, Tom Scargill speaks to Brigadier Michael Bray about his family’s association with the Dukes.
Next May’s unveiling of the statue commemorating the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in Halifax will be a proud moment for Michael Bray.
A 15 foot high bronze monument will be erected in Woolshops marking the town’s proud history with the Regiment, which has now been amalgamated into the Yorkshire Regiment.
And Michael, 80, who lives in West Sussex, will be there to see it revealed for the first time.
He followed his father and grandfather in serving with the Dukes in a family association that stretches back 150 years.
Michael’s great grandfather and his brother were both friends of General Napier, who was put in charge of the Abyssinian campaign of 1868 in Ethiopia.
They were serving in Bombay and took part in the expedition, as did the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.
“That was the start of the connection,” says Michael. “The original Lord Napier became godfather to my grandfather, and in the family we all carry the name Napier.
“The expedition was incredible. They had 200-300 ships, 38,000 troops and 55,000 animals because they had to walk 400 miles and back through mountains. Quite extraordinary.
“The Dukes did particularly well because the Commanding Officer of the time in India had his lads playing football when other soldiers were confined to their tents between midday and 4pm due to the heat of the sun, so they were far fitter.
“At the final assault, the mountain top was flat, which was a great defensive position, and the Dukes were given the task of scaling the heights up a little narrow track. When they got to the top, a giant of a soldier threw a small drummer boy onto the palisade and then clambered up himself and they overcame the enemy and opened the gate.
“Those were the first two Victoria Crosses won by the Regiment.
“After that expedition, my grandfather Robert joined the Dukes, in 1894.”
And that is just the beginning of a fascinating story tying the Bray’s to their beloved Dukes.
“My grandfather trained at the barracks in Halifax,” says Michael. “He served first in Malta and India with the Dukes and then went off to join the Chinese Regiment.
“He then served in the Dukes in India, and was then posted to a Volunteer Rifle Regiment in Bangladesh.
“Then in 1912 he was sent to be the Commander of the Shanghai Volunteer Force.
“There were a lot of nations trading with China, and all the trading companies were based in Shanghai, but it was a lawless place and there was a big problem with gangs.
“It was an extraordinary outfit, with companies of Americans, British, Italians, Germans, Japanese, Chinese and other nations.
“In 1915 he was recalled to take command of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in France, but the War Office said ‘you’re on the books of this volunteer force and we’re not going to pay you until your period with them has run out’. So he fought for the first few months, as CO of the Dukes, in the trenches in France, with 20 per cent of his pay coming from Berlin. Quite extraordinary.
“He commanded the Dukes for a while and was promoted to Brigadier.
“He then came back down in rank to Lieutenant Colonel, back into command of the Dukes, and died in 1920, from wounds received in a gas attack on his brigade HQ in the war.”
Six years later, Michael’s father, also Robert, joined the Dukes, serving in India for most of the 1930’s, and at one point, living on a farm in Estonia, learning Russian.
In 1939, he was posted back to the 1st Battalion as a Company Commander and went with the Dukes in the expeditionary force that crossed the channel as soon as war broke out.
“The Dukes lost half of their Company Commanders in the Dunkirk retreat,” says Michael, “but fortunately my father was recalled before that for the Army Staff
College, and he became Chief of Staff of the 6th Airborne Division for the Normandy invasion.
“He landed in Normandy on D-Day and then fought for the rest of the war through North Europe.
“He left the Parachute Division and was then given command of the Gloucester’s.
“He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his part in Normandy, which is one below the Victoria Cross.
“He won a second DSO commanding the Gloucester’s in Holland, where he was shot through the thigh.
“He was the Army Commander in the Middle East at one stage, and his final job was Deputy Supreme Commander of the NATO Allied Command in Europe.
“He became Colonel of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and retired in 1970 as the senior General of the British Army.”
Michael harboured ambitions to join the Navy until he discovered it would involve sitting at a computer. “That didn’t really interest me,” he says.
“I went to 25 countries in my first five years of army service, very often only fleetingly.
“I started my commissioned life as a Platoon Commander in the Dukes in Northern Ireland, and finished my Army service as a Brigadier in Ireland commanding the Ulster Defence Regiment, which was an amazing body of local Battalions, including 500 women, who were the only women deployed on operations in the British Army.
“I retired in 1990 but have been involved in Dukes life since, and I teach part-time at Wellington College in Berkshire, which was set-up as a memorial to the first Duke of Wellington after he died.”
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