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The Pals Battalions in World War One
From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, it took only five weeks for Europe to slide from nervous peace to raging war. Britain, bound by treaty to aid Belgium, declared war against Germany on 4 August, determined but unready. Its professional army was badly equipped and minuscule in comparison to the conscript-heavy standing armies on the continent. It comprised just 450,000 men – including only around 900 trained staff officers – and some 250,000 reservists.
This posed a problem. While many famously expected the war to be ‘over by Christmas’, Lord Kitchener, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War, was unconvinced. He warned the government that the war would be decided by the last million men that Britain could throw into battle.
With conscription politically unpalatable, Kitchener decided to raise a new army of volunteers.
On 6 August, Parliament sanctioned an increase in Army strength of 500,000 men; days later Kitchener issued his first call to arms. This was for 100,000 volunteers, aged between 19 and 30, at least 1.6m (5’3″) tall and with a chest size greater than 86cm (34 inches).
Call to arms
The call to arms was augmented by the decision to form the units that became known as Pals Battalions. General Henry Rawlinson initially suggested that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with people they already knew. Lord Derby was the first to test the idea when he announced in late August that he would try to raise a battalion in Liverpool, comprised solely of local men. Within days, Liverpool had enlisted enough men to form four battalions…..
…. The scale of the response was astounding, with around 30,000 men enlisting every day by the end of August. These numbers were too many for the army to handle alone; in the short term, local dignitaries and magistrates acted on behalf of Lord Kitchener and organised, drilled and fed the men until the military machine was ready to take over. By mid-September, 500,000 men had volunteered; another 500,000 had joined them by the end of the year.
Why were so many keen to join?
The year 1914 witnessed a heady rush of patriotic optimism nationwide, fuelled further by tales of (invariably fictitious) German atrocities that led to a common desire to help ‘plucky little Belgium’. Most people – on both sides – believed that, even if the war would not be over by Christmas, that it would nonetheless be relatively short. Consequently, army service promised opportunities, excitement and travel denied to most Britons of the time.
To many, the army must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime and areas dominated by heavy industry and mining provided a disproportionate number of recruits. By the time the initial euphoria had faded, as Christmas passed and casualties rose, military service had become as much a duty as an opportunity for able-bodied men. Recruitment continued throughout 1915, bolstered by immense social and peer pressure that partly replaced the early enthusiasm.
Once they had been formed, most Pals Battalions spent 1914 and 1915 training in Britain. But preparations were under way for a major offensive on the Somme that was intended to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, breach German lines and force an early victory. The offensive would take place over about 30km (20 miles) and would be the first major battle for most volunteers.
For many it would also be their last. The first day of the Somme was disastrous. The preceding artillery barrage had failed to destroy the heavily fortified German trenches and, in many cases, had not even cut their barbed wire defences. Military commanders, concerned with maintaining discipline in their new volunteer army, instructed them to walk in formation towards German lines when the attack began.
In the event, the British army walked into a slaughterhouse. The battle on 1 July marked the army’s greatest single loss in its history, with 60,000 casualties, of which 20,000 were dead. The Pals Battalions suffered accordingly: of the 720 Accrington Pals who participated, 584 were killed, wounded or missing in the attack. The Leeds Pals lost around 750 of the 900 participants and both the Grimsby Chums and the Sheffield City Battalion lost around half of their men.
After early optimism, news of the scale of the losses broke slowly, often only once letters from surviving officers and comrades reached the families of the dead. Casualty lists only began to reach Grimsby on 10 July and, in many towns and cities, confused rumours bred panic and anger in the affected communities. In the Accrington Observer and Times, initial accounts of success quickly gave way to pages filled with names and photographs of those killed, missing and wounded. Percy Holmes, the brother of a Pal, recalled: ‘I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don’t think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn’t have their blinds drawn, and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day.’ Few homes remained untouched: an epidemic of grief swamped the country …
….The Pals Battalions survived the Somme in name only. Some, like the Sheffield Pals, were disbanded altogether before the war ended. Others saw their defining characteristics inevitably diluted by the influx of men to replace those who had died. Although by early 1916 around two million men had enlisted voluntarily, enthusiasm diminished as casualties increased, and conscription was introduced in March….
…. Ultimately, Pals Battalions were an innovation that certainly bolstered the number of volunteers, joining up in a heady atmosphere of naïve, optimistic patriotism. Yet when military strategy was found wanting, the price paid was immense, both by the men and the communities they left behind. With communities decimated and families mourning losses, often of more than one member, the experiment was not repeated.