You are on page 1of 1

History Notes – Pals Battalions

Over by Christmas World War One reached boiling point in moments, from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the 28th June, 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, determined but unready. It's professional army was badly equipped and minuscule in comparison to the armies of the continent. It comprised of only 450,000 men, of which 900 were trained staff officers, and some 250,000 were reservists. While many expected the war to be over by Christmas, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, was unconvinced, he warned the government that the war would be decided by the last million men Britain could throw into battle. Kitchener decided to raise a new army of volunteers. On 6th August, Parliament sanctioned an increase in size of 500,000 men; days later Kitchener issued his first call to arms for 100,00 volunteers aged 19 to 30, at least 1.6m tall and with a chest size greater that 86cm. General Henry Rawlinson suggested that men would be more willing to join if they could serve with people they already knew. Lord Derby was the first to test this idea when he announced that he would try to raise a battalion in Liverpool, comprised solely of local men. Within days, Liverpool had enlisted enough men for four battalions. Civic Pride Other towns and cities began to follow suit, this was the great secret behind the battalions: civic pride and community spirit caused cities to compete with each other. This boosted the already heady scent of patriotism that saw men queuing outside enlisting posts within hours of war being declared. It was reported that it took a recruiting officer at Great Scotland Yard 20 minutes to get through the enlistees on 4th August; by the 7th mounted police were needed to keep control. In Accrington, recruitment began on 14th September, with 104 men accepted in the first three hours. Within ten days the Accrington Pals had reached full strength of some 1,000 men with similar situations in Sheffield, doors opened on the 10th September and the battalion reached full strength just two days later. A Break from the Grind The scale of response was astounding, with around 30,000 men enlisting each day by the end of August. These numbers were too much for the army to handle alone so local dignitaries and magistrates acted on behalf of Kitchener and cared for men until the military machine was ready to take over. By mid-September 500,000 men had volunteered, another 500,000 joined by the end of the year. 1914 brought with it a rush a patriotism nationwide, fueled by tales of German atrocities that led to a common desire to help 'plucky little Belgium'. Many people on both sides believed that, even if the war wasn't over by Christmas, that it would be relatively short nonetheless. Furthermore, for many in the industrial heartlands of the north, the army promised a break from the grinding poverty of everyday life, Army life meant regular pay, as well as proper food, clothing and shelter that would most probably have compared favourably with the living conditions experienced by many at the time. To many the army must have seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime and areas dominated by industry provided a huge number of recruits. By the time that the initial euphoria had faded, military service had become as much a duty as it was an opportunity for the men. Recruitment continued through 1915, supported by immense pressure that partly replaced the initial enthusiasm. Tragedy on the Somme Once formed, most Pals Battalions spent 1914 and 1915 training in Britain, however, preparations were underway for a major offensive on the Somme that was intended to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun, breach enemy lines and force an early victory. The battle would be the first for most volunteers, although, for many it would also be their last. The first day of the Somme was disastrous. The artillery barrage had failed to destroy the German trenches and, in many cases, hadn't even cut their barbed wire defences. Concerned with maintaining discipline, commanders ordered soldiers to walk in formation towards German lines when the attack began. The British army walked into a slaughterhouse. The battle on 1st July marked the army's single greatest loss in history, with 60,000 casualties of which 20,000 were dead. The Pals Battalions suffered accordingly: of the 720 Accrington Pals, 584 were injured, Leeds lost around 750 of their 900 men and the Grimsby and Sheffield battalions lost around half their men. News of the losses broke slowly, often only after letters from surviving comrades reached the families of the dead. Casualty lists only began to reach Grimsby on 10th July and in many towns and cities, confused rumours bred panic and anger in the affected communities. In local newspapers, initial accounts of wartime success quickly gave way to pages filled with names and photographs of those killed, missing and wounded. Two years in the making, Ten minutes in the destroying The Pals Battalions survived the battle in name only. Some of the Pals were disbanded altogether before the war ended, others saw their defining characteristics diluted by the influx of men who came to replace the dead. Although by early 1916 around two million men volunteered, enthusiasm diminished as casualties increased, resulting in compulsory conscription being introduced in March. The Pals Battalions were an innovation that certainly bolstered the number of volunteers, joining up in a heady atmosphere of patriotism, yet, when military strategy was found wanting, the price paid was immense. With communities decimated and families mourning losses, often of more than one member, the experiment was not repeated. In 1939, the outbreak of World War Two saw immediate introduction of conscription rather than an attempt to replicate the local character of the Pals Battalions that joined together, served together and died together.