Battalions saw pals fight and die side by side at the Somme
Pals battalions were a uniquely British phenomenon.
Britain was the only major power not to begin the First World War with a mass conscripted army, but after war broke out, it quickly became clear that the small professional British army was not large enough for continental conflict in Europe, let alone globally.In a wave of patriotism, tens of thousands of men volunteered for service in Lord Kitchener’s New Armies – “Your Country Needs You.” As part of this, it was realised that local ties could be exploited and that many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.Lord Derby raised the first Pals battalion in Liverpool as part of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment (now part of today’s Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment). Within a week, enough men had volunteered to fill almost three battalions. The Pals were born and the response spread throughout the country.The Accrington Pals (11th (Service) Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment) is today perhaps the best-known of the Pals battalions. Recruitment began on September 14, 1914, with 104 men accepted for service in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together and within 10 days the battalion had reached its full strength of some 1,000 menThere is no special reason why the Accrington Pals have come to represent the whole tragedy of the Pals battalions. Their sacrifice was great, but no greater than many other battalions. They suffered dreadfully on the first day of the Somme, but some others, including other Pals battalions, suffered even greater casualties. Accrington is said to have been the smallest town to raise a full battalion, but even that is not entirely accurate. Men from Burnley and Blackburn filled the ranks of several of their companies, and Chorley alone raised a full company – the Chorley Pals.Perhaps it is because they were so typical that they have been the focus for many plays, books, poems and songs.That and the fact that in the first two hours of their first action, on July 1 1916, the terrible, fatal flaw in the whole concept of the Pals battalions was exposed.The brothers, cousins, friends and workmates not only enlisted and served together; when their battalions went over the top, they also died together.And in that instant, whole communities were wiped out. A normally-recruited battalion had men from many communities, even when the regiment was linked to a particular city or region.But towns like Accrington, tied too tragically closely to a Pals battalion, lost a generation in minutes; a generation of women was left without husbands and sons; and a generation of children were instantly left without fathers. Percy Holmes, the brother of a Pal, later 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.”Too late, a lesson was learned which should have been obvious from the outset. The battalions were re-constituted and served on with distinction until the end of the war, but any surviving closely-linked groups were swiftly broken up and the men spread out through other battalions, a precaution carefully also followed through another world war 25 years later.The Pals who had so gaily marched off to war in their patriotic fervour just two short years before, never served together in large groups again.
To read more about Lancashire's role in the Battle of the Somme click here
To read one Lancashire soldier's gripping first hand account of the Somme click here
To read the heart breaking story of one sister's search for her dead brother's grave click here
How one family journeyed from America to pay tribute to an uncle killed at the Somme click here