Written by Jonathan Rudd,
They were the unsung heroes of war. All over the country, pals regiments made up of friends, workmates, families and brothers in arms answered Lord Kitchener’s call to sign up and fight in the First World War. Many of the Yorkshire pals would ultimately perish at the hands of enemy fire at the Battle of the Somme, which started one hundred years ago this week on July 1st 1916. Below is a description of their journey before many of them perished on that fateful day.
In the Beginning
The First World War started on July 28th 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed in Sarajevo. Britain entered the war one week later on 4th August when Germany started their invasion of Belgium. This country was protected by the Triple entente alliance between Britain, France and Russia, which triggered their governments into military action. At first the regular trained British army were sent to fight the enemy which was an alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. This consisted of 80,000 regular British army troops and a further 630,000 reserves. The general feeling at the time was that this conflict would only last a few months and it would be “over by Christmas.” The Minister for War, Lord Kitchener thought very differently. He foresaw a long, drawn out affair which would last for several years, especially the style of combat which was being employed by both sides. Due to advances in enemy fire and weapons by 1914, but no advances in mobility, the only way of avoiding the enemy was to dig trenches in the ground. This led to a stalemate,on the Western Front, which stretched from the Swiss border in the south to the North sea coast of Belgium.
It soon became clear that the First World war was going to take a lot longer than the Christmas 1914 and to fight this war, the army were going to have to increase their numbers on all fronts.
Your Country Needs You!
Lord Kitchener, the Minister for War, was the famous face on the recruitment posters to entice voluntary conscription. . . The first poster was displayed as early as 7th August 1914, just three days after Britain had declared war on Germany and her allies.
On 31st August the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) was formed which gave party political roles the power to recruit soldiers at a local level.
The PRC were responsible for the raft of propaganda in the form of posters and cinema films to promote the idea of ordinary men joining this new volunteer army to fight “the bosch” on the Continent. It was seen by many to be an adventure, the opportunity to travel outside Britain, meet new people; plus ultimately bringing honour to their families and loved ones.
The reaction was immense. From the 4th August to 12th September 1914, nearly 500,000 men joined the British Volunteer Army. Apart from the intense propaganda and even brainwashing which went on around this time came another deal by the Government which saw the birth of the Pals regiments in Kitchener’s new army.
The Formation of the Pals regiments
In September 1914 the Government struck a deal with leading industrialists, landowners and other dignitaries who employed a substantial number of people to allow their workforce to form “Pals regiments.” Colleagues could sign up, train and ultimately fight together on the front. This proved to be a pivotal moment in the recruitment process and a hit with the newly recruited soldiers who saw it as an adventure and opportunity to get way from their humdrum lives. Little did they know the horrors which awaited them…
The Pals scheme was increasingly popular in industrial areas, such as Yorkshire and throughout the first year of the war, many of these new regiments formed throughout the region. They included ones from Barnsley, Leeds, Hull, Bradford, Sheffield, fighting alongside similar ones from all over the country. Mass voluntary sign ups to war were seen as a huge badge of honour, with some young men lying about their age so they could be approved for battle. As they were passed fit to serve their country, so their big “adventure” began. By mid- September 1914, 500,000 men had been enlisted and for many of the working classes was seen as an escape from poverty, because they were better fed and had a uniform.
Signing Up and Training
To qualify for service, the soldiers would have undergone several checks to see if they met the requirements needed to train and fight in the Great War. Volunteers had to be between the ages of 18-30, be at least 5 3″ tall and have a chest size greater than 34 inches. Pals regiments were seen as a symbol of civic pride and cities would compete against each other to gain the most recruits and battalions to fight in the war.
Once a soldier and their friends had been enlisted they were sent off to train. Whole cities would come and wave their menfolk off as they left home. On 25th September 1914, Boar Lane in Leeds was filled by well wishers as the city’s pals regiments left to go for training at Coltersdale near Masham.
Not only were the new soldiers with their friends, they were given a brand new kit, fed “three square meals a day” and were paid a basic daily rate of one shilling per day. This was more than they could have dreamed of in their old lives back home.
The pals battalions had little or no military experience. An important aspect of the military training the pals regiment received was discipline, obeying orders from senior offices and route marches, some of which were 25 miles long.
Early on in the war, new soldiers were taught about their kit, which could be up to 58lbs in weight. They were shown how to hold and fire bayonets, maintain their fitness and learn other useful war skills.
Time for Action
Their English- based training lasted for around eighteen months. Some of the pals regiments were sent initially to the Suez Canal to protect this waterway from a German backed Turkish army who had tried to occupy it in January 1915. After a successful introduction to army life they were transported to France where a darker fate awaited them. Once training was completed in the Spring of 1916, the pals regiments were sent abroad to depots in the British held French territory. One of the most notorious camps was the “Bull Ring camp in the French town of Etaples. The Yorkshire pals battalions, along with some from Lancashire and Durham had been earmarked by the army for a special mission – to launch a military offensive against enemy lines near the River Somme.
The longest battle of the war, which had started on February 21st 1916 was taking place in Verdun. The French were being pummelled by the German forces and had suffered heavy losses under continued attack. They had also lost their large fort at Douaumont and were facing national humiliation, as the truth of the war was being withheld even from their own public.
A counter-attack further north at the village of Serre by British forces near the River Somme was planned to divert enemy troops away from Verdun. Originally the offensive was planned for August 1st, but was brought forward one month due to the desperation of the situation to the south. The Yorkshire pals regiments were chosen to carry out this attack in one of the biggest military gambles of the war to date.
Going over the top
On 30th June 1916, the pals regiments were transported to the front line. Their moment had come. Morale was high as they finally had their opportunity to see some action and put the skills they had learnt into practice. The pals battalions from Sheffield, Barnsley, Hull, Bradford, Leeds and other places were all transported to territory just west of Serre village, a German held settlement in the North East of France.
The plan was simple. A heavy bombardment on enemy lines would kill them all. The pal’s job was to walk across “No man’s Land” to the German trenches and take the territory for themselves. Beforehand, 1,627 824 rounds of ammunition had bombarded enemy lines, supposedly obliterating them.
At 7.30am on 1st July 1916 the pals regiments lined up in the trench awaiting the signal, a whistle and flag to go “over the top.”
As one soldier from the 1st Barnsley pals regiment, Tommy Oughton wrote: “My feelings were very mixed as we waited to go over. More so with us we had no experience at all from a fighting point of view – we had no idea what it would be like.”
A whistle was blown and over the top they went:
There has never been more troops killed on one single day in British military history. These men which had signed up to serve their country under a wave of national fervour, excitement, honour and in some cases peer pressure had met the harsh realities of war.
Unknown to the Allies the Germans had anticipated the offensive. Their response was to dig even deeper trenches, meaning that they avoided the brunt of the initial Allied bombardment. They had then waited, some in a craters created by the bombardment, for the Allied advance. As the British soldiers appeared from their trenches the Germans were able to pick them off with machine guns. It was a massacre, over in minutes.
The Pals regiments, which took two years to develop took just ten minutes to be completely destroyed….
Communities back home received the dreadful news of their loved one’s deaths through a telegram. The outpouring of grief throughout the communities in both Yorkshire and Lancashire brought them to a standstill. Many questioned the reasons why Britain had gone to war in the first place.
What Happened to the Pals Regiments?
Two battalions of Barnsley pals fought at Serre on the first day of the Somme campaign. The first battalion were charged with digging mines underneath enemy lines in a bid to blow them up. These were part of the team who, along with their compatriots from Accrington and Sheffield had to capture the village of Serre. Overall 545 soldiers died from the 1st and 2nd battalions from the town.
There were 1,131 men from the steel city. They formed the left side of the Serre offensive and could be easily targeted by enemy fire. Most of the battalion lost their lives in the battle of the Somme and was fully disbanded in early 1918.
The Leeds pals started army life in the Suez, protecting British interests in that region during the winter of ’15. In just ten minutes on 1st July, 900 men from the regiment were killed in action by the German machine gun fire which greeted them.
In 1914, 1,394 men joined the Bradford pals regiment and undertook their training in Skipton, Ripon and Wiltshire, before seeing action in the Suez. At the Somme 1,017 men were either killed or injured from the city’s regiment.
One of the largest pals regiments from Yorkshire came from Hull. The city provided 6,250 volunteer soldiers across four regiments linked to trade. The first was made up of lower middle class workers, including teachers, accountants and other skilled trades, while the second were labourers, and the third had sporting connections. This regiment did not perish in the same way as the others because by the time it was their turn to go over the top, the attack had been cancelled. The Hull Pals lasted throughout the war, helping to hold up a German spring offensive in 1918.
The heavy losses incurred by the pals regiments saw the end of this military dream. In March 1916 compulsory conscription came into force as the British army became desperate for numbers to fight on what was becoming an increasingly bloody war.
It is now 100 years since these brave men from Yorkshire and other parts of the country perished on the first day of the battle of the Somme, which would rumble on for another five months.
Lest we forget…