This November marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. Estimates say that the total loss of life reached nearly 20,000,000 people. Between 860,000 and 1,000,000 of those were from Britain alone. The loss to towns and cities across the country was significant. The impact was made worse by early recruitment methods.
When war broke out in July of 1914, the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, had plans to flood the enemy with a sea of men. Unlike France, Germany or Russia, Great Britain didn’t have a conscription system. Most British soldiers were professionals who had dedicated their lives to the military. It became clear very quickly that Britain didn’t have enough men to fulfil Kitchener’s plans. General Sir Henry Rawlinson suggested creating Pals Battalions. His idea was simple, men were more inclined to sign up if their friends and neighbours were joining too.
This worked incredibly well with thousands of men signing up together within days. In many areas enthusiasm was so high that they were able to form entire units from the local recruits. These units were often given whimsical names such as the Grimsby Chums, the Football Battalion or even the Stockbroker’s Battalion. Accrington, a small factory town in the northern county of Lancashire put together a small battalion of Pals. They formed the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, better known as The Accrington Pals.
Getting these men trained and ready for battle took time. The men were seen in and around their home towns training and running drills. For the Accrington Pals, once ready, they were sent to Egypt to help protect the Suez Canal from the Turks. The danger here was short lived and by late June of 1916 they were moved on to the Somme in Northern France.
The Accrington Pals joined other Pals Battalions to relieve the French army and weaken the German line. The objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre and form a defensive flank. One problem they faced was that the chalky nature of the terrain gave the Germans the ability to build deep trenches, rendering enemy fire nearly useless.
After several days of bombarding the Germans, the Pals were sent over the top through No Man’s Land to attack the enemy head on. 100,000 men were sent up, by the end of the day they had captured 3 square miles of land but it had cost the allied troops nearly 20,000. Among the dead were troops from the Accrington Pals. Out of the 720 soldiers from their battalion, 584 of them had lost their lives.
News soon reached home of the tragedy. Soldiers passing through the town by train stuck their heads out the window to ask where they were. When they learned they were in Accrington, their response was immediate, “Accrington Pals! They’ve been wiped out!”. Women standing at the train station quickly ran back into town to relay the awful news. The church bells rang for 24 hours and blinds were drawn throughout the town. Wives, mothers and daughters marched to the mayor’s office and stood outside demanding answers.
Due to the heavy losses held by all of the Pals Battalions, Kitchener insisted that recruits from the same community were separated into different units. It wasn’t an apology but it was an acknowledgement of the devastating impact of the war on the communities at home.
To learn more about the Pals Battalions visit the Imperial War Museum. Here you will find information, photographs and artefacts.