Leaving Home The Pals Battalions

Leaving Home The Pals Battalions
Britain was the only major power not to begin the First World War with a conscripted army.
After the war broke out, it quickly became clear that the small professional British Army was not large enough for this global conflict.
In a wave of patriotism, thousands of men volunteered for service in Lord Kitchener’s New Armies. As part of this, it was realised
that many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.
Lord Derby first coined the phrase ‘battalion of pals’ and recruited enough men to form three battalions of the King’s Liverpool
Regiment in only a week.
Pals battalions often became synonymous with the towns of northern Britain. Men from cities including Manchester, Leeds,
Newcastle, Hull, Glasgow and Edinburgh all enlisted in their thousands in 1914 and 1915. But Pals battalions were also raised further
south in cities such as Cardiff and Bristol, as described in the Geffrye’s Writing Home session.
Top: Soldiers from the Leeds Pals battalion
Above: The Hull Pals battalion
With the introduction of conscription in 1916, the close-knit nature of the Pals battalions was never to be replicated.
Why were so many so keen to join? At the beginning of the war there was a heady rush of patriotic optimism nationwide. Many
people believed that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’. Army service also promised opportunities, excitement and travel denied
to most Britons of the time.
For many men the army offered a break from the grinding poverty of everyday life. Army life meant regular pay (one shilling a day
for privates) as well as proper food and clothing, not to mention barracks that would possibly have compared favourably with the
living conditions at home experienced by many at 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.
The Somme
Once they had been formed, most Pals Battalions spent 1914 and 1915 training in Britain. However, preparations were under way
for a major offensive on the Somme that was intended to relieve the pressure on the French, breach German lines and force an early
The offensive would be the first major battle for most ‘pals’ volunteers and 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.
The battle on 1 July 1916 marked the army’s greatest single loss in its history, with sixty thousand casualties, of which twentythousand were dead.
Above: The commemorative medal given
to the families of fallen Soldiers became
known as ‘The Death Penny’
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.
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.
Below: A box of cigarettes
belonging to a Soldier
What does Patriotism mean?
Why would Army service seem better than life at home at this time?
Why did so many men die at The Battle of the Somme?
Write a persuasive advertisement for your classmates, encouraging them
to volunteer for a Pals Battalion.
With thanks to Mark Forrest and research volunteer Nikolaos Souslous