Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Pals Battalions

The months immediately following the declaration of war in August 1914 witnessed one of the most extraordinary phenomena in recent British history, as hundreds of thousands of men, some of them quite mature in years and others mere boys, flocked to volunteer for the army.
     Before the war, Britain was the only major European country without a system of military conscription. Her army was ridiculously small by Continental standards, and furthermore carried little prestige with the mass of the general public. Army pay was too low to attract any skilled workers (a soldier’s pay was much lower than that of a coalminer, for instance), and the ranks were recruited mostly from the countryside, and increasingly from Ireland and even from India; with Sikhs forming more than 10% of the men in uniform. Officers were recruited from the less academic younger sons of the landowning classes. Most of the great public (independent) schools had an “Army Class” for those considered not bright enough to go to university: Winston Churchill was in the “Army Class” at Harrow. The upshot of all this was that very few people in Britain had any idea what military life was like; and soldiers were generally held in low esteem, as Kipling noted in his early writings.

In August 1914 there was a widespread belief that the war would be over by the end of the year: the German “Schlieffen Plan”, for instance, envisaged capturing Paris within a few weeks. But Lord Kitchener, Britain’s most famous general, appointed Minister of War in August 1914, in a flash of insight predicted that the war would last at least three years and that Britain would need an army of a million men to fight it. He set himself to create a new army.
The campaign was an immediate success, as enormous numbers volunteered, most of whom would never previously have considered joining the army. This included for the first time large numbers from the industrial cities in the north of England, where the military authorities had previously not sought recruits; considering industrial workers less physically fit than farm-boys, and likely to be contaminated with “trades-union attitudes”, making them less willing to accept orders unconditionally. But the new volunteers now included factory workers, coalminers, clerks, shopkeepers, engineers, tram-drivers, railwaymen and boys who lied about their age. It was all very unorganized, and many of them would have been far more use to their country’s war-effort by remaining in their current jobs.
      By the end of September, half a million men had volunteered; the oldest, as far as is known, being 68, and the youngest just 15. But how could this enormous mass of civilians be turned into a proper army?
      It was decided to keep the new recruits alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates, forming new battalions*[i] (see footnote at the end) of existing regiments. So were born the famous “Pals’ Battalions”; a unique feature of British army in the First World War. So the 10th Lincolns were the “Grimsby Chums”, the 12th, 13th and 14th Yorks and Lancs were the “Sheffield City Battalion” and the 1st and 2nd  “Barnsley Pals”, and the 15th Highland Light Infantry was drawn entirely from employees of the Glasgow trams. The entire 93rd brigade was made up of four battalions of the East Yorks, all coming from Hull, and were known as the “Hull Commercials”, “Hull Tradesmen”, “Hull Sportsmen” and “T’ Others”. Two brigades, the 102nd and 103rd, all came from Tyneside were made up of four battalions of Tyneside Scots and four of Tyneside Irish, officially known as the 20th – 27th Northumberland Fusiliers. The entire 36th division consisted of thirteen battalions of Ulster Protestants, who just a few weeks earlier had been prepared to rise in armed rebellion against the prospect of Irish Home Rule. The Lancashire cotton-manufacturing town of Accrington was determined to be the smallest town in Britain to have its own battalion, and the “Accrington Pals” duly became the 11th East Lancs. The oddest battalion of all was the 16th Middlesex, which consisted of young men from the great public (independent) schools, who were resolved not to seek commissions as officers but to fight in the ranks.  

Who would command the new battalions? Kitchener called up several hundred officers from the army in India who happened to be home on leave, and brought others out of retirement, some of them now well over military age. The posts of junior officers were filled by around 2,000 young men straight from the universities and the great public schools, many of them only just into their twenties, or even younger. So one new battalion, the 10th West Yorks, had just two officers who had served in the regular army. On the other hand a young chap from an exclusive school could now find himself responsible for a platoon of coalminers, some of whom were old enough to be his father, and would somehow have to win their trust and respect. For many such young men it was their first contact with the working classes, and the social consequences would be enormous.

The New Army started with no rifles, no barracks, not even sufficient uniforms; so their early training would perforce consist of little except route-marches and square-bashing. This must have been somewhat disillusioning, but nevertheless enthusiasm remained high. Meanwhile the old British professional army, small in numbers, was mostly slaughtered by the end of 1914, and in 1915 the war was largely kept going by the Territorial brigades. The New Army was held back for the “big push” of 1916, remembered as the battle of the Somme.
       It was without question the most educated, the most literate and also the most enthusiastic army that Britain had ever sent overseas. But ultimately the high command did not really trust the New Army. The tactics laid down for them for the first day of the Somme offensive were the simplest possible: when the artillery bombardment lifted, they were to march slowly and in formation across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches; forbidden to run or to take cover.
The result, famously, was disaster. On that day, July 1st 1916, 20,000 British troops were killed and twice that number wounded. The young officers especially suffered: of those who went “over the top” leading their men, no fewer than 75% became casualties.  Twenty of the Pals battalions lost over 500 men that day, and ceased to exist as viable units; including all eight of the Tynesiders, three of the Ulstermen, the Public Schools battalion, and the Leeds, 1st Bradford and Accrington Pals. Back in Accrington, the rumour spread that all their men had been killed, and crowds besieged the town hall demanding to be told the truth.
      The battle of the Somme continued as a grinding attrition until it finally petered out in the November mud. Every British Prime Minister between 1940 and 1963 had fought at the Somme; Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan, who was seriously wounded. Almost all the war poets were there: Siegfried Sassoon won the Military Cross and Robert Graves was so badly wounded he was left for dead, and it was only by chance that a medical orderly noticed he was still breathing. The roll-call also included the great socialist historian R. H. Tawney (also wounded), J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne ….. the list goes on and on. One wonders how many men of equal talent and potential did not survive. As enthusiasm turned to disillusionment and horror, it is little wonder that so many, especially amongst the young officers, began to write poetry. They identified with the sufferings of their men, and were bitterly critical of the top brass; men of their own social class, whom they portrayed as being both callous and stupid. This remains the popular image of First World War generals to this day. But there were to be no more Pals battalions: the experiment was abandoned and never repeated. 
     Kitchener did not live to see the slaughter of his new army. Forced out of the war cabinet by his colleagues, he was sent to Russia in June 1916 to advise the ailing Tsarist regime; but he never got there. Somewhere off the north of Scotland his ship struck a German mine. He was an old man, and would not have survived for long in the chilly water. 

(For further reading, I would particularly recommend "The First Day on the Somme" by Martin Middlebrook, and "The Great War and Modern Memory" by Paul Fussell)

[i] A British battalion at this time contained, in theory, up to 1,000 men and about 26 officers. In the First World War, a battalion in attack would probably involve 700-800 men and most of the officers.

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