Wednesday, July 6, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Friends in the Fight: WWI Pals Battalions

     Hello and welcome to the latest edition of "It's Totally Possible to Write Weekly Blogs About the World Wars for Almost Two Years and Never Run Out of Topics"! The First World War has been in the news a lot recently, especially in regard to the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, but I wanted to take a look at a unique topic that I hadn't previously heard much about. This week is all about the Pals Battalions, a uniquely British phenomenon whereby men were recruited to serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.

     A crucial fact which contributed to this concept was that Britain found itself as the only major power to enter the war without a mass conscripted army. After the war began, it became clear very quickly that the British army was just not large enough for a global conflict.

     Thousands of men began volunteering for service in Lord Kitchener's New Armies, propelled by patriotic fervor. It did not take long before it came to be realized that local ties played a major role in enlistment, and that many more men could be enticed to serve if they knew that they would be doing so among familiar faces.

     On 21 August 1914, the first of the Pals Battalions began to be raised from the City of London stockbrokers. Amazingly, 1,600 men joined what became the 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in just a matter of days. The phrase "battalion of pals" was first coined by Lord Derby, and recruited enough men to form three battalions of the King's (Liverpool) Regiment in only a week.

     Soon, Pals Battalions came to be synonymous with Northern British towns. Men from cities including Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Hull, Glasgow, and Edinburgh enlisted by the thousands in 1914 and 1915. In addition, the battalions were also raised from Birmingham to Bristol and from Cambridge to Cardiff.

     After being trained, the first of the Pals Battalions began arriving on the Western Front in mid-1915. However, most of them never saw major action until the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Many of these units sustained heavy casualties, which had a major impact on the communities they left behind. As a result, the close-knit structure of the Pals Battalions was never continued after the introduction of conscription in 1916.

Here are some examples of the different Pals Battalions across Britain:
The recruitment of Pals battalions appealed to the complex local and national identities of men in Britain. Here the image of Field Marshal Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, is used to appeal to men from Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Irish roots. Four 'Tyneside Irish' battalions were raised, as well as four 'Tyneside Scottish' battalions.
Volunteer recruits of the 'Preston Pals' parade in their civilian clothes in Market Square, Preston, on 7 September 1914. In two days, over 200 Preston men formed a company of the 7th Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. They were joined by volunteers from Blackpool, Kirkham and Chorley.

A group of 'Leeds Pals' at their training camp in the Yorkshire Dales in September 1914, shortly after enlisting. A local benefactor gave the men pipes, but their uniforms did not arrive until November - reflecting how quickly Pals battalions had been recruited. These men became part of the 15th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment.

Recruits of the 'Grimsby Chums' (10th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment) pose with rifles, September 1914. Access to rifles so soon after joining up was rare due to the shortage of equipment, with new recruits often having to go without khaki uniform for several months.

Infantrymen of 10th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment (Hull Commercials) marching near Doullens, 28 June 1916. While this photograph shows men of a Hull Pals battalion clearly having been encouraged to smile for the camera, it does reflect the sense of optimism among the troops of the British Army on the eve of the Battle of the Somme.

Men of a support company of an assault battalion of the Tyneside Irish Brigade moving forward shortly after zero hour on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. This significant day was when many Pals battalions experienced their first major attack. The Tyneside Irish attacked near La Boisselle, suffering very heavy casualties.

     Major thanks to Imperial War Museums and their article "The Pals Battalions of the First World War" by Matt Brosnan, from which the majority of the photos were borrowed. This topic stands out to me as one of many heartbreaking stories related to the First World War, especially to the Battle of the Somme, and I hope that keeping the memories alive will do these men justice in some small way.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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