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The Tragedy of the “Pals” Battalions

July 1, 2016

Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of War, and creator of the “New Army” that would go into battle for the first time at the Somme – Source: Wikipedia

I will be writing a full blog post on the Battle of the Somme within the next week, but I want to take a moment to talk about the most tragic aspect of the Somme. World War I killed over ten million men during four years of war, nearly one million of those men fought in British Imperial forces (British, as well as Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Indian, and so forth). The Battle of the Somme has a high bar for tragedy since it would drag out to over five months and kill or maim over one millions British, French, and German soldiers, but the British Pals battalions take the prize for most tragic. The Pals were a new type of soldier, specially recruited, deeply connected to home, and the antithesis of professional soldiers.

When World War I began, Britain sent a small army to France, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). It numbered no more than 150,000 men, all of them well-trained, long service professionals. They were dwarfed in size by the massive armies of France, Germany, and Russia. So much so that they were referred to by some in the German high command as the “contemptible little army.” The career soldiers loved it and those men who had served before 1914 were called “Old Contemptible.” However, no matter how effective they were, they were still made of flesh and blood. They did not react well to German bullets and shells, and so by the end of 1914 the BEF was a shell of its former self. If Britain was to continue the fight more men would be needed.

Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, the most respected British soldier alive in 1914, was recalled to London at the war’s start to take up the position of Secretary of State for War. Kitchener was alone in his belief that the war would be long, and that it would require a massive infusion of manpower to end. To this end, he orchestrated a massive propaganda campaign to begin raising a “New Army.” These would be groups of 100,000 men each, and they would hit the Germans like waves hitting a beach, overwhelming the Germans until they were forced to surrender.

In order to get the troops to enlist, Lord Derby, a member of parliament and proponent of Kitchener’s plan, came up with the idea that, “men who joined together should serve together.” At a time when companies employed hundreds or thousands of people in a single location, and much of the work force was made up of military aged men, whole factories, mines, and offices joined up at once. Each battalion would thus have its own culture and character that was impossible to replicate. These men joined for high-minded ideals of patriotism and service to King and Country. Others joined for adventure and romantic notions of war. Some joined for the more prosaic reasons of getting away from home and not being seen as a coward by their fellows. Morale among Pals Battalions was high, nearly every man knew or had at least met, every other man and officer in the unit. This was to cause much grief at the Somme.

A Pals Battalion marching to the front, the British public was, before the Somme, genuinely excited for the war – Source: BBC

The Pals battalions were scheduled to go over the top with the rest of the army on July 1st, 1916. Having bombarded the German positions for a week before the big day, the British were expecting to be able to literally walk over to the German trenches and take possession of them. The 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, from Newcastle, were led by a soccer player who drop kicked a ball into no man’s land. Within moments he, along with hundreds of his comrades had been mowed down by intact German machine gun emplacements. They suffered over 100 dead in those few moments.

This was just the first day. The Battle of the Somme would continue for months. Communities would be shattered to find that many of their young men were either dead or wounded, and that the rest were scarred by what they had seen. After the Somme the Pals battalions were disbanded. They were either redesignated and filled with replacements and thus lost their local character, or they were themselves turned into replacements for other units. By the end of the year, Britain would have to introduce conscription for the first time in order to continue raising troops. The British people, as well as its army, had been shattered on the banks of the Somme.

Sources and Further Reading

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

MacDonald, Andrew. The First Day of the Somme: The Complete Account of Britain’s Worst-Ever Military Disaster. Auckland, New Zealand: Harper Collins (New Zealand), 2016.



From → World War I

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