During WWI The British government mounted a programme to increase loyalty and regimental camaraderie within a unit, an essential part of producing an effective fighting force. They established a policy which allowed men who joined up together to serve together. These became the "Chums" or "Pals" battalions.

At the beginning of the war, enthusiasm was high in Britain. The recruits felt that the cause was right and good, and that victory was just around the corner. The horrors of Ypres and The Somme were still ahead, and people still believed that it would be "all over by Christmas". Groups of men from one workplace or town often enlisted en masse, knowing that the government's policy meant that they would have their friends beside them, watching their back, sure that they would all achieve glory together. The esprit de corps so essential to the army came almost ready-made in these forces.

The effect, instead, was devastating. British comedian and folk singer Mike Harding says it much better than I would in his song "The Accrington Pals" and the sleeve notes, so I'm noding them below, with permission:

The Accrington Pals by Mike Harding

From the Sleeve notes to the album "Bomber's Moon"

In 1916 the British Army, running out of cannon fodder for the trenches, introduced a policy of recruitment based on enticing men into the army from the same towns. Lord Mayors were encouraged to call for volunteers from their towns and the famous pals regiments were formed. Accrington, a small town in Lancashire, was the smallest town in England to field a full battalion of a thousand men. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme "the Pals" were in the front line that walked towards the German Trenches, believing the Generals' promise that it would be a pushover. 375 men were killed and 286 wounded. Contemporary accounts say there was not a family in Accrington that had not lost a father, son or brother. One woman lost her husband and three sons. The effect on the town was so disastrous that the government dropped the policy almost immediately

The Accrington Pals

Smoky town where they were born,
Down in the valley, smoky little streets.
They were pals from childhood days,
Climbing trees and running through the fields.
And they all played together through the turning of the years,
Sharing their laughter, sharing all their fears.
Seasons saw them growing and
Seasons passing turned them round
With the turning, turning, turning years -
The Accrington Pals.

Schooldays' end the lads all went
To work, some spinning, some weaving in the sheds,
On the land or down the pit,
Working hard to earn their daily bread.
And they all went walking up old Pendle Hill,
On Sundays the larks sang high above the dales.
Little Willie Riley played his mandolin and sang,
They were laughing, they were singing then -
The Accrington Pals.

1916 came the calls,
"We need more lads to battle with the Hun.
Lads of Lancashire, heed the call,
With God on our side, the battle will soon be won."
So they all came marching to the beating of the drums,
Down from the fields and factories they come,
Smiling at the girls who
Came to see them on their way.
They were marching, marching, marching away -
The Accrington Pals.

Blue sky shining on a perfect day,
A lark was singing, high above the Somme.
Brothers, pals and fathers lay
Watching that sweet bird sing in the quiet of the dawn.
And they all went walking out towards the howling guns,
Talking and laughing, calmly walking on,
Believing in the lies that
Left them dying in the mud,
And they're lying, lying, lying still -
The Accrington Pals.

Smoky town which heard the news,
Down in the valley, smoky little streets.
Houses quiet and curtains pulled,
All round the town a silent shroud of grief.
And the larks were singing still above old Pendle Hill,
The wind was in the bracken and the sun was shining still.
A lark was singing sweetly as
The evening fell upon the Somme.

(spoken) For Edward Parkinson, Bobby Henderson, Willie Clegg, Johnny Molloy, Norman Jones, Albert Berry, Willie Riley -

(sung) The Accrington Pals.

(drum-roll into brass band arrangement of "The Battle of the Somme")

Albert Herring points out that the notes are a little inaccurate and that the batallions were formed in 1914, in the initial recruiting drive for cannon fodder.

Perspectives on the Death of a Generation

By the end of World War One, far too many men on both sides had lost their lives in battle, not including, countless others injured or missing in action (World War One). Although “hostility had been simmering for years,” the Great War began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 (Robinson). In only five weeks, all of Europe “slid from nervous peace to raging war”; the “boiling point” had been reached and breeched (Robinson). A "determined but unready” Britain, bound by treaty to aid Belgium, joined the fight on 4 August 1914 declaring war on Germany (Robinson). This unreadiness was quite a problem for the British; compared to the continental armies, the British Army was minuscule with only 450,000 men (Robinson). Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, believed that the war would be won with the last “million men that Britain could throw into battle” (Robinson). “With conscription politically unpalatable,” Kitchener opted on building an army of volunteer soldiers (Robinson). General Henry Rawlinson suggested that “men would be more willing to enlist if they could serve with people they already knew” (Robinson). These groups of men, drawn from their respective communities, would become known as the Pals Battalions. The plan was an enormous success driven by a great sense of “civic pride and community spirit”; new recruits were springing up all across Britain at a magnificent rate (Robinson).

An army of nearly one million volunteers had been built up from scratch, brimming with patriotic optimism and the belief that the war would be over by Christmas. Furthermore, many British men saw military service as a great adventure, the “opportunity of a lifetime,” and most of all a chance to escape from the grueling underclass labor of Early 20th Century Britain (Robinson). The “initial euphoria” of enlistment passed away as the war continued past Christmas into 1915, yet recruitment continued, driven by “immense social and peer pressure” (Robinson). Most of these soldiers remained in Britain in 1915, training and preparing for war. The first day of battle for the vast majority of these men of the Pals Battalions would be a major offensive on the Somme, to draw German forces away from the French at Verdun; twenty-thousand of these men were walking into their deaths. This battle on 1 July 1916 was the British Army’s greatest single loss in history. To place things in perspective, of the nine-hundred men of the Leeds Pals to participate in the Somme, seven-hundred and fifty men lost their lives (Robinson). Because of the nature of the Pals Battalions, these death tolls decimated entire communities and left much of Britain in mourning. This devastating loss can be summed up in the words of one Pal who survived, “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history” (Robinson). The events at the Somme, in a sense, act as a microcosm for the entire tragic history of war, and specifically of World War One. The legacy of the Great War haunted Europe for the decades following its conclusion in 1918; yet only twenty-one years after the final shots were fired, Europe would once again be gearing up to send its grown children to their deaths.

Robinson, Bruce. “The Pals Battalions in World War One.” BBCi 1 March 2002. 4 February 2004. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/wwone/pals_01.shtml.
“World War One: Total Casualties.” October 2003. 4 February 2004. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/FWWcasualties.htm.

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