On 4th August 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, the size of the British Army was 247,432 regular troops. The next day Field Marshal Lord Kitchener was appointed Secretary of State for War and given the task of recruiting the numbers that would be needed to fight an industrialised war against another European imperial nation. With the war already begun, Kitchener needed a way to recruit hundreds of thousands of soldiers quickly.
Recruited from specific communities, the Pals Battalions were formed by exploiting the patriotic fervour that the war had aroused. Under Kitchener’s tutelage, but organised by local leaders like MPs, mayors, gentry and factory owners, the Pals were composed of volunteers eager ‘to teach the Hun a lesson’. Their strength was based on community spirit, because they were all friends, neighbours, relatives and workmates.
In the midst of a countywide anti-German propaganda campaign, eager young ‘king and country’ patriots flocked to enlist. In just five days in Liverpool, Lord Derby recruited enough volunteers to set up 3 Pals Battalions; Manchester, in two weeks, raised 4; Glasgow saw over a 1,000 Pals volunteering in a single night – from the Corporation Tramways Department. Within two months 50 Pals Battalions had been formed, or were in the process of forming.
The Accrington Pals were recruited mainly from that town and some from its neighbours – Burnley, Chorley and Blackburn. The mayor of Accrington, Captain John Harwood, had offered to raise a Pals battalion and recruitment began on 14th September. By the end of the month over a 1,000 men had responded to form a battalion with a distinctive local identity.
Incorporated into the 31st Division, the Accrington Pals, in February 1916, were ordered to France to take part in a ‘big push’ on the Somme. Their objective was to take the hilltop fortress of Serre, guarded by Germans of the 169th (8th Baden) Infantry Regiment. For a week before the ‘big push’ British artillery pounded the German lines, but they were well dug-in and only partially affected by the shelling.
On July 1st 1916 at 7.20am, the Accrington Pals advanced into No Man’s Land to face their fate, as the Germans scrambled from underground shelters bringing machine guns and rifles to bear on their advancing enemy. The Pals were cut down like: ‘Swathes of cut corn at harvest time’. It was recorded that out of the 720 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing, at the end.
Back home in Accrington, there were initial reports of: ‘Success on the Somme’, before the true situation became apparent. Local papers were then filled with casualty lists and photos of the killed, wounded and missing. The next day it became clear that whole neighbourhoods had lost most of their young men – and in every street blinds were not drawn and church bells tolled all day.
Aware of the impact communities saturated with loss could have, the authorities soon realised that the Pals Battalions, which had started in a patriotic spirit of camaraderie and communalism, were now threatening to be a cause of anti-war sentiment. Conscription was brought in and then took over as the main source of recruits – and the local volunteering spirit of the Pals was lost.
The crucial lines in the song occurs at the end the fourth verse:
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.
The second last line suggests that the Pals [shot down] are lying still. But also that those who’s lies had led them to their fate – the politicians and the top brass – are also ‘lying, lying, lying still’. And never a truer word was said, as ‘the war to end all wars’ has only been followed by other wars / conflicts again and again and again – right up to, and including, our own time today.
The Battle of the Somme, which ended in a stalemate, was to last till near the end of 1916 and caused 610,000 British and French casualties – with the Germans suffering almost the same amount.
Small wonder that after the war the main cry of the veterans from all sides was: NEVER AGAIN!
Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.