Remembering the sacrifice of the Yorkshire Pals in the Battle of the Somme

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 June 2016

Serre Road cemetery No.2

Serre Road cemetery No.2

©mike cowling

The first of July marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, when volunteer battalions Yorkshire paid a terrible price. Andrew Vine visits the battlefield in France

IT was 12 years before the remains of Albert Bull were found, at the edge of a copse where the trees had been blasted to splinters by shellfire. He fell where the ground was torn and churned by explosions on the murderous morning of July 1st 1916, aged just 22, one of 19,240 British soldiers killed that day.

And like tens of thousands of others who died as the fighting raged over the hilly countryside around the River Somme, no trace was found of him as the Army tallied its casualties and prepared to bury the dead.

All that remained for his parents, Louis and Agnes, of Apperknowle, near Sheffield, were their memories and the formal notification that Private Albert Edward Bull, serial number 1831 of 12th Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment, was missing, presumed dead.

But then, on April 13th 1928, when the trees had started to recover and farmers were slowly returning 1,000 yards of killing ground that claimed so many lives to growing crops once more, Albert Bull was found.

The grave  of Private Albert Bull who was killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme but whose body was not found until 1928The grave of Private Albert Bull who was killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme but whose body was not found until 1928

A plain concrete cross marks the spot and half a mile away is the grave where he was so belatedly laid to rest in Serre Road Number 2 Cemetery alongside hundreds of his comrades.

Each headstone is eloquent of the bravery and suffering of Yorkshire’s volunteer regiments – the Pals battalions – made up of the thousands of workmates and neighbours who flocked to recruiting offices in the opening weeks of World War One, fired by patriotism and fighting spirit.

Albert Bull had been one of them, volunteering for what became known as the Sheffield City Battalion, when young men streaming into the city centre to enlist were greeted by placards pointing the way to the recruiting office that read: ‘To Berlin – via Corn Exchange’.

Just a few yards from Albert Bull’s cross, in Queens Cemetery, lies another young volunteer from Sheffield he would most likely have known, whose grave speaks of the terrible loss of families who cheered their sons off to war.

The Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment off  to the front line. The regiment raised 22 battalions for service in the First World War of which eight saw action on the first day of t he Battle of the Somme Photo by ANL/REX/ShutterstockThe Yorkshire & Lancashire Regiment off to the front line. The regiment raised 22 battalions for service in the First World War of which eight saw action on the first day of t he Battle of the Somme Photo by ANL/REX/Shutterstock

A young rose plant is coming into bud at the foot of Private James Knighton’s headstone, which bears one of the most moving inscriptions of any grave on the Western Front. ‘Still lives, still loves, still ours, will meet again, Ma and Dad’.

He was only 24. His epitaph, written by his parents a century ago, retains such heartfelt immediacy that it might have been carved only yesterday.

The stories of the two young soldiers are those of so many of the Yorkshire Pals, thrown into battle on what became the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

The dead were amongst a total of 54,470 casualties, the victims of a mistaken belief on the part of their commanders that a fearsome bombardment of the German trenches would eliminate opposition.

It did not, and when the young soldiers of Yorkshire went over the top in response to the blasts of their officers’ whistles shortly after 7am, they were cut to pieces.

The fate of the Pals is one of the most poignant of the First World War’s many horrors.

The scale of the slaughter left Yorkshire’s great industrial centres in shock for years afterwards as they mourned a lost generation – a loss made harder to bear by the close personal ties of the men killed.

The great recruiting drive of 1914 to build a volunteer army when war was declared hit on the idea of encouraging friends and workmates to join up together. And so they laid siege to the recruiting offices, entire workforces from factories, pits and offices.

Barnsley raised two battalions, as did Bradford. Leeds and Sheffield sent one each. Hull raised four – Hull Commercials, Hull Tradesmen, Hull Sportsmen, and, with the city’s wry humour, Hull T’Others. Over the following 18 months, the Yorkshire Pals were brought together in the Army’s 31st Division, and underwent rigorous training.

Their fate was sealed in March 1916, when they were deployed to France ahead of Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s ‘big push’ to break the German line on the River Somme.

The Pals would fight at the northern end of the 15-mile long front. Soldiers from Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley, Sheffield and Hull – alongside volunteers from Accrington and Durham – were to attack the hilltop village of Serre.

Their trenches were around four copses named by British commanders after the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. From there, when the whistles blew, they advanced into a hellish hail of fire.

The Accrington Pals went first, and were slaughtered. At 7.20am, the Leeds Pals were next. The men of Barnsley, Bradford and Sheffield followed. Hull’s volunteers, awaiting their turn, were spared because commanders held them back as the futility of the attack became clear.

The Official History of the Somme recorded what they faced and saluted the Pals’ bravery. ‘There was no wavering or attempting to come back. The men fell in their ranks, mostly before the first hundred yards of No Man’s Land had been crossed.’

The scale of the losses was horrifying. Only 47 of the 650 Leeds Pals who went over the top survived. The 1st Bradford Pals lost 22 officers and 515 other ranks. The 2nd Bradford Pals lost 14 officers and 400 men. The Sheffield and Barnsley Pals lost half their strength.

Above the sound of battle was to be heard the sound of the soldiers’ suffering. One survivor recalled a mass wailing, ‘as if huge wet fingers were being drawn across an enormous glass pane, rising and falling, interminable and unbearable. It came from a sunken road where hundreds of wounded were shouting, moaning and singing in delirium’.

Only birdsong fills the air where the Pals fell now, in the woods that have grown back over where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John once stood. This is Sheffield Memorial Park, the most secluded and inaccessible of all the memorials on the Somme – and the most vivid, for unlike the immaculately-maintained war cemeteries, the signs of battle remain.

It stands on a hillside where the ground is deformed and rutted by shellfire, the craters silent testimony to the suffering of the Pals, accessible only by a rough farm track. A black marble headstone commemorates the Barnsley Pals, and a simple brick shelter the men of Sheffield.

Alongside, as the men were in battle, stands the brick memorial to the Accrington Pals.

A thousand yards distant, in Serre itself is another formal stone memorial to the Sheffield Pals, and the men of Leeds are commemorated in a simple monument a few miles away in the village of Bus-les-Artois.

The focus of this summer’s official commemorations of the carnage of the Somme will be the Thiepval Memorial, atop a hillside overlooking the battlefield. It is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world, its panels recording the names of 72,000 missing allied soldiers from three years of vicious fighting on the Somme.

The Pals who were never found are there, column after column, each name telling the story of an individual life snuffed out, a family left bereft, a son, husband or brother who marched away into oblivion.

Their descendants will visit over the summer, to pay their respects and wonder at the scale of the loss that Thiepval represents.

But the heart and soul of remembrance of the Yorkshire Pals lies not in its formal grandeur, but where they fell, in that quiet, secluded woodland around Albert Bull’s cross.

Andrew Vine and Mike Cowling travelled to the Somme courtesy of P&O Ferries and Atout France

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