Yorkshire’s volunteer battalions in the First World War
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 July 2014
To mark the First World War centenary, Andrew Vine looks back on the bravery of Yorkshire’s volunteer battalions
Their smiles are frozen forever in the sepia-tinted photographs of that summer 100 years ago, when it seemed the war would be over by Christmas. Young men from factories, pits and offices standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends and workmates, smiling for the cameras as they’re cheered off to war by crowds thronging the streets of Yorkshire.
These were the Pals battalions, volunteers to a man, whose story is one of the most moving and tragic of the First World War, encapsulating its terrible human cost and emblematic of its most notoriously bloody day.
The young men in the pictures never had the chance to grow old. The cities that waved them off, convinced they would be back victorious within months, instead kept their curtains closed in mourning and grieved for a lost generation.
They had flocked to recruiting offices across the county in their thousands within weeks of war being declared in 1914. War Secretary Lord Kitchener was determined to build a new volunteer army, and led the recruiting drive.
His steely glare and pointing finger were on posters everywhere, bearing the words: ‘Your country needs you’, and with optimism high that the war would be short and glorious, Yorkshire’s men answered his call to arms.
Senior commanders believed men would be more likely to enlist and the camaraderie of the new units better if they knew they would serve alongside friends and workmates, and a battalion was recruited from City of London workers to set an example.
The name that would stick to the new battalions was coined soon afterwards by the Earl of Derby, who told volunteers in Liverpool: ‘This should be a battalion of pals.’
Pals they were, united not just by work but by patriotic fervour. And for the men of Yorkshire’s heavy industry, there was another reason for them volunteering in droves.
The Army offered a respite from the poverty and harsh living conditions of civilian life, with guaranteed pay of one shilling a day, food and clothing, and accommodation in barracks which were an improvement on the homes of many.
Yorkshire’s industrial heartland raised the Pals battalions. Barnsley sent two, as did Bradford. Leeds and Sheffield sent one each. Hull raised four – Hull Commercials, Hull Tradesmen, Hull Sportsmen, and, with wry humour, Hull T’Others.
Miners from Charlesworth Colliery marched into Leeds to enlist, and formed the backbone of the Pioneers of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, becoming known as T’Owd Twelfth.
The men who joined spanned all classes. Managers signed up along with men from the shopfloor. Shop assistants rubbed shoulders with university lecturers, and stockbrokers with secretaries.
The famous were there too. Major William Booth, a rising star at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, joined up, as did left-handed batsman Roy Kilner. Leeds Utd and Bradford City star Evelyn Lintott, later to head the Professional Footballers Association, became the first professional player to gain a commission in the army.
Wherever the call for volunteers was made, there were queues at recruiting offices. In Sheffield, placards went up pointing the way to where to enlist that read: ‘To Berlin – via Corn Exchange.’
Those volunteers were soon in uniform and being drilled at Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield Utd, before moving to a windswept camp at Redmires, west of the city.
In Leeds, vast crowds gathered in Boar Lane to see the Pals off as they marched to the railway station to leave for training, clapping each on the shoulder as he passed and filling the city with cheers. As the first trains left, the crowds sang It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.
The trains carried them to Masham, and then the men marched seven miles on to Colsterdale, where training began.
It was meticulous, continuing for the rest of 1914 and into 1915, as the Yorkshire Pals battalions were brought together in the army’s 31st Division, moving from Colsterdale to Ripon, then later to Salisbury.
The Pals had expected to be posted to France, but a few days before Christmas 1915, they began boarding warships bound instead for Egypt, where the division had been assigned to defending the Suez Canal against possible attack by the Turkish Army.
That threat never materialised, and in March 1916, the fate of the Pals was sealed when they were re-assigned to France and began embarking on ships that would take them on the five-day voyage from Port Said to Marseilles.
The build-up was under way for Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s ‘big push’ to break the German line at the River Somme. One of his spearheads would be the 31st Division, made up of the Pals from Leeds, Hull, Bradford, Sheffield, Barnsley, Durham and Accrington, who would attack on the first day of the assault, July 1st 1916.
Their objective was a sector near the hilltop village of Serre. In the closing days of June, the German lines were pounded mercilessly by artillery, with more than 1.6m shells raining down on them along a front stretching 27,000 yards. British commanders were confident that German resistance would be shattered by the bombardment.
The morning of July 1st proved them catastrophically wrong. The carnage that came to symbolise the Western Front began as soon as officers blew their whistles and the men began to go over the top.
They were met by a murderous hail of fire. The Accrington Pals went first and were cut to pieces.
At 7.20am, the whistles went once more, and the Leeds Pals were the first Yorkshire battalion over the top. The horror of what happened to them, and to the rest of the young men who had thronged to volunteer, cheered on by their neighbours and families, lies beyond imagining.
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 magnificent gallantry, discipline and determination shown by all ranks of this North Country division were of no avail against the concentrated fire effect of the enemy’s unshaken infantry and artillery, whose barrage has been described as so consistent and severe that the cones of the explosions gave the impression of a thick belt of poplar trees.’
One of the survivors was Tom Place who, in 1974 aged 88, recalled: ‘I was a corporal and stretcher-bearer and I remember as soon as our lads went over the top it seemed as if all hell had broken loose.
‘I can still see the dead and wounded. In fact, you couldn’t move for the dead.’
At the end of that terrible day, 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.
This was the single bloodiest day in British military history, and as night fell on the first day of the Somme, the army had sustained 57,470 dead or wounded.
The mounting losses saved the Hull Pals – the attack was cancelled shortly before three of their battalions were due to go over the top. But as the war ground on, it would claim the lives of many of the port’s volunteers.
It took time for news of the scale of the slaughter to filter back to Yorkshire, and as each town and city learned that most of the men they had sent to war would never return, grief swept across the county.
The rush to enlist in the belief that the war would be over by Christmas seemed a distant and bitter memory.
It was said that there was hardly a street in Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield that did not have at least one house in mourning.
There were no more Pals battalions; the introduction of conscription a few months before the beginning of the Battle of the Somme having seen to that.
The Pals who survived that terrible day fought on for the rest of the war, but the distinctive nature of the Yorkshire battalions that had trained and marched together had been lost. Their soldiers were dispersed to fill the gaps in the ranks of other formations left by the endless killing.
The memory of the generation that had been lost in Leeds, Sheffield, Barnsley, Bradford and Hull haunted each place.
The great Bradford-born writer J B Priestley reflected on what had befallen his city: ‘There are many gaps in my acquaintance now; and I find it difficult to swap reminiscences of boyhood. The men who were boys when I was a boy are dead. Indeed they never even grew to be men. They were slaughtered in youth; and the parents of them have grown lonely, the girls they would have married have grown grey in sisterhood, and the work they would have done has remained undone.’
But it was one of the survivors, Private Arthur Pearson of the Leeds Pals – whose life was saved by two tins of bully beef in his pack, which deflected a hail of bullets – who best summed up the horror of what happened to Yorkshire’s Pals.
‘We were two years in the making and 10 minutes in the destroying.’
The Leeds Pals by Stephen Wood
The photographs seen here are part of a new book about the Leeds Pals by Yorkshire author Stephen Wood. Stephen and his father Mike run a website devoted to the Leeds Pals and have been interested in the subject for many years. The website includes information shared by friends and relatives of the Pals and contains personal case histories of named soldiers, local history and military documents. Go to leeds-pals.com for more information and to buy the book published by Amberley price £14.99.