The Pals battalions of World War I

Accrington Pals by Tim Green | Flickr | Wikipedia | Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Accrington Pals uploaded to Flickr by Tim Green | Wikipedia | Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Genealogy becomes particularly poignant if the branches of your family tree lead you to times of conflict. When it comes to the Great War, you can find an immense range of valuable and often heart-rending historical documents on Ancestry. With just a few clicks you can search service records, unit diaries and even the locations of war graves, allowing you to see which of your ancestors were swept up in the war, where they served and how they fared.

The significance of Ancestry’s archives becomes clear when we consider the war’s impact on communities right across the UK, especially in the early phase when groups of friends, relatives, neighbours, colleagues and sports teams enlisted together to form ‘Pals Battalions’. Having previously socialised, worked and lived together, they went on to fight and often die together, leaving gaping holes in the villages and towns they left behind.

Conscription didn’t commence until as late 1916, and until that point the British Army relied on volunteers who joined up out of a sense of patriotic duty. There was a mass campaign to spur recruitment, from music halls songs with lyrics like ‘I didn’t like you much before you joined the army’, to posters like the now-iconic ‘Wants You’ image of Lord Kitchener pointing his finger out at the men of Britain, which was first published as a magazine cover soon after war was declared in 1914.

A seminal shift came in mid-August of that year, when thousands of stockbrokers in the City of London joined the British Army en masse. This was at the instigation of the Army’s Director of Recruiting, Henry Rawlinson, who suggested in a letter that ‘many City employees would be willing to enlist if they were assured that they would serve with their friends’. The workers ranged from ordinary bank clerks to scions of banking dynasties.

The success of the City push inspired the Earl of Derby, himself a military veteran, to mount a campaign to drive enlistment in Liverpool. He delivered a rousing speech, coining a phrase that would go down in military history. ‘This should be a battalion of pals,’ he said. ‘A battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool.’

Thousands of Liverpudlians answered the call. They were housed in various makeshift locations, from barracks hastily assembled in an old watch factory, to tents put up on a racecourse, to huts cobbled together on the Earl of Derby’s own estate. The men even practiced digging trenches on the Earl’s land. Hundreds would fight and die in the most arduous battles of the war, and the exact fate of many can be discovered by searching Ancestry’s WW1 records.

Among the best-remembered pals battalions was the ‘Accrington Pals’, made up of men drawn from Burnley, Blackburn and Chorley as well as Accrington itself. The atmosphere around the mass enlistment was electric. Shops and offices closed and thousands of locals lined the streets to bid the brave men farewell on the day they departed for training.

On the first day of the Somme, the Accrington Pals helped mount an offensive on a heavily fortified village of Serre. It turned out to be a bloodbath. One of the men who survived the blizzard of bullets was Stanley Bewsher, who later recalled how ‘men fell like ninepins’. Another soldier reported ‘we were able to see our comrades move forward in an attempt to cross No Man's Land, only to be mown down like meadow grass.’

An estimated 235 Accrington Pals were killed in 20 minutes during the offensive. It meant that droves of families back in Accrington were left bereft in one swoop. Percy Holmes, the brother of one of the Pals, later said: ‘I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don't think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn't have their blinds drawn, and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day.’

Another Pals Battalion well remembered today was the 17th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, which was largely made up of professional footballers. Frank Buckley, who’d played for Manchester United, Manchester City and the England national team, was the first to join. Cardiff City’s Fred Keenor almost had to have his leg amputated after being injured in the Somme, but would recover and go on to help his club win the FA Cup in 1927. Walter Tull, who played for teams like Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, and whose father came from Barbados, became the British Army’s first black officer. His trailblazing career came to an end when, like so many Pals, he was killed in action.

As Pals historian Bill Turner once said, ‘The Pals represent all those who, in the innocence of youthful ideals of patriotism, comradeship and service, left their homes and families to fight for their country.’ By utilising the Ancestry archives, you might discover that some of your male ancestors may have been among those who signed up to play their part in those monumental events.