The Pal Battalions

At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, the British regular army was a small professional force. It consisted of 247,432 regular troops organised into 10 regiments of Guards, 157 infantry battalions, 31 cavalry regiments, artillery and other support arms. Almost half of the regular army (74 of the 157 infantry battalions and 12 of the 31 cavalry regiments), was stationed overseas in garrisons throughout the British Empire. The Royal Flying Corps was also part of the British Army until 1918 and at the outbreak of the war, it consisted of only 84 aircraft. The British Army was small compared to Germany, which fielded an army of 3,822,450 men – the second largest army in the world, outnumbered only by the Russian army.

When war began, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, believed that overwhelming manpower was the key to winning the war and he set about looking for ways to encourage men of all classes to join. This concept stood in direct contrast to centuries of British military tradition, in which the British Army had always relied on professional (rather than conscript) soldiers, and had drawn its members from either the gentry (for officers) or lower classes (for enlisted men).

On 6 August, Parliament sanctioned an increase in Army strength of 500,000 men; day’s later Lord Kitchener, Minister of War, issued his first call to arms. This was for 100,000 volunteers, aged between 19 and 30, at least 1.6 metres (5’3″) tall and with a chest size greater than 86 cm (34 inches). Fuelled by Patriotism, and a sense of adventure, over a million men had volunteered to fight by the end of 1914. Here is the breakdown:- 

  • 298,923 men volunteered for the Army in August 1914
  • 462,901 volunteered in September
  • 136,811 in October
  • 169, 862 in November
  • 117,860 in December

Recruitment was boosted further by the decision to form the units that became known as “Pals” Battalions. General Henry Rawlinson initially suggested that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with people they already knew. Lord Derby was the first to test the idea when he announced in late August that he would try to raise a battalion in Liverpool, comprised solely of local men. Within days, Liverpool had enlisted enough men to form four battalions, each a 1,000 strong. ‘Pals Battalions’ proved popular elsewhere. Stockbrokers, Miners, Railway workers, sportsmen and artists all formed their own battalions. The “Grimsby Chums” was formed by former schoolboys of Wintringham Secondary School in Grimsby. Many other schools, including some of the leading public schools, also formed battalions. Several sportsmen’s battalions were formed, including three battalions of footballers17th and 23rd (Service) Battalions, Middlesex Regiment, and 16th (2nd Edinburgh) (Service) BattalionRoyal Scots, the last-mentioned battalion containing the entire first and reserve team players, several boardroom and staff members, and a sizable contingent of supporters of Scottish professional club Heart of Midlothian F.C. Out of nearly 1,000 battalions raised during the first two years of the war, 145 Service and seventy Reserve infantry units were locally raised Pals battalions. Some Pals battalions were trade/social-background linked rather than area linked, such as artists’ battalions and sportsmen’s battalions. Professional golfers Albert Tingey, Sr.Charles Mayo, and James Bradbeer joined Pals battalions.

In the first two years of the war, over 3 million men in the UK joined and from the 1,000 new battalions created, nearly a third of the men were locally raised “Pal battalions”. By mid 1916, the whole British Army had turned itself into a Citizen Army – something it had never been before. The 1916 Military Service Act would conscript a further 3.5 million over the next two years.

More than 50 Cities and towns raised their own ‘Pal Battalions’. Hull with a relatively small population raised four Pal battalions. These became known as the “Hull Commercials”, Hull “Tradesmen”, Hull “Sportsmen” and “T’Others”. Liverpool also raised four Pal Battalions, Birmingham and Glasgow had three, and Manchester had seven. Newcastle had two, but had an additional four called the Tyneside Scottish Brigade and another four called the Tyneside Irish Brigade. The bonds of friendship were a major strength in building an effective fighting unit. However, the tragic consequences of this were that heavy casualties could decimate all of the men from the same street, team, or workplace. This became evident on the opening day of the battle of the Somme, where on the 1st July 1916, the many Pal Battalions saw their first action. They experienced 57,000 casualties, with nearly 20,000 killed in a single day. The Battle of the Somme, would last 141 days, during which British casualties amounted to 419,654 Officers and men. Whole towns, villages, neighbourhoods, and communities suddenly found that they had lost great numbers of their young men. The Battle of the Somme marked a turning point in the Pals battalion experiment. Many were disbanded or amalgamated after the scheme effectively came to an end following the summer of 1916. 


Recruitment Scenes 1914 -1918. Photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

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