Pals Go to War

When Great Britain declared war in August of 1914, her army, including reservists, consisted of around 733,000 men. Many of the politicians and government officials who had deemed war necessary predicted that it would be “all over by Christmas.” They had little understanding of the conflagration that was to come. With confidence in their predictions and a touch of hubris, they persuaded Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, hero of the Boer Wars, to enter the government as Secretary for War. This was to prove an inspired choice. Kitchener took one look at the army he had been handed and despaired. He is noted as saying, “Did they consider when they went headlong into a war like this, that they were without an army and without any preparation to equip one?”[1]

Field Marshall, Lord Kitchener went on to startle his colleagues by predicting the war would be long and difficult, measured in years, not months. Britain’s forces up to that point had been recruited largely to defend her colonial territories and provide defense of the home front if needed. He distrusted the Territorial Force and believed expanding it was bad policy, deeming the men “amateur soldiers” at best. To address the need for a fighting force, Lord Kitchener launched a recruitment plan that appealed to the young men of Great Britain to do their patriotic duty. He sought to raise a new army of hundreds of thousands with a new improvised structure of volunteer “Service Battalions” linked to the already standing county regiments.[2] The idea that men might join the fight more readily if they were to serve with their friends from their communities or professions, or pals, caught on quickly. The response from the public was beyond all expectations, allowing the British Expeditionary Force to be expanded into a true continental army manned by the legions of “Kitchener’s Army.” The troubling truth was, however, that these young recruits were frighteningly inexperienced.[3]

According to the website War History Online, Kitchener was not the actual originator of the Pals Battalions concept. Director of Recruiting, Major-General Sir Henry Rawlinson came up with the solution to the personnel problem. On August 19, he suggested that an appeal be made to the young stockbrokers and employees of the City of London’s financial district. The idea that they would serve with their friends echoed the long standing tradition of the military County Associations. The plan was a resounding success. In just over a week, the newly formed “Stockbrokers’ Battalion” counted 1600 new recruits.

With the first recruiting success and with Kitchener’s approval, the idea quickly spread to other cities, communities, and professions.

“The Pals tapped into the patriotic spirit stirred by the outbreak of war. Organised by mayors, Members of Parliament and other local leaders, with permission from the War Office, these battalions were made up of volunteers eager to fight for king and country.

They also tapped into community spirit. Because they were locally organised and recruited, they allowed men to join up alongside friends, neighbours and relatives. Brothers and lifelong friends went to war together, buoyed up by each others’ presence. It was a new take on the long tradition of local volunteer regiments, and one that answered a specific problem of the day – how to quickly recruit a large army.”[4] For lads who may never have ventured farther from home than the local village pub, serving with their friends and relatives must have provided a high level of comfort as they faced marching off to war. No doubt the White Feather movement also had its effect on volunteerism. Women were encouraged to present white feathers, a traditional symbol of cowardice, to any man of military age not in uniform.

Another feature of the Pals recruiting effort involved how the units were supported financially. Until they were officially inducted into the army, Kitchener insisted that local communities be required to house, fed, and clothe their units; otherwise, their local Pals unit would not be authorized. In all, the Pals recruitment effort was a resounding success. 145 service and 70 local battalions of Pals eventually shipped out to the front. For a list of these units, click here

Arthur Fox and pals, No. 5 Platoon, B Company, 18th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (2nd Bradford Pals) (1st left, second row), Ripon, 1915. Courtesy of Tony Laking.

As any student of WWI history knows, the loss of life at the front was staggering. “Going over the top” from the trenches involved literally exposing oneself to a barrage of enemy gunfire while crossing the “no man’s land” of sucking mud and barbed wire intended to ensnare and hold the unwary or unlucky. Large numbers were killed and maimed in these head-on assaults. The latest developments in weapons of war meant that entire units could be wiped out in a single artillery bombardment. If these units were filled with friends and relatives, it is not a hard to envision the effect the losses would have on families and communities. During battles like Ypres and the Somme, the volunteer Pals units suffered severe losses. Some families lost all of their male members and communities most of their young men in a single day of fighting. The devastation was immense. The Battle of the Somme was a turning point in Pals recruitment, which petered to an end by the summer of 1916. In March of that year, a conscription act was passed by Parliament eliminating the need for them.

Although I was vaguely aware of the Pals Battalions, it was a movie that brought home to me the danger of sending friends and relatives into battle together. Easy Virtue, staring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Ben Barnes and based on Noel Coward’s play of the same name, is not a war story, but a comedy of manners set on a failing estate in the English countryside in the 1920’s. Colin Firth’s character is a war veteran and lord of the manor who had eventually “wandered home” after the war had been over for a good while. In reality, he was so damaged by what he experienced at the front that he could not face going home. His wife had to travel to France and pry him out of a brothel. At one point in the story, Firth explains his refusal to return home by telling Biel’s character he was the only one of his local Pals unit that survived the war. He had led men to their deaths and he could not deal with the guilt – an entire generation from his community completely wiped out under his leadership. Is it any wonder that the men of WWI are known as the Lost Generation?

Related Fiction

  1. Grant, R.G. Smithsonian World War I: the Definitive Visual History. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.
  2. Hart, Peter. The Great War: a Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  3. Hart, Peter. The Great War: a Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hart, Peter. The Great War: a Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: a Complete History. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1994.

Grant, R.G. Smithsonian World War I: the Definitive Visual History. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.