When war broke out in 1914, Britain’s standing army of about 450,000 was dwarfed by the conscript-heavy armies organizing in Europe. Lord Kitchener, Britain’s new Secretary of State for War, wanted to avoid the political hot potato of conscription, but believed “the last million men” Britain could send into battle would decide success. Manpower was the key.
A widely publicized poster, featuring a stern Kitchener pointing directly at viewers, captioned, “Your Country Needs You” fanned the flames of patriotism, especially after Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II reportedly referred to Britain’s “contemptible little army.”
An escape from the grinding poverty and tedium of everyday life; decent food, clothing, and pay (one shilling a day for privates) and the promise of post-war employment for returning veterans, encouraged further enlistment. But more soldiers were needed.
Men like Lord Derby and Sir Henry Rawlinson realized that whole groups might enlist more readily if they could serve with people they knew. Recruiting in Liverpool in 1914, Lord Derby coined the term “Pals.” The idea of Pals’ (or Chums’) battalions caught on. Crowds flocked to recruitment centres. Stockbrokers, artists, footballers, journalists, shop assistants, teachers, Glasgow Tramways workers, Tyneside Irish, and many other groups of friends, neighbours, relatives, and colleagues formed quickly.
These cohesive units would train together, travel together and serve together, fighting side by side with friends, not with strangers. Unforeseen was how many pals would die together.
On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme—July 1, 1916—the British Army suffered its greatest single loss in its history. The nearly 60,000 casualties overall, of whom more than 19,000 died, included devastated Pals battalions. Some 720 Accrington Pals of East Lancashire who went over the top into No Man’s Land were “mown down like meadow grass” in less than half an hour. They suffered 235 dead and 350 wounded. Leeds Pals lost about 750 of 900. News travelled back to small towns where whole districts drew their blinds and listened to tolling church bells.
“Never such innocence again,” Philip Larkin wrote of the eager men lining up to enlist in 1914. The success of Pals as a recruiting tool came at too high a price in practice. A surviving Pal said, “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”
This memorial to the 124th Pals battalion at its first barracks, Jesse Ketchum School, honours the one thousand men commanded by Lt. Col. Vaux Chadwick, recruited in a two-week “whirlwind campaign” from December 27, 1915 until the end of the first week of January, 1916. “Join the Pals” was the cry.
Inoculated and vaccinated at the Armories, trained at Toronto, Camp Niagara, and Camp Borden, they sailed for England aboard the Cameronia in August 1916. In Boulogne, France, by March 11, 1917, and redesignated 124th Pioneers (4th Canadian Division), they served at Arras, Vimy, Hill 70, Ypres, and Passchendaele. Some went as reinforcements to other units. All would face the same grim prospects as the British Pals.