Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Salford Pals

Despite my having a solid knowledge of British military history, my knowledge of the Great War and of the Somme battle in 1916 was very limited. I knew that the Somme is still considered to be the worst catastrophe in British military history. I also knew that an infantry battalion numbered as high as "19" would be a New Army volunteer battalion, likely raised as part of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener's famous recruiting drive of late 1914 and early 1915. Kitchener was one of the first to realize that Britain's small professional army and its existing reserves numbering in the low hundreds of thousands would not be nearly large enough to allow Britain to sustain a multi-year effort commensurate with its stature as a great power in a major European war where the other powers were fielding millions of troops. As a result, he put out a call for a new all-volunteer army of 100,000 men. Instead, he got 500,000 volunteers from all walks of life who raced to join the colours, either out of patriotism, a need for adventure, or a desperate drive to escape the drudgery of their working lives. 

Many of those who volunteered joined up together as members of a "pals" or "chums" battalion. These battalions were organized by influential individuals or towns and then offered to the crown. These battalions consisted of companies recruited from neighbourhoods, family members, work mates, members of sports clubs etc. The pals units had such unlikely names as the Glasgow Tramways Battalion, the Grimsby Chums and the Accrington Pals. The battalions took on distinctive individual characters. For example, when a significant number of professional football players from Edinburgh's Heart of Midlothian Soccer Club joined the 16th Service Battalion of the Royal Scots, many of their supporters demonstrated loyalty to their heroes by also joining the same unit. This excellent BBC documentary tells the story of this battalion.

Today, only a sub-set of Kitchener's new army battalions are recognized as officially falling into the unique "pals" category. Most of the newly raised service battalions of old county regiments were raised through general recruiting efforts that were not concentrated in local areas. The pals battalions were raised through local initiatives and then offered to the army. They were later aligned with the old county regiments and were designated as service battalions. But they were originally raised under their local "pals" titles. Thus is is not unusual for a pals unit to carry two titles - its pals designation and its official county batallion designation.

George was a member of what was officially termed the 19th Service Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a famous infantry regiment formerly designated the 20th Regiment of Foot. The 15th, 16th, 19th and 20th service battalions of this regiment were raised by the relatively small town Salford, an heavily industrialized centre on the outskirts of greater Manchester. These four Lancashire Fusilier battalions were respectively the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Salford Pals. 

The 3rd Salfords were a proud unit of soldiers recruited from many of the smaller outlying villages surrounding the town, whereas the 1st and 2nd battalions were recruited primarily from the Town of Salford proper. George's 3rd battalion included miners, mill workers, traders and factory workers. The locally raised nature of the battalion trickled down to the company level: A Company was from Pendleton; B was from Eccles and Patricroft (aka their name of the "Patricroft Pals"); C was from Swinton and D was the Worsely, Walkden and Little Hulton Company. The Salfords' officers were either community leaders from the local upper middle class or public school boys with university OTC experience who brought in after newly graduating from schools like Oxford and Cambridge.

For Christmas 2012, I received an excellent history of the four Salford battalions written by local Salford historian and Somme expert Michael Stedman, a local teacher. Stedman recounts the history of the Salford battalions from the first idea to raise volunteer soldiers to the end of the war. 

Book cover- The Salford Pals by Mike Stedman

The book is an excellent primer on the Salford Pals. It includes some platoon photos and lists all of the original members of each of the four battalions. Sadly George is not listed as an original member of the 19th Battalion. From his regimental number, it seems clear that he joined the 3rd battalion after it was established, probably from one of the Lancashire Fusiliers' reserve battalions in late 1915. His limited extant official records and medal card indicate that he did not join his battalion in France until early 1916, confirming that he was a later replacement. He didn't miss much action as the first sustained engagement for his battalion was the First Day of the Somme on July 1, 1916. 

On eBay in 2012, I chanced to see a shoulder title for one of the first 3 Salford battalions (the fourth battalion had a unique design) up for auction. It went for about $300, demonstrating the collectibility of Salford Pals-related militaria.This is the design of brass shoulder title George would have worn proudly on each of his epaulettes.

Brass shoulder title of the design worn by the 19th LF

As noted above, I was lucky enough to find George's medal index card (MIC) through the internet geology site A soldier's MIC generally records his first theatre of service and all of the awards earned. The MICs were held outside the soldier's actual service record file, which is a lucky thing given that about 2/3 of all WWI soldiers' individual service records (including George's) were destroyed by German bombing in WWII.

George's MIC - obverse

George's MIC shows that he was awarded the Victory Medal and British War Medal, providing indirect evidence that he entered the theatre of war in France in 1916 rather than in 1915. Had he entered the French theatre in 1915 he would have qualified for the 1914/15 Star. Sadly, the MIC does not refer specifically to the date of arrival in theatre. His actual medals are long gone but they would have looked like this:

British War Medal (L) and Victory Medal (R)

1 comment:

  1. My granddad John Albert Hollingsworth served with the 19th Battalion lancs fusiliers in 1916-1917 in the somme and was later moved to the 2/8th Fusiliers towards the end of the war. I do know he was a prisoner of war and was captured in Roisel.