Last week we went over to Manchester to see the Royal Exchange’s production of “the Accrington Pals”. I enjoyed it very much. I could particularly relate to it as the story was about the lives of ordinary working class people from Lancashire, the same sort of people as the majority of my ancestors.
The Pals battalions were formed shortly after the beginning of the First World War, to encourage men to join up. The first was set up in Liverpool and quickly afterwards Pals battalions were being recruited across the country. The idea was that it would be easier to recruit volunteers who would serve alongside their friends and workmates rather than to be posted to anonymous units. Accrington was the smallest town to recruit a battalion, but, in fact, only one company, a quarter of the battalion, were from Accrington. Another company was composed of men from outlying smaller towns in the district, one from Burnley (Z Company) and the fourth, Y Company, from the town where I grew up, Chorley (the Chorley Pals). The Accrington Pals became incorporated into the East Lancashire Regiment as it’s 11th Battalion.
The Chorley Pals Company was made up of 212 men and 3 Officers, recruited from the town and outlying villages.
The Chorley Pals (Picture source:Community archives and heritage Group)
Initially the battalion was sent out to Egypt in December 1915, to counter an expected Turkish assault on the Suez Canal. Nothing much came of this so in February 1916, they were sent to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme. They were involved in the attack on Serre, at the northern end of the line, alongside other Pals battalions from Barnsley and Sheffield, and they were slaughtered. Of the 720 in the battalion, 235 were killed and about 350 wounded (of whom 17 later died of their injuries) in about half an hour as they crossed no mans land, walking towards the German front line. The artillery bombardment that preceded the waves of infantry had made minimal impression on the German troops who had retreated to deep, underground shelters. When the waves of British soldiers climbed out from the trenches and walked across No-man’s Land, up a slope, the Germans were ready for them. They had been told to expect minimal resistance.
The Accrington Pals were sent out in three waves and were mown down by the German machine guns. The Accrington company went out first, followed by the Accrington District company and then the Chorley Pals with the Burnley company last over the top. 31 men from the Chorley Pals were killed on the day, while three died from their wounds within a month of the assault. Of these, 21 have no known grave and are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Another 59 were wounded, making a total of 93 casualties out of approximately 175 men. The Accrington companies that had gone out before them fared even worse. A lot of men died. Was it worth it?
As far as I know, none of my relatives served in the Chorley Pals. My great grandfather was a career soldier who was in the army when war broke out. He was sent out to France during the first months of the war. Somehow he managed to survive, coming back home in 1916 only to be sent out to join the forgotten war in Greece, where he died, probably of cholera, a few months before the end of the war in 1918.
We visited the Somme Battlefield during an Autumn break in Northern France, staying just south of Arras a few years ago. I felt that it was important for me to visit that section of the line where the men from my home town had been killed. It has been preserved as part of the “Sheffield Memorial Park”.
The first thing that struck me was how little distance separated the two opposing front lines. And the Germans had a much stronger position on top of a slope. So the British troops had to walk up hill towards the enemy, making it much easier for them to be picked off.
There were a number of small cemeteries, all immaculately kept, in amongst where the trenches would have been and in no-man’s land itself. The British used to bury men where they fell.
In amongst the remnants of the British trenches we found a memorial to the Chorley Pals – a plaque which included the town’s coat of arms.
And there was also a small plaque attached to a tree
It was an emotional occasion.
For many years the Chorley Pals were largely forgotten in their home town. But following an appeal launched by Steve Williams, a local historian, and Lindsay Hoyle the MP for Chorley, a memorial in the form of a statue of a soldier, was erected in 2010 on the “Flat Iron” market square in the town.