Pals Battalions

This should be a battalion of pals, a battalion in which friends from the same [place] will stand shouolder to shoulder for the honour of Britain...
— Lord Derby

In 1914, when Britain entered WWI, it only had a standing army that was too small for the amount of troops needed for World War 1. The country desperately needed more soldiers. Instead of having a draft, Britain tried a different way to recruit troops: Pals Battalions.

Pals Battalions were battalions formed from men from the same town, city, office or even sports team… In some cases, even high schools put together their own battalions (you'll understand why this thought should make you grimace as you read further). Local recruiting drives would be set up to market the opportunity to young men around Great Britain, Ireland, and Scotland. These drives were particularly successful. The selling point of these battalions was that the men would serve alongside their brothers, friends, fellow employees, teammates or neighbors instead of being tossed into a random battalion with men from all over.

While the initial development of these battalions for recruiting troops was a huge success, their implementation on the battlefield left some towns decimated, as a majority of an entire generation of young men could be wiped out in the blink of an eye.

Britain joined World War I, also known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars as did most other European nations. It was a tumultuous time in Europe and ended up dragging a large number of countries from around the globe into conflict. Many of these countries paid dearly through the sacrifice of many of their own people. Britain was one of these nations. Almost 900,000 British soldiers died during World War 1 and over 1.6 million were wounded.

On August 4, 1914, Britain entered into the war, joining the Triple Entente with France and Russia, after Germany had marched through Belgium to attack France. As they prepared to join the war, Britain began creating Pals Battalions and after little training, these pals were sent off to the front lines. 

In the first year of the war, Britain had sent their small, but highly trained, standing army to try and help stop Germany from capturing Paris. The small Regular British army was practically wiped out right away. They suffered heavy losses after losing the battles of MonsLe Cateau, the Aisne and Ypres. It was clear that Britain would need more soldiers, so they sought volunteers through the Pals Battalions.

The British continued to suffer defeats through 1915. The worst battle in British history then took place the following year in 1916. It was the Battle of the Somme. This battle resulted in almost 60,000 British casualties in the first day with about 20,000 of these soldiers killed in action. This battle took a gruesome toll on the Pals Battalions as it was the first battle of the war for many of them. They were also undertrained and perhaps unsure of what to expect. Some of the Pals Battalions suffered worse than others. One battalion, the Accrington Pals, saw extreme casualties. Of the almost 700 men from this group, 235 were killed and 350 were wounded… in less than 20 minutes. 17 more would succumb to their wounds. I can’t imagine how the town must have reacted upon receiving the news or what it must have felt like to watch your brothers, friends and colleagues fall all around you in a span of 20 minutes. Similar towns saw the same pattern. By hour 1 of the battle, 1,700 men from the village of Bradford were dead or wounded. Another battalion, from Chorley, saw 93 of their 175 men wounded or killed in the course of a single charge. As the men came over the top into no man’s land they were mowed down by German guns.

The Chorley Pals Memorial

The Chorley Pals Memorial

These sudden decimations of men from the same school, village, or region left entire communities back in Britain devastated. The psychological trauma would live on for some time. Due to the terrible effects of the Pals Battalions, they were all but disbanded by 1917. They were either broken up and the men were spread across other units or they were merged together with larger groups of forces. Britain has not used anything resembling the Pals Battalions since World War I.