Wednesday 20 February 2013, 17:15
When war was declared against Germany on 4th August 1914, a mood of intense patriotism broke out among the people of Britain.
Men flocked in their thousands to enlist in the army, all eager to serve in the battle against the German Kaiser and to get to "the front" before the fighting finished - with an inevitable British victory, of course.
In the main Wales was no different, despite exhortations from some of the non-conformist preachers to stay aloof from the conflict. Reservists were quickly called back to the colours and, in towns and villages across the land, thousands of eager young men enlisted in regiments such as the South Wales Borderers and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
And then Lord Kitchener, hero of Britain's colonial wars of the past and now recently appointed Secretary of State for War, changed the pattern of enlistment. Kitchener was perhaps the only man to realise that this conflict would go on for three or maybe even four years. At the end of August 1914 he called for a further 100,000 volunteers to form what he termed "a New Army" to give extra weight to the armed forces.
In what was then a revolutionary move, it was decided that men could enlist and serve together in friendship groups.
These new units were hugely popular and joining up with your mates, to enjoy an adventure and see a bit of the world, immediately became symbolic of the early war years. They were known as the Pals Battalions and the idea was simply that men could train together and fight together - it was conveniently forgotten that they could also die together.
In Cardiff there was an instant rush to join the new 11th Battalion of the Welsh Regiment - the Cardiff Pals Commercial Battalion as it became known. Businessmen, coal miners, dockers, teachers, the battalion was the most cosmopolitan of units. Many of them already knew each other; they had drunk in the same pubs or played soccer and rugby against each other for years.
To begin with they had no uniforms and most of them continued to live at home, travelling in to Maindy Barracks in the city each day. There they would drill and march and, for a while at least, happily play at soldiers.
Then on 14 September the Cardiff Pals marched from Maindy Barracks to the GWR station in the centre of the city. Hundreds lined the streets to see them go.
But despite the fact that British soldiers - volunteers and Regulars - were already fighting and dying in the fields of Belgium and northern France, the Pals went only as far as Lewes in Sussex. And there they continued with their training.
For most of the men, already bonding into a cohesive military unit, these early days were a bit like a Boy Scout camp. It was fun, it was certainly different from normal life and, as one Pal wrote to the South Wales Echo on 8 October 1914, there was little or no discrimination:
"You see the 'knuts' of the city and Docks struggling with tufts of grass and earth to remove grease from the dinner 'dickie' and sticking knives and forks into the ground to get the desirable freshness to these articles - - - The Battalion has been provided this week with some old Lee-Enfield rifles. During drills the men left in camp may be seen in the lines helping each other with the rifles and practicing aiming."
On 4 September 1915, virtually 12 months after they had left their native city, the Cardiff Pals went to war. On 20 September they took over a section of the front line and the very next day Corporal Alfred Johnson became the first Cardiff Pal to die in the war when his dugout received a direct hit from a German artillery shell.
The Pals spent the next few weeks in and out of the lines, taking part in night raids and holding their position against German attacks. In October 1915, however, the battalion received orders to leave France. They were to sail for Salonika where the Allies were defending Macedonia, northern Greece and the ports on the Aegean Sea from attack by German and Bulgarian forces.
It was a hard and bloody affair - in many respects the "forgotten campaign" of the Great War - with German/Bulgarian troops holding virtually impregnable positions in the Macedonian hills. And it was not just the enemy soldiers that could kill. The physical conditions endured by the soldiers were horrendous, by turns freezing cold and blistering hot. Diseases such as malaria and dysentery were rife:
"The troops in Salonika slept in their greatcoats in holes in the ground which were waterlogged by dawn," K Cooper and JE Davies wrote in their book The Cardiff Pals. "Some died of sunstroke; some from frostbite."
Private HW Lewis, Stokey as he was known to one and all, won the Victoria Cross during a trench raid in October 1916 when, under intense enemy fire, he rescued a badly wounded officer. Stokey came from Milford Haven but, like many of his friends, had enlisted in the Pals when the call went out in September 1914.
The Cardiff Pals fought in Salonika for three terrible years, their numbers ever more reduced by enemy action and disease. Their war finally culminated in a mindless attack on the Grande Couronne on the Doiran Front, on 18th September 1918, just over two months before the war ended. Nearly 100 of the Pals died in the assault and, three days later, the Bulgarians abandoned the position.
The Cardiff Pals suffered terrible casualties in the Salonikan Campaign. They, like so many other Pals Battalions, were undoubtedly the victims of misguided thinking.
It could be argued that, in the creation of a Cardiff Pals Battalion, the men of the 11th Battalion Welsh Regiment were part of a badly judged social experiment. And always, when such things occur, it is the ordinary man or woman in the street - or, in this case, in the trenches - who suffers.
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