Pals battalions: Why did friends fight together in WW1?

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1. Brothers in arms

When war broke out in 1914, Britain’s professional standing Army consisted of some 750,000 soldiers – Germany’s conscripted might was six times bigger. With this pressing need for extra military manpower, friendship and community spirit would have a big role to play.

It has been said that while soldiers may sign up for their country, what they fight for is the man next to them.

As far back as the 1860s, groups of British men from the same communities were targeted to enlist together as part-time soldiers in the Rifle Volunteer Movement, which would later develop into the reserve and territorial forces of the British Army. The social appeal of local drill halls and a sense of belonging were used as incentives, together with private summer camps, which also provided a break from working life.

2. Friendship as a recruitment tool

At the outbreak of war, a wave of patriotism saw an influx of volunteers for the Army. An understaffed War Office would be overwhelmed, but it was essential to maintain this flow and enthusiasm of much-needed citizen soldiers. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, needed a plan.

In the first month of the conflict, Major Robert White, suggested that more civilians might enlist if they were assured of serving alongside people they knew. He tested the idea locally in the city of London. In just a few days, thousands of bankers and clerks had joined the so-called ‘Stockbrokers Battalion’. At the same time, the Earl of Derby raised a battalion in Liverpool, again to great success. He coined the term ‘Pals’ and the scheme started to spread.

Cities and businesses competed to provide the biggest number of recruits. Local gentry and businessmen helped the effort – incentivising and paying for the equipment and training of these new citizen soldiers. By the end of September, 50 towns had formed at least one Pals battalion, taking the immediate demands of recruiting and paying for new units away from Kitchener and the War Office.

3. Friendship on the frontline

By recruiting, training and deploying ‘Pals’ together, battalions kept their own local character. This provided a powerful unifying and motivational force which kept men fighting as the realities of war set in.

Melvyn Bragg speaks to Julian Farrance of the National Army Museum about the effectiveness of Pals battalions (From BBC Two's Reel History Of Britain).

Communities, workplaces, clubs and teams helped bring together these groups of citizen soldiers. They also helped provide an established hierarchy which often made them a strong fighting force. However, as the war dragged on, these brothers in arms were tested by the armies of the enemy Central Powers. In certain attacks whole communities of soldiers went forward. Men who had lived and worked together now fought and, in some cases, died together.

4. Missing friends

By 1 August 1917, the British and Dominion forces in France and Belgium totalled more than two million officers and men, many of them serving in new Army and Territorial units which, despite the casualties they had already suffered, still retained much of their local character and strong links with particular communities at home

Arthur Mee, a journalist in the 1930s, estimated that by the end of the war, men from as many as 16,000 villages had volunteered for the fight. He sought to identify ‘thankful villages’ – communities in which no one had died in the war. Modern estimates suggest that there are just 53 villages that can claim the title. The rest felt the effects when the battalions forged by their efforts became casualties of war.

The battles in which large groups of local men were decimated had a great effect on the local character of whole communities. Even soldiers who survived the war had to deal with the practical and psychological effects of returning without those they had so enthusiastically enlisted and left with.

In Accrington, Lancashire, of the hundreds of men that joined the fight only 100 returned home. Such examples saw communities unite in mourning and in many cases incorporate the loss into local lore. This event undoubtedly contributed to the tragic view of the conflict which many have to this day.

5. Building an army for war

WW1’s use of 'Pals' was unique. The government never again used the scheme to recruit for its standing Army. So how were soldiers found for other conflicts?

Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)

Image: Mary Evans Picture Library.

Recruitment for the

Napoleonic Wars

Recruiting parties offered payment to volunteers who received incentives like beer money and the promise of less harsh military discipline than had come before.

Crimean War (1853-1856)

Image: Mary Evans Picture Library.

Recruitment for the

Crimean War

Britain used financial might to employ mercenaries & militiamen. In 1854 Parliament passed an act to create foreign legions of German, Italian & Swiss soldiers.

World War Two (1939-1945)

Image: The Granger Collection/TopFoto.

Recruitment for

World War Two

Once again outnumbered by the German army, Britain rapidly introduced and later extended conscription – forced enlistment of able-bodied men.

Iraq War (2003-2009)

Image: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.

Recruitment for the

Iraq War

In 2005 £2m was invested in the first of several new targeted recruitment drives to find young officers & recruits