A regiment of pals
By Paul Coslett
How office clerks, messenger boys, and factory workers came together to form the Liverpool Pals, fighting and dying side by side in World War I.
The Liverpool Pals parade at Knowsley Hall
At the start of World War I a surge of patriotic fervour saw thousands of men volunteer for service in the armed forces, in Liverpool this was particularly strong with colleagues from the city’s offices and factories signing up together to form what became known as the Liverpool Pals.
The concept of tight knit volunteer battalions of men from local workplaces was led in Liverpool by Lord Derby who was nicknamed ‘England’s best recruiting sergeant’.
Within weeks of the announcement of war, Lord Derby, put forward the idea of a battalion drawn from the Liverpool business workforce, and even wrote to employers asking that they encourage their employees to enlist.
Volunteers were asked to turn up at The Kings Regiment Liverpool HQ in St Anne Street at 7.30pm on 28 August, 1914.
The sheer number of men who turned up overwhelmed the recruiting hall, and extra rooms had to be opened to deal with all the men who wanted to enlist, already there were enough to form more than one battalion.
Digging Derby's clay
Lord Derby mounted a platform and addressed the crowd, for the first time using the term ‘Pals’ to describe the new battalion "I am not going to make you a speech of heroics”, he said.
"You have given me your answer, and I can telegraph to Lord Kitchener tonight to say that our second battalion is formed.
Liverpool Pals on St George's Plateau
"This should be a Battalion of Pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool.
"I don’t attempt to minimise to you the hardships you will suffer, the risks you will run.
"I don’t ask you to uphold Liverpool’s honour, it would be an insult to think that you could do anything but that.
"But I do thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming here tonight and showing what is the spirit of Liverpool, a spirit that ought to spread through every city and every town in the kingdom."
On 31 August, 1914 recruits packed on to St George’s Plateau in Lime Street, the men were drawn from the major businesses and offices across the city from The Cotton Association and Corn Trade Association to The Cunard Line and Bank and Insurance offices.
By 5 September, just over a week after his original call to arms, Lord Derby had 3000 men enlisted, enough for three battalions, by November there were four.
These troops were officially the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th Service Battalions of the King’s, but known as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pals.
The troops now had to be found accommodation and begin military training, initially this responsibility was to fall on the city of Liverpool
Makeshift barracks were created at an old watch factory in Prescot, in tents on Hooton Racecourse, in homes near Sefton Park and ultimately in hastily constructed wooden huts in the grounds of Lord Derby’s Knowsley estate.
The initial training took place amid a lack of rifles and other equipment and in a preparation for the trench warfare that was to come, a great deal of time was spent digging trenches on Lord Derby’s land, this work in the depths of winter made a lasting impression on the troops, fifty years later at Pals reunion, the song called Derby’s Clay written to the tune of Moonlight Bay was still being sung.
By April 1915 the Pals had been formed in to the 89th Infantry Brigade and eventually the troops progressed on to training at Larkhill camp on Salisbury Plain, a traditional precursor to embarkation.
On 31 October, 1915, it was announced that the Pals would be leaving for France and in a letter to his brother Lord Derby gave his view on how the war could be won, “This war is only going to come to an end by killing Germans, and I am perfectly certain that at that game, the 89th Brigade will more than hold their own.”
The Pals would go on to fight in some of the most costly battles of World War I, taking part in the ‘big push’ at the Somme in 1916.
Almost 200 Liverpool Pals were killed going ‘over the top’ on 1 July, 1916, over 300 more were wounded, captured or recorded as missing.
Of the four original Pals Battalions who sailed to France in November 1915, twenty per cent would be dead by 1919, if the figures of wounded and those transferred to other units are included the casualty figure is closer to seventy five per cent.
Private W B Owens, who would be killed in July 1916, wrote home as the troops departed summing up the feelings of many of the Liverpool Pals, "Well we’re away at last and ‘tho no one feels that it’s a solemn occasion to be in England for perhaps the last time, I think that the predominant feeling in every chap’s heart – in mine at any rate – is one of pride and great content at being chosen to fight and endure for our dear ones and the old country."
last updated: 30/10/2008 at 16:09
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