WW1 RECRUITMENT AND PALS BATTALIONS
Pride Park, home of Derby County F.C. has a capacity of 33,000. This is the number of men who enlisted in the British army on this day in 1914.
This spike in recruitment probably stemmed from the first reports in the British press of the defeat at Mons and the ‘broken bits of regiments’ now falling back towards Paris. The blunt report in ‘The Times’ that the German armies “could no more be stopped than the waves of the sea”, caused a massive public reaction. The men of Britain responded in droves.
33,000 - It's a Record!
There was an overwhelming response to the call by the British Government for 100,000 volunteers. Within a week that total was exceeded and within a month, half a million men had enlisted to serve King and Country. A whole new army, initially labelled K1 (K for Kitchener), was soon formed and by October 1914, K2 and K3 were also created.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 11th August 1914
‘Pals’ battalions are most commonly associated with industrial areas and working class men, but the first such unit comprised members of the London Stock Exchange. To the army it was known as the 10th Royal Fusiliers but to those who served, it was called ‘the Stockbrokers battalion’. Largely on account of family connections, many of the stockbrokers could have been immediately made officers but since this would delay their arrival at the front, this offer was usually declined. For the military authorities, a problem soon became evident. Stockbrokers were not physically equipped to dig trenches! However the idea of Pals battalions took root and the whole country was quick to follow.
Image: The Grimbsy chums in training. Note the lack of rifles and uniforms.
The First Pals Battalion is Formed
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 3rd September 1914
ENLISTMENT REGULATIONS TESTED
Men and boys were arriving at recruiting offices eager to fight for their country. Several 12 year olds are known to have enlisted and one of these fought on the Somme. Many recruiting sergeants were disinclined to enforce the 19-35 age limits as they received a financial bonus for each recruit. Young men who gave their ages as 16 or 17 were often told to “come back tomorrow when you’re older”. A school janitor enlisted aged 58 and the oldest man to have been killed in the war was Henry Webber who served at the front aged 68.
Allsorts at Recruiting Offices
When a diminutive but patriotic young man was turned down by the Notts and Derby regiment, he offered to serve as their regimental mascot. While goats, dogs and even a springbok (shown) were accepted, the dwarf was turned down.
British recruits had to meet certain physical standards and while the minimum height was officially set at 5 feet 3 inches (1.6m), enforcement of this rule was often lax. Several soldiers confess to having filled their shoes with cardboard or having stood on their tiptoes to be measured. One soldier only 5 feet tall, gave up any pretence and simply bribed the recruiting sergeant while another challenged all present to a fight to show why he would be an asset to the British army.
Dwarf Tries to Enlist as Regimental Mascot
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 31st August 1914
On 5th September this famous recruiting poster first appeared. It featured the charismatic and controversial Secretary of State for War, Lord Horatio Kitchener. Unlike many of his Cabinet colleagues, Kitchener did not believe that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ and set about organising a massive civilian army. To the British public, his resolve epitomised what has become known as Britain’s bulldog spirit and over 3 million men were happy to answer his call to serve in ‘Kitchener’s New Armies’. Over time the impact of this poster may have been exaggerated as recruitment peaked two days earlier. Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Margot Asquith, wife of the British P.M. who commented, ‘If Kitchener was not a great man, he was, at least, a great poster.’
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th September 1914
A Great Poster
Image: This recruitment poster was a common sight around Newcastle in October 1914. It features B.E.F. commander Sir John French.
15th October 1914 was the first official day of recruitment for the pals’ battalions known as the Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish (officially the Northumberland Fusiliers). Impelled by Kitchener’s call to arms, the Scots and Irish communities in the Newcastle area raced to see who would be first to raise a full battalion of 1046 men. Such was the flood of volunteers that the contest changed to see who would be first to raise a brigade (four battalions) – a race the Tyneside Irish won.
The first big test for both brigades was on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916). Losses that day for the Tyneside brigades were amongst the worst of any units recorded; the Scots suffering over 2,400 casualties and the Irish almost 2,100. The Scots were led forward by a piper while the Irish marched to the beat of a bass drum. Most men fell within the first hour of the battle and most did not even have a chance to fire their rifle.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 15th October 1914
The Great North Run
Caption: Recruit - "Excuse me, sir, but have the Germans the same methods in Bayonet-fighting as we have?” Instructor - "Let’s hope so. It’s your only chance.”
On this day in 1915, some units of Kitchener’s armies were packing up their baubles in their old kit bags and making ready to cross the Channel. They had trained diligently but often with out of date or improvised equipment, and under the guidance of elderly ‘dug out’ officers and N.C.O.’s. Much of what they had learned was appropriate for the colonial wars of the late 19th Century but how well prepared were they for the first modern war? Time would tell.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th May 1915
Kitchener's Army in Final Training
The first three ‘New Army’ divisions (around 35,000 men) crossed the English Channel in May 1915. Their arrival was eagerly awaited by the beleaguered remnant of the British army. This was evident from graffiti in rear areas where there were several variations of this message; “LOST OR STOLEN - KITCHENER’S ARMY - £5 REWARD TO FINDER”. Reinforcements were desperately needed but serving soldiers had reservations about how much ‘Kitchener’s Mob’ could contribute. Some of those who served with the ‘mob’ were also sceptical. Author and play-write J.B. Priestly volunteered in September 1914 and likened his battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment to “a kind of brave rabble”.
Kitchener's "Brave Rabble" Crosses the Channel
In June 1915 Kitchener’s units began to stream across the English Channel. Their arrival was welcomed but they were viewed with suspicion by the men of the regular army. The age of many officers caused some scratching of heads as it was not uncommon for young men to receive commissions in new army units while still at school. Reginald Battersby (pictured) became a Second Lieutenant in the 11th East Lancashire Regiment (the famous ‘Accrington Pals’) at the age of 15. At the other extreme, Henry Webber was a transport officer with the 7th South Lancashire Regiment, at the age of 67!
It's an Age Thing!
Who are You to Give Me Orders?
Unsurprisingly, soldiers from ‘Kitchener’s mob’ were often considered liabilities. One sentry deserted his post to kill and roast a chicken he had found. When discovered by an officer he was not in the least bit contrite, pointing out that there were no Germans around. He avoided court martial only because the officer made up a convincing lie about what had happened. Despite such tolerance, the number of soldiers being charged with offences dramatically rose with the arrival of Kitchener’s armies. In part this might be explained by their ignorance of army regulations but there was also a degree of insubordination from men who were used to positions of authority such as teachers who found themselves being given orders by schoolboys.
12 year old boys and old men in their 60’s were among the waves of amateur soldiers pouring across the English Channel in July 1915. Every level of society was represented and many of those from privileged backgrounds were ill equipped for army life. The biggest problem was the amount of manual labour required especially digging, and the hauling of supplies. Toffs in one public schools battalion avoided such labours by hiring men from other units. However this arrangement was terminated for two reasons. Firstly, their rum ration regularly failed to arrive and secondly their initiative had been noticed by their superiors who had them transferred to England for retraining as officers!
The Officers Potential of Kitchener's Mob
The naivety of new army units caused both consternation and amusement to seasoned troops. When the Royal Irish Rifles relieved one such battalion near Armentieres they were met by pale, sombre men whose demeanour suggested that they had been through hell. The Irishmen listened sympathetically to accounts of the good men that had been lost but the mood soon changed when they learned that the volunteers had sustained only 3 casualties out of a battalion that totalled 1000. The Rifles giggled when they learned that the volunteers had not been shelled during their tour and they laughed heartily when told that the Germans opposite began the day by politely shouting across ‘Good Morning’.
Good God They are Shooting at Us!
During July 1915, every new army unit was bombarded with calls from H.Q. for men with skills to be identified. The army desperately needed telephonists, draughtsmen, cartographers, carpenters and the like. Other skills acquired in civilian life proved to be of little use in wartime. The linguistic skills of one private of the Royal Fusiliers simply got him into trouble. The unfortunate private reported to his commanding officer that he had identified a spy in their midst. The accused was an Irish soldier who had for a while lived in Canada and had thus acquired a hybrid accent. The suspicious soldier went on to announce that – in his civilian capacity as Lecturer in Phonetics at Oxford University - he had worked for several years in Heidelberg. He was therefore quite sure that the gentleman who purported to be Irish was actually German and almost certainly from the province of Silesia. The Academic was soon transferred from a fighting unit to a labour battalion and served out the war filling holes in the roads.
Back to Skill
The outbreak of war brought opportunities and risks to deaf men. On the streets of Britain several were shot while walking near sensitive installations as they were unable to hear the challenges and warnings uttered by sentries. Men with hearing impairments were no less patriotic than others and many wanted to be more involved in the war. In London, a deaf volunteer battalion was created and men were trained in drill and tunnel digging. With deafness carrying certain advantages, a number of deaf people were employed in munitions - making and testing shells and fuses!!
Have You Heard About the Deaf Battalion?
Despite strict rules barring people with hearing impairment from serving as soldiers, a number of deaf people made it to the battlefields. Frederick Morffew (shown), a road worker from Petersham, surprisingly managed to pass a medical and joined the army in May 1915. Records show that he served for around six weeks before being discharged on account of his deafness. Undeterred, he joined the labour corps and was posted to France. Private Gomer Jones was also profoundly deaf and had no sight in his right eye. According to reports, Jones was the best marksman in his company and a skilled soldier, indistinguishable from his fellow fighters.
It is estimated that nearly 2 million soldiers were left disabled from WW1, approximately 30,000 of these were deafened. Around the country 31 centres were set up to teach them lip-reading and how to re-integrate into society.
Deaf and Blind Soldier Credited as Best Marksman
In June 1915, the 18th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry was undergoing rigorous training in Yorkshire in preparation for overseas service. The 18th was a ‘bantam’ unit with every soldier under 5 feet 3 inches tall. Their fighting capability was already legendary but it was in Glasgow and not at the front that they were given the nickname ‘Devil Dwarfs’. Their quarrelsome reputation may have been the result of relentlessly teasing by other units. Once overseas, other battalions moaned about the short comings of the Bantams for example the trenches they dug generally needed deepened as soon as new troops replaced them.
Image: An injured Bantam escorts a German p.o.w.
Devil Dwarfs Prepare for Battle
It was an issue at last. Tens of thousands of young boys had joined the British army in 1914-15 and some of these were as young as 12 years old. Barnet Kenyon M.P. was the first politician to raise concerns in Parliament and he did this one hundred years ago today. He rounded on the War Office for doing nothing to stop the practice and suggested that birth certificates should be requested from any lad who looked below the age of 19. Latest estimates suggest that around a quarter of a million boys served in the British army during the Great War.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 22nd June 1915
Boy Soldier Controversy Reaches New Heights
Not everyone shared the growing concern about the recruitment of boy soldiers as shown by the following story from a July 1915 edition of Britain’s most popular newspaper.
“Hundreds of boys of fifteen have enlisted but a case has just become known of a lad of 14 who grasped an opportunity to enter the Army. ‘Isn’t it time you young men did something for you country?’ asked a recruiting sergeant of a group outside a music-hall some time ago. ‘Rather,’ said a sturdy lad named Priest (aged 14), who looked up eagerly. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Sixteen,’ said Priest. ‘Sixteen! A fine young man like you would pass for nineteen anywhere. Come along!’ And young Priest went. He is now a private in the same regiment as his father who is 41 years of age.”