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Volunteers: the Battle of the Somme, a Baptism of Fire

An important part of British Great War history was the raising and equipping of the specially formed Pals Battalions. The first major theatre of war for many of these newly recruited men was on the Somme in 1916, where terrible casualties were incurred.

volontaires britanniques
Great Britain had only a small professional army at its disposal when war broke out in 1914. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, soon realised that additional recruits would be needed for the war effort, and thus launched a huge campaign asking for volunteers to join the ranks. The first call asked for 100,000 new recruits, but the response was absolutely overwhelming and by the end of the year over a million men had joined Lord Kitchener’s New Army. A huge wave of patriotism had swept Britain; men from all walks of life and social backgrounds came forward to do their duty for King and Country.

Pals Battalions were raised throughout the country. Men from the same towns and villages, work places, universities and sports clubs were encouraged to join up together, train together and eventually leave for the front together. Posters adorned the street walls, patriotic music was played in the music halls, speeches were given and white feathers were handed to those who were not considered to be doing their bit…

After training, made difficult due to the amount of men who had suddenly descended on the army barracks, leading to shortages in supplies, equipment and even training personnel, units from the New Army were gradually sent to the front. Many of these men experienced their first baptism of fire on the Somme in 1916 and today the battle is not only synonymous with death and destruction, but also with the loss of innocence and ideals.

One of these Pals Battalions was the 16th Royal Scots, known as McCrae’s Battalion, after the charismatic man who raised the battalion. Players from the Heart of Midlothian football team were the first to join the battalion, followed by their supporters and many other sportsmen. They suffered heavy casualties during their fight for Courcelette on the 1st July and, in 2004, a memorial to the battalion was erected in the village.

John Harris, of the Accrington Pals, who fought at Serre on the 1st July, said these memorable words after the battle on the 1st July, “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history”.


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