The experience of the New Armies 1914-1916
When the First World War began in August 1914, many thought it would be a short war. Britain's Secretary for War, Field Marshall Lord Kitchener of Khartoum disagreed. He believed that it would last at least three years and would involve large armies fighting on the continent of mainland Europe. He felt that Britain's professional Regular Army was too small and could not sustain a long war. Neither did he have much faith in the Territorial Force, part-time soldiers that he considered, wrongly as it turned out, as untrained amateurs.
Kitchener's original idea was to raise 500,000 men and within days of the beginning of the war his face appeared on what was to become an iconic recruiting poster. The posters were everywhere; no one could escape the Field Marshall’s steely-eyed glare. He wanted them and, such was his prestige, men answered the call in droves within days – nearly 300,000 men in August alone. Soon, the recruiting offices were unable to cope with the seemingly endless stream of volunteers.
Then, in cities and towns all over the kingdom, local authorities, urged on by local newspapers and prominent citizens, decided to offer a helping hand. In growing numbers, they offered to give Kitchener complete battalions of around a thousand men, each one recruited and maintained by the individual towns or areas. It is said that the idea began in the City of London when businessmen asked if they could raise a battalion composed of their office workers but it soon spread to the north of England, promoted by Lord Derby. These offers were accepted by the War Office who agreed that men who joined together would stay together. This proved to be a very effective incentive since it offered young men the chance to join up with their mates with similar backgrounds, overcoming the reservations some had about serving far from home with a bunch of foreigners, e.g. Newcastle Railway Pals, Glasgow Tramways, Church Lads etc. Britain was more than a little parochial in 1914.
The War Office decreed that the local authorities would be responsible for the housing, clothing and feeding of the men they recruited, although weapons would be provided. The Army would not take over the units or refunds the costs until they were ready, probably not before mid-1915. The motives of the volunteers were, no doubt, many and varied. They ranged from patriotic pride, through a quest for excitement (escaping from a dreary industrial town) or perhaps, the luxury of three square meals a day, all found. In any event, they were to be closely associated with the communities from which they sprang and the idea of the ‘Pals’ battalions spread throughout Britain.
Sometimes viewed through nostalgic rose-coloured spectacles, the Pals are often viewed in a sentimental light but their impact was mixed. There was a distinctly middle class segment - people wanting to serve with like minded folk - hence several Public Schools battalions, a Stockbrokers Battalion, Artists Rifles etc. Class prejudice was, for some of them, as much a factor as patriotism. This did the Army no favours - many potential leaders badly needed elsewhere remained in the junior ranks. Whatever their reasons, over a million men had been enlisted by the end of 1914 and in 1915, a further 1,250,000 volunteered.
On this special tour we follow in the footsteps of Kitchener's New Army with a special focus on those battalions who took a special pride in calling themselves ‘Pals’. Hear about their birth pains, the challenges they faced to prepare for war and their experience when they reached France from 1915 onwards.