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Lest we forget

HISTORIAN William Turner looks back at the tragedy of the Accrington Pals and the legacy of the famous battalion.

ON 4 AUGUST 1914, Britain and Germany were at war and it quickly became clear that Britain needed to increase her fighting strength.

Lord Derby, a Lancashire man, suggested to Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, that men would more willingly enlist if they could be certain that they would serve with their friends, neighbours and workmates.

Lord Kitchener and the War Council, of which the MP for Accrington, Harold Baker, was a member, immediately agreed. This led to the raising of Pals' battalions in many parts of the country.

Early in September, Councillor John Harwood, the Mayor of Accrington, offered to raise a battalion for the East Lancashire Regiment. Thirty-six officers and 1,076 men enlisted in 10 days.

The official name of the battalion was the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment, but they were soon known as the Accrington Pals. The battalion was unique in two respects - Accrington was the smallest municipal borough in the country to raise a battalion, and it was the only service battalion to have a town's name as part of its title.

There were four companies in the Pals. At first they were 'A' (Accrington, 'B' (District), 'C' (Chorley) and 'D' (Burnley). 'A' Company and 'B' Company (so called because the men came from Church, Clayton-le-Moors, Great Harwood, Oswaldtwistle and Rishton) paraded every day on Ellison's Tenement.

The Pals were truly a cross-section of the social, business and industrial life of the area. All enlisted - businessmen, students, skilled engineers, unskilled labourers, miners, clerks and shop assistants.

At this time the Mayor, who was responsible for the Pals, refused a War Office offer of £6,000 to build a barracks in Accrington, saying he preferred "his men" to be billeted at home.

This comfort ended, however, on 23 February 1915 when they left for Caernarfon, North Wales. During the rest of 1915 the Pals trained at Caernarfon, Rugeley, Ripon and Salisbury Plain before sailing to Egypt in December. For over two months they guarded the Suez Canal and in early March 1916 they sailed to France and went into the trenches before Serre.

At that time the British and French High Command were preparing the joint offensive against the Germans which became known as 'The Big Push' - the Battle of the Somme.

On 1 July 1916 British Troops advanced on a 15-mile front. At Serre, as over 700 Pals advanced towards German trenches supposed to have been destroyed by a week-long artillery bombardment, the German troops came up from dug-outs untouched by shelling.

They swept the advancing Pals with machine-gun fire. In less than 20 minutes, 235 Pals died and 350 were wounded. The battalion formed with such enthusiasm in Accrington was destroyed.

A new, reformed battalion later fought with honour at Oppy Wood in 1917, at Ayette, Aval Wood, the River Lys and Ploegsteert in 1918. The battalion was finally disbanded in 1919 - five years and one month after its formation.

At least 850 Pals died during that time. 530 are buried in 102 cemeteries in France and Belgium and 24 cemeteries in England and Wales. 320 have no known grave and are commemorated on seven memorials.


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