1 July 1916 was the first day of the Somme Offensive, which became known as the most terrible battle of the First World War, the battle of the Somme.
Two battalions of Bradford ‘Pals’ were among the troops of 93 Brigade crossing No-Man’s-Land at Serre, towards barbed wire and machine guns that were not supposed to be there: artillery had been bombarding the German lines for seven days, but in Serre bad weather had hampered efforts. The advance went ahead anyway: ‘The Corps Commander was extremely optimistic, telling everybody that the wire had been blown away (we could see it standing strong and well), there were no German trenches and all we had to do was walk into Serre.’ Colonel Howard (93 Brigade Major).
1st Bradford Pals battalion button-hole badge, IWM (full credit below).
The men did not stand a chance: among the shocking casualty figures of that first day alone, the worst day in the history of the British Army, we see that of 2000 Bradford men advancing at Serre, only 223 survived.
The Pals battalions had been set up during the early stages of the war, before conscription was introduced in 1916. Allowing men to sign up and serve alongside their family, friends, colleagues etc made them more likely to join, and many such battalions formed around the country. The 1st Bradford Pals, (16th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment), began recruiting in September 1914, enthusiastic patriotism ensuring that the battalion reached full strength within the month. Recruitment for the 2nd Bradford Pals (18th (Service) Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment), which began in February 2015, was much slower as the first fervour gave way to the reality of industrial stalemate trench warfare.
The story of the Pals is particularly heart-breaking because the losses struck whole communities at once: the men joined together, fought together, and died together, leaving cities in mourning. We should not forget of course that many other Bradford men served (and died) in other battalions participating in the Somme Offensive and throughout the war.
One such was Jack Priestley, the Bradford lad who would become J.B. the famous author, though he survived the war, escaping the Somme by a lucky chance. He had joined up soon after war was declared, alone, travelling to Halifax on a tram, to sign up for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment. His friends joined Bradford’s Pals battalions en masse a little later on. One beautiful morning in June 1916, he was sorting out rations for his men in a small dugout which was hit by a massive trench mortar. Jack spent the Somme summer convalescing in a country house in Rutland, not returning to the front line until 1918.
Priestley (second from left) and concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, 1916 (reference PRI/2/6)
Together with the impact of the war on the German community which had contributed so much to the city’s industrial growth, the loss of a generation of young men seriously diminished Bradford’s economy, culture and society. Much later Jack Priestley bore witness to what he had seen, and who and what had been lost:
“… I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about another and better England. I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all are gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story …”. English Journey.
Sources: these stories are richly documented online and in print, and I have drawn on much sources in writing this short account.
The title is from the report of Sergeant-Major Cussins in the ‘1st Pals’ War Diary of 1 July 1916, quoted on the Bradford Pals website.
Colonel Howard’s quotation is taken from the Western Front Association’s page about Serre.
The information about recruitment is from Bradford: remembering 1914-18 by Kathryn Hughes.
Priestley on the First World War: English Journey, Margin Released, key writings collected in Priestley’s Wars, and in my chapter in Bradford in the First World War (contact me if you can’t get hold of a copy).
Credit: badge copyright IWM, full details on this page. Shared here under IWM non-commercial licence.