You may have seen that here at Bull Brand we'll be donating £1,039 to Help For Heroes and to the Royal British Legion to mark the end of the First World War. Why £1,039 you ask? Well, sadly that was the number of casualties our local regiment, The Bradford Pals, suffered on the first two days of the Somme. This figure accounted for half the number of men in the unit. In 48 hours villages and towns in and around Bradford lost a huge number of their young men folk. We were shocked and saddened here at Bull Brand to learn this. Unfortunately the more we researched, this sort of loss became far from the exception. Regiments from around the country, the empire and the allies lost similar numbers and more in short periods. As we develed deeper into this, we struggled to comprehend the loss.
To keep out focus local, we decided to write a little bit about the Bradford Pals, to help develop our understanding of how they came to be and what happened to them.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Britain was the only European power that didn't have a conscript army. The ranks of the regular, national reserves and the territorial army were all made up of volunteers. To boost the numbers, Lord Kitchener initiated a recruitment push, between August and mid-September 1914 nearly 480,000 men had joined, just over a year later 2.5 million men had volunteered to fight.
To incentivise men into joining, the concept of men joining-up with friends, colleagues and other local men was developed. With success in Liverpool with the Kings Regiment (four Pals battalions), Lord Kitchener decided to promote the idea of Pals battalions around the country.
Many Pals battalions, the Bradford Pals were made up of working men from in and around Bradford. Many had previously worked in the textile factories or worked the nearby land. The officers tended to come from the professional classes, such as solicitors, teachers and merchants. In some cases, mill owners were commanding men they had previously employed. During the war three battalions were raised, they were officially named the 16th (1st Bradford), 18th (2nd Bradford), and 20th (Reserve) Battalions of The Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire Regiment). After training around Yorkshire, the Pals were sent to France during early 1915. Some units took part in fighting at Battle of Aubers Ridge then moving on the fight at the infamous Ypres salient, however, the Bradford Pals full debut in battle came in 1916 at the Somme.
By 1916, the volunteer army was now in the field; the volunteers were trained and equipped ready for battle. With the war nearing its second year, the German army had set about attempting the bleed the French army out in the massive Battle of Verdun. To relieve pressure on the French by drawing German attention north, the British planned the Battle of the Somme. Designed as a significant breakthrough, advances of miles had been set as objectives; the British were ready to blood their new armies. On the 1st of July 1916, across an extended front, the British Army started its attack. The Bradford Pals (16th and 18th Battalions) left their trenches to attempt to cross no man's land. Attacking near Serre, this position marked one of the most northerly points of the battle. Well dug in and prepared, the Germans had been able to withstand the intense artillery bombardment meaning that as the Bradford Pals emerged from their trenches, machine guns, rifle and artillery cut through them. Throughout the day, the Germans continued to counter-attack, this held up the British attack and caused further casualties. It's also believed on the evening of the first time some Bradford Pals were used on trench raids. After days of fighting, little to no ground had been taken.
Exact casualty figures seem a little mixed from our research, but sources we've found show that the two battalions suffered 1,039 killed and wounded.
As with other Pals Battalions, the sheer loss of men resulted in these Battalions being decimated. During 1916 conscription had been implemented, this began to reduce the concentration of local men in these new battalions as the replacements joined units in France. The large scale 'local' units were not to be seen again in the war; however, the country system of regiments remains to this day. The Battle of the Somme was a turning point in the war. The leadership realised that new tactics and tools were required to overcome well dug in troops armed with machine guns and supported by defensive systems and artillery. While the fate of the Pal's Battalions is tragic, they joined the war at a turning point and specifically war in general. Tactics hadn't evolved to outmanoeuvre defences, and arguably no real breakthrough occurred until the German Spring offensive of 1918; when the Germans broke allied lines which caused Haig to issue the famous 'backs to the wall' order.