Britain entered the Great War as the only major power that relied on an army that was not recruited through mass conscription. At the outbreak of war, Britain had just 450,000 men in its army, with only 900 fully-trained officers and 250,000 reservists. Before conscription was eventually introduced in 1916, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, knew that an enormous recruitment drive was desperately needed if Britain was to have a fighting chance in this global war.
General Henry Rawlinson was the first to propound the idea that men were more likely to enlist if they could do so alongside familiar faces. Training and fighting beside friends, family and colleagues would ease the transition to this new territory. It was Lord Derby who first tested the suggestion, and he coined the phrase ‘battalion of pals’ during his persuasive recruitment speech in Liverpool. He was ultimately very successful: after a mere two days, 1,500 Liverpudlian men signed up.
‘Pals Battalions’, as they became known, played on a mixture of male identities, both at a local and national level. Lord Derby’s speech in particular urged the men to join these battalions in order to fight for ‘the honour of Britain’ as well as the ‘credit of Liverpool’. Fighting alongside men from their own communities strengthened a sense of serving as protectors specifically for the people of their hometown as well as for their country. These battalions helped to make the struggle a more deeply personal one, enhancing individual investment in the cause with the common goal of fighting for their shared loved ones.
The idea of recruiting men from the same backgrounds into the same battalions could also place pressure on men in a community to enlist if they had not already joined up. Pressure from the community, pressure from the state and pressure from the men who had already responded to the call to arms were all bound up in the ‘pals battalions’ recruitment drive.
On the 6th of August, 1914, Parliament set a goal of increasing Army strength by half a million men. This style of recruitment drive had worked well in areas like Liverpool, so it was decided to replicate it across the nation. It was a hugely successful endeavour, with over 30,000 men enlisting every day by the end of August. By mid September, 500,000 men had signed up and a further 500,000 had enlisted by the end of the year. Over 50 towns had their own pals battalions by the end of September 1914. They were particularly prevalent in northern British towns like Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow, where there were strong, mixed work and social networks which influenced men to embrace the drive alongside their friends and co-workers.
Although communities encouraged their men to take up arms together, this buoyant attitude dissipated when news reached home of the demise of so many. Whole communities were devastated by these losses. Their men were concentrated in particular conflicts and when certain battles produced heavy casualties, these areas were particularly hard hit. The Accrington Pals in Lancashire are a prime example. Of the 700 men who fought in the Battle of the Somme, 585 of them were killed or wounded in the space of 20 minutes.
The Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in the 32nd Division included three pals battalions raised from Glasgow’s working classes – the 15th, 16th and 17th, also known as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Glasgow. Each acquired a Glaswegian nickname. The 15th (the ‘Boozy First’) was drawn from Tramway workers, and the 16th (the ‘Holy Second’) was originally made up of former members of the Boys Brigade. The 17th Battalion was recruited from Royal Glasgow Technical College students, white collar workers from business and trades and former pupils of schools like the High School and Glasgow Academy. It was nicknamed the ‘Featherbeds’ after a storm destroyed their tents at their Ayrshire training camp and they were moved to comfortable billets in Troon.
The Glasgow pals battalions suffered heavy casualties which hit their communities at home extremely hard. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for example, the Holy Second lost two-thirds of their men in the first few hours of the fight.
Edinburgh saw Hearts of Midlothian become the first British football team to sign up as a pals battalion – the 16th Battalion, the Royal Scots. Their celebrity status in the community set an example for others to follow. Of the 16 enlisted players, seven died in action, two were gassed and others were permanently crippled. As well as losing close loved ones, communities lost their popular cultural heroes.
With the introduction of conscription, the intimate nature of these pals battalions dissipated. Men began to be plucked from their communities on behalf of the nation, and motivations for enlisting became far more muted. This phenomenon was unique to the Great War; by the Second World War, the state immediately implemented conscription.