Published By John Davies
The Pals Battalions
At the outbreak of war, despite the popular belief ‘it would all be over by Christmas’ the army and government authorities knew it would be a more protracted affair. It was realised that the regular, territorial and reserve forces would only be able to hold the Germans but to defeat then would require new armies. The new army battalions, to be called Service Battalions, were ‘service’ meant for the duration of the war. would be created within the existing army regiments. The idea of the ‘Pals’ evolved as a recruitment strategy, to encourage men to volunteer,– that men ‘could enlist together and serve together’.
The first ‘Pals’ battalions were formed in Liverpool in late August 1914 by Lord Derby who placed an advertisement in the Liverpool papers. The next day thousands of men, many from Liverpool’s offices, enlisted en masse at St George’s Hall and over a weekend the City recruited 4 ‘Pals’ battalions. The same was repeated up and down the country. Just as Lord Derby had sponsored the Liverpool Pals, so other cities, towns, villages, institutions, citizen’s committees and individuals formed their own Pals.
A key feature of the Pals was that the men had something in common, whether the same job, place or background, with which they identified. Perhaps the best example of this was in Hull – 4 battalions, collectively known as the Hull Pals but individually named the Hull Tradesmen, Commercials, Sportsmen and, with Yorkshire pragmatism, T’Others. In the larger conurbations there was the population to form whole battalions, in smaller places the aspiration was to form a company, even smaller places a platoon – the Chirk Pals.
The initiative was a great success driven by populist patriotism, a big adventure, being carried along by the excitement following the crowd, The term entered the public consciousness. So many men enlisted that the army authorities struggled to deal with them and there were shortages of things like uniforms, equipment and accommodations. The keenness and quality of the men made up for these early shortages. After training the Pals battalions started to go over to France from summer 1915. They first saw action during the Loos Offensive but it was the First Day of the Somme Offensive that the Pals will always be associated with. Of the 60000 casualties of that day the vast majority were ‘Pals’. The ‘enlist together serve together’ mantra also meant they would die together with tragic and dreadful consequences for the cities, streets, works or places the men came from. The Somme tolled the end of the Pals, the original character changed as new drafts replaced the fallen and conscripts replaced the volunteers.
In Oswestry, as in the rest of the UK, the call to arms was enthusiastically met. Being a small market town, the raising of a battalion was seen as too much. Instead it was suggested that the town raise a company of Oswestrians, the target was 150 men in the first contingency and 250 in a second. At the end of August the Border Counties Advertiser carried the advertisement ‘OSWESTRY “PAL” RECRUITS WANTED. A pubic meeting was to be held on The Cross on Thursday, 3 September at 8pm. The advert continued ‘The meeting is to encourage all young men such as Bank Clerks, Shop Assistants etc to form an Oswestry Pal Company. Trades people and others are cordially invited to attend’. Crowds turned out, speeches were given, flags were waved, rousing songs sung amid much patriotic fervour.
Other recruitment drives followed. On the next day the Town Mayor presided over a meeting in the Victoria Rooms to ‘promote Recruiting in the Army in the present National Crisis’. And, the next week, at another recruitment event the target was to raise another 100 ‘Pals’ by the weekend. The same week at a meeting at the Music Hall in Shrewsbury the news Oswestry had already recruited 162 Pals raised thunderous applause.
The new recruits enlisted into the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, the first contingent into the 6 Bn and the second into 7 Bn. Once a battalion reached its complement the next one would be formed and so on, thus, both the 5 Bn and 8 Bn were at least contenders to be labelled ‘Pals’ but it is with the 6 Bn and 7 Bn that the ‘Oswestry Pals’ are most associated with. It should also be remembered that many Oswestry men elected to join other Pals battalions, especially in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers – for example the Chirk Pals. The men came from all walks of life, all abilities and from all trades, professions and industries in the Town. Most were single, their ages ranging from 18-40 with most in their early to mid twenties. Very few had any military or similar experience.
The first contingent of Oswestry Pals paraded on 9 September in Cae Glas Park, dressed in ‘civvys’. Friends, family and well wishers created a festival atmosphere. The men lined up. Local dignitaries addressed the recruits extolling them to do their duty and obey their officers. The men marched through the Town and out to the GWR Station at Gobowen. Here too crowds had gathered. The men left on a train bound for Shrewsbury. A second contingent of men for 7 Bn left the next week.
Oswestry Pals Back row left to right – Tom Barclay, Herbie Carlton Harry Hughes, Sonny Evans, George Davies. Front row – Bill Humphries, Johnny Mills, Jack Davies.
Grave stone of Sergeant A E Roberts – one of the Oswestry Pals.