Remembering the Accrington Pals at the Battle of the Somme
PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 June 2016
A generation of men from Lancashire towns and villages was wiped out on a summer morning a century ago.
The bombardment had been happening for a week. Heavy artillery blasted the German lines, the constant noise was deafening and the destruction was surely guaranteed. General Haig predicted that not even a rat would have survived in the German trenches and the infantry’s attack would be a mere formality.
The guns fell silent on the Somme on the morning of July 1 1916, a series of whistles sounded and along an 18 mile front, 100,000 men climbed out of their trenches and began walking across No Man’s Land towards the enemy positions.
Most of them were ordinary men, transplanted into an extraordinary scenario. They had been lifted out of their lives, taken away from their family, friends, loved ones, jobs and everything they knew and plunged into a world of unimaginable terrors.
Among those who went over the top that morning were the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment – better known as the Accrington Pals, consisting of men from Accrington, Chorley, Burnley, Blackburn and the surrounding areas – who left their trenches to advance on the fortified village of Serre.
The idea of Pals battalions began in Lancashire when the Earl of Derby suggested men would be more likely to enlist if they could be sure of fighting alongside their friends. The idea took off and by autumn 1914 Pals battalions had appeared all over the country. Large towns, cities, schools and sports clubs formed their own battalions and the mayor of Accrington, Councillor John Harwood, set about the creation of a battalion which would represent the towns and villages of his part of Lancashire.
The Accrington Observer and Times carried a large advert declaring: ‘Men of Lancashire, your King and Country need you, and call for your help in this terrible struggle for the very existence of the Empire. All parts of the Empire are responding nobly to the Nation’s call. Shall Accrington and district be behind?’
Within ten days 36 officers and 1,076 men had enlisted. After five months they departed for a series of training camps around the country. 15,000 lined the streets of Accrington to see them go but the optimism of their departure must have left them by 7.20am when those whistles were blown and they climbed the trench ladders and walked into a barrage of German machine gun fire.
Seven hundred Accrington Pals attempted to capture the German lines that day. Within minutes 585 men were either killed or injured.
One of the Accrington Pals who went over the top that morning and survived was Stanley Brewsher. Speaking years later he recalled taking the first two German lines with little resistance, but that when they reached the third line of trenches ‘it was slaughter. Men fell like ninepins. There was rifle fire, machine-gun fire, it was terrible’.
Private Brewsher waited for his colleagues in a shell hole in No Man’s Land but found a group of Germans returning. He fired at them, forcing them to retreat, then ran back towards the Allies’ lines. ‘I had some near squeaks,’ he told William Turner, an expert on the Accrington Pals who has written extensively about the battalion. ‘One bullet hit my water bottle. I felt the water on my leg and thought it was blood. Another went through my haversack. It broke all my biscuits and hit a tin of bully-beef. A piece of shrapnel hit my Lewis Gun. It bent the barrel and knocked the foresight clean off.’
Returning to his own lines, a piece on shrapnel hit Private Brewsher on the head, knocking him unconscious. He recovered at a dressing station behind the lines and was awarded a Military Cross for his bravery. His helmet is now on display in the Somme Room of the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Fulwood Barracks.
Commemorations and services will take place across Lancashire this month to remember those who lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme. On July 1 there will be a dawn-to-dusk vigil at Clitheroe Castle and the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment will commemorate the Somme at a service at Blackburn Cathedral on July 3.
On the same day in Chorley, there will be a Chorley Pals 100 Festival in Astley Hall and Astley Park with military vehicles, a replica field hospital and re-enactors in uniform. The Somme is also commemorated at the Chorley Remembers exhibition in the coach house next to Astley Hall where artefacts and medals belonging to men from the town are on display.
Historian Steve Williams who has been instrumental in organising the centenary events in Chorley has also arranged for schoolchildren in the town to wear silver foil triangles on their rucksacks on July 1.
He said: ‘On July 1 1916, many of the Pals units pinned a triangle on their rucksacks so that the aircraft, artillery and their own commanders could see their progress as they went forward across No Man’s Land. The triangles were made from discarded biscuit tins or similar. The Chorley Pals statue in the town, which was unveiled in February 2010, has a triangle on the soldier’s pack.’