'Two years in the making.
Ten minutes in the destroying'

To encourage volunteers in World War One, military authorities allowed recruits from the same towns to fight together and that meant they would also die together

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From the vaults: this article was first published in Big Issue North, 10 November, 2008

In 1916, Private Arthur Burke of the Manchester Regiment summed up conditions in the trenches on the Western Front in a letter to his family. “It’s a bugger,” he wrote.

Private Burke’s trenchant summary is on display at the Imperial War Museum North. He exhibits along with several of his comrades in the Manchesters. There are Private William Lindsay’s medical records from Gallipoli, and Private Albert Tattersall’s cigarette case. Also on show is the gun that fired the first British shot of World War One, and a pen used to sign the 1918 armistice, amongst many other artefacts and memorabilia of the period.

Private Burke was never able to expand on his summary of life in the trenches. He was killed in 1917. Private Tattersall never got to smoke his fags. He died on the first day of the Somme battle in 1916. Private Lindsay never had to speak. The loss of his leg at Gallipoli was evidence enough of what he had been through.

Privates Burke, Tattersall and Lindsay are the men we remember on 11 November, the men for whom we wear the poppies. Perhaps remembrance is the wrong word. Britain’s last surviving World War One combat veteran, Harry Patch, is 110 years old. Soon the war will be passing out of memory and into history. With no one around to tell us what it meant to them, it is up to us to decide what to remember about the conflict. What does Tattersall’s cigarette case mean to us? What should it mean?

“I think the first thing that we have to realise is the sheer, devastating impact of the conflict. Over 750,000 men were killed or missing in action presumed killed. One in six of British families were affected by bereavement,” says James Taylor, the Imperial War Museum’s head of research and information. There was a literal decimation of young men. Just under a tenth of Britain’s adult male population under 40 were killed. By contrast, 296 British service personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The shock was all the greater because Britain had no tradition of universal military service, unlike Germany and France. British military influence was based on sea power. Though large by today’s standards, the army was comparatively small compared with the militaries of continental Europe, and much of it was far away expanding and defending the British Empire.

Britain’s professional army was almost destroyed defending France from German attack in 1914. As the conflict settled down into stalemate and trench warfare, the call went out for volunteers for the “New Army”. A million men were required.

‘It was decided that recruitment would be stimulated if men from the same communities who joined together were allowed to fight together’

Thousands came forward – so many, in fact, that there were not enough weapons or uniforms for them. This was partly because the dye used to make khaki uniforms was produced in Germany. While other sources were found, patriotic volunteers drilled in plain clothes.

Even so, there were not enough of them and so it was decided that recruitment would be stimulated if men from the same communities who joined together were allowed to fight together, rather than being distributed around the army. In the words of Lord Derby, who recruited the first of the “pals battalions” in Liverpool: “This should be a battalion of pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool.”

Fifteen hundred men joined in a few days, and the idea was replicated in 50 towns and cities across the north of England and Scotland. Liverpool contributed three battalions, Manchester and Hull four. Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford brought forward pals from Yorkshire’s industrial heartland. Smaller towns like Accrington and Grimsby recruited individual battalions.

“These were very much local initiatives,” says Taylor. “The leadership would be provided by the local aristocracy, the lord of the manor in some cases, organised by the city fathers, publicised through the local newspapers. It made joining up a matter of civic pride. It made the war local.”

This is where Privates Burke, Tattersall, and Lindsay come into the picture. They were all members of Manchester pals battalions. Their fate illustrates the terrible consequences of that recruitment strategy. If men who lived together had the opportunity to fight together, this also meant that they died together. And news of their deaths would devastate their home communities.

On 1 July 1916, the Accrington Pals attacked the village of Serre in northern France as part of the Somme offensive. In 20 minutes, most of the battalion was wiped out. “I don’t think there was a street in Accrington and district that didn’t have their blinds drawn, and the bell at Christ Church tolled all the day,” said Percy Holmes, a brother of one of the men who died that day. Some 513 men of the Sheffield pals battalion were killed and wounded attacking the same objective. “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history,” said veteran John Halls.

It had been both battalions’ first time in combat. Harrowing experiences like these contributed to the perception that the lives of the men who fought had been wasted by the generals who flung them time and again against impassable barriers of bullets and barbed wire. It’s an idea summed up in Siegfried Sassoon’s war poem The General:

“Good morning, good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line. 
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, 
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. 
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack       
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

“The problem was that weapons technology outstripped communications technology,” says Taylor. “It was impossible for the people carrying out the attack to communicate what was happening to their commanding officers so the plans could be changed. Instead, more men were forced into the line, there were more casualties and defeat was reinforced.”

Lessons were learned, he says, pointing out that the last attacks carried out by the British in World War One broke through German lines with comparatively few casualties. A bigger lesson was also learned, one for which the children of the Great War generation had reason to be grateful.

“Never attack Germany through France unless you’re in a position of overwhelming strength. Churchill and Alanbrooke insisted on this point to both the Americans and the Russians during World War Two. They refused to go ahead until the time was right.” World War two was fought over a longer period against more ruthless enemies with more destructive weapons. Yet casualties among British troops were only one third of those during the Great War.

Popular memories of World War One have come down to us through the war poets like Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and through memoirs like Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That. Yet these represent the perspective of middle class junior officers. The men they commanded might have seen things differently.

In Taylor’s account, it was not the experience of war that changed ordinary soldiers so much as the experience of peace afterwards

“These officers were often good soldiers and very brave men,” says Taylor. “But they came from sheltered backgrounds, which made them more sensitive to the experience of war. Private soldiers came from different backgrounds. Many had already seen death or lived in squalor. Life in the trenches may have been worse but it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. Army food might have been bad, but some men ate better than they had done in civilian life.”

In Taylor’s account, it was not the experience of war that changed ordinary soldiers so much as the experience of peace afterwards. They had faced death on the promise that they would return to a land fit for heroes. Instead they returned to lower wages, rising dole queues and declining industries. If they wanted what they had been promised they would have to get it for themselves, individually or collectively.

The result was a kind of settled scepticism about following the orders of our betters and about whether their betters were any better at all. There was a sense that, as George Orwell later wrote, Britain was a family with the wrong members in charge.

It’s still a sense we have today, when we also value scepticism about authority as a value in itself. These days, we’re not the kind of people who volunteer to walk into machine gun fire and we’re more proud of that fact than not. Yet that makes it all the more important to remember the men who learned that lesson for us and the tragedy that so many had to die to make it stick. It’s a bugger, as Private Burke might have said, if he’d lived.

Photo: The Lancashire Fusiliers in a flooded communication trench.

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