Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War by Paul McCye

After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it was quickly realised that the relatively small size of Britain’s regular Army would not be enough to fight a long European War. Even after being reinforced by the Territorial Army, the British Expeditionary Force that left for France in 1914 was woefully small compared to the huge French and German Armies. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was under no illusions that the war would be long and bloody. His famous ‘your country needs you’ appeal inspired hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer to fight.

One of the most unique and tragic features of the Great War had its genesis in this recruitment drive. Kitchener promised that men who joined up together would be allowed to fight together, in the same Battalions. This ruling led to many ‘Pals’ Battalions, that were either distinctly in nature, or indeed some which were recruited from whole factories, professions or other social groups. Many towns and cities sponsored their own Battalions, recruited from the local young men. This book by Paul McCue focuses on the Pals Battalions raised by two London Boroughs – Wandsworth and Battersea.

Wandsworth’s Pals Battalion became part of the East Surrey Regiment, and was officially titled the 13th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment (Wandsworth). Battersea’s Pals came under the Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Their proper title was the 10th (Service) Battalion Queens (Royal West Kent) Regiment (Battersea). After the decimation of the original British Expeditionary Force at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and First Ypres, the demmands of war on the Western Front increasingly fell upon Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, particularly the Pals Battalions. After a long period of training, most of them reached the front by early 1916, in time for Haig’s planned ‘big push’ on the Somme.

Both the Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions were mercifully spared the bloodshed on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Somme, but both went on to see active service in the Somme and Ypres sectors, as well as other parts of the front. The Wandsworth Pals fought in several particularly tough battles at Villers-Plouich and Bourlon Wood, and then through the ‘Kaiser Offensive’ in 1918, when most of the Battalion were captured. After this the Battalion was disbanded. The Battersea Pals fought at Devil’s Wood, and in early 1918 were sent to reinforce the Italian Front, returning to Flanders in time for the armistice. The Battalion served in the occupation of Germany, before disbanding.

Paul McCue starts each section with a detailed history of each area in question. This is important, but I would probably give a very bried overview of the early history, with more emphasis on the early twentieth century context of the borough. We then progress onto an interesting history of how each Battalion was formed – in both cases, by the Mayor and Council. There are interesting tales of how the Councils insisted on the Battalion’s being officered completely by local men, and of interesting recruitment drives and fundraising efforts to kit out the units. There are plenty of stories about individual men, particularly Corporal Edward ‘Tiny’ Foster, who won the Victoria Cross. At the end of the book McCue has included a full Roll of Honour for both Battalions, listed by Cemetery and Memorial. This is an excellent resource for researchers.

The ‘Pals’ idea proved to be a dismal failure. If a Pals unit had a particulary tough battle, a whole towns menfolk could be lost in one fell swoop, and the impact on morale, both at home and on active service, was substantial. Whereas if men were dispersed around other units, losses would be more spread out. During the Second World War the Army did not make the same mistake, and dispersed men around Regiments much more.

I applaud Pen and Sword for their Pals series. The Pals units are a uniquely local story – perhaps the most striking example in military history of towns and cities having a shared military heritage, forged through enlistment, training, battle and then losses and casualties. Producing histories of each of the Pals Battalions around the country provides not only something of local importance, but also a rich tapestry of the experience of war for ordinary local men and its impact on communities. It’s seriously got me thinking about the Portsmouth Pals, and what little we know about them.

Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Local History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

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