Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

In the past year or so there has been a real increase in the number of military history books looking at the First World War. And refreshingly, many of them are focused on the experiences of the average guy caught up in conflict. Among them is Pen and Sword‘s series of books on the Pals Battalions.

In 1914 the British Army was relatively small – virtually an Imperial police force, and a continental role was never really envisioned until only a few years before the war began. As a result, the Army had to expand massively in order to field a sizeable expeditionary force in Flanders. The solution of the Secretart of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was to recruit masses of volunteers into a ‘New Army‘, or ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Many of these were centred on large urban areas, including Birmingham.

Birmingham eventually raised three Kitchener Battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Birnimgham’s local country Regiment. Of course, if we try to divorce units from their social history, and indeed their communities in general, they make much less sense in history. As raw recruits, the Battalions spent much time in England training before embarking for France. Like most of the Kitchener Battalions, the Birmingham Pals first action was on the Somme. The fate of the Pals Battalions on the Somme has really struck a chord in British military history, probably due to the grievous losses combined with the fact that it was the first time that Britain had truly fielded a citizen army.

But this isn’t just a narrative, ’1914 to 1918 what happened’. Terry Carter grounds his work with a chapter on the social and economic context of Birmingham’s history, and the events of August 1914 which saw mass volunteering amid a wave of euphoria. It is impeccably well researched, and generously illustrated. It contains a roll of honour of all members of the three Battalions who fell, and a list of gallantry medals – a real bonus for anyone wishing to look up their ancestors. Overall it is very well handled, and at no point does the text stray into the oft-heard stereotypes about the Pals, and instead wisely focuses on sources and events.

I found this a very interesting read indeed. Not only will it interest Brummies, but also those of us from further afield who are interested in this kind of research, with the 100th anniversary looming in 2014. Terry Carter has definitely put down a marker here, and I hope I can do half as good a job when it comes to paying tribute to Portsmouth’s own pals.

Birmingham Pals is published by Pen and Sword

 

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4 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, social history, western front, World War One

4 responses to “Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

  1. John Erickson

    I’m glad to see more of the “worm’s eye view” stories coming out. Far too many histories only worry about the very uppermost ranks – which is highly frustrating if you’re trying to research everyday life, whether as a sane author such as yourself, or as a loony re-enactor such as yours truly. ;) It’s a bit sad that the US units did not recruit from such small areas – most were based on National Guard units (thus recruited across an entire state), and by 1943 even those distinctions were being lost. (As you well know, we were too late to the Great War to make that kind of transition.)
    But then again, with the US way of pulling from large areas, we didn’t end up with entire towns wiped out in catastrophic battles. The closest we came (again, from WW2), were the famous Sullivan Brothers, as well as a town (in Virginia, I believe) who lost over half its’ male population in the Normandy invasion. (Sorry, the memory banks aren’t working at full capacity tonight.)
    And yet, another book you’ve made me want which I can’t afford. Harrumph! Harrumph, I say! (Just what the devil is a harrumph, anyway? :D )

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