New Film Remembers Pals Battalions Of The Somme

At a popular pub in East London’s trendy Victoria Park area, regular punters have been replaced by actors.

A film commemorating the Pals Battalions has been released today marking 100 years since the Battle of the Somme.

Although the war started in 1914, much of Kitchner's New Army recruited after the outbreak of hostilies wasn't ready for action until the middle of 1916.

World War One Recruitment posters Kitchener Football pals
Secretary of State for War Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener (left) and a poster for a pals battalion based around football (right)

Part of the reason the Somme is remembered as such a baptism of fire isn't just because of the 60,000 British casualties on the first day of the battle (the blackest day of the British Army).

The rawness of the casualty figures was more acute because many of those who fell were new, or relatively new, soldiers.

The Pals battalions were one block of units recruited using the draw of joining up with one's mates to inspire more recruitment.

Many of these units were based around certain professions or sports clubs.

War historian John Keegan, speaking in the BBC/PBS documentary The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, described the tragedy of these units:

"They made a promise very early on that if you joined up in a group, the group would be kept together. And the phrase was 'join up with your pals' or 'your chums'... so you got... this tragic situation... of whole streets of young men going off together, whole sort of little factories of young men going off together. It was ghastly because they were all going to get killed together." 

Pals Battalions Leeds by David Dixon
A tram kept at the tramway museum in Heaton Park decorated as a "Leeds Pals" recruiting tram for a First World War remembrance event - pals battalions were recruited all over the country (image: David Dixon)

The Royal British Legion, which commissioned the film, wants audiences to remember the groups of young men who joined up with their friends and colleagues - and the devastation this brought to entire communities.  

Poet Molly Case, who's poem is the basis for the film, was inspired by the story of the Pals Battalions:

"I was given the scene of a pub, I was given a few of the characters and obviously the (historical) context and, apart from that, it was up to me to bring it to life."

Molly used her research into the Pals Battalions to try and humanise the men whose communities were torn apart by their deaths, and put this into the film.

Many of the Pals units were in the 31st Division, which suffered some of the heaviest losses near Serre at the Somme on July 1st, 1916.

Heavy losses over the course of the entire four-month battle saw tens of thousands of Pals wiped out, leading, in some extreme cases, to the entire fighting age male population of some villages being practically wiped out.

In the poem, four young men enlist to fight for their country full of confidence, but only one of them returns home - a story that was replicated across the land after the horrors of the Somme.  

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