The Hull Pals were one of many such battalions up and down the country who answered the call to arms in August 1914. A new book chronicles their story. Chris Bond reports.
ON August 10, there was a spontaneous outburst of applause and singing in the packed, smoke-filled, Alexandra Theatre in Hull. This culminated in a boisterous rendition of the national anthem when portraits of military leaders like Admiral Jellicoe were shown to the partisan audience.
It was the kind of scene echoed in towns and cities across the country as a heady scent of patriotism ripped through the air. Men queued outside enlisting posts their “moustached archaic faces/ Grinning as if it were all/ An August Bank Holiday lark,” as Philip Larkin famously wrote.
The call to arms was augmented by the decision to form units that became known as Pals’ Battalions – the idea being that men would be more willing to join up if they were fighting alongside people they knew. At the end of August, Hull joined the growing list of places that had joined the trend.
These bands of volunteers played an important part of Britain’s war and the story of those battalions from Hull are told by David Bilton in his book, Hull Pals. It’s a story the amateur historian felt compelled to tell. “I was born in Hull and while I’d read about the Pals’ Battalions in places like Liverpool and Leeds, there was so little about Hull. I wanted to write something about the city and the contribution it made to the war effort,” he says.
There was an initial rush to sign up. “An advert was placed in the local newspaper and within a few days over a thousand men had come forward.”
This first Pals’ battalion was made up of a certain type of person. “It was the top end working class and lower middle classes so mainly clerks working in offices and factories as well as teachers, it wasn’t manual workers. They became known as the ‘commercials’ because most of them came from commercial backgrounds and about a quarter went on to become officers.”
It proved so successful that a second Pals’ battalion, largely made up of tradesmen, was formed. This was followed by a third battalion, consisting of anyone with a sporting connection, and a fourth, known as “t’others”, followed by the “Bantam Pals” – a battalion made up of men who were between 4ft 10in and 5ft 3in, which pulled in around 300 volunteers.
In total, Hull provided 70,000 men for Britain’s Armed Forces during the war, including 6,250 pals who signed up to fight for their country. “This was from a population of 280,000 and it was more than Manchester, which had half a million people, raised, which shows there was a real enthusiasm for the war.”
However, rather than heading straight to the Western Front, the Hull Pals were sent to Egypt in December 1915. “The Turkish empire had a huge number of men and it was feared there weren’t enough troops from the British empire to cope,” says Bilton.
They were based along the Suez Canal to protect this strategically crucial trade route from Turkish forces. “The Hull boys were sent out there and spent four months digging holes in the sand before being transferred to the Western Front.”
The Hull Pals arrived in France in March 1916 and a few months later had a narrow escape on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. “Three battalions were supposed to go over the top but the attack was cancelled, which saved countless lives.”
If some soldiers had a lucky escape that dreadful day, during the course of the war not everyone was quite so fortunate. Thomas Huntington came from a wealthy family in Goole that ran a successful linen and drapery business and the Goole Carriage Company. “He could easily have been a commissioned officer like his brother but instead he enlisted as a private soldier.”
He joined the 1st Hull Battalion and worked his way up to sergeant. After a stint in the Middle East he was sent to France and on June 4, 1916, he was badly wounded during a heavy barrage and died in hospital a week later.
Tragedy also struck the Busby family. John Busby was a lance-corporal in the 12th Battalion while his brother, Walter, was in the 11th Battalion. Both were killed at Oppy Wood, near Arras in 1917. John was killed on the first day of the battle on May 3, and his elder brother the following month. John left a widow and three young children, with a fourth on the way, while Walter left a grieving wife and three children.
As the casualties began to mount, the initial wave of enthusiasm for the war disappeared, replaced by stoicism and in some cases despair. “The tone among the newspapers became much more sombre as the death toll grew and more obituaries appeared.”
Despite their heavy losses the Hull Pals didn’t suffer as badly as some of the other battalions. “The death rate was slightly lower than the average for the Pals’ battalions,” says Bilton.
Nevertheless, they still paid a heavy price and for many families the war brought heartache and tragedy.
But Bilton says the Hull Pals did make a difference. “Although it was just over 6,000 men who made up the original Pals’ battalions, which was a drop in the ocean, they played an important role, particularly when they helped to stop a major German advance during the Spring Offensive in 1918.
“They held up the Germans until the Aussies arrived and hammered into them. But if they hadn’t held them off the Germans would have continued to Amiens, so they made an important contribution which even Haig himself mentioned,” he says.
“They were also there from the very beginning and it’s right that we should remember their selflessness.”
Hull Pals, published by Pen & Sword Military, is out now priced £20.