The Battle of the Somme: Band of Brothers united

THE Bradford Pals were among those who fought at the Somme. Now a new memorial is being unveiled in the French village that became their second home. Chris Bond reports.

Tony Laking Pictured looking at artifacts that belonged to his grandfather who was in Battle of the Somme, pictured at his home at Eldwick. Picture by Simon Hulme

It was a glorious sunny day on June 30, 1916, in the sleepy village of Bus-les-Artois.

That afternoon, soldiers laid down next to their heavy packs in the shade of an apple orchard, as a group of bandsmen from the Bradford Pals took out their instruments and staged an impromptu concert for the troops and villagers.

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It was a picture of quiet tranquility – one that was soon to be shattered a few miles up the line at Serre amidst the blood and thunder of the killing fields of the Battle of the Somme.

But Bus-les-Artois holds a special place in the story of the Leeds and Bradford Pals. For it was here, in this lush corner of Northern France, where they were billeted after their arrival in France in March that year.

The village quickly became their second home and over the years following the end of the war Pals survivors frequently returned, bringing with them their families who they wanted to introduce to the locals that had welcomed them so warmly into their homes.

This continued even after the Second World War, with villagers commemorating the soldiers and the bond that existed between them.

In 2006, a stone memorial with a dedication to the Leeds Pals, Leeds Rifles and the people of Bus-les-Artois was donated to the village by Leeds Council.

A decade on and a second memorial bearing the Bradford Pals’ coat of arms is being unveiled alongside it on Thursday – the eve of the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle.

A group of Bradford City and First World War enthusiasts set up a campaign and a ‘Bus to Bradford’ Facebook site to raise the £3,000 needed for the memorial stone. And this week 34 of them, all with some personal link to the war, are heading to Bus-les-Artois for what will no doubt be an emotional ceremony.

Among them is Philip Walker whose great uncle, Fred Renney, was a member of the 6th battalion West Yorkshire Regiment and fought on the first day of the Somme offensive.

“He and the rest of his mates were ordered from their reserve trench to attack the village of Thiepval and were sent over the top on that first afternoon,” says Philip.

“Reading the battalion’s history we know that most of them didn’t get further than a hundred yards, the vast majority were machine gunned and possibly gassed. The casualties were horrendous with up to 60 per cent of them killed or injured.”

Fred was among those dragged from the battlefield. “He was taken to a casualty clearing station where he survived for a few days before he died on July 4.”

Philip first made the journey to Bus-les-Artois five years ago. “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I never met Fred but he was so young and he’d had a rough upbringing. He’d been orphaned since he was 10 and raised by a string of different relatives, and like so many young men at the time he thought the war would be a great adventure.”

He felt it was right to go and pay his respects to Fred and all those who lost their lives. “I don’t think anyone had actually visited his grave before so it was important for me to go there with some flowers and just say ‘thank you’.

“Fred was one of the lucky ones, if you can call it that, because at least his family have somewhere to go and pay their respects. Many don’t have that.”

Tony Laking is another of those with a family link to Bus-les-Artois. His grandfather Arthur Fox was a Lewis gunner with the 2nd Bradford Pals Battalion and he, too, saw action on the first day of the Somme.

Tony, himself a former paratrooper, says his grandfather not only survived the first day but the war itself. “He didn’t talk much about it but I do remember a couple of stories. He told me about the fleas and the mud and the day before the start of the Battle of the Somme he said he’d been on patrol when a shell landed close to him and killed two people either side of him.”

The next day he was among those caught up in the bloodshed. “He was behind the front lines at the start and was involved in the advance. But they started getting shelled and shot by the Germans and had to dive for cover in the British trenches. Some of them fell before they even reached their own frontline.”

For Tony, Thursday’s ceremony is a chance to remember those from Bradford who fell at the Somme. “It’s our history,” he says. “It makes us who we are and what we are. Most people have at least one relative who fought in that war and we should remember what they went through.”

David Whithorn, a Great War researcher and an expert on the Bradford Pals, is another of those making the journey across the Channel.

He says the village still bears witness to its Yorkshire visitors from a century ago. “There’s some graffiti on the church wall written by a couple of Leeds Pals and it’s still there,” he says.

“One of the barns was used as a cinema during the war and it is being reopened for the Centenary.” So, too, is the one of the local bars. “It was called an ‘estaminet’ and was known as the ‘Corner Cafe’ by the Pals, and that’s reopening especially for the anniversary.”

David believes the village is a fitting place for a memorial. “Serre is where so many of the Pals were wiped out, but Bus-les-Artois is where they spent their last days together before they went up the line.”

It’s also where the survivors returned a couple of days later. “Three-quarters of the men went to the front while the rest were kept back just in case things went wrong so the battalion could be rebuilt. When those who stayed behind went to meet the survivors they couldn’t believe the state they were in and just how few there were of them,” he says.

Out of 1,200 men in the Bradford Pals battalions who went into battle that first day only 200 men returned unscathed, the rest were either injured, dead or missing.

“The casualty rate was around 90 per cent which was appalling, though the actual number of fatalities wasn’t as high as some people imagine.”

The Pals battalions were all but wiped out after that harrowing first day and most were later disbanded to be merged with other regiments.

Today the Serre battlefield, where the lives of so many Pals were extinguished, and the nearby war cemeteries are visited by thousands of people each year.

The hope now is that more visitors will also make the pilgrimage to Bus-les-Artois and pay their respects to the young men from Leeds and Bradford whose lives were so abruptly cut short on that bright summer’s day.

For as David points out, it is here where the spirit of these band of brothers lives on. “They trained together, they went to France together and they were together at the end. This memorial isn’t about the Pals’ destruction, it’s about remembering that Bus-les-Artois was where they knew peace, comradeship and happiness.”