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In common with other industrial towns in the North of England, Sheffield was quick to form its own “Pals” battalion in the early weeks of the First World War. On July 1st 1916 the Sheffield City Battalion fought alongside the Accrington Pals in the heroic but hopeless attempt to capture the heavily fortified village of Serre. In the memorable words of John Harris “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”
At the outbreak of war, it was decided by Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, that a new civilian army, made up of volunteers would be needed. Whilst some famously thought the war would be over by Christmas, Kitchener was not convinced.
Britain’s regular army was poorly equipped and small compared to the conscripted armies on the continent. It comprised just 450,000 men, including only around 900 trained staff officers, and some 250,000 reservists. In short, Britain needed more men to sign up. Initial recruitment was slow, and it was soon realised that men were more likely to enlist if they could do so with friends, family and work colleagues.
With conscription politically unpalatable, Kitchener decided to raise a new army of 500,000 men; day’s later Kitchener issued his first call to arms. This was for 100,000 volunteers, aged between 19 and 30, at least 1.6m (5’3”) tall and with a chest measurement greater than 86cm (34”).
Within a month of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4th August 1914, the Duke of Norfolk and Sir George Franklin presented themselves at the War Office to propose the formation of a Sheffield battalion recruited from both university and commercial men. The proposal was readily accepted and on 10th September enlistment began at the Corn Exchange for the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment.
The Sheffield Pals were a close knit community. At the start of the war this battalion was formed from 100% Sheffield men.
The heady atmosphere of the time was caught in placards reading “TO BERLIN – VIA CORN EXCHANGE”. It took little time for the battalion to reach its full complement, with between 900 and 1,000 men being recruited in just two days. The recruits came from all walks of life; Richard Sparling recalled there being “£500 a year business men, stockbrokers, engineers, chemists, metallurgical experts, University and public school men, medical students, journalists, schoolmasters, craftsmen, shop assistants, secretaries, and all sorts of clerks”.
The title of the York and Lancaster Regiment was derived, not from the cities of York and Lancaster, or from the counties. Instead, the name came from the fact that it recruited from, amongst other places, landed properties owned by the Duchy of York and the Duchy of Lancaster. The regiment’s recruiting area was in fact wholly within South Yorkshire.
Having organised the men into companies and started on their training, the next priority was to clothe and equip them. For the first few months the men had to make do with their own clothing, but this was not very resilient to the hard wear of military life. They had to endure a lot of fun poking as they charged imaginary German trenches in Norfolk Park in their Sunday best suits.
Measurements for uniforms were taken on 6th October 1914 but the first issues of uniforms began on 16th November. The battalion’s early instructions in drill took place at Bramall Lane, the famous home of Sheffield United Cricket and Football Club. Other grounds had to be found before long, as the Club’s directors took exception to the loss of grass!
On Saturday 5th December – a miserably wet and cold day – the battalion of 1,131 officers and men left Sheffield for Redmires Camp, a windswept camping ground a few miles west of the city. The battalion trained at Redmires for just over 5 months, a period which saw it placed in the 94th Brigade (31st Division) alongside the 13th and 14th York & Lancasters (1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals) and the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals).
Preparation for active service continued throughout 1915 with spells at Penkridge Bank Camp near Rugeley, Ripon – where training in small arms fire began in earnest – and Hurdcott Camp near Salisbury.
Taking a break during training: members of No 1 platoon the 12th (Sheffield) battalion, sitting on the steps of A2 hut, Larkhill camp, Sailsbury Plain 1915. Training lasted for a year leading many men to believe that the war would be over before they fired a shot at the enemy. Little did they know that the war would last for another 3
On 28th September, Lt. Col. J.A.Crosthwaite, formerly of the Durham Light Infantry assumed command.
Early in November 1915 Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener had arrived at Mudros from England to discuss with the naval and military commanders on the spot the proposed evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula and the steps which should be taken for the defence of Egypt against the threat of an attack by the Turkish Army. It was under these circumstances that the 31st Division appears to have been ordered to Egypt.
At 1.00am and 2.30am on the 20th December 1915 the Battalion marched from its camp on Salisbury Plain and entrained at Salisbury for Keyham Dockyard, Devonport, proceeding in two trains containing 31 officers and 1,013 non-commissioned officers and men.
Devonport was reached at noon on the same day, when the Battalion at once embarked, the bulk of the officers and other ranks in the S.S.Nestor, which sailed on the 21st, and the Battalion transport, personnel, vehicles and animals in the Malakoota, which left England on the 22nd. The Nestor passed Gibralter about 10pm on the night of the 25th, put in at Malta at midday on the 29th for orders, and sailed again at 5.00pm that afternoon. At 9.45am on the 31st the ship came in sight of H.M. Transport Ionic and received a message saying she had been attacked by a German submarine, which had fired a torpedo at her.
Alexandria was reached on the 1st January 1916 and disembarking, the Battalion was sent on two trains to Port Said, which was reached on the following morning, the companies going into camp near the Railway Station.
On the 5th January ‘D’ Company under Major Hoette went by train to Ras-el-Esh and Tineh, relieving there a battalion of the 93rd Brigade of the same division.
On the 10th January Captain Allen with ‘A’ Company proceeded on detachment to the Salt Works where he was relieved a week later by ‘C’ Company under Captain Colley; but on the 26th these various detachments were called in and the whole Battalion moved to El Ferdan, pitching a camp on the east bank of the Suez Canal and here for some time strong parties of the Battalion were employed in the construction of light railways with the necessary cuttings and embankments. During the last week in February the Battalion moved to Kantara.
Early in March the orders to move were issued by the headquarters of the 31st Division and on the 8th the Battalion left Kantara by train for Port Said, on arrival here receiving orders to embark next day. Embarkation took place in H.M.T. Briton at 10.00am on the 10th and the ship sailed at 5.00pm reaching Marsailles at noon on the 15th and the Battalion then moved north by train towards the Somme area, at this time a tolerably quiet sector of the front. The Battalion detrained on the 18th March at Pont Remy and after spending a week or so here in training, marched on by Longpre, Vignacourt – where parties were sent up to do duty with more experienced troops in the trenches – and Beauquesne to Bertrancourt, where the Battalion remained until the 2nd April on which date it took over 1,300 yards of front line trenches three-quarters of a mile west of Serre. Here the first fatal casualty of the war was sustained by the 12th York and Lancaster when Pte. Alexander McKenzie was killed by a rifle grenade on 4th April.
Of this first tour of duty, the Battalion report states: “During the Battalion’s nine days occupation of the trenches a great deal of very necessary work was done, such as deepening communication trenches between the front and support line, which had been allowed to fall into disuse; also in making dug-outs for accommodation of the men.
On the night of 15th/16th May, 15 were killed and 45 wounded as the Germans mounted a trench raid under cover of artillery bombardment of such an intensity that in places the front line was practically levelled.
It is impossible to get a true feel of how it must have been for soldiers going into the trenches. Apart from the mud and death all around during heavy fighting, there was also the presence of rats. They were everywhere and thrived on the rotting corpses of soldiers fallen in battle. They would burrow into the walls of shell holes, trenches or even in the chest cavities of the dead. Most soldiers would take great delight in killing the loathed creatures, some which were reported to be as large as cats. A few of the men actually became accustomed to living side by side with rats, but there was something else – something which, by all accounts, nobody became accustomed to.
Lice! Only about three or four millimetres in size, but in vast numbers. They would feed twice a day on human blood and cause almost uncontrollable itching. Sometimes a soldier would scratch so much, with dirty fingernails, that he would bring on an infection necessitating hospitalisation. The lice nestled in the seams of trousers, shirts and vests. They would lay eggs and the human body temperature was ideal for making them hatch. Soldiers could go for weeks on end without having a bath or shower. Even when they did manage to get one and were given a ‘clean’ shirt, it would be invariably full of eggs just waiting for the warmth of a body to hatch. One popular way off getting rid of lice was to run a lighted taper quickly along the seams. This was a waxed piece of string that didn’t burn too fiercely, but enough to get rid of most of the lice. However, this was merely a temporary measure as very soon they would be back with a vengeance, making a soldier scratch and squirm uncontrollably.
The greater part of April and May the Battalion spent in and about Colincamps but at the end of May it moved to a rest camp near Bus, where training of all kinds was carried out. Then on 5th June another move was made to Gezaincourt where two officers joined and a draft of forty four other ranks. Here the officers and men of the Battalion were practised in assembling in assembly trenches, first over ordinary ground and then later over ground which had been specially prepared to resemble that over which the Battalion might have to advance in the Battle of the Somme of this year, which was now imminent. The Sheffield City Battalion would have the dubious honour of being at the extreme left of the 15-mile British offensive front that stretched south from Serre to Maricourt. On the 12th the Battalion moved back to Bus and took over trenches.
The Sheffield Pals were one of the first battalions to go ‘over the top’ at the Battle of the Somme.
By Julie Clarke
The content regarding the Sheffield City Battalion is largely drawn from Richard Sparling’s “History of the 12th (Service) Battallion, York & Lancaster Regiment” published in 1920, the “Yorks & Lancs own History” – Rotherham Museum, “Sheffield City Battalion” by Ralph Gibson & Paul Oldfield and “Somme 1914 – 1918” by Martin Matrix Evans.