Please Note this article was on the Liverpool Community College website some years ago but disappeared, it needs to be preserved - David Bohl

The Liverpool Pals, 1914-1918

by  Lynne Banham

This is an edited version of a research paper prepared by Lynne Banham, tutor at Liverpool Community College who accompanied the students visiting Brussels and Flanders in March 2000.

This is a brief account of the Liverpool Pals, or to give them their official military title, the 89th Brigade. The Brigade was established by Lord Derby and Major EC Stanley who became the Brigadier-General of all four Pals battalions. The Pals captured the imagination and support of many Liverpool people who were honoured to have so many of their sons volunteer to fight for king and country. An examination of the diaries of Brigadier-General Stanley and Private Benjamin Johnson and of the official military works about the King's Regiment demonstrates that the Pals were regarded as very brave and very respected men. They took part in most of the major battles during the 1914-1918 war.

This chapter seeks to examine three campaigns: three components of the battle of the Somme, Albert, Trones Wood and Guillemont, which all took place in the summer months of 1916. Private Johnson saw active service in them all, and was in fact badly injured shortly after the activity for Guillemont. His diary entries form a good contrast to the rather more objective account in Brigadier-General Stanley's 'official' Brigade diary, although Major Stanley, like Private Johnson, quite often found the events around him overwhelming and very sad. 

The Battalions of Pals

On 28 August 1914, Lord Derby appealed to the commercial and business houses of Liverpool to enlist and serve King and country together in a single battalion of Pals. Within three days over 2,000 men had responded to his invitation and provided sufficient men to form two battalions. 'We have got to see this through to the bitter end and dictate our terms of peace in Berlin, if it takes every man and every penny in this country', was the opinion of Lord Derby on 29 August.

The scenes that occurred in Liverpool were a record for enlistment in the history of the British army. The city had provided 3,800 men for the regular army since the war began, and almost 2,000 for the territorial force. With the two 'Pals' battalions the total number of men recruited from Liverpool reached almost 8,000.

By the beginning of November the city of Liverpool had provided not only one battalion, but a Brigade, the 89th, of four battalions. In less then four months over 6,000 men had responded to Lord Derby's appeal and were organised into their respective battalions and were training daily at Knowsley Park. In March 1915 the Brigade was inspected by Lord Kitchener and the four battalions marched past St. George's Hall.  The Liverpool Echo reported the event, capturing the excitement and the pride of watching crowds. 'We are watching the 'Comrades' swing past, and we are thinking how the thousands of homes represented in the crowd have also their representatives in the ranks, and how the hearts of the spectators must thrill with pride as their kith and kin in the trampling battalions go on their way'.

On 30 April 1915, the Brigade left Liverpool by train for Grantham. Immediately after the departure of the Brigade, Lord Derby and Mrs. Stanley formed a committee to raise funds to buy 'Comforts for the Pals'. In a letter to the editor of the Courier the 'City Battalions' Comfort Fund' was proposed; this was to provide the luxuries not given by the government. The response was tremendous. Between November 1915 and March 1918, thousands of articles were sent to the four battalions: socks (pairs) 29131; towels; soap; mouth organs and whistles; cake; toothbrushes; packs of cards; cigarettes; mittens; bootlaces(pairs);               ale - the list was endless. In the early weeks of war the people in Liverpool generously sent out as many comforts as they could. As the war went on they turned their attention to looking after bereaved families and those whose husbands or fathers or sons had become prisoners of war. 

The 89th Brigade arrived in France on 9 November 1915 and were placed in billets around the countryside: the 17th Battalion at Bernacourt, the 18th Battalion at Monfleurs, the 19th Battalion at Buigny and the 20th Battalion at Pont Remy. By December their training in trench warfare began in earnest. The Brigade was divided for this purpose with the 17th Battalion going to Engelbelmer and the rest went further north. The trenches were appalling, nothing like the practise ones they had spent so long digging in Knowsley and Grantham. The weather had rotted the sand bags and the brick floors had disappeared under the mud, and, as Brigadier-General Stanley reflected in his diary, 'It really was very bad, and had only one redeeming feature, which was that the Germans were supposed to be worse off'.  

During the first six months of 1916, the 89th Brigade, like the rest of the army found themselves preparing for the attack at the River Somme. It was the intention of Allied Command to relieve pressure on Verdun, which the Germans had been attacking heavily since 21 February, to wear down the strength of the enemy, and to stop further transfer of German troops from the western front.' In reality this meant the building of roads and railway lines, the accumulation and storage of ammunition and stores, the placing of communication trenches, telephone wires, observation posts, hospital stations, dug-outs, shelters, and water pipes for an adequate water supply. All this was done under constant enemy fire.

Brigadier-General Stanley wrote in his diary for 29 January 1916, 'since early yesterday morning our life has been absolute hell. It was really impossible to describe it in any other way, and I am afraid it is not over yet. The shelling has been appalling and nearly all tear shells, which, if you do not put on goggles at once, nearly blind you. Everything we have been through up till now has been child's play compared with this!''

In his diary, Private Johnson described the consequences of German shelling: 'March 2nd, 1916 - Brigade manoeuvres 4 miles from Vaux, between 9 am. and 4 p.m. Practise going over the top. Shouts of fire at 8.30 p.m. Billet on fire. Cattle, pigs, poultry and carts in a mix-up in the road. Fire subsided 10.0 p.m. after billet burned down. Equipment dislodged and men wandering around looking for beds'.  By late June it was clear that the main offensive was very near; there was great tension in the trenches and the billets.

Brigadier-General Stanley, in his diary on 27 June described the effect of Allied shelling: 'A more magnificent sight you could not possibly imagine than to see all of those guns firing on our side and showing the Boche at last that we mean to be supreme and are going to crush him. For a few days past we have been bombarding his trenches, his roads and his villages, day and night, with all sorts of guns, both heavy and light...The effect of our shells and trench mortars etc, is appalling. Whole buildings going up in the air, trenches which we have looked at with a certain amount of awe have been levelled; in fact, after having sat down patiently waiting for months - even years, we are now seeing the dirty dogs getting more than they have ever given us; the day of vengeance has come and he has got to pay now for all the misery that he has caused. There is an incessant roar of guns day and night, and everywhere you see men going about with smiles on their faces, and we know that we are going to reap our harvest'." The same night Private Johnson sent up a 'red light for artillery support'.

On 28 June 1916 Brigadier-General Stanley sent out orders to all the battalions of the 89th Brigade to inform them of the attack on Albert. 'It is with the utmost confidence that we go forward, the Battalions of which the City of Liverpool is so justly proud, determined to make a name for themselves in their first attack...The 89th Brigade occupies the most honourable positions in the whole of the British Army, because not only are we on the extreme right, but we are fighting side by side with the celebrated French Corps de Fer', he recorded." The attack was to have taken place on 29 June but heavy rain and mud made it impossible and it was 1 July at 6.20 a.m. that the first phase began. The 17th Battalion was on the right of the British attack, the 20th Battalion was on the left, the 19th Battalion formed a strong position to the rear, while the 18th Battalion was to drive the enemy from their position with bomb and bayonet. 

Brigadier-General Stanley described the scene in his diary,' those miles and miles of men just went steadily forward with the artillery pouring shells in front of them...Trench after trench was collared, and then prisoners started to pour in. The 18th Division were hung up for a bit by a trench full of machine guns and this exposed the left flank of the 21st Brigade, with the result that they suffered pretty heavily...but eventually the 18th Division got in.' By nightfall the Germans began to retaliate and S.O.S. signals were sent out from Montauban and Briqueterie. 'No sooner had that happened than my wires were cut and I could get no information. It was simply damnable, but the guns fired like hell and the attack was beaten off. I believe they killed an awful lot and took a few prisoners. On going over the ground this morning we found a tremendous lot of dead, and in a large wood close by an enormous lot more'."

Private Johnson wrote in his diary for 1 July, 'Going over top - 7.30 a.m. Noise of artillery bombardment terrific. German trenches being blown sky-high. Arrived safely at 3 German lines - how I got over do not know. This is all a terrible nightmare. 90th Brigade just taken Montauban. Have captured a German helmet, belt, gun and cartridges'." Telegrams were sent to Lord Derby by Divisional Command to inform him of the 89th Brigade's achievements: 'Successful both in attack and defence and are fighting like heroes'. However, the 18th Battalion had suffered badly. It had been left with little defence to its left and had come under heavy shrapnel fire. Of its twenty officers, seventeen had been hit. Private Johnson in his diary on 3 July wrote, 'On post out of line, in wood close to Montauban. Casualties - 520 killed and wounded. About 30 men left in a company out of 180. 2 men killed out of our section, 41 wounded'." For the next few days the battalions of the Brigade consolidated their positions and repelled enemy attacks, but the success of the right flank of the British front had not been matched further north and continued progress could not be made.

By 5 July the 30th Division had been replaced by the 8th Division and returned to camp behind the line, reorganising itself ready for its next effort.'" On 8 July, a Saturday, the Brigade held a church service, and immediately received orders to move to Trones Wood, which was between Montauban and Guillemont. The wood, in common with all the woods of the battlefield, was entangled with a mass of undergrowth. Heavy bombardment had helped to render the wood completely impassable, except through paths which were well protected by enemy weapons. Trones Wood was, therefore, a formidable and treacherous obstacle.

From 8 -12 July all four battalions of the Pals were engaged in gallant, but fruitless attacks, and when the Division was relieved of its duty on 12 July the wood, except for a small footing in the southern extremity, was still in enemy hands.27 In his diary for 14 July Brigadier-General Stanley described the events of the four days: 'We marched off to Montauban which was full of troops. I don't think I have ever spent so uncomfortable a night. It was bitterly cold; our transport had gone wrong; we had to flounder through the mud in pitch darkness and got filthy and wet, added to which the guns were going off Just over our heads and making a deafening noise'. Private Johnson also recorded ~a miserable night of it, Germans sending shells over preventing me from sleep'. The wood was so thick that it was impossible to see more than three yards ahead; the 2nd Bedfords had managed to cover most of the wood and had dug in. But the Germans had hidden behind screened dug-outs, and once the Bedfords has passed them, they emerged from their protected bases and shot at them.

Brigadier-General Stanley recorded that the whole day went on like this. The 19th Battalion was sent to try and stop the shelling from a strong German post on the right of the wood, but the manoeuvre was not very successful and there were many casualties. The 20th Battalion tried bombing the road that led from Trones Wood to Guillemont. Four attacks were launched upon Trones Wood; 17 officers and 498 other ranks were wounded or killed. 2R Even Brigadier- General Stanley recorded that 'It is impossible to understand the operations that occurred, unless one first realises (a) that it was difficult to assemble troops for the attack by day; (b) that only one covered approach existed to the wood fit for small parties and a bad passage at that; (c) the overwhelming artillery fire which could be produced by the Germans owing to the nearness of the wood to the German second line; (d) the thickness of the wood itself which allowed the defenders to keep up a sort of bush war-fare which rendered organised movement difficult by day and impossible by night'.'

On 11 July congratulations were sent to the 30th Division for its gallant defence Of Trones Wood, by the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the British Armies in France. On 13 July General Balfourier. Commander of the 20th French Corps expressed his admiration for the magnificent efforts of the Division: 'his desire is to find himself fighting alongside this Corps during subsequent operations'. On 15 July the whole Brigade was paraded before General Shea who was, according to Brigadier-General Stanley, gratified at the praise the Division had received from the French Corps de Fer.  Private Johnson recorded in his diary for the 15th: 'Inspection of Brigade by Divisional General. Complimented and said could not have done without us’.

The next two weeks were spent in a turmoil of orders and counter-orders, and no-one was happy to hear that 'hey were to be involved in the attack of the village of Guillemont, which lay east of Trones Wood. There was something sinister about the village itself; it had a siren-like characteristic of enticing its victims to their doom. Whole units, on penetrating its gloomy surroundings had disappeared, leaving scarcely a trace. It has hardly surprising, then, that Brigadier-General Stanley recorded in his diary on 31 July 1916: 'We knew that we were in for a bad time and that very many people in Liverpool would be sad; that unfortunately has come only too true and it makes one very miserable. As usual, they did magnificently, but the task was too big'."

On 30 July the 30th Division had attacked on a grand scale, with the co-operation of the French XXth Corps to the right and the 2nd Division to the left. It had been a bloody day. The three battalions of the 89th Brigade, 17th, 19th and 20th, were all engaged; the 18th remained in reserve. Brigadier-General Stanley recorded some of the terrible difficulty, 'The fog was so thick it was impossible to keep direction and parties got split up. The Germans had devised a new kind of gas shell which had a nasty effect of burning eyes and throats at first, and later causing bad headaches and stomach pains'.

Private Johnson wrote in his diary, 'Today the Germans have been sending tear shells and gas over  my eyes and nose were running something awful through the effect of them'. By 10 a.m. the fog had cleared and it was left to individuals to look after themselves. Snipers and machine guns had made 'easy prey' of them all. Some managed to get through to the village but they were overwhelmed by the Germans. It was obvious that the Brigade could not get to their objective. The 20th Battalion was on the right and the 19th Battalion was on the left, and in spite of all the difficulties they managed to clear the way for the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers to penetrate with great gallantry into Guillemont. But the manoeuvre failed when the Germans appeared behind the Fusiliers and cut them off. As a result the 19th Battalion found itself without cover and had to withdraw.

Private Johnson noted that 'Our division up line again - attacked Guillemont, managed to gain a foothold but resistance was terrific, had to retire. Had the attack been successful our battalion, the 18th, had the job of digging a support trench in broad daylight - it would have been suicide for us all. Relieved'. The attack was entirely a failure. The cost in lives was very severe; over 1,450 men were lost to the 89th Brigade. Brigadier-General Stanley recorded in his diary 'Nothing would have mattered if it had been a complete success. It is so awfully sad now going about and finding so many splendid fellows gone. It is dreadful to think of; I shall never forget it. I can't say enough for the splendid way in which everyone fought; they were absolutely grand, as they always are, and I don't mind saying that we, our Brigade, have come out of it with a lot of credit'." 

The Brigade was sent back to Huppy to rest and reorganise, and it was here that something of normal life resumed for a while. Private Johnson recorded in his diary at the beginning of August: 'Going before C.O. for pinching an apple off a tree - am wondering what will happen to me. Paraded before C.O. awarded 14 days fatigues for taking the apple. This is the fruits of volunteering to fight for your country'.  There was also time for reflection. Brigadier-General Stanley wrote in his diary during August that 'during our July fighting I did a foolish thing, and that was I put the band into the fighting, and unfortunately they suffered very badly having 15 or 16 casualties. The loss of them was very much felt, as music has a wonderful effect when we are out of the line...We re-formed another band, and that stupid mistake did not occur again!'. Private Johnson lost his right arm through a severe gunshot wound and spent a few months in the General Hospital at Dannes Camiers. His parents were informed of his injury in early November by which time his arm had been amputated. By October 1916 the Brigade was back on the Somme; it was billeted at Vignacart in order to train in village fighting.

The 89th Brigade took part in a number of other major offensives; in April 1917 four battalions were engaged in the battle of Arras. In the attack it was found that in spite of intense bombardment, much of the wire on that part of the front had been sited reverse slopes and remained un-cut. Consequently, the Brigade had great difficulty in getting through and suffered severe and heavy casualties. The 18th Battalion was the worst affected. Throughout 1918, the 17th, 18th and 19th Battalions served in the Fifth; the 20th Battalion had been disbanded. Throughout the conflict they received considerable honours.

By May 1918, their losses were so great that a composite battalion formed out of the three depleted battalions that emerged from the bombardment and attacks of April. This was the 17th Composite Battalion, and was placed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel G. Rollo. The Battalion took part in one last battle in an area south of Dickebusch Lake; Germans had attempted to drive the British from their positions west of the River. The 17th Battalion was surrounded and lost one company. On 12 May the Brigade was disbanded. On 9 May Colonel Rollo received a message of thanks from H.P. Spens, Lieutenant Colonel of 5th Scottish Rifles, commenting on the support and help he had received during recent weeks, 'Their fighting after such a long period in the line was splendid'.  The Liverpool Pals were no more. 


The Liverpool Pals Memorial Fund