The problem had started in 1914. The tide of patriotic enthusiasm swept 100,000 would be soldiers into the army’s ranks in just the first ten days of the War. In doing so, they completely swamped the army’s abilities to train them properly.
In the early stages of the War during 1914 and 1915 the ‘New Army’ was largely protected from the worst of the fighting. On the Somme, the ‘New Army’ was to be the backbone of British forces.
The British Army in August 1914 was tiny compared to those of both its Allies and its enemies. Unlike its counterparts on the Continent the Army was entirely professional - there were no conscripts within its ranks.
This meant that although highly trained it was dwarfed by the standing armies elsewhere. It’s 235,000 serving men (half of whom were stationed abroad) was clearly insufficiently strong for a prolonged conflict.
Unlike many, Lord Kitchener (who had become Secretary of State for War on 5th August) realised that the war would not be brief and immediately proposed the raising of an additional 500,000 men from the civilian population. By August 21 the first 100,000 men had flocked forward. It was the birth of ‘Kitchener’s Army’, and those who served in it became known as ‘Kitchener’s Men’.
By mid-September half a million men had enlisted and the search was on for another 500,000. The enthusiasm was immense with some volunteers, initially rejected on the grounds of age or some physical deficiency, going to extraordinary lengths to enlist. Queues a mile long formed outside some recruitment centres.
Those who came forward represented all sections of society, all fired by the same desire to reach the front as quickly as possible. Initially the call went out to men between the ages of 19 and 30 but a high number were rejected due to poor health or physique. As time went on standards were lowered and the age band raised. Recruits were asked to sign for three years or the duration of the war.
By early 1916 some two million men had joined Kitchener’s Army but the initial enthusiasm had by then long since faded as the casualties mounted. Later that year it was deemed necessary to introduce conscription.
So why did so many rush to enlist? Many were fired by genuine patriotism. Others sensed it was simply their duty to join up. For hundreds of thousands from the industrial heartlands of the north of England, Scotland, Wales and elsewhere it was the promise of adventure, foreign travel and an opportunity to escape the grinding poverty and the harshness of their day-to-day lives which equally spurred them on.
The Army meant regular pay (one shilling per day for privates), clothing, shelter and food. This was an era in which, for many, these basic requirements could not be taken for granted. Areas of the country predominantly known for heavy industry and mining provided a disproportionately high number of recruits.
Cities and towns vied with each other to raise their own Battalions, sometimes based on occupation (e.g. Hull Commercials) or background (e.g. Tyneside Irish). Some areas produced Battalions of sportsmen, artists, and even former public schoolboys.
In the north of England these City Battalions became known as Pals Battalions. Once raised these units were then offered to the Army who assigned them to the appropriate county Regiment (see Regimental System) and given an official Battalion number. The Accrington Pals, for example, became the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment but the informal names continued in common usage.