100% Biker 184

100% Biker 184
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This year marks, as mentioned elsewhere in this issue, the centenary of the First World War of 1914-18, the Great War which changed this country forever.

It seemed appropriate that Sooty’s ‘Poppy’ Triumph (on page 14) should be photographed against the Newport Pagnell war memorial. The roll call of names is sober reading, most aged less than 27, while the Burnell family lost two sets of brothers, including twins serving in the same regiment, killed on the same day.

Yet, this is something that is repeated on memorials in almost every village and town in England and Wales (there are just 32 ‘Thankful Villages’, settlements that lost not a single man to the war, most so small they possibly could not have spared anyone to fight). But some areas fared worse than others, and part of the reason was directly attributable to one General Henry Rawlinson.

At the outbreak of war, Britain had no conscription policy, relying on volunteer enlistment. Rawlinson suggested that men would be more likely to enlist if they were able to serve with friends and colleagues. Although this policy, which became known as the Pals Battalions, is commonly associated with the North and the Midlands, the first battalion to be raised was of London stockbrokers, 1600 of whom enlisted within a week in August 1914. In the same month, 1500 men volunteered in Liverpool in two days.

Within a month 50 Pals Battalions had been formed, eventually stretching from Glasgow down to Portsmouth, with some being linked to a trade or common interest rather than an area. Almost 1000 battalions were raised in the first two years of the war, most comprising local friends and workers, but there were also sportmen and artists battalions, and even a West Ham United supporters Pals Battalion of whom around a quarter of the original volunteers were killed and almost half severely injured.

The most famous was the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington) East Lancashire Regiment, better known as the Accrington Pals. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, these young men – most of whom had never heard of the Somme, never been to France, knew little of the reasons for the battle – were ordered to attack Serre. Within 20 minutes, 235 of the 700 Accrington Pals were killed and 350 wounded. By nightfall of that dreadful day, 20,000 men lay dead, many of them beside their friends and neighbours.

By this policy, which had seemed so successful at the time, Kitchener and his generals destroyed the heart of countless communities, whole streets of young men wiped out, brave if naïve men who had joined up without a second thought to defend their country. In almost every village, every town, there is a war memorial; at some point during this year of commemoration, please stop by one, read the names and give a few moments of thanks for those men who, in the words of poet John Maxwell Edmonds, for your tomorrows, gave their today.