‘Two years in the making, ten minutes in the destroying’

As we mark Armistice Day, Jayne Dawson tells the story of the regiment known as the Leeds Pals, destroyed at the Battle of the Somme.

LET’S start at the end: it seems only fitting on this time of sorrow and solemn silence.

There is a heartbreaking quote by a Leeds soldier that encapsulates the fortunes of war. It was said by Pte A V Pearson about his own Leeds Pals, but it could have applied to any of the groups of naive, eager young men who joined up at the start of the war in 1914. It is simply this: “We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.”

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And that is how their end was. Most of the Leeds Pals, along with the hundreds of other “Pals” regiments formed up and down the country, perished on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On July 1 1916, the young, so young, men of Leeds: the factory workers, the bootmakers, the bus drivers, the carpenters launched themselves out of stinking wet trenches and ran at the enemy.

It was the most ambitious attack of the war and they were among hundreds of thousands of Allied troops massed for the battle. Their coats were mud-sodden and in their hands they clutched rifles they would never use, for in moments a storm of bullets had cut through their soft clothes and weary bodies, and they were dead. Our young Leeds men were not so much beaten as wiped out. At 7.20am with fearful, pounding hearts, they began to run blindly at their enemy. By 7.30am a city of mothers had lost their sons, wives were widows and children fatherless.

Yet those in charge had expected it to be easy. In the days before the Battle of the Somme, more than a million rounds had rained down on the German positions all the way along the front. By the time it was over, the Allies believed that no one could have survived such a bombardment. The men from Leeds, and all the places beyond, were meant to stroll across no-man’s land.

Not only did that not happen but the casualties are so great as to not really make sense. The first day’s slaughter claimed around 20,000 English and French lives, and almost 40,00 were wounded. Yet the carnage was repeated until four mad months had passed. The cost in lives has never been fully accounted, but of the 900 or so men recruited from Leeds, it is believed 750 died that day.

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My grandfather was one of those Leeds soldiers. He survived the war; he was one of the few, lucky ones. Sort of. He returned to his Maggie, and he made a living repairing shoes, but he was never well again, and he was dead before the start of the next war, his lungs ruined by the poisonous mustard gas employed by the enemy.

His story, and the story of all those young men is harrowing, and there is no other way to tell it.

But at the beginning it was all very different. There was a day in September 1914 when Leeds turned into a carnival city, as the people turned out to cheer their young men marching, as we now know, jauntily to their deaths.

That was the day the 15th Service Battalion (West Yorkshire Regiment) left the city. A crowd of thousands waved farewell to the young men who joined what came to be known as the Leeds Pals.

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The idea was that workmates, friends and relatives would sign up together, the added camaraderie serving to strengthen their bond and their resolve. It was to prove to be the very worst of ideas because, later, whole communities lost all their young men.

That July, the men boarded trains at Leeds station to take them to Masham. As they pulled away, they had the sound of the crowd in their ears singing It’s a Long Way to Tipperary at the top of their voices. Once in Masham, they marched the seven miles to Colsterdale where they would join other groups of friends from towns and cities across Yorkshire.

The survivors are all long dead now. In the beginning, no one was particularly interested in their story; a society destroyed by war is focused on moving on, not reliving the pain. Besides, soon enough, there was another war, to claim another generation of young lives. But eventually we began to acknowledge what these men had gone through though, hopefully never to glorify the terrible squalor of it.

The Leeds Pals Association was set up in 1919 when Colonel Sir Edward Brotherton gave a dinner at Leeds Town Hall for the surviving members. Brigadier Sir Maxwell Ramsden summed up its reason for being. He said: “This association is not founded merely on sentimentality, it is founded on the fact that during the war, much more than during peace, we learned something of our souls.”

And so did the people left behind. After the Battle of the Somme, whole streets were left in mourning and there was indeed much soul-searching to do.

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