The Accrington Pals Commemorative Tour
It was both an honour and privilege for Historical Trips to take 40 friends and relatives of the Accrington Pals to Belgium and France for the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. The tour had been planned and hotel space booked almost three years in advance, and it was gratifying to finally see the tour come to fruition.
The story is a tragic one. The Pals battalions were conceived by Lord Kitchener in 1914 and his idea, broadly, was that men who grew up in communities together were better off serving together on the Front Line. The 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment was one example of this principle and, in the main, were recruited from Accrington and other nearby towns. On July 1st 1916, they were situated on the far left of the British line with orders to capture the fortified village of Serre immediately opposite them. What followed was a military disaster.
At 7.30am, the young men of Accrington went ‘over the top’ straight into a hail of machine gun and artillery fire. Within 30 minutes, 585 men out of a total 700 became casualties. Some 235 were killed, and 350 were wounded. The town was devastated by the scale of the losses, and this deep rooted sense of loss remains to this day.
At the beginning of our tour, wreaths were laid at the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres, by representatives of our group - including the Mayor and Mayoress of Hyndburn and the two youngest members of the group, Luke and Emily-Rose. On the morning of July 1st itself, there was an early start in order to drive from our hotel in Amiens to Sheffield Memorial Park on the Somme where there is a monument to the Accrington Pals. Everyone was in place by 7.30am and there was a solemnly observed silence by a group of about 300 people. 100 years to the minute that the attack started, silence fell - only punctuated by the songs of skylarks circling overhead. Whistles then blew, much as they would have done in 1916, and a moving ceremony of music, poetry and readings followed.
The rest of the morning was spent in similarly moving fashion, visiting graves and cemeteries associated with the Accrington Pals, including Queens cemetery, which sits in what would have been ‘No Man’s Land’ and contains the graves of 50 Pals. In the afternoon, we were the guests of honour at a ceremony in Puisieux where books of remembrance were presented to the Mayors of both Puisieux and Bapaume. Looking back on the trip, it is, I think, one of the most important we have done and also one of the most memorable. To be on the Somme at 7.30am on July 1st 2016 was an unforgettable experience.
Written by Mike Ivey, co-founder of Historical Trips.