By Peter Whelan
‘The Accrington Pals’ is a deeply moving play set during the First World War. The play was first performed in 1981 by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The Accrington Pals follows the story of the naïve and enthusiastic men who volunteered their services to their country after Kitchener’s calls for a New Army. Their experiences of life on the Western Front are contrasted with the women who are left behind in Accrington, women who come together as friends when facing financial, social and sexual deprivation, as well as coping with the social changes that came with the absence of their men. There are some wonderfully light-hearted moments, which are starkly contrasted with the terrifying reality faced by The Pals in the trenches at the Somme.
Peter Whelan wrote his play in the 1980s as an exploration of the way that working-class women coped during The Great War, and the ways they were able to improve their lot in life. In the foreword to the play he says that “the action takes place between autumn 1914 and July 1916. The background is reality. The ‘Accrington Pals’ battalion of Kitchener’s New Army was raised and destroyed as described in the play”.
Historiacally, recruiting was initiated by the mayor of Accrington following Lord Kitchener’s call for volunteers and it took only ten days to raise a complete battalion. The Accrington Pals joined the 94th Brigade of the British 31st Division and were initially deployed to Egypt in early 1916 to defend the Suez Canal from the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Next The Pals moved to France where they first saw action in the Battle of the Somme. On the first day on the Somme, 1 July 1916, the 31st Division was to attack the village of Serre and form a defensive flank for the rest of the British advance. The 31st Division’s attack on Serre was a complete failure though some of the Accrington Pals did make it as far as the village before being killed or captured. One of the battalion’s signallers, observing from the rear, reported:
“We were able to see our comrades move forward in an attempt to cross No Man’s Land, only to be mown down like meadow grass. I felt sick at the sight of the carnage and remember weeping.”
Approximately 700 men from the Accrington Pals went in to action on 1 July; 585 men became casualties, 235 killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour. The battalion’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.W. Rickman was among the wounded. A rumour quickly spread around Accrington that only seven men had survived from the battalion and an angry crowd surrounded the mayor’s house, demanding information.
The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes on the first day on the Somme. However, thanks in some small part to this play, they and the women they left behind will never be completely forgotten.
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