The next tune in our continuing series on Pipe Tunes of the First World War is another tune by the great George S. McLennan. The tune “The 92nd Volunteers,” a strathspey, introduces another unique part of the War, Pals Battalions.
At the start of the First World War, Great Britain’s army consisted of around 250,000 men. Of the 188 or so regiments available at the start of the war, 86 were stationed overseas, about half the available force. There were also Reserve and Territorial forces available. Unlike most of the European powers, who had large armies do to conscription, Great Britain's was a volunteer army.
Within two days of the start of the war, the Parliament authorized an increase of 500,000 men. The problem became how to get men to enlist and to do it in large numbers. Lord Kitchener, the War Secretary, asked for 100,000 men to enlist initially. Patriotic zeal and national pride provided a large number of men but more were needed.
General Sir Henry Rawlinson, a decorated officer who joined the military in 1884, suggested a novel idea to Lord Kitchener to raise men. General Rawlinson felt that men would be more likely to serve if they did it with their friends and family. He tested the idea by asking the City of London Stockbrokers to raise a battalion. In less than a week 1,600 men joined forming the 10th (Service) Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (Stockholders Battalion).
Several days later, the Earl of Derby received permission to try and raise a battalion of men from Liverpool. In the span of several days enough men had joined to form four battalions. Lord Derby gave a speech to the men after the formation of the battalions. He said that “…This should be a battalion of pals, a battalion in which friends from the same office will fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of Liverpool…”
The name “Pals Battalion” stuck. In a short span of time cities and towns across the country started raising these Pals Battalions. They were not always formed from men in a single town or region. Some of the Battalions were made up of men of a similar occupation, including a battalion of artists, a similar background, with a battalion of men of Irish ancestry, and even the players, managers, and fans of a football club. The Glasgow Tramways Battalion was made up of men who worked for the same employer.
General Rawlinson's plan almost worked too well. The British military system had problems trying to deal with the number of battalions raised in such a short period of time. Most of the battalions started their training outside of the towns where they were formed, with the town, or a wealthy patron, covering the costs. For most of the initial training the men wore their own clothes and in many cases lived in their own homes.
Most of the battalions spent 1915 in training locally and then, eventually at the main training depots. A few of the battalions were sent to overseas garrison duty or to guard the Suez Canal Zone. However, by the beginning of 1916, almost all the Pals Battalions were on the western front.
In February 1916, Germany launched an attack against the French lines near Verdun. The Germans were hoping that the French would commit the majority of their forces, which they did, to repel the attack. The Germans believed they could inflict enough damage and losses to the French army to take them out of the war.
In an effort to relieve the pressure against the French, the Allies developed a plan—the Somme Offensive. The goal was to stretch the German forces with coordinated attacks at the Somme river, the Eastern Front, and the Italian front. Somme was where the British lines met the French lines. The battle started on July 1, 1916.
In order to have the most men available for the attack, the majority of the Pals Battalions took part in Somme, most on the first day. It was disastrous, for the Pals Battalions and the British Army. The artillery barrage that proceeded the attack failed to inflict much damage to the German trenches. The lack of high explosive shells meant that much of the barbwire fences in no-mans land remained intact.
This was also the first battle for most of the Pals Battalions. The officers, mostly from regular army units, did not trust the training or resolve of the Pals. In a misguided effort to keep the men from breaking, they were sent towards the German lines in almost parade ground lines. These formations were easy targets for the German guns.
The Pals Battalions fared badly. The Accrington Pals had 584 killed, missing or wounded, out of 720 men. The Leeds Pals lost over 750 of the 900 men who participated. Many others lost more than half their strength.
The Pals Battalion experiment essentially ended after the Battle of the Somme. Many of the Pals battalions were disbanded, some were combined, and others were filled with replacements from the general pool of new soldiers.
Overall, enough men volunteered to create 142 battalions and 68 reserve battalions. Voluntary enlistment had dropped off by the end of 1915 and involuntary conscription (the draft) was introduced in March 1916.
The 92nd Volunteers, or 92nd Infantry Brigade, was made up of four Pals Battalions raised from the city of Kingston upon Hull (the Hull Pals), two Trench and Mortar Battalions, and a Machine Gun company, each one made up of members drawn from the four Hull Battalions.
The Hull Pals started raising men on 31 August 1914. By 5 September the first Pals Battalion of 1,000 men was formed, the 10th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment (1st Hull) (the Hull Commercials). On September 6, 1914 recruiting for a second battalion started. It took only three days and the 11th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment (2nd Hull) (the Hull Tradesmen).
By October 1914, a third battalion had been raised, 11th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment (3rd Hull) (the Hull Sportsmen). A final battalion was raised by November 1914 from a general pool of local able bodied men, the 12th (Service) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment (4th Hull) (the Hull T’others).
Initial training for the 92nd Volunteers ended in late May 1915. Brigade training started in June 1914, rifle training in August, and final training in September 1915. In December 1915 the 92nd Brigade was sent to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal Zone.
The Brigade arrived in Egypt between December 24, 1915 and January 23, 1916. The Battle of Verdun started on February 21, 1916 and on February 26, the 92nd Brigade was recalled for service on the western front. They arrived by March of 1916 and remained on the Western Front for the rest of the war.
The 92nd Brigade faired better than most during the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. They acted as a support brigade as part of the 31st division, with the 10th Battalion (the Hull Commercials) holding one of the trenches and sending units into no-mans land to cut barbwire.
The 31st Division suffered heavy losses overall and were pulled from the front lines on July 2, 1916. The 31st Division returned to the lines in October 1916 and took part in the Battle of Ancre. On November 13, the 12th (3rd Hull) and 13th (4th Hull) Battalions launched an attack at Serre with the 11th Battalion (2nd Hull) in support and the 10th Battalion (1st Hull) guarding the flanks. The battalions made little progress and by the end of the day returned to their starting positions. The two attacking Battalions suffered more than 800 casualties.
The 92nd Brigade fought in many other battles during the war, all on the western front.
The two Trench and Mortar Batteries, formed from men of the four Hull Battalions in April 1916, were consolidated to a single battery in June 1916. In February of 1918, due to heavy casualties, the 12th (3rd Hull) and 13th (4th Hull) Battalions were disbanded. They were replaced with the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment (Accrington Pals).
Demobilization of the 92nd Brigade started December 11, 1918. At the end of January 1919 the remains of the the 10th (1st Hull) and 11th (2nd Hull) Battalions were sent to Calais to deal with rioting. The 92nd Brigade officially disbanded on May 22, 1919.
The Pals Battalions were a unique development of the First World War. The need for the rapid formation of infantry battalions called for out of the box thinking. While essentially successful at their goal, overall it was a failure. Some towns saw the over half of their male populations become casualties on the first day of the Battle of Somme.
The effect on moral on the home front was devastating, especially during the first weeks of the Somme Offensive. Little information from the first days of the battle reached the public in Great Britain. The first few days of the Somme Offensive were initially reported as successful. Soon the truth came out. For days, local newspapers were filled with pages of the names and pictures of the men lost.
“The 92nd Volunteers” is a Strathspey composed by Pipe Major George S. MacLennan. He became Pipe Major of the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders and was sent to France in 1918. It was in 1918, when playing the men over the top, that he collapsed and had to have fluid drained from his lungs. He died on May 31, 1929 from cancer, most likely caused by his operation to remove the fluid in his lungs.
George McLennan was a prolific composer throughout his life and is considered by many to be one of the 20th century's greatest composers of bagpipe music. It was said that he had a small notebook where he used to write bits of tunes that came to him. In 1929, a book of his music, Highland Bagpipe Music was published by his son George and R.G. Hardie. The tune the “The 92nd Volunteers” was included in this book.