AS a little boy I spent a lot of time living with my grandparents in Dudley Hill. My grandmother took me on visits to her friends. After one incident, I learned NEVER ask questions regarding soldiers portrayed in old photographs.

One evening, I was taken to the local club by my grandparents to play dominoes. The air was stifling with cigarette smoke and with nothing to do, I wandered over to a table set apart from the rest at which sat a group of very old men, older than my grandparents. They talked with me, ruffled my hair and laughed at my inability to understand their strong Yorkshire dialect. My grandmother offered her apologies and took me away. Walking home, I asked my grandfather who the men were. Quietly, he answered, “They are members of the Bradford Pals, they come to talk about the war and their old comrades. Only they understand what they talk about.”

That night, a seed was planted. It would be many years before I came to fully understand who these men were and the need to keep them and their story alive. The Bradford Roll of Honour lists 37,000 men who answered the call in 1914-18. Of those, a little over 2,000 would form the 16th and 18th Battalions, West Yorkshire Regiment - better known to us as the Bradford Pals. Following the declaration of war in August 1914, the Bradford Territorials, 6th West Yorkshires, reported completion of mobilisation at the end of the month, the first Territorial unit in the country to do so. Leeds had started to recruit a ‘Citizen’s Army’ battalion, Bradford soon followed suit. In one week that September, the ‘Bradford Battalion’ began training at Manningham Park, with little equipment, no uniforms, just a lapel badge and plenty of spirit! By Christmas they had relocated to Raikeswood Camp, Skipton. Early 1915 saw the raising of the second ‘Bradford Battalion’ based at Bowling Park. Both battalions moved to Ripon and Colsterdale to join the Leeds Pals and moved again to Salisbury Plain. It was expected these Pals battalions would be sent out to France to follow up the expected ‘breakthrough’ following the Battle of Loos that September. The ‘breakthrough’ never came...

It was now planned to send the Pals battalions to Gallipoli to carry on the offensive there. This too had proved a failure. However, fearing a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, the Pals, now part of 31st Division were sent to Egypt where they arrived in the last days of 1915. There was little to do except fill sandbags and guard a canal that was never attacked. In March 1916 they were brought back to Marseilles, France, and took the train north to a quiet area around Colincamps on the Somme. When not in the line, they rested at the village of Bus-les-Artois which became a second home. Meanwhile, it was obvious for everyone to see the plans for a large-scale offensive on the Somme were being prepared.

The Pals battalions, with no experience of battle, would spearhead the attack against the German-held village of Serre at 7.30am on Saturday, July 1, 1916. Detailed plans had been drawn up, there would be a long artillery bombardment that would destroy the German artillery, the defenders were told it would be a ‘walkover’, there would be no resistance, there were even plans for a hot meal to be served in the evening of the attack in the captured German third line.

On June 30 the Pals got their equipment together in ‘Bus’. The Pals band put on an impromptu concert on the green. Those there would remember this day as their happiest memory. The Pals battalions left behind a cadre of men ‘just in case’. Fred Rawnsley in his diary cursed his luck about being left behind. The Pals moved off, packed like sardines in assembly trenches. The Leeds Pals in the front line would advance at 7.30am and capture the German front line. The 1st Bradford Pals with one company of Durham Pals in the support line would attack at the same time 200 yards further back and capture German support positions. At 9.30am, the 2nd Bradford Pals would advance onto the final German line to capture and hold this against any counter-attack. This was the plan. Even as the Pals made their way to assembly positions, enemy shellfire caused casualties. This wasn’t part of the plan, there wasn’t supposed to be any enemy artillery left. Dawn was 4am, the main attack would be in daylight. The British bombardment would lift onto German rear positions. Taking its place would be local trench mortar batteries firing on the German lines. Unfortunately, the trench mortar batteries had been the last to assemble, struggling through crowded trenches, precluding bringing up spare ammunition. The resulting trench mortar barrage would be ineffective. Worse still, the trench mortar at Sap ‘A’ was shared with the Forward Brigade HQ. At 7.20am when it opened fire, its position was immediately given away. The Germans, rapidly emerging unscathed from deep dugouts, opened fire. Majors O’Neill and Guyon, Commanding Officers of the Leeds and 1st Bradford Pals, were hit. Half the Leeds Pals had got out of their crowded front line to form up in No-man’s land and were shot down in minutes. They had to make their attack against a strongly defended front line with only half their numbers.

At 7.30am, whistles blew. The remainder of the Leeds Pals began their attack, the 1st Bradford Pals made theirs, both were cut down by shellfire and machine guns. Leeds Pals that reached the German line found the wire uncut. The Bradford Pals were cut down in the open, few even made it to the British front line. Casualties were high, including senior officers. Lt Ransome, Intelligence Officer, did his best to manage things in the next hour, it was hopeless. Telephone communications were fine but no one at Brigade HQ could see how badly things were going. Lt Ransome made his way back to HQ, he was given short shrift by Brigadier General Ingles and told to go back and get his men to advance. Lt Ransome was killed on the way back.

Ingles, seeing no progress ahead, decided to bring forward the attack of the 2nd Bradford Pals to 8.30am. This was communicated to Major Kennard of the 2nd Bradford Pals. Back at Sap ‘A’ more German shelling killed the Artillery Forward Officer and destroyed his equipment, minutes before the 2nd Bradford Pals attack. The Pals made their attack at 8.30am. Their initial advance couldn’t be seen by the enemy but there was no artillery support. German shelling began; the line of Pals went down. Major Kennard stood up and raised his cane, the Pals followed him. He was killed minutes later. As soon as the Pals became visible on the skyline, the machine-guns started and they were cut down in swathes.

Ingles finally went to the front lines to see what was happening. The troops he’d seen not moving forward were dead, wounded or taking cover against enemy gun fire. He called off the attack. At noon a roll call of 1st and 2nd Bradford Pals showed just 50 unwounded men between them. This had been a disaster. The remnants of the Pals, with support coming up, held on in the trenches till July 4 when they were finally relieved.

l See Saturday’s T&A for the second part of David Whithorn’s feature, on the aftermath of the Somme and how the news was received in Bradford.