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singer, songwriter, comedian, author, poet, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist

The Accrington Pals

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Smoky town where they were born,
Down in the valley, smoky little streets;
They were pals from childhood days
Climbing trees and running through the fields
And they all played together
Through the turning of the years,
Sharing their laughter, sharing all their fears.
The seasons saw them growing, oh
The seasons passing turned them round
Through the turning, turning, turning years,
The Accrington Pals.

Schooldays end, the lads all went
To work, some spinning, some weaving in the sheds,
On the land or down the pit,
Working hard to earn their daily bread.
And they all went walking up old Pendle Hill
On Sundays, the larks sang high above the dale,
Little Willie Riley
Played his mandolin and sang.
They were laughing, they were singing then,
The Accrington Pals.

1916 came the call:
We need more lads to battle with the Hun,
Lads of Lancashire, heed the call;
With God on our side the battle will soon be won.
So they all came marching to the beating of the drums
Down from the fields and factories they’d come,
Smiling at the girls who
Came to see them on their way.
They were marching, marching, marching away,
The Accrington Pals.

Blue skies shining on that perfect day,
A lark was singing high above the Somme;
Brothers, pals and fathers lay
Watching that sweet bird sing in the quiet of the dawn.
Then they all went walking out
Towards the howling guns,
Talking and laughing, calmly walking on,
Believing in the lies that
Left them dying in the mud;
And they’re lying, lying, lying still,
The Accrington Pals.

Smoky town that heard the news
Down in the valley, smoky little streets;
Houses quiet and curtains drawn
All round the town, a silent shroud of grief.
And the larks were singing still above Old Pendle Hill,
The wind was in the bracken,
The sun was shining still,
And the larks were singing sweetly as
The evening fell upon the Somme
On Edward Parkinson
Bobby Henderson
Billie Clegg
Johnny Molloy
Norman Jones
Albert Berry
Willie Riley,
The Accrington Pals.

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In 1916 the British Government, worried that the supply of men for cannon fodder in Kitchener’s new army was drying up, instigated a brilliant new manoeuvre in the recruiting stokes. Reasoning that friendship between men has always been a strong factor in any group dynamics, they came up with the idea of forming Pals Battalions composed of men from the same towns and cities. Men who had played together and worked together, it was reasoned, would join up together. This, it was thought, would not only give them a greater loyalty to the regiment and to each other but would also encourage any shirkers who might doubt the worthiness of the cause to come forward, lest they be shamed by their pals.

Thus the great Pals Battalions were formed: the Leeds Pals, the Bradford Pals, the Hull Pals, the Durham Pals, the Sheffield Pals, the Barnsley Pals, the Manchester Pals. Accrington was the smallest town in Britain to raise a Pals Battalion. When it was found that the town itself had not quite mustered a complete battalion, volunteers came in from the small villages in the countryside around. The Mayor led the recruiting drive, addressing crowds personally on the steps of the Town Hall, pontificating on the justice of the cause and the glory of the battlefield, spouting out what the war poet Wilfred Owen called ‘The old lie, Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.’ (Sweet and right it is to die for the Fatherland).

The generals were later to claim the Battle of the Somme as ‘the brilliant advance of July the First’. The battleplan hung round the strength of the British heavy guns, which would pulverise the German lines. At this point the British frontline would quietly leave their trenches and simply stroll across No Man’s Land to occupy the decimated German positions. But the Germans were so well dug in and so deeply secured that the bombardment, terrible though it was, did little other than warn them that an advance was about to take place. Had the British been allowed to advance running, at normal battle pace, the story might have been different. They were ordered, however, to walk across, which gave the Germans all the time in the world to climb out of their dug-outs and take up their positions in the machine-gun nests. As the British strolled towards them, one party kicking a football, they mowed them down like corn beneath a scythe blade. The Germans later confessed that they could not believe what was happening: their guns become red-hot and their machine-gunners had to relieve each other as their arms grew tired from the constant firing. And still the soldiers walked towards the guns.

That day, 100,000 men took part in the battle; 21,000 were killed and 35,000 wounded. Of the Accrington Pals, that battalion of 1,000 untried and unprepared men, 234 were killed and 350 wounded. Almost every family in Accrington hod lost somebody. At first the Town Hall hid the truth, but as news filtered through via letters home from field hospitals and returned casualties, it gradually dawned that something terrible had happened. The people laid siege to the Town Hall, dragged the Mayor out and forced the news out of him. It has often been said, and I can believe it, that the little town of Accrington never recovered from that ‘brilliant advance of July the First’. Among the 56,000 killed and wounded on that day there was not one general.