The British Army's losses on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme - 1 July 1916 - amounted to some 57,000 men killed, wounded or missing. Few units, however, suffered as terribly as the famous 'Pals' battalions, raised from volunteers who had flocked to answer Lord Kitchener's 'Call to Arms'. In the North of England particularly, whole cities and towns went into mourning as news of that awful first day's casualties came through.
What is less well-known is that some of these battalions were brought up to strength with reinforcements - often from the cities in which they had been raised - and sent back into action again and again This is the story of one such battalion, the Leeds Pals, which by the war's end in 1918, was described as having been 'four times wiped out but fighting to the end'. It is a story which traces, in great and fascinating detail, the raising and training of the battalion in and around Leeds, their service in Egypt before being sent to France in December 1915, their heavy losses in their baptism of fire on the Somme, 1916, in the Battle of Arras a year later, and during the German offensives of March and April 1918.Based upon the accounts of survivors, private diaries, letters and papers, official archives, contemporary newspaper accounts, and a wealth of unpublished photographs, it is a story of patriotism, entusiasm, humour, and great courage. Ultimately, however, it is a tale of great tragedy, for though the Leeds Pals took part in the final advance to victory, their three years in France had cost them 733 men killed, 1,861 wounded and 776 missing or captured.
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Laurie Milner was a senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, and has been instrumental in creating military museums abroad. In addition he has led battlefield tours for the Imperial War Museum and for units of the British Army. Therefore, he is well qualified to write a book on one of the 'Pals' Regiments.
The book consists of seven chapters, and covers all aspects of the Battalions' service from its formation, immediately after war was declared, to details of its part in various theatres of war during WW1.
The book has been exceedingly well researched and draws heavily on individual stories, gathered from extracts of soldiers' letters, diaries, survivors' memories and family accounts. Against a broader background of the war, the narratives would probably only appeal to those researchers who are specialising in the history of the 'pals' battalions, or those whose ancestors joined or fought with the Leeds Pals. There is also a wealth of information from contemporary sources and archive material and each chapter has extensive notes on the sources used. I particularly liked the layout of the book, with paragraphs of factual information, interspersed with numerous extracts from personal accounts and photographs. The book contains hundreds of illustrations the majority of them named individuals, undertaking daily tasks of normal army routines.
The amount of research undertaken is vast, and Milner has used this superb material to provide a narrative of great relevance. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, especially for its human content making it easily readable. It is a book you could easily dip into and read a chapter at a time, as each chapter describes an aspect of the battalion's story.
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