Monday, January 30, 2023

The Accrington Pals

It should have been a good five days of football. Accrington Stanley at home to Boreham Wood on Tuesday night in a delayed FA Cup third round tie, Burnley at home to West Brom in the Championship on the Friday night and the real deal on Saturday afternoon with my team Sheffield Wednesday at home to Fleetwood Town in League One. In the event, I had to settle for one out of three as Accrington got postponed due to a frozen pitch and a vehicle fire on the M62 put paid to our journey to Sheffield.

I have previously written why Accrington Stanley should be every football fan's second favourite club. Practising what I preach, I had taken advantage of a very generous (i.e. remarkably cheap) corporate hospitality package for the match against Boreham Wood but the match was postponed and I was unable to attend the rearranged match the following Tuesday.

The League One match between Accrington Stanley and Sheffield Wednesday took place on November 12th and was preceded by the club's annual Remembrance Day tribute where the Royal British Legion and Accrington Pipe Band led out the teams ahead of the laying of wreaths, followed by a minute's silence. In Accrington, as is no doubt the case elsewhere around the country, the bravery and sacrifice of the town's Pals Regiment lends extra poignancy to the occasion. I am embarrassed to admit that prior to attending the match, I knew little to nothing about the Pals and this was something I felt I wanted to learn more about. So I did just that. 

The Accrington Pals Memorial, located in the Sheffield Memorial 
Park, near the Serre Road cemeteries in northern France.

Along with Mrs C and good friends Mick and Andrea, an early start on the Sunday following my aborted trip to Hillsborough saw us cross the channel and into France by early afternoon. Andrea was having trouble with her trousers but as she and Mrs C were sitting in the back and I was driving, I decided against speculation as to why the waistband felt a little more generous than usual. Another hour on the road and we arrived at Cement House Cemetery in Langemark-Poelkapella, Belgium where my Great Uncle Frank is buried. Frank was my Grandad's older brother and thus my Dad's uncle, albeit he died eleven years before my Dad was born. He was killed in action on 4 February 1918 with two other members of his 14th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, alongside whom he now rests. They share the cemetery with over three and a half thousand other Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War, approximately two thirds of whom remain unidentified.

From Cement House Cemetery we drove to the much larger Tyne Cot Cemetery, around six miles away, which is the resting place of nearly twelve thousand servicemen. The Tyne Cot Memorial commemorates another nearly thirty five thousand servicemen whose graves remain unknown. As with the smaller Cement House Cemetery, the grave stones stood to attention in well maintained grounds. The weather was cold and grey and lent due sombreness to the occasion. 

All very sobering. As was the state of Andrea’s trousers with her having been tramping across the wet grass resulting in the lower part of the trouser legs getting rather damper than she might usually expect and grubbier also. We drove a further six miles into the Belgian city of Ypres and checked into our hotel accommodation. By now we had all been up for nearly twelve hours so proper refreshment was the objective and this was successfully obtained at the very nearby (almost next door in fact) bar/restaurant Marktcafé Les Halles. Three beers later and we were ready to explore the place although, by now, Andrea had determined that she must in fact be wearing someone else’s trousers, such was their larger disposition, longer legs and rather less pristine than usual appearance. Oh Andrea. I know that we all got up at four o’clock this morning but……….Michael’s trousers?…………you’re wearing Michael’s trousers? Mick just sat there bemused. With hindsight, I’m now wondering whose trousers he ended up wearing. 

Ypres is an ancient, small city with a beautiful city centre which was carefully reconstructed having been destroyed in the war. Good to report that there are plenty of eating and drinking establishments to choose from, even on a Sunday night, and we do take our let’s-explore-the-city responsibilities seriously. Further refreshment was taken at The Times bar and the rather weirdly named (and unpronounceable also) Øl bar before we departed to witness the nightly Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

Whilst in The Times bar, we got chatting to a few members of the Welsh Coast M.C.C. (motorcycle club) from Swansea, some of whom we had seen earlier checking into the same hotel as us. What a nice bunch of guys and gals. They had all been to an event (biking related) in Germany and were now on their way home, via Ypres on their final night so that they could pay their respects to the war dead.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is a war memorial which spans one of the main entrances to the city centre (indeed we drove through it earlier in the day). It was built in the 1920’s and was dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in battles close to the city. It bears the names of more than fifty four thousand men whose graves are unknown. Every night at 8.00 p.m. the traffic is stopped whilst the buglers of the Last Post Association (LPA) sound the Last Post in the road that passes under the memorial. The LPA is a voluntary organisation of local people from Ypres and it remains the intention of that organisation to continue this tribute in perpetuity. The respect and gratitude of the locals for the sacrifices made by soldiers of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, during two world wars, is genuine and heartfelt. That was one of two main takeaways for me from this four-day excursion.

The ceremony lasted only a few minutes. It was still bitterly cold, we needed warming up and we struck lucky at brasserie In’t Klein Stadhuis which name sounds like they might have had a few northerners in t’ouse before. For the record I’m just an honorary northerner although my three travelling companions are indeed t’real deal.

After a good night’s sleep, we had a leisurely start to the day before setting off to the French city of Lille. Mrs C and I have travelled through France, to and from Spain, on many occasions and our experience of French cities, towns and villages generally is quite favourable in the nice/ attractive/ quaint stakes but Lille failed on all three counts I’m afraid. Our just about adequate hotel won the prize for least-attractive-entrance-to-a-hotel-ever with the neon entrance lights, welcoming you to Passage 57 Boutiques, having all blown and the passageway itself doubling up as a shelter for a couple of homeless sorts. Anyway, once having checked in we bravely set forth to undertake our let’s-explore-the-city responsibilities and did so for a not unimpressive seven hours thus ensuring a second consecutive good night’s sleep.

The next morning we departed Lille, heading fifty miles south to the area of the Somme. The Battle of the Somme took place over a century ago and thus little wonder that most people know little of the events other than The Somme being synonymous with the first world war in general. Briefly the battle took place, on both sides of the Somme River, over four and a half months in 1916 between the armies of the British Empire and French Republic against the German Empire. The area of the Somme formed part of the Western Front, a four hundred mile stretch of land running from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border, effectively marking the battle lines between the two opposing forces. Following a seven day artillery bombardment of German lines, the Somme offensive commenced on 1 July 1916 but met unexpected and fierce resistance.

Our first port of call was the Thiepval Memorial and Anglo-French Cemetery, the largest of the Commonwealth’s memorials which was built on the site of one of the most heavily defended German positions attacked on that first day. It commemorates by name some seventy two thousand men, graves unknown, who fell in the Somme up to March 1918, including those killed and missing amongst the sixty thousand casualties from the first day of the offensive. The cemetery also contains the graves of three hundred Commonwealth and three hundred French soldiers, most of whom are unidentified.

From Thiepval we drove the short distance to see the Lochnagar Mine, a huge crater left by an underground charge laid by the British in a tunnel mined under a German fortification. The charge was sprung just before half past seven in the morning of 1 July to further weaken German defences immediately prior to commencement of the offensive. From the Lochnagar Mine it was just another six miles to the Serre Road Cemeteries, the resting place of the Accrington Pals.

With Britain’s entrance to the war in 1914 came the urgent need to boost military manpower and thus a “new army” of volunteer soldiers in contrast to the more traditional professional soldiers historically relied upon. To encourage volunteers, the Pals battalions would be composed of men enlisted in local recruiting drives with the promise that they would serve alongside their friends and neighbours. In Accrington, the Mayor offered to raise a full battalion and over eleven hundred men had enlisted within ten days of opening recruitment offices in Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley, Chorley, Church, Clayton-le-Moors, Great Harwood, Oswaldtwistle and Rishton. Initially based at home, the Pals left for Caernarvon, North Wales for training in February 1915 before leaving for Egypt ten months later. They arrived in France in March 1916.

The seven day artillery bombardment of German positions in late June 1916 did not obliterate defensive lines and capabilities as had been intended. Instead, seven hundred Accrington Pals, alongside their comrades the Sheffield Pals, advanced into no-man’s land on 1 July towards the village of Serre where they were swept with machine-gun and shell-fire. Of those seven hundred, two hundred and thirty five were killed and three hundred and fifty wounded in the space of twenty minutes.  

We parked up on Rue de Mailly-Mallet, immediately past the Serre Road Cemetery No.1 and walked the near half a mile along the country lane Ch. de Pals Battalions which leads first to Serre Road Cemetery No.2 and then to Railway Hollow Cemetery to the left and Queen’s Cemetery to the right. Luke Copse British Cemetery is a further two hundred yards along the lane. Each cemetery contains a register box, typically built into the walls of the cemetery. Inside is a register listing the known details of those buried or commemorated at the site together with a plan of the burial plots. We left one of the poppy posters, brought home after the Stanley v Wednesday match, inside the register box at Railway Hollow.

These cemeteries were much smaller, rather more intimate than those we had previously visited. Walled and neat, quiet and reflective, dotted around the immediate agricultural landscape, the village of Serre not much more than half a mile away. It was to be another seven months before that village was finally taken and by when the Germans were already retreating in any event.

The Railway Hollow Cemetery was accessed through the Sheffield Memorial Park and it is here also where the Accrington Pals memorial is to be found. As was the case on Sunday, the skies were overcast at the time of our visit and it was bitterly cold although strangely fitting to the circumstances of our visit. It was all very peaceful, the very least these brave men deserved and it hastened our departure also, not wishing to stray from respectful observation into mawkish tourism.

We had opted to spend our third and final night in St Omer, approximately two thirds of the way back to the channel tunnel so that we might have a prompt start in the morning. Coincidentally, the town is twinned with Ypres in Belgium where we had spent our first night and pleasing to report that it shared a charm more akin to Ypres than to Lille. We commenced our let’s-explore responsibilities in the mid-afternoon, and within fifteen minutes or so had happened upon Place du Maréchal Foch around which there was a good sprinkling of bars and restaurants, not that all of them were open on this cold Tuesday afternoon. We settled on La BF brasserie and bar which was nice and warm and supplied a good range of beers, admittedly all fizzy and expensive as had been our experience throughout the last three days. We then moved across the square to a pub which was like a real, proper pub with a real, proper pub name - the Queen Victoria. Now this was warm and cosy, so much so that by the time we left we were in no mood to walk any further than we had to and so we headed just fifty yards up the Place to find food at restaurant Estaminet De Drie Kalders (the three caves). And then back to the Queen Victoria for final refreshment before retiring to our accommodation. We were chuffed to learn that Accrington Stanley had won their rearranged match against Boreham Wood to set up a fourth round tie against Leeds United. 

We set off for the tunnel at half past eight the following morning and were safely back in Burnley around eight hours later. Nowadays, it is as easy as that. We’re bloody lucky aren’t we. All we have to worry about is the cost of petrol, the outrageous cost of beer in Belgium and France and whose trousers Andrea might be wearing.

If my first main takeaway from this short trip was the level of genuine respect and gratitude that our European neighbours have for the sacrifices of our forebears, then my second main takeaway was the sheer waste and extent of loss of life and that it happened at all. I’m not sure that we have a good track record when it comes to learning from history but learn we must; that is why the annual Remembrance Day tributes remain so valid. There are those who claim that the red poppy somehow glorifies war but they miss the point completely. It reminds us of the horrors of war and thus not a mistake to be repeated. 

The Battle of the Somme brought to an end the experiment of Pals battalions. The impact on towns and communities, such as that which befell Accrington, was simply too devastating when a Pals battalion suffered heavy casualties. We will remember them.