Brothers in Arms: The Pals Army of World War One

1 x 60 minutes, ITV

This new documentary for ITV tells the story of the young British men who signed up for the army with their friends and fought together on the Western Front in the First World War.

Brothers in Arms: The Pals Army of World War One

“We’ve never been out of England, we’ve never seen nowt. As I tell you, we were raw country lads, never seen nowt. Aye, that was how we felt. It wasn’t damn long before we were learning, I’ll tell you.” – George Littlefair

This new documentary for ITV tells the story of the young British men who signed up for the army with their friends and fought together on the Western Front in the First World War.

On the eve of the centenary of the start of the Great War, Brothers In Arms: The Pals Army of World War One brings alive the stories of life in the trenches through rare archive footage and interviews with veterans who fought at the Somme, facing the German artillery, mustard gas and trench foot in horrendous conditions.

These are the men and boys who volunteered in response to Lord Kitchener’s request – “Your Country Needs You!” – and who just a few months later were setting sail for France to go to war against the German army. Drawn from cities, towns, villages, factories and farms, this civilian army was different from those before or since, and this programme features the vivid and detailed recollections of those who joined up. Made by Testimony Films, this is a story of camaraderie told by the young men who risked all and joined up to fight alongside their friends.

Kitchener’s call came in response to the fact the British forces had only 80,000 fighting men compared to the Germans’ 3.5 million-strong troop of conscripts and reservists. Among those to rush to the recruiting stations were George Littlefair and Joe Coates, who had been friends since childhood. George explains their relationship: “He was my best friend. We had our ups and downs between us but still we were always good pals with one another. We helped one another. What I had was his. What he had was mine. Anything you wanted. If he had no writing paper and wanted to write a letter and I had it, he got it. A pen. We were all like that.”

Many men joined new, so-called Pals Battalions – fighting units formed by men from the same town, factory or football team.

But the formation of Pals Battalions wasn’t only a working man’s phenomenon – the idea was embraced by stockbrokers, public school boys, sportsmen and artists. Among the officers who signed up was ex-cadet Richard Hawkins, who describes taking charge of his platoon of 60 men as a second lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers: “Why the hell they did as they were told by a young man, probably younger than they were, I don’t quite know. Except that they were told that I was in charge of them, that I was the officer and they’d got to do as they were told. And they did. There you are. That’s that. You had four platoon sergeants which you had to choose from your men and by Jove if he’d been in the boy scouts, well he was a corporal straight away, you see?”

By May 1915 the first wave of men were on their way to the battlefields of France and Belgium. Dick Barron describes the scene and atmosphere as the soldiers prepared to be shipped overseas: “Before we were about to start something happened which I shall never forget. The whole of the ship’s company, from the top deck including ourselves, suddenly burst into song in unison. ‘Homeland. Homeland, when shall I see you again? Land of my birth, dearest place on earth. I’m leaving you, oh it may be for years and it may be forever. Homeland. Homeland.’ And we set sail. My heart stood still. I suddenly realised I may not return.”

Once in France, as the volunteers approached the front line the stark reality of what they’d let themselves in for began to dawn. Robbie Burns explains his feelings at the time: “I began to shake then. Yeah, I began to shake then the nearer we got to the front line. Or reserve trenches as they call them. Yes, you heard first before you saw anything. Yes, yes, the noise began. When you heard that noise you began to realise that we’re for it.”

The men endured days and weeks of heavy bombardment, and red hot shrapnel proved to be the biggest killer of all, as Dick Trafford recalls: “One of the chaps shouted, ‘Dick, will you come over here, give me a cigarette.’ I went over and half of his shoulder was missing. He couldn’t reach, he couldn’t get to his cigarettes. So I got into his pocket and got the packet of cigarettes out and lit him a cigarette. But he hadn’t two puffs on it when he conked out. He died there and then.”

By the summer of 1916 most of Kitchener’s volunteer Army had massed on the Western Front, preparing for The Big Push – an assault, they were told, that would knock Germany out of the war. The famous battle of the Somme was planned for the first of July. Yet as the men leapt out of their trenches, it immediately became apparent the German defences were far from destroyed by recent bombardment. Tommy Gay describes what the men faced: “We met a hurricane of bullets. They whizzed by my ears, you know, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, flying by my ears, like that. And I thought, ‘How marvellous! What’s the matter, that they’ve missed me?’ And yet the people were being killed. I must be the luckiest man on earth. Absolutely the luckiest man in the world.”

In the heat of battle, George Littlefair’s best friend Joe was hit by shrapnel and killed. George says: “If I’d had time to lift his head up and try to talk to him, that’s what I would have tried to do. But no good, you had to keep going. Either that or you get trampled on. A grand lad. We’d not even said so long to one another.”

On the first day of the battle of the Somme, British forces suffered 57,470 casualties – the worst disaster in the history of the British Army. Norman Collins, a junior officer in the Seaforth Highlanders describes the scene, of seeing men dying in agony: “I can honestly say this… I never had the courage myself to shoot a wounded soldier. Although it might have been my duty to do so. I knew what I should have done from a humane point of view and I just didn’t have the courage to do it. It’s a tremendous thing, you know, to shoot a friend.”

Fighting on the Somme raged on for a further four and a half months and British casualties exceeded 400,000. After 1,560 days and with more than 16 million lives lost in the conflict, the armistice ending the Great War was signed famously at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Those of Kitchener’s army who had survived came home. Ted Francis says that his feelings when the war ended were beyond description, yet the experience of fighting in it was so traumatic that for many years he did not speak about it to anyone. “If I live to 100 I shall never forget it. You can’t forget such an experience as that. Four years of terrible sights and killing. You can’t forget that in a hurry.”

After witnessing his best friend Joe being killed in action, George Littlefair, broken by the experience, never forged a friendship with anyone else in his regiment. He says: “When you’re like me, you get sat by yourself, you know, things go through your mind. I thought many a time, to think of all them young lads, young lives going down. What purpose has it been? And I still think it was for no bloody purpose. After all’s said and done, I do.”

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