The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Wreath Lectures

Remember Them: The Accrington Pals & 2014's WW1 Centenary
Richard Foster , December 16th, 2014 13:14

Richard Foster looks at his old home town, Accrington, in an attempt to piece together an understanding of how Britain currently remembers the First World War.

Accrington; what's in a name? Well I'm going to tell you in a minute. By way of introduction I suppose I should tell you what got me writing about the town I grew up in. Recently, the Quietus asked me to review Einstürzende Neubauten's brilliant record, Lament; a request I jumped at. I've long had an interest in the remembrance cultures that have grown up round the First World War. It's a huge subject; one that's almost independent of the war itself. Neubauten's non-partisan, unsentimental way of marking the conflict was thought-provoking and a welcome counterbalance to a lot of the celebrations currently underway in Britain. It seems that the British public's moral obligation "to do the right thing" by the war's dead takes many strange, often questionable turns. I sit here typing (December 10, 2014, Common Era) after having listened to a BBC 5Live report on a football match organised in County Durham based on the famous 1914 Christmas Truce on the Western Front; one played out between a set of German and British school children. The re-enactment (replete with a freshly dug set of trenches for each "side" to climb out of) gave, according to the grave but enthusiastic teacher overseeing the day, the teens involved an "important" set of "life lessons" in history. Surely this kind of activity is in thrall to a strain of morbidity that's not really helpful to anyone; however well meant. Commemorations like this, and working on the Neubauten review made me wonder; how did we ever get to a point where re-enacting events on the Western Front with school children was seen as normal, or appropriate?

Time to introduce you to Accrington. Once well known for a range of diverse manufacturing industries, including the famous Nori bricks, coal mining and textiles, the town nowadays elicits few responses; outside of the usual jokes round Accrington Stanley or the 11th (Service) battalion, East Lancashire Regiment: aka the Accrington Pals. A walk round Accrington soon uncovers a plethora of markers dedicated to the latter. Most noticeable is the imposing Accrington Pals Primary Health Care Centre on Paradise Street. Just over the way on Church Street, a carved stone slab, known as the Accrington Pals memorial commemorates the battalion. A walk out of town along Burnley Road brings the visitor to St John's the Evangelist Church, where the Pals Memorial Chapel can be found. Elsewhere, the town's library has a small permanent display on the unit; whilst the Haworth Art Gallery (located off Manchester Road) hosts a commemorative wing which shows a photograph of each member of the battalion. In the Haworth's garden, there are three mosaics - commissioned by Baxenden Community Forum, and created by local artist Sue Gibson from drawings by local children - commemorating the Pals' active service. Not far away from the mosaics in the adjoining Oak Hill Park, is Accrington's official war memorial. This imposing obelisk, made of Portland Stone, looms over the park and lists the names of the 865 men who were killed in the First World War.

Hyndburn Borough Council, the local authority responsible for the town, is currently busy marking the centenary of the First World War with a series of commemorative activities. Whilst some run alongside the British government's centenary timeline, many will centre on the action of the Pals on the first day of the First Battle of the Somme with a special Pals beer and new commemorative Borough boundary signs being noticeable developments. This is understandable. The Pals suffered appalling losses in the first wave of the Somme assault. Walking into a wall of German machine gun and small arms fire at Serre, the unit lost 584 men killed, wounded or missing out of an attacking strength of 720 in the space of half an hour. News of the losses devastated the local community; providing a grim chapter in local folk memory. The centenary is an important event for Accrington therefore, and one that will generate a lot of useful publicity and maybe revenue.

But can a town like Accrington move on, given the never-ending interest in this old war? In her essay, "Television Docu-Drama and The First World War" , Esther MacCallum-Stewart draws on war poet Edmund Blunden's quote, "War's classical name should have been Proteus" to highlight the fact that there can be no one voice that successfully conveys the totality of World War I. In terms of how Britain has remembered the conflict, this protean aspect has led to all manner of interpretations and recalibrations; some moving, others bordering on the ridiculous and hysterical. Perhaps the most definitive overview of Great War remembrance has been provided by Professor Dan Todman in his article, The First World War in Contemporary British Popular Culture, published in Untold War, (ed. Heather Jones et al. (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2008)). Todman argues that the war both "remains a key reference point in British culture" and that Britain's current image of the conflict has been subject to an almost never ending set of refinements or distortions; driven, amongst other things by social or demographic change, new technologies such as the internet or television, or even chance. Interestingly, Todman stresses that this process has been continuous and not one overly influenced by the "accepted" turning points in the popular narrative of commemoration, namely the "cynical veterans", or "pity of war" narratives that appeared in the early 1930s or from the mid-1960s. He does, however, point out three themes that continue to shape remembrance in Britain.

We might identify three themes which have remained important: 'Eyewitnesses' – the value placed on testimony from those who fought; 'Fallen Heroes' – the sanctification of all those who served and died (which now includes almost all veterans); and 'Home Towns'- a strong local element to war service and remembrance.

Balls Ups and Local Lads (Fallen Heroes)

It should come as no surprise that (given the broad-brush nature of his themes) Todman's argument can neatly dovetail with some attempts to remember the Pals. For one, the Pals' action on the Somme is yet another "very British" tale of pointless – and, through the very reason of its pointlessness, heroic - rank and file suffering. Spion Kop, the Crimea, Crete, and stories from more recent wars, such as Helmand 2006 and Basra spring to mind. The Pals' fate could be seen as the very essence of the "lions led by donkeys" cliché. And it's one that has provided a rich seam for artists. In the fourth verse of his 1986 song Accrington Pals, Lancashire folk singer Mike Harding touched on the theme of innocent sacrifice by a "boneheaded" staff.

Blue sky shining on a 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.
And 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.

The song's text – however saccharine - works brilliantly on a number of levels; encapsulating all that the public "needs" to know about the action. And, as ever, the symbolism of the Somme (a four month, bloody slog summarised in a day's action; the beautiful weather of 1 July; the walking towards the German lines in a hail of fire; the cheerful, misplaced trust by the fighting forces in High Command; and the inevitable disaster) is stronger and more seductive than any attempt at reappraisal. This symbolism, whether expressed through the likes of Harding or more recent programmes such as Fergal Keane's emotive documentary for the BBC, Teenage Tommies also suits a British feel and need for melodrama. It also acts as a balm that, however unintentionally or subliminally, reassures many Britons of their "traditional values" of cheerful calm and unstinting bravery in adversity; whilst reifying the notion that "the local" is representative of, and proud to stand up for "the nation", even when things go spectacularly wrong. Giving the Pals and their loved ones this "theatrical" voice also drove Peter Whelan, with his 1981 play" target="out">The Accrington Pals. Whelan, a son of a First War veteran, highlighted both a generation's naïve and unthinking patriotism being destroyed by bitter war experience, and a local community left to pick up the pieces.

However one tries to inject some balance into this narrative, or look at a wider historical picture, it is fair to say that the intrinsic, artistic power of Harding and Whelan's work (and programmes like Keane's) is still justified by the fact that a century after the conflict, both Accrington and the nation at large still seem unable to figure out a narrative for the Pals other than the standard one of pity, loss and empathy for the individual soldiers. East Lancashire's media often publish articles narrating the human impact of the war; whether by local war historians such as Steve Williams , or statements by local government representatives. Leader of Hyndburn Borough Council, Miles Parkinson, talking in July 2013 about the plans for the centenary commemoration, ran through a familiar list of platitudes.

"The Accrington Pals are interweaved [sic] into the very fabric of our local history. On that fateful first day of the Battle of the Somme, they suffered severe losses and over 600 casualties, leaving the community shattered and hardly anyone untouched, with so many losing husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, friends and neighbours."

The exhaustive research done by local historian Andrew Jackson on his website devoted to the battalion only seems to encourage a need for people to connect with the Pals' action, often with the intent of discovering, or understanding a relative's role. A cursory look though newspapers and blogs serving East Lancashire also reveals a set of common, seemingly endlessly repeated words in any article about the Pals or any other local units from the First World War. We find "live on", "remember", "sacrifice", or "heroes" all regularly cropping up. We can see articles based round the soldier's tale such as that posted on the BBC Lancashire webpages for the 90th anniversary of the Somme, highlighting last Pal Will Marshall's reminiscences; and read the contributor messages on the article's comments board, most of which seek a form of empathy by naming soldier relatives. All of this reflection can lead to some strange, often morbid reappraisals. Trying to grapple with the magnitude of the battle's losses has led some to recast the New Army in a fantasy, "what if" scenario; in the No Man's World blog we hear of a fictional Lancashire battalion, the "13th Pennine Fusiliers" , whisked away into an alien world during the heat of last Somme fighting, a battalion still fighting on in another dimension, undefeated and resilient.

No Place like Home (Home Towns)

I think there's a weird duality present in Todman's theme, "Home Towns" that makes the local aspect of First War remembrance culture all the more potent. For one, you can point to the fact that the soldiers are remembered in two lands; both at their graves, sited abroad, and on their local memorial. Literary types with good recall can also note Peter Ackroyd's point (tucked away in the epilogue of his book, 'Albion' - The Origins Of The English Imagination, (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002)) that "England" can be seen as "a landscape and a dreamscape", a place that is here and not here, (like the men themselves). This duality encourages a sense of "longing and belonging". When dealing with the dead of the First War, we can understand that there is a strong latent urge to reconnect with the men who can never return home. This urge - stronger than ever since the rise of the internet - often utilises local landmarks as expressions of feeling; which then serve as a reconnection point for the dead and the living. We see this best in weblogs and comments on internet articles. A moving expression of local feeling can be seen with the comments of a poster, 'Cricketer Mick' on the BBC Lancashire article commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Somme battle. In his response to the original article, 'Cricketer Mick' imagines the battalion standing on the terraces of Accrington Stanley football club, and writes a poem inspired by his vision.

"My grandfather was invalided out of the Machine Gun Corps after being gassed during the Second World War. Whilst I was preparing drawings of Accrington Stanley football ground on Livingstone Road Accrington to improve the facilities to enable the club to gain entry to the Football League in 2006 after 44 years in non-league football, I realised that the whole of the Accrington Pals battalion of 36 officers and 1076 men could fit into the Coppice terrace, which has a capacity in the region of 1100 supporters. I was made even more aware of the Pals history because it was almost 90 years to the day 1st of July 1916 when 585 men were killed or injured in a twenty minute period when the Pals went over the top with fixed bayonets towards the enemy trenches. I imagined those 1112 heroes all dressed in uniform home on leave at the Coppice end of the football ground roaring on 'the Reds'. It almost feels to me at least that the Coppice terrace was formed for the Accrington Pals. Inspired by the Pals' story and the new era that Accrington Stanley were about to embark upon, I wrote a simple poem (my first) which linked the football club and the Pals together. Called, 'Return to the Football League'."

'Return to the Football League' Oh where are we now?
At the football ground on the other side of town.
Next to the Crown and the Accrington Nori,
The football ground in all its glory,
It's taken forty four years to dry up the tears,
At the football ground on the other side of town.
You can still see the Coppice and its war memorial
At the football ground on the other side of town.
When the Pals come home they'll have Stanley to cheer,
At the football ground on the other side of town.
And we'll toast them all in bitter beer,
At the football ground on the other side of town.
The Pals did us proud and we'll return the favour,
At the football ground on the other side of town.
On Stanley On!
Dedicated to the Accrington Pals. 1st of July 2008."

It's a remarkable piece. 'Cricketer Mick' mentions his grandfather (a veteran of the Second World War) and expresses his feelings with a bunch of old and new local symbols; the Crown pub (still going strong) the defunct Nori brickworks on Whinny Hill (by 2008 a sight long gone) the Coppice hill, and Stanley's ground, just off Livingstone Road. Mick's tears are for the Pals and the years of exile (1962 to 2006) from the Football League endured by "The Reds", Accrington Stanley FC, a team some years away from being reformed when the battalion marched off in 1914.

Many choose to express their local pride at another location, in this case the battlefield (which often doubles up as a unit's graveyard). Although there is a long history in visiting Flanders and Picardy, battlefield tours, especially those to the Somme are popular as never before. The minutes of the Accrington Pals Centenary Commemorations group reveal plans for visits to Serre and a presentation of a Roll of Honour to Maire de Puisieux of Serre, and the Marie of Bapaume; a "performance of the nation" in the same stretch of the battlefield a century later. We see articles linking locality and battlefield; in the blog Down by the Dougie, the author, when remembering the Chorley company of the Accrington Pals states; "I felt that it was important for me to visit that section of the line where the men from my home town had been killed." Elsewhere, more general points are made whilst reflecting on local tragedies. In his website Hellfire Corner , Tom Morgan hints that the new, defining era in how Britain viewed Accrington as a town was in a foreign field; "I firmly believe, in spite of what the calendar may say, that the 20th Century began in these fields, around Serre, on 1st July, 1916."

Empathy for Tommy Atkins (Eyewitnesses)

As a Briton, whether pro or anti-military, from the Left or Right, revisionist or traditional historian, politician, actor or broadcaster, the one champion in any debate on the First World War, the star witness for all causes is that of Tommy Atkins; the private soldier, humping his kit through the mud of Flanders or Picardy. In these arguments, he will often appear as a great uncle, or great (great) grandfather, reaffirming the emotional and historical weight of a point of view. The idea of openly associating with the "Poor Bloody Infantry" comes fairly easily to most; especially now that they are no longer around to defend themselves and their opinions. And the broad (if bemused) public acceptance of actors in period costumes - such as the Khaki Chums at Remembrance Day - shows that many still see some form of active connection with the men as part of a wider (if ill-formulated) duty. The tradition of speaking for a now silent and always reticent generation has a long tradition. Popular books like Robert Graves' Goodbye To All That, Martin Middlebrook's The First Day On The Somme, or war fiction like Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong and Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy or the plethora of TV series dealing with the subject, from the 1960s onwards, like The Great War, Blackadder Goes Forth, The Crimson Field, or The Trench all, in their differing ways, try to speak for the soldiers themselves. Coupled with the disappearance of the Great War generation as active narrators (magnified by the almost constant and often questionable use of last survivors such as Henry Allingham at commemoration ceremonies in the early 2000's) many in Britain feel compelled – as a duty - to speak up for the soldiers as an important element of the nation's image, an element that should be defended against all criticism. This compulsion to speak for the men, or become "involved" in their lives can lead to some strange amalgams; certainly in the case of Accrington. The new centenary exhibits at the Haworth in Accrington include a reconstruction of a "Pals recruiting office". And the decision to name the health centre "The Accrington Pals" seems to be the result of a tacit (if undoubtedly well-meant) intention that one new major development in the town's history needed to be validated by another from its past, using its most famous sons.

In September 2013, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, appearing on the Andrew Marr show, nobly claimed he was ready to "die in the trenches" for his Liberal Democrat policies . Mr Clegg is not the first national figure to use emotive language related to the conflict to force a point. Other remarkable regurgitations of First War imagery (here recounted by Simon Kuper in his Football Against The Enemy, (London: Phoenix Press, 1996)) include Sir Bobby Robson telling his England team to "go over the top" in half time team talks. In some ways these slightly daft appropriations of terrible ideal shows a modern need to match the bravery and commitment of the men and women from places like Accrington. There is no expression of modern British culture so ingrained or as unquestioned as that of commemorating the private soldier of the First World War. And no private soldiers garner more attention or sympathy than those of the Pals battalions of Kitchener's New Armies, killed and maimed on July 1 1916. They have acted as a nodal point in Britain; round which differing forms of remembrance have been acted out, often mirroring contemporary concerns and events; and sometimes obscuring, or colouring the actual history to create an acceptable discourse – and means of repentance - for a given timeframe.

Accrington is often quoted as the smallest town in the country to raise a New Army battalion. That battalion also had the unhappy fate of recording some of the worst losses in a single action. It is no wonder that The Accrington Pals hold both a singular place in the current local commemoration narrative, and can speak for a nation at large. For the Borough of Hyndburn, they have become an important catalyst in securing funds for local projects. Professor Todman's "Fallen Heroes" they indisputably are; riding to their Borough's financial need in an almost Arthurian manner. Like Arthur, they can live again; a symbol that can be a brand lending a name to a Health Centre, or a powerful bargaining chip to secure funding. They are the reason for the Borough reifying the date of July 1, 1916, meaning other local men who were killed in the First World War are to a greater extent overlooked. In fact their omnipresence is such that Hyndburn's commemoration ceremonies started before the war's official centenary; as the first scheduled event, "The Duke of Lancaster's Freedom Parade" taking place in Accrington on 1 July 2014 showed. It is impossible to ignore them; Hyndburn's justification for the celebration budget hinges to a large extent on remembering an action that devastated the whole community.

But, with the centenary, the First World War is now officially old, and the human connection in terms of generational memory is definitively severed. Accrington's remembrance "identity" will use broadly similar thematic paths, vehicles and actors to express itself in the near future, but whether it can use the First World War or the Accrington Pals for another hundred years is another matter. Given recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, many social groups do not share the strain of patriotism that uses the military as its focus, even a "pity of war" style local patriotism that the Accrington Pals exemplify. And what these developments hold for a town such as Accrington, which (like a number of other industrial towns from traditional recruiting areas) has to some extent needed the Pals to create an image of itself in recent times, is still unclear.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.