Monday marked the 97th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Chorley-based First World War historian and author Steve Williams looks at the battle and the impact that is still felt across Lancashire today . . .

THE Battle of the Somme began in late June, 1916, with a seven-day artillery barrage that fired 1.5 million shells at German positions across a 19-mile front.

A further 250,000 shells were fired on July 1, before and after the British Army went over the top at 7.30am.

Many British troops were untried volunteers — ‘Pals’ — raised in response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal.

The concept was quite simple — men who worked, lived or worshipped together, would train together and fight together; what they did not add was that most would die together.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme was by far the worst in the British Army’s history – 19,240 men were killed and a further 38,000 wounded.

Many of the Pals Battalions, each comprising some 1,100 men, raised in towns and cities across the country would be decimated, having a profound impact on Lancashire cotton towns, in particular.

One of the most famous Pals battalions was raised in East and Central Lancashire.

The Accrington Pals – better known as the 11th (Service) Battalion (Accrington), East Lancashire Regiment, was not just made up of men from the town, though – despite its founder, Coun John Harwood, who was the Mayor of Accrington from 1912 to 1915, regularly calling it ‘his’ battalion.

If it wasn’t for Chorley, Blackburn, Burnley and villages around Accrington, the battalion would not have been formed.

One quarter came from Accrington, a further quarter from Clayton-le-Moors, Rishton, Church, Oswaldtwistle, Haslingden and Great Harwood, a quarter from Burnley, The Burnley Pals, and the remainder from Chorley, The Chorley Pals, with a handful of men, ‘The Blackburn Detachment, being allocated to the Chorley Company.

Initially, the two Accrington Companies were based in the town, while the Burnley and Chorley men trained separately, coming together as a unit on February 23, 1915, when the whole battalion moved to Caernarvon for training.

Once there, they were finally issued with khaki uniforms —originally the men wore uniforms of Melton blue — which was also used for tram drivers and postmen.

Like many other Pals battalions, the Accrington battalion was allocated a certain village or section of the German line to attack.

From April 1916, the Accrington Pals were in the frontline trenches, facing the fortified village of Serre.

Originally, the start of the battle was scheduled for the end of June but it was delayed until the morning of July 1 because of bad weather.

At 7.20 am the artillery barrage stopped and men began crawling out of their trenches, some into No Man’s Land, ready for the signal to attack 10 minutes later.

At Serre, men from both Accrington companies went over the top in the first two waves. They were followed by two waves made up of men from the Chorley and Burnley companies, the latter led by Captain H D Riley, who had formed the company in October 1914, recruiting many members of the Burnley Lads Club.

Facing the Accrington Pals were men from the German 169 Infantry Regiment, who quickly manned their machine guns and began firing on the advancing waves.

With a range of 2,000 yards and firing up to 500 bullets per minute, the machine guns cut down the men as they progressed 400 yards towards the German trenches; only a handful were recorded as reaching their front lines.

By around 7.50 am, many British commanders knew the initial attack had failed. Of the 720 Accrington Pals, 584 had either been killed or wounded.

The idea for the battle, or The Big Push as it was known, was more political than strategic. The French had been suffering heavy casualties at Verdun since February 1916 and an attack on the German lines elsewhere on The Western Front was designed to relieve that pressure.

The Battle of the Somme continued until the middle of November 1916, resulting in very little gains for the British across a wide front.

Overall 1,200,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers took part and more than half of them were killed or wounded – the Germans suffered similar numbers.

  • Steve Williams is secretary and co-founder of the Chorley Pals Memorial. He gives illustrated talks on First World War topics, including the history of the Accrington Pals.

Since 2004 he has organised and led coach trips to the Somme and Ypres battlefields; his next trip is in May 2014. He can be contacted on 01254 854298, or at www.stevewilliams

Websites such as and detail many, if not all, the men who served in the Accrington Pals Battalion.