When War broke out in early August 1914 Captain James Milton from Chorley took steps to form a ‘Pals’ battalion in Chorley and district.
By the 3rd September, thirty men had signed up and they were eventually formed into a Company to join a newly raised battalion at Accrington. By the end of September the Chorley Pals Company as they became known was up to full strength, with some 212 men and 3 Officers. They became C Company of the 7th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, although this was changed to the 11th Battalion on the 10th December 1914, known thereafter as the ‘Accrington Pals’ (although men from Chorley, Blackburn and Burnley were in the ranks).
On the 7th October the recruits were kitted out in Melton Blue uniforms made locally. Basic training for the Chorley contingent was carried out in the Drill Hall on Devonshire Road, with rifle practice at Common Bank. By the end of the year the Company consisted entirely of men from Chorley, as well as the villages of Rufford, Croston, Eccleston, Euxton, Coppull, Charnock Richard, Brinscall, Withnell, Adlington, Heath Charnock, Whittle-le-Woods, Heapey and Wheelton.
An early official sighting of the Chorley Pals in their blue uniforms came on the 19th December outside the Technical College, which now houses Chorley Library. A month later, on the 26th January 1915, they were inspected on the Flat Iron by Brigadier-General G.M. McKenzie. By the middle of February, preparations were well under way for the Chorley Company to join the rest of the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment. There destination was Caernarvon in North Wales, and on the 16th February 1915 a farewell dinner was given to the Company in Chorley Town Hall by Mr. James Sumner, a local mill owner.
A week later on Tuesday, 23rd February the Chorley Pals assembled in Devonshire Road where they were presented with a small English Sheepdog, as a mascot, by local businessman Mr. R.E. Stanton. The Company left the barracks at 11.20 a.m. with 2nd Lt. Rigby and ‘Ned’ (as the dog had been named) at the head of the column. Snow was falling as the men marched via Hamilton Road to Pall Mall and into Market Street, where they turned up Chapel Street to the railway station. At this point a farewell salute was taken by the Mayor and the rest of the Corporation. The Company embarked on the train which had come from Burnley with 205 ‘Burnley Pals’, then known as D Company. At 11.55 a.m. the train left the station, heading for North Wales.
Whilst in Caernarvon a new Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel Rickman took charge of the 11th Battalion on the 1st March, and the men were finally kitted out with khaki uniforms. Lt. Colonel Rickman’s first act was to change the letters designating each company and the Chorley Pals became Y Company. Further training took place at Grantham in Lincolnshire and Rugeley in Staffordhsire.
On there way from Rugeley for further training in Ripon in North Yorkshire, each Pals Company took part in a recruitment visit to their respective town. The Chorley Pals visited the Borough on Friday, 30th June and paraded on Coronation Recreation Ground. The Mayor of Chorley, Alderman R. Hindle took the salute as the men marched past. The following day the Pals left Chorley Cattle Market heading for the Royal Lancashire Show in Blackburn where they gave a display of rifle drill and bayonet fighting.
September saw the Battalion move, en masse, to Salisbury Plain in anticipation of a move to France. However, on the 19th December the Battalion left by train for Plymouth were they embarked on the SS Ionic, bound for Port Said in Egypt. On route the ship was narrowly missed by a torpedo fired by a German submarine, and on New Year’s Day 1916 they finally arrived in Alexandria (after short stops in Gibraltar and Malta). After nearly two months on the east bank of the Suez Canal, orders were received in the last week of February to embark for France.
Marseille was reached on the 8th March and after a 52 hour train journey, the Battalion eventually arrived in northern France near Abbeville. The Chorley Pals were held in reserve and would not see the front line trenches for a while yet. However, as early as the 29th March the Pals were told they were to attack the small village of Serre, in the French Department of the Somme (well to the north of the river that it was named after).
At 4.00 p.m. on the 29th April 1916, the Pals took over the front line trenches opposite the village. The following day they came under enemy shell fire, and they remained in the trenches for eight days. Training then took place ten miles to the rear, in Warnimont Wood. The Pals were back in the front line on the afternoon of the 20th May, close to Matthew Copse opposite Serre – a routine of one week at the front and one week at the rear. During their time in the trenches, the Chorley Pals were fortunate that none of the men who had joined up in Chorley in September 1914 were killed.
The planned attack on Serre by the Pals Battalion of the 11th East Lancs. (amongst others) was part of the Big Push to take place on the Somme. It was originally scheduled to start on the 28th June but was postponed for two days due to bad weather. The British guns started to pound the German positions at Serre from the 24th June, as part of a plan to destroy the barb wire around the enemy trench system. Fortunately the Chorley Pals did not witness this bombardment as they were back in the reserve trenches again.
On the 30th June the whole Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment left Warnincourt Wood at 6.15 p.m. and marched via Courcelles to their positions in the assembly trenches. The Chorley Pals (Y Company) were the third in line as they move into the trenches opposite Serre, and were in position by 4.00 a.m. Progress had been slow, with the men carrying between 60 and 70 lbs of equipment, sometimes knee deep in sticky mud.
At 4.30 p.m. the Germans, anticipating an attack, started to bombard the British lines. The British artillery began shelling the German trenches at 6.39 a.m. until 7.30 a.m. In the 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, the first Company to go over the top at 7.20 a.m. was W Company (mainly from Accrington) who then laid down 50 yards in No Man’s Land. They were followed at 7.25 a.m. by X Company (from Accrington and District). Next came the Chorley Pals, with Z Company from Burnley in reserve.
At 7.30 a.m. Officers blew their whistles and the first two waves stood up and started walking towards the German positions at Serre. The Chorley Pals climbed out of their trenches, led by Lt. G.C. Williams. Waiting for them were the German machine gunners who cut down most of the men in W and X Companies. By 8.00 a.m. the attack had ground to a halt, having failed to reach the German positions in strength. Whilst some men from the 11th Battalion of the East Lancs. reached the outskirts of Serre, their bodies were not found until February 1917 when the Germans retired to new positions on the Hindenburgh Line.
In less than 20 minutes, 235 of the 720 men from the 11th East Lancs. were killed. Another 350 were wounded, of which 17 would eventually succumb to their wounds. Many of the Battalion died where they fell, in No Man’s Land.
As a result of the attack on the morning of the 1st July, the Chorley Pals (Y Company) had 31 men killed and three died within a month of their wounds received on that day. 21 have no known graves and their names are transcribed on the Thiepval memorial to the Missing on the Somme battlefield. A further 59 were wounded, making a total of 93 casualties out of approximately 175 men from Chorley who went over the top that morning.