In common with other industrial towns in the north of England, Sheffield was quick to form its own "Pals" battalion in the early weeks of the First World War. On 1st July 1916, the Sheffield City Battalion fought alongside the Accrington Pals in the heroic but hopeless attempt to capture the heavily-fortified village of Serre. In the memorable words of John Harris: "Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history."
Within a month of Britain's declaration of war against Germany on 4th August 1914, the Duke of Norfolk and Sir George Franklin presented themselves at the War Office to propose the formation of a Sheffield battalion recruited from both university and commercial men. The proposal was readily accepted and on 10th September enlistment began at the Corn Exchange for the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment.
The heady atmosphere of the time was caught in placards reading "TO BERLIN - VIA CORN EXCHANGE". It took little time for the battalion to reach its full complement, with between 900 and 1,000 men being recruited in just two days. The recruits came from all walks of life; Richard Sparling recalled there being "£500 a year business men, stockbrokers, engineers, chemists, metallurgical experts, University and public school men, medical students, journalists, schoolmasters, craftsmen, shop assistants, secretaries, and all sorts of clerks".
The battalion's early instructions in drill took place at Bramhall Lane, the famous home of Sheffield United Cricket and Football Club. Other grounds had to be found before long, as the Club's directors took exception to the loss of grass! On Saturday 5th December - a miserably cold and wet day - the battalion of 1,131 officers and men left Sheffield for Redmires Camp, a windswept camping ground a few miles west of the city. The battalion trained at Redmires for just over 5 months, a period which saw it placed in the 94th Brigade (31st Division) alongside the 13th and 14th York & Lancasters (1st and 2nd Barnsley Pals) and the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals).
Preparation for active service continued throughout 1915 with spells at Penkridge Bank Camp near Rugeley, Ripon - where training in small arms fire began in earnest - and Hurdcott Camp near Salisbury. On 28th September, Lt. Col. J. A. Crosthwaite, formerly of the Durham Light Infantry, assumed command. On 20th December 1915, the battalion embarked on HMT Nestor at Devonport for Alexandria.
The 31st Division had been assigned to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal against the threat of an attack by the Turkish Army. In the event, the threat of attack soon evaporated and the 31st was re-assigned to take part in the planned summer offensive on the Somme. On 10th March 1916, the Sheffield battalion embarked on HMT Briton at Port Said for the 5-day voyage to the French port of Marseilles. Eighteen days after arriving in France, the battalion took over a stretch of the front line opposite the fortified hill-top village of Serre.
The weeks preceding the offensive were by no means quiet. The battalion suffered its first fatal casualty as soon as 4th April when Pte. Alexander McKenzie was killed by a rifle grenade. On the night of 15th/16th May, 15 were killed and 45 wounded as the Germans mounted a trench raid under cover of an artillery bombardment of such an intensity that in places the front line was practically levelled. Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued and by early June the battalions of 94th Brigade were practising the attack on Serre. The Sheffield City Battalion would have the dubious honour of being at the extreme left of the 15-mile British offensive front that stretched south from Serre to Maricourt.
On Saturday 24th June, the British artillery opened a bombardment that over a 5-day period was intended to destroy the German defenses completely. Each night the battalion sent out raiding and wire-examining parties; ominously, the German wire was found to be incompletely cut. On 28th June, word was received that the attack would be postponed for two days because of the poor weather. The new time for the start of the offensive was 7.30am on Saturday 1st July.
The day before the offensive began badly with the news that Lt-Col. Crosthwaite was seriously ill, necessitating his hurried replacement by Major Plackett. At 3.45am on 1st July, the battalion was in position in the assembly trenches, finding them already in an atrocious condition from German shellfire. Patrols from the 4th and 7th Companies of the 169th (8th Baden) Infantry Regiment defending Serre noted the build-up. With the appearance of daylight at 4.05am, German artillery began to shell the British front line.
At 7.20am the first wave of the battalion moved 100yds into No Man's Land and lay flat on the ground as the brigade mortar battery and divisional artillery placed a final hurricane bombardment over the German front line. A few minutes later - with the British front line coming under an intense counter-barrage - the second wave took up position 30yds behind the first.
At 7.30am the bombardment lifted from the German front line. All four waves rose, took a moment to align themselves, then advanced steadily towards the German lines into a devastating hail of machine gun bullets and shellfire. An ineffective smoke screen exposed the battalion to machine gun fire from the left as well as from ahead. The third and fourth waves, caught on the opposite side of the valley, were reduced to half strength before even reaching No Man's Land. On the left of the battalion front, long stretches of barbed wire had been left uncut. Men brought to a halt in front of the inpenetrable entanglements were reduced to firing vainly through the wire to the German lines beyond. Only on the right of the attack were a few men somehow able to force their way into the German trenches; amongst them were Lt. Charles Elam, 12/371 Pte. Albert Fretwell and 12/1003 Pte. George Mulford. Some found themselves alone and managed to return to the British lines. Others were never heard of again.
Within minutes it was as if the battalion had been wiped off the face of the earth. Cpl. Signaller Outram recalled that as far as the eye could see, the last two men left standing on the battlefield were himself and another signaller, A. Brammer. They signalled to each other. Outram turned his head for a moment, and when he looked back Brammer had gone.
On the right of the Sheffield City Battalion, the Accrington Pals made greater inroads into the German trenches but were unable to hold on to the hard-won gains. The battle for Serre was lost.
The remnants of the battalion were taken out of the line in the evening of 3rd July, having lost 513 officers and men killed, wounded or missing; a further 75 were slightly wounded.
Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to 12/338 Pte. Bertram Corthorn, 12/727 Pte. S. Matthews and 12/275 Pte. Geoffrey C. Wright. Military Medals were awarded to 12/24 Pte. H. C. Arridge, 12/1164 L/Cpl. M. B. Burnby, 12/354 Pte. A. Downing, 12/923 Pte. C. S. Garbutt and 12/443 Pte. R. Marsden.
Throughout the long months of the Battle of the Somme, Serre remained uncaptured, falling into British hands only after the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in February 1917.
Although the battalion was gradually returned to strength, the "Pals" character was unrecoverable. During the harsh winter months of 1916-17, an almost unbelievable 887 officers and men of the battalion were evacuated to hospital. For two spells in May 1917 at Arras, the battalion defended the vital Windmill spur in the Gavrelle sector, suffering 143 casualties, before playing a successful part in the attack at Oppy-Gavrelle on 28th June. The battalion was again to suffer in German gas attacks at Vimy Ridge in August and September 1917. Finally, in the early weeks of 1918, the weakened battalion was forced to disband.
After the war, Sheffield placed a memorial in the village of Serre to the men of the City Battalion who had fallen in the attack of 1st July 1916. In 1936, the Sheffield Memorial Park was opened on the site of the British lines below Serre. Sheffield had served the memory of its boys well.
"History of the 12th (Service) Battalion, York & Lancaster Regiment" by Richard A. Sparling, published by J. W. Northend Ltd., 1920. A fascinating and very readable account of the battalion's history written by one of its members shortly after the war.
"Sheffield City Battalion" by Ralph Gibson and Paul Oldfield, published by Pen & Sword Books 2006, ISBN 1844154238. The most recent book on the battalion.
"Serre" by Jack Horsfall and Nigel Cave, published by Pen & Sword Books 1996, ISBN 085052508X. The story of all the battles for Serre in the First World War. Includes car and walking tours of the Serre battlefields.
"A Covenant with Death" by John Harris, originally published by Hutchinson in 1961, reissued by Little, Brown 2014. Although a work of fiction, this book could just as easily be factual, relating the story of a recruit into the Sheffield City Battalion and reaching its climax with the 1st July attack on Serre.
"Training Trenches at Redmires, Sheffield: The Great War Remembered", a report of archaeological surveys conducted by students from The Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Sheffield, appears here by kind permission of the author, Helen Ullathorne. [back]