Training was well underway before recruitment of the Accrington Pals battalion was completed on 24th September 1914. As early as the 18th, recruits had assembled at the Ambulance Drill Hall before marching to Ellison's Tenement where they practised drills and manoeuvres.1 In these early days, the drills evidently provided some amusement for the watching public; a letter to the editor of the Accrington Observer & Times complained:
"Raw recruits want drilling, and even the elementary evolutions cannot be learned all at once. It has been very trying, therefore, for those who have assembled for drill on Ellison's Tenement to have heard the giggles of idle women and frivolous girls, mixed with the sneers of the supercilious men at the slightest misapprehension and mistake of a man or two."2
Until the full battalion moved to Caernarvon in February 1915, the four companies trained separately in their home towns of Accrington, Burnley and Chorley. The recruits were paid 21 shillings (£1.05) each week, part of which was a billeting allowance while the men continued to live in their own homes. Until blue uniforms were delivered towards the end of November, the recruits trained in civilian clothes. The first batch of rifles, outdated Lee-Metfords, arrived early in October but these were to be used only for drill purposes.
The Accrington Gazette of Saturday 2nd January 1915 gave a detailed account of the Pals' activities through the week:
Following the Christmas break, the battalion resumed duties at the usual hour on Monday morning, and have been busy during the week in entrenching exercises and company drill.
By the New Year, the recruits had at least received a supply of miniature rifles and ammunition for shooting practice. Although recruitment of a reserve company of 250 men was well underway at the start of the new year, it was slow to complete, perhaps because of the news that broke in mid-January of Accrington's Mayor, Capt. Harwood, being asked by the War Office to provide a local brigade for the Royal Field Artillery.5, 6
By February 1915, the decision had been made to bring the companies together, not at Accrington, but at Caernarvon. After a farewell service at St. John's Church on 21st February, the Accrington companies were given "a real good send-off" when they left by train for North Wales two days later; on a bright but chilly morning some 18,000 people lined the streets as many of the town's mills and workshops closed for an hour or two to allow their workers to see the Pals off. As the trains left the station, fog signals were fired in salute, while the crowds on the platform cheered and waved. Later in the morning there were similarly enthusiastic send-offs as the Burnley and Chorley companies left their home towns.7
A typical day began with parade and physical drill at 7am, after which the men would return to their billets for breakfast. After re-assembling in Castle Square at 9.15, the Pals would march over the Aber Swing Bridge to the drill ground for rifle practice, field training and tactical exercises. A similar programme was followed in the afternoons. Route marches and kit inspections also featured prominently in the battalion's activities.8, 9
By all accounts, the Pals were well received at Caernarvon and when the time came to move on to Penkridge Bank Camp, Cannock Chase on 12th May, it seemed to the townspeople that they were losing a part of their own community. Hundreds turned out to cheer the Pals as they arrived at the station; girlfriends bade sad farewells, while many a landlady shed a tear as if it were her own son who was going off to war.10
It was bitterly cold and pouring with rain as the Pals detrained at Rugeley Station for the 3 mile (5km) march to Penkridge Bank Camp. The advance party had arrived only two days previously but had done wonders to make the new huts ready for use, and to see that the new arrivals were greeted with hot stoves and a good tea. The rain soon died away, but a new and unwelcome diversion came when the surrounding moors caught fire.
Above left: Extract from a letter written on 21st June 1915 by 15173 L/Cpl. Richard Ormerod to his sister, Polly, and reproduced here by kind permission of Kit Harvey. [Transcript] Above right: Rugeley postcard courtesy of John Garwood.