BEGINNING OF THE OLDHAM PALS
Two days after the declaration of war in 1914 Parliament gave permission for the army to be increased to 500,000, so Field Marshal Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, began raising a new army of volunteers. The Pals Battalions were a part of this new army – a chance for men to serve in the army with their friends, their ‘Pals’.
During August Oldham filled its Territorial Battalion, the 1/10 Manchester, and raised a second. However among the prominent men of the town there was a feeling that Oldham was not contributing its ‘fair share’ to the new armies and so in September the Mayor of Oldham applied to the War Office for permission to raise a third Battalion from the town, an Oldham’s Pals Battalion known locally as the Oldham Comrades.
Initially the War Office refused permission but soon reversed this decision. However, the town had to take responsibility for raising, accommodating and equipping the Battalion until it could be taken over by the War Office.
A large recruitment meeting was held at the Empire Theatre on the 5th November. Speeches were given by the Mayor, Mr Bartley Denniss, MP for Oldham, and Dr. T. J. Macnamara, Secretary to the Board of Admiralty. Each speech was rousing, playing on patriotism, Empire, the treatment of Belgium and civic pride. Dr Macnamara asked: Could they as Oldham lads… see themselves being booted up and down Yorkshire Street by the Kaiser and his crowd? The crowd responded with laughter and shouts of No!
OLDHAM TO FRANCE
As a result of the 5th November meeting the local newspapers reported that 150 men had joined the Oldham Comrades. But the hope that the Battalion would be complete in a week was over-optimistic. Recruiting remained slow and in late November a recruitment week was held in Oldham and the surrounding Townships. It was not until 26th January 1915 that the Battalion was declared at full strength, 1,120 men.
On New Year's Day 1915 the Battalion moved to thirty-six wooden huts set up at Chadderton Camp, part of Chadderton Hall estate, which was to be the Battalion’s training ground. The Battalion only stayed at Chadderton Camp until the 8th March when they marched from the Camp through Oldham, via Market Place and High Street, to depart from Clegg Street Station.
The Comrades, now officially known as the 24th (Service) Battalion Manchester Regiment, were destined for Llanfairfechan where more equipment arrived and training continued. In May the Battalion was transferred to Grantham and in September it transferred to Larkhill Camp on Salisbury Plain. On the 8th November 1915 the Battalion entrained for Southampton where they boarded the S. S. Mona Queen for their trip across the Channel to Le Havre.
INFANTRY TO PIONEERS
On arriving in France the Battalion began its introduction to life and work in the trenches. The Battalion’s first casualties were a small French dog they had adopted as their mascot, shot by a sniper; and Fred Gilbert, a piecer from Ram Mill, who was wounded by shrapnel while on duty at a listening post on 2 December 1915.
Training and improvement work behind the front line took up the Battalion’s time for the remainder of the year. The Battalion’s first experience of holding a front line trench began on Sunday 6th February 1916 in the area of Morlancourt / Fricourt in France. This initiation into the life of an infantry unit was swift and deadly: 17 Comrades were killed and 15 wounded in the first twenty four hours in the front line.
Time in France was divided between holding the front line trenches, working to improve them and, when out of the front line, providing work groups for various tasks. This routine continued until May 1916 when during preparations for the Battle of the Somme the Battalion was suddenly converted from an infantry to a pioneer battalion.
PIONEERING IN FRANCE
The role of a pioneering battalion was described as fighting infantry capable of ‘organised and intelligent labour’ for engineering operations. Some jobs that pioneer battalions undertook include road-making, demolition, digging new trenches, constructing railways, bridging, felling trees etc. The majority of these tasks were undertaken at night, often in dangerous areas including No Man’s Land. Frequently pioneer battalions remained in the forward area longer than Infantry, being constantly exposed to shell fire and working often without the protection of trenches.
Although a rare occurrence, the dual pioneer/infantry role was tested on the 14th July during the Battle of the Somme when the Comrades were ordered to follow up an attack on the village of Bazentin-le-Petit. Two Platoons were commandeered to help clear the enemy from nearby woods, while another Platoon had to down tools to repel the enemy with rifle fire from a cemetery they were turning into a strong point.
In October 1917 the Oldham character of the Battalion was fundamentally changed. The devastating casualties suffered by battalions recruited from one town or locality on the opening day of the Somme resulted in the abandonment of the concept of Pals Battalions. Orders came that 378 Oldham Comrades were to be transferred to other battalions and replaced by men from various towns. This move was strongly resisted by the Battalion’s Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Pountney who wished to retain the strong Oldham feel of the Battalion. Despite his protestations a proportion of the transfers went ahead.
PIONEERING IN ITALY
After stints at both the Somme and Ypres, the Comrade’s Division was withdrawn from the Western Front in November 1917 and transferred to the Italian Front. This move to Italy was in response to an Austro-German offensive in October 1917 which pushed the Italian forces back from Caporetto to the Piave River. In Italy the Battalion continued its pioneer work in extremes of temperature, between the plains and mountains.
The Comrades played an important part in the final offensive against the Austrians in October 1918 when they helped to reconnoitre the island of Grave di Papadopoli and bridge the Piave river to enable to movement of troops and supplies. Austrian shelling in the area meant that the Comrades had to work constantly to keep the bridges passable and repair those destroyed by the Austrians as they withdrew.
On the 4th November the Tagliamento river was reached, and on this day the Armistice was signed with Austria - the war on this front was over. The Oldham Comrades had spent 36 months on active service with a recorded death toll of 171, a low number of fatalities when compared to other battalions and no doubt a result of their change of status to a pioneer battalion
DEMOBILISATION AND HOME
Although the end of the war had come rapidly and somewhat unexpectedly, the army quickly developed and implemented a demobilisation scheme. Troops were demobilised in order of importance of civilian occupation and then their length of time in the army. While the process of demobilisation was being organised the men of the 24/Manchester, like all battalions, were kept busy with parades, lectures, training courses and sports. To add to the Battalion’s honours the Comrades won the Divisional football cup. The final match produced the last casualty recorded in the Battalion’s war diary - the centre forward breaking his leg.
The first of the Comrades left Italy on 23rd December 1918, a group consisting of eight miners, a priority occupation for demobilisation. The remainder of the Battalion arrived back in the UK in the early months of 1919. The Comrades who returned to Oldham soon established an Association, allowing members of the Battalion to keep in touch and hold regular reunions.
As the Battalion was officially disbanded and returned to the town over a number of months, a civic reception was not organised until the first official reunion on 18th November 1919. Over 900 Comrades and guests met at the Co-operative Hall, Greenacres where Lt. Col. Pountney remarked that he had ‘never come across a better lot (of soldiers) than the Comrades.’