Birmingham Pals

The 3rd Birmingham Battalion aka
The Birmingham Pals

At the outbreak of the First World War Spring Hill College was used as a training ground for the 3rd Birmingham Battalion, also known as the Birmingham Pals. The idea of pals battalions being that friends could train and fight together, unfortunately many also died together wiping out whole groups of friends.

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School for action – the making of a Pals battalion

An empty green paper pack for five Wills Woodbine cigarettes…. a handwritten card of French words…. a 1914 concert invitation for Army recruits….. a page torn from a prayer book……..

Flimsy relics found in the 1990s behind partitioning during modifications to the Victorian Spring Hill College, now part of Moseley School, Birmingham, offer an indelible reminder of the link with the 3rd Birmingham Pals Battalion, which started their training there before embarking for France in November 1915.

The landmark college, with its Gothic features and imposing 90-ft tower was commandeered for barracks at the outbreak of WW1.   It happened to be virtually unoccupied after the failure of the Pine Dell Hydropathic Baths and Moseley Botanic Gardens which used the premises at the turn of the century.

It was also before the Grade II listed building in 1923 become a grammar school, appropriately staffed by veterans of the war under the headship of Major Ernest H. Robinson, who won two DSOs and the MC with Bar in the Great War while serving with 7th Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.

So 1107 mainly local volunteers – “young men of all grades of society engaged in non-manual occupation” as they were described – reported there to be kitted out and begin training for battles in the trenches of northern France, which would cost hundreds their life.

Pals battalions were to spring up in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. In Birmingham they were inspired by the then deputy mayor, Alderman William H. Bowater, who responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal by proposing raising and equipping a battalion of “young businessmen” to fight the Kaiser.

In just one September week of 1914 the appeal attracted 4,500 names – many friends, relatives and office colleagues – registered on a list promoted by the Birmingham (Daily) Post. This exceeded Birmingham’s target of 1,000 and enabled three battalions of Pals to be formed, the two others – 1st and 2nd Pals – were billeted in huts in Sutton Park.

Among the volunteers were 160 sets of brothers, one a family of four. There were actors, a handful of Warwickshire cricketers and administrators like Alec Hastilow, who years later became the club chairman. Blues player and later director Harry Morris signed up and in the ranks of the 3rd Birmingham Pals Villa half back J.W. Windmill who was in the Cup winning team of 1905 and won the Military Cross.

Charles Leatherland, later to become a national newspaper editor (Daily Herald) joined the 3rd at age 16 after falsifying his date of birth, as did many. Another who trained at Moseley was Hilary Tolkien, elder brother of The Hobbit author JRR Tolkien.


3rd Batt in dress uniform

The Moseley building could sleep only 500. Men ate in the college theatre and washed in a greenhouse previously part of the botanical gardens. The remainder of the recruits were placed in “digs” with local residents, reporting to the college Barracks for training.

It seems some attempted to brush up on their French, evidenced by the vocab page found with the empty cigarette packet, the foreword to a prayer book and a card inviting officers and men to a concert on 5 November 1914 at Sparkhill Congregational Church at the far end of College Road.

Officers of the fledgling unit were housed at nearby Windermere House while the commanding officer, Col. D.F. Lewis, CB, of Salford Priors, a veteran of the Zulu Wars and Sudan campaign, stayed at the plush Plough and Harrow Hotel, Edgbaston, commuting to Moseley Barracks on horseback each day.

The officers’ comforts contrasted with other ranks. Terry Carter’s book ‘ Birmingham Pals’ and ‘Moseley Into The Millennium’ , by the Gaskin sisters, which traces the history of Spring Hill College and Moseley School, both quote a report in the Birmingham (Daily) Mail at the time:

All entered upon the necessary if somewhat irksome duties with splendid spirit. When a man who has handled nothing more substantial than a golf club suddenly found himself armed with a cleaning mop, a bank clerk was detailed for the novel occupation of washing up and sundry soft handed “Birminghams” were told off to perform that duty detested of all dignified gardeners, clearing the drives of fallen leaves….


3rd Batt trench digging at Moseley

These duties, combined in an eight month period with parades, trench digging, firearms drill and manoeuvres in the tree-planted grounds of Spring Hill College, was a valuable early experience in taking orders, discipline essential if they were to be effective on the battlefield.

On today’s playing fields of Moseley School and cricket square of Attock CC the Birmingham League club, was forged the comradeship and mutual reliance to create heroes under fire among Brummies and the many volunteers who signed on and were drafted into the Pals Battalions from towns and villages across the West Midlands and further afield.

Their discipline and comeraderie was to be proved many times over in the campaigns ahead as the Birmingham Pals became a cohesive fighting force the equal of time-serving soldiers. Between them the three Pals battalions shared 400 awards for bravery, of which the 3rd received 168.

But before going into action the 3rd Pals left Moseley Barracks for camp at Malvern and later transferred to Yorkshire where night marching across flooded terrain and tight rations tested stamina and resourcefulness. It was nothing compared to the mud and deprivation they would find in the trenches of the Western Front as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pals, who during training had become the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions Royal Warwickshire Regiment.

On the front line from the start and suffering casualties from bombardment at Christmas 1915, the ex Moseley 16th battalion played a key role on the Somme. Between July and October 1916 combined losses along with the 1st and 2nd Birmingham Pals were almost 800, 178 from the 3rd Birmingham. In their first year in action nearly 1,000 died across the three city battalions, a total to reach 2334 by Armistice Day 11 November 1918.

One action followed another for all the Pals, with the 3rd Pals (16th RWR ) suffering 25 killed in four days of bombardment in May 1916 as part of the Battle of Arras, and in June, with light casualties for once, fighting so effectively in an attack on Orpy Wood that divisional orders named the main German trench they had captured as ‘Birmingham Street’ and the nearby communication trench ‘Brum Street’.

Reinforcements from other units were common to maintain the strength of the battalion. At Ypres and Passchendaele in autumn 1917, in extreme conditions of weather, mud and man-engulfing shell craters, more than 400 died, a big proportion from the 3rd, who lost 94 killed and 200 wounded in a week during an unavailing attempt to take a ruined chateau.

Yet morale was maintained and on one brief rest period out of the line in September 1917 a platoon of 16th RWR- B Company was winner of the divisional platoon competition against 200 other units.

More transfers-in preceded the 3rd Battalion’s posting to Italy for further training. But this brought only temporary respite before the battalion was ordered on a long march from Padua to hold the line on the River Piave. Fitness and resolve prevailed with only four out of 700 marching men being forced to drop out.

Months later, the 16th was back in France digging more trenches and gaining further recognition from Brigade HQ for gallantry in action. Kept at the front for the final British offensive of the war, the battalion stormed and took a railway embankment defended by 23 enemy machine gun nests. It was an advance described by the divisional commander as “especially brilliant.” The 16th took 350 prisoners, captured 29 field and machine guns while suffering 11 dead and 54 wounded.

The battalion was in the thick of it when a large Allied force finally breached the Hindenburg Line in September when casualties reduced the 3rd Pals fighting strength to eight officers and 240 other ranks.

There was one more railway embankment to take. On 20 October 1918, now strengthened by 200 of the 2nd Birmingham Pals, whose 15th Battalion Royal Warwicks had been disbanded, the 16th Battalion, deployed with a Scottish battalion, took the railway line and a main road on the River Selle, near Caudry, suffering 11 killed. It was the last engagement of the war and brought the total killed from the 3rd Birmingham Pals in 35 months of fighting to almost 650.

In writing their history of the college and school in 1998, Celia, Meriel and Katherine, daughters of Bruce Gaskin, school head from 1955-72, paid their own tribute to what they discovered of the Pals.

These “city clerks” and other young professional workers who eagerly volunteered and found themselves learning to be soldiers at Spring Hill College could have had no idea of the horrors they would encounter when they left the leafy confines of Moseley.

They probably too had little sense of how heroically they would conduct themselves and of the plaudits and honours that would be heaped upon them.   It therefore seems sad that owing to demobilisation being carried out individually and not in battalions, Birmingham had no opportunity of welcoming back those who were left of its gallant sons who formed the “Pals Brigade.”   ends

Archive of the Moseleians Association of former pupils and staff at Moseley School
Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter, published 1997 by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, S70 2AS
Moseley Into The Millennium by Celia Gaskin, Meriel Vlaeminke, Katharine Gaskin, published 1998 by Brewin Books, Studley B80 7LG