The Hammers and The Somme - 100 years on

  • 13th (Service) Battalion of the Essex Regiment - the West Ham Pals - fought at The Somme
  • Thousands of east London and Essex-born men enlisted to fight for their country
  • The Battle of the Somme began in northern France on 1 July 2016
Among the millions of men who fought in the Great War was a group of east London lads who came to be known as the ‘West Ham Pals’.

Boxing Day 2014 marked exactly 100 years since the birth of the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Essex Regiment – the West Ham Regiment.

On a bitterly cold evening, the Mayor of West Ham, Henry Dyer, cleared his throat and read out a letter from the War Office detailing their requirements: just over a thousand local men aged between 19 and 35 who were prepared to enlist in the Army for a minimum of three years ‘or for the duration of the War’.

When the call went out, the response was immediate. By January 1915, 300 men had volunteered and by March, the unit was complete. They undertook their training locally, marching along Green Street during the week when riots broke out around Upton Park and east London targeting foreign-named businesses in response to the German sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania.

The youngest Private was 15-years-old and one of many underage youngsters to join up, while the oldest Private was 47. Their battle cry was ‘Up The Hammers!’ although some former employees of the Thames Ironworks preferred to shout ‘Up The Irons!’ as they practised bayonet attacks. They got fit playing football in West Ham Park and relaxed with invitations as a whole Battalion to the cinema to see the latest movies. They really were the ‘Pride of West Ham’.

The West Ham Pals sailed to France together in November 1915 on the steamship Princess Victoria and from that moment on they were seldom 'out the Line'. They served their whole War alongside The Footballers, a battalion made up of volunteers from the world of professional football.

On the Hammers’ first Christmas in the trenches they were cheered up when they heard that West Ham United had beaten Arsenal 8-2 in the Southern Combination League match on Christmas Day here at the Boleyn Ground, with Syd Puddefoot scoring five goals.
The following year saw them suffer incredible punishment on The Somme – a battle which began 100 years ago on 1 July 2016 – where so many of the Original volunteer Officers and Men were killed, often with ‘No Known Grave’.

At the start of the battle, the West Ham Battalion were in a happy mood at this time, as overnight between 1 and 2 July they conducted a very successful trench raid on the German lines which had resulted in the awarding of three Military Crosses, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a clutch of the Military Medal for the Hammers.

At the end of July, the West Ham Battalion were on the Somme and engaged in blocking the almost suicidal counter-attacks being made by the Germans against Deville Wood.

‘The Devil’s Wood’, as it was known by the British soldiers, was a desperately hellish place to be. Many Hammers were killed over their few days in the frontline, not many have known graves.

Those that do were brought in by West Ham Pal Norman Bellinger and his stretcher bearers. Bellinger was seen to be tireless, as all he cared about was getting those men off that horrendous battlefield.

We will never know how many men he saved or who today have a known grave thanks to him and others, but Bellinger’s actions were enough for him to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Among those to perish in the horrors of the Somme were brothers George and Rupert Barlex of Barking – two of eight siblings – while Laurie Legg of Leytonstone, Edwin Milward Charrington, Hugh Cardinal-Harford, Charlie Gladding, and Samuel Herbert Legerton, among hundreds of others, also served with honour and, mercifully, survived the battle.
By 1917, the Pals were still in the thick of it and suffered even more losses during a failed attack on the village of Oppy at the end of April, on the very same day that West Ham United were crowned champions of the Southern Combination League. The year 1917 ended with their epic 'Last Stand' at Moeuvres during the Battle of Cambrai, an event so heroic it made the front pages back home in England.

Finally, in February 1918, like so many Kitchener Battalions, they were disbanded during Army reshuffles. The West Ham lads were sent to other units and sadly many of them were killed before the Armistice.

We should always, of course, remember their sacrifices.