The Leeds Pals: lived in Yorkshire, died in France

North Yorkshire, Yorkshire

colsterdaleaIt seemed such a good idea at the time.

At the outbreak of the First World War, a top-level decision was made to recruit men to the Army by encouraging friends, neighbours and colleagues to volunteer together as locals, to fight shoulder to shoulder for the honour of Britain and the credit of their home town.

The men of Leeds answered the call.  Carpenters, foundrymen, businessmen, men from the crowded streets of back-to-backs, men from the suburbs all joined up, bringing with them their brothers, their cousins, their neighbours and the men who worked alongside them .

They became the 15th Batallion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, commonly known as the Leeds Pals.

And they were sent up here to Colsterdale to train.  There was a whole village waiting for them:  a village that had been hastily built at the turn of the century to house the workers who’d been hired to construct the Colsterdale and Leighton Reservoirs, together with their families.  At Breary Banks there were huts, shops, chapels – everything they needed for day-to-day life. Although the Colsterdale Reservoir had been abandoned in 1911, workers were still employed at Leighton and at first labourers and soldiers lived side-by-side.

Briggate Leeds in the early 1900s (

Briggate Leeds in the early 1900s (

Leeds was a vast industrial conurbation.  It was noisy, dirty, grimy, smoggy.  Trams and those new-fangled trolley buses clanked and clattered their way round the streets.  Arriving by train in Masham, the new recruits had no alternative but to march the six miles to Breary Banks, passing nothing but clean quiet villages, stock-filled fields with woodland, then heathery moorside beyond.

Sheep in Colsterdale

For many of these recruits, the time that they spent at Breary Banks was the best time of their lives.  They had a regular routine, good food, good company and decent accommodation.  They dug trenches and learned the weaponry skills it was thought they’d need when finally deployed in France.


In fact they first saw active service in 1915 and 1916 in Egypt and Gallipolli.  Few of them were involved in direct action, and by early 1916, most of them embarked on troopships to the real focus of the war, France.

After further training behind the lines they were sent to the front, in readiness for the battle that was intended to change Allied fortunes, the Battle of the Somme.

And that is when parents, children, neighbours and work mates left behind in Leeds discovered what a truly terrible idea it had been to send whole communities into the same battle at the same moment.

‘It was the most ambitious attack of the war and they were among hundreds of thousands of Allied troops massed for the battle.

Their coats were mud-sodden, their legs were protected only by the inadequate cloth wrappings of the soldier’s uniform. In their hands they clutched rifles they would never use, for in moments a storm of bullets had cut through their soft clothes and weary bodies, and they were dead.

Going over the top, Battle of the Somme (Ivor Castle, Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Our young Leeds men were not so much beaten as wiped out. At 7.20 am with fearful, pounding hearts, they began to run blindly at their enemy. By 7.30 am a city of mothers had lost their sons, wives were widows and children fatherless.

It was one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. As the men surged over the top into no-man’s land they faced a murderous storm of artillery and machine gun fire directed against them with pitiless accuracy by German guns. It cut through them, they fell into the mud in waves.

Yet those in charge had expected it to be easy. In the days before the battle of the Somme, more than a million rounds had rained down on the German positions all the way along the front.

By the time it was over, the Allies believed that no-one could have survived such a bombardment. The men from Leeds, and all the places beyond, were meant to stroll across no-man’s land.

Not only did that not happen but the casualties are so great as to not really make sense. The first day’s slaughter claimed around 20,000 English and French lives, and almost 40,00 were wounded.

Yet the carnage was repeated the next day, and the next, and for every day after that until four mad months had passed.

The cost in lives has never been fully accounted, but of the more than 900 men recruited from Leeds, it is believed 750 died that day.’

Jayne Dawson, Yorkshire Evening Post, 11th November 2013

This is Private Pearson of the Leeds Pals’ own epitaph for his friends and colleagues:

‘We were two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.’

Poppies, always poppies at the foot of the memorial to Leeds Pals at Breary Banks, Colsterdale.

You can follow in the footsteps of the Leeds Pals by going on the Nidderdale AONB First World War Heritage Trail.  My Colsterdale photos come from this walk.

AONB Trail waymark

35 thoughts on “The Leeds Pals: lived in Yorkshire, died in France

    1. Kevin, how lovely to hear from you! I happened to have been thinking about you only yesterday. Hope you are all well, that Lydia is enjoying Oxford, and that life jogs on well for you in Laroque. Did you lose relatives in the Battle of the Somme as far as you know, or were they in the regiment at a different time?


      1. Lydia has just started her third year and is doing well. I don’t know if my ancestors were at the Somme, probably not, but I was handed down a Regiment cap badge many years ago. The Marie have put a rose bush outside our Laroque house, fittingly it is white. We must get together soon. Kevin

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  1. Every time I read an account of a specific community and World War One I’m struck again with disbelief. How do humans get themselves into such terrible situations with such horrific consequences. It is so real when you write about a community and so sad.

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    1. Especially in that most terrible of wars. At least they’ve never allowed whole communities to join up together in subsequent conflicts. Sorry to contribute to your – presumably – four year long glum mood.


  2. Thanks for this Margaret. We often walk in Colsterdale as you know, and we love the peace and quiet we find there. But I never go without remembering the PALS who trained up there, and who gave their lives so tragically.

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      1. No, but I’d like to. I’ll keep an eye out for the 2017 events programme – not sure I’d want to be up there on a cold, wintery day though! Maybe next Spring!

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    1. Thank you. It’s a lovely peaceful and isolated area, because it’s not on the way to anywhere much. The contrast between the men’s lives in Colsterdale and the battlefields of France is almost unbearable to contemplate.


  3. I cannot think about the First World War and the loss of life, especially the needless loss of life, without getting a lump in my throat. One can understand that mistakes were made, as we all make mistakes, and *that* war was so different from anything that had gone before, but the blindness and stubbornness and the cavalier attitude of the generals I find hard to understand.
    My great-grandmother grew up in Leeds (she may have been born there) and moved to London when she married. She had brothers who probably took part in the war though no-one in my family has yet researched her family yet.
    Thank-you for the link to the Nidderdale Heritage Trail – a walk I’d love to go on if I’m ever in the area. I also appreciate the quote from the Yorkshire Evening Post.

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