Fred Bancroft and the ‘Bradford Pals’ in WW1

Fred Bancroft
With the centenary of the commencement of World War One this year, it seems appropriate to write a piece about one of our local Bancrofts who came up through the Army ranks to become an officer in a Battalion known as the “Bradford Pals”, and was one of the few who seems to have survived, largely unscathed, from the conflicts in North Africa and France.

 It is an often forgotten fact that the majority of soldiers fighting during the early part of WW1 were volunteers, rather than members of the regular army, and a  great deal has been written everywhere about the carnage surrounding the fighting in WW1, particularly with the Battle of the Somme in France, so this article concentrates more on the build up to going to war by the Bradford Pals, rather than going into full details of the battles themselves.

The story starts with local man Fred Bancroft, was born in Keighley in 1885, the son of Jabez and Elizabeth Ann Bancroft [nee Ramsbottom].

After leaving school he became a solicitor’s clerk, with various firms in Leeds, Hull, London and at the outbreak of WW1 was working as a clerk to Alex Neill’s Solicitors in Bradford, was one of the first to join up in 1914, with the 16th West Yorkshire Regiment, known as the 1st Bradford Pals, where he was eventually promoted to the rank of Company Quarter Sergeant.

Much has been written about the flood of volunteers who, in a mood of crusading idealism, answered Field –Marshall Kitchener’s call to arms in 1914. So overwhelming was the response that the regular army, which had been a small establishment of approximately 125,000 men, was completely unable to absorb the numbers of volunteers involved. To resolve this problem and to satisfy the zeal of the would-be volunteers, who felt unable to accept long delays before joining up in the regular army, many towns formed ‘Citizens Army Leagues’. These leagues, after obtaining the approval of the War Office, raised their own battalions and bore the cost of clothing, feeding and training them until such time as the War Office could absorb them into regular formations. A group of leading Bradford businessmen managed to get permission from Field-Marshall Kitchener to form such a league.

Shown alongside is a poster of the time urging Keighley men to sign up for the Pals Regiment, using phrases such as 'Play the game like Yorkshiremen' and 'Don't let them say you won't'. Playing on peoples patriotism...and it worked as many men signed up in Keighley.

Permission having been granted, the Bradford Citizens’ Army League was formed on 20th September 1914. Volunteers rushed to enlist. Men of all ages from mid-tens to mid-forties besieged the recruiting office and within a week 1,000 volunteers had been accepted into the battalion, and was officially known as the '16th Battalion, the Prince of Wales Own West Yorkshire Regiment'. Locally it was known as ‘The Bradford Pals’, and later, when the Citizens’ Army League was able to cope with the organisation of a second battalion, it became the ‘First Bradford Pals’

Rifle Drill in Manningham Park - 1914

For the first three months the battalion made its headquarters in the city’s Manningham Park, where drilling took place with obsolete Long Lee-Enfield rifles, with the men returning home every night to sleep. For this they were paid a weekly allowance of 21 shillings, to cover food and lodgings. The lodgings part of this allowance was 3s/6d and was expected to be paid to the man’s next of kin. Each man was also issued with two blue uniforms made from the best worsted cloth that Bradford’s mills could provide, one of which had silver buttons bearing the city’s coat of arms. The citizens of Bradford bore the whole cost and expenses of the battalion, as was the practice throughout the country with all Citizens’ Army Leagues.

 Pals marching to Camp -1915

On 14th January 1915, the ‘Bradford Pals’ marched to Skipton where they were to be accommodated in a purpose-built camp. Their march began from the city, where they were inspected by the Lord Mayor. The local newspaper, in described the scene said “ they displayed themselves as a body of fit, smart, purposeful manhood”

By February 1915 the League felt sufficiently confident to contemplate a second battalion and in February of that year a ‘Second Bradford Pals’ was formed. This battalion was officially designated the '18th [Service] Battalion, the Prince of Wales Own West Yorkshire Regiment', and joined up with the First Pals in September 1915 for training in Skipton.
Bradford Pals Camp

Initially both the Bradford Pals battalions formed part of the 31st Division, which was made up of various other Pals Battalions from towns in northern England.  The 31st Division was largely comprised of locally raised units from Accrington, Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley and Hull are among the best known of all 1914-raised infantry, and it was a predominantly Northern Division, with most units originating in Lancashire or Yorkshire - hence the use of the red and white roses in the Divisional symbol.
Volunteer's Badge

The Bradford Pals volunteers were issued with this enamel lapel badge when they enlisted, before they were issued with their blue uniform.
On the formation of the 2nd Bradford Pals, which Fred Bancroft seems to have moved on to, where he was promoted to the rank of Regiments’ Quarter-Master Sergeant.
  On 6th December the men left for Liverpool Docks, on a destination kept secret at the time. They set said on a steamship called the ‘Empress of Britain’, accompanied by two Royal Navy destroyers via Gibraltar, then Malta, and still none of the men knew their final destination. Speculation prompted possibly Gallipoli as the destination, where fighting was raging or even India? It was only when on 21st December when they anchored at Port Said, that they realised that Egypt was their final destination. Their job was going to be to be protection the Suez Canal and the caravan routes in the desert from Palestine to Egypt.

Their stay in Egypt remained short however, because the men sailed from Port Said on 29th February 1916, following orders from Field-Marshall Haigh’s plans for a grand offensive by the British on the western front. The 31st Division left Port Said aboard 'HMT Briton' bound for Marseilles in France, a journey which took 5 days. They travelled by train to Pont Remy, a few miles south east of Abbeville and marched to Bertrancourt arriving on 29 March 1916.Their first taste of action was at Serre on the Somme where they suffered heavy casualties as the battle was launched.
The following short 3 minute film, set to music, shows the cruel reality of war during the Battle of the Somme. [to view in full screen, click the icon in the bottom right corner]

On the morning of July 1st 1916, two thousand young men from Bradford left their trenches in Northern France to advance across No Man's Land. It was the first hour of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The objective of their attack was to take the village of Serre, where they had been told there would be little resistance. Instead they were met by heavy fire from German machine guns. By the end of the first hour of the battle, 1770 men from Bradford had either been killed or injured and no ground had been gained.

Serre Rd British Cemetery
July 1st 1916 is still the most disastrous single day ever experienced by the British army. The full extent of the tragedy was brought home to Bradford in the following days as the lists of casualties, accompanied by passport-style photographs of the dead, appeared in local newspapers. Almost every street in the city had some connection with someone, who had been either injured or killed serving in the Bradford Pals in France, Many of the casualties who fell in July  1916 are buried at the Serre Rd British Cemetery, and of these over half are unidentified.


A Bradford Pal remembered this hell on earth, when he described the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme:
"Half-past seven in the morning on the 1st July 1916, and the whistles were blowing and the shells were coming over, and it was hell upon earth, and everybody dashed out of the trenches and were doing the best they could. It was the machine gun fire that caused all the damage. It wasn't the shell fire. And there were no gaps in the wire emplacements and we had to find the best way we could, you see. There were so many dead lying about and it was almost impossible because the other battalion had come over before us... so many dead lying about scattered all over the place. I was a member of the 18th West Yorkshires, 2nd Bradford Pals, on that particular day, out of the battalion strength of 800 there were only 147 left at the end of that day."

Fred Bancroft was awarded the 1915 star medal with a date that confirmed that he went to Egypt with the Battalion. The 1914–15 Star was a campaign medal of the British Empire, for service in World War I. The 1914–15 Star was approved in 1918, for issue to officers and men of British and Imperial forces who served in any theatre of the War between 5 August 1914 and 31 December 1915.

Towards the end of the war Fred Bancroft, seems to have managed to stay uninjured and returned to the Officers’ Training School in Rhyl, Wales. The Battalion was disbanded in France on the 15th of February 1918.

After the war, the survivors formed the 'Bradford Pals Old Comrades Association' with its headquarters at Claremont, Morley Street, Bradford and the Association was active until March 1979.

After the war Fred Bancroft returned to work in the legal profession, remaining a bachelor with no family of his own. He died on 13th July 1929 at the early age of only 44 years, and was buried in the town’s Utley Cemetery. For some reason he was buried in the family grave of his Aunt and Uncle, Ellen and John Nicholson, probably because his own parents did not have their own plot until later.

I  want to finish this article with a touching poem about the Bradford Pals, written at the time of WW1 by a lady called Hilda Bradley,who lived in the Listerhills district of Bradford.

  Under you our homage we pay, brave lads of our own town
Your memory will never die but will be our world renown
When duty called, you nobly went, just like an Englishman would
Ready to obey a Country’s command, and do just what you could
What a grand body of noble men you were as you marched along
Husbands and brothers, fathers and sons, marched on with a cheering song
How proud you were as you marched away, clad in your suits of blue
And many a humble yearning prayer went up to God for you
Oh, Bradford Pals, you gallantly fought, we only know too well
Our hearts thrill with pride when we think of the day you charged into that gaping hell
Many poor hearts have ached and bled for dear ones we lost in the fray
But noble you taught your enemies all that prepared you for “The Day”
The tiny crosses that make your graves are surmounted by God’s own love
Your lives laid down for us at home, our loss…your gain above
We pray your sacrifice may not be in vain, but through the coming years
A purer England we shall have, built up on our prayers and tears

"And lo, a mighty army came out of the North"
[As a postscript to this article, I was recently invited to the 98th Commemoration Ceremony of the 'Bradford Pals, the details of which can be ready by clicking here]

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