Days of hope before horrors of trenches
SMILING with pride and puffing on roll-up cigarettes, these brave heroes know nothing of the horrors awaiting them.
They are the men who stepped up to answer the country’s call to arms as volunteer recruits. Sadly, many of the men pictured were never to return home to their families from the Western Front.
A fascinating collection of rare photographs donated to a local studies and archive centre show how life was for First World War soldiers in waiting.
The images are believed to have been taken at a training camp in Southport, Lancashire, in early 1915.
Wrapped up against the chill of the winter cold, the soldiers of the 2/6th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, a territorial battalion formed in Manchester, are captured practising digging trenches, posing with spades, p eating g sandwiches and performing mock manoeuvres ahead of deployment to France, their proud grins belying the terrible slaughter they were to face on the mudlashed battlefields.
Experts said the photographs, gifted to Tameside Local Studies and Archives by a private donor, represented an ‘undocumented yet crucial’ time in the battalion’s training.
After the training in Southport, the battalion mobilised to France from Colchester in 1916 and fought in the last 18 months of the war.
It’s thought the majority of the men pictured were white-collar workers who left behind well-paid jobs in Manchester’s financial districts to fight for their country.
Liam Hart, local studies and archives assistant at Tameside Local Studies and Archives, where the collection is being held, said: “The photographs are an invaluable resource to anyone wishing to understand more about not only y the 6th Battalion, the Manchester Regiment, but also about how soldiers from the First World War were trained.
“We are deeply honoured to be entrusted with protecting the legacy of these men and will ensure that their history will be preserved for future generations.
“While there are names which can be found on the back of some of the photographs, not much is known about who the men were and what their fate was.
“What we do know is that in February 1917, the battalion was deployed to France and Belgium and would have been involved in the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917.
“It is very early days for them in the pictures. They would have heard news from the Front but this would have been their first experience of the forces.
“These guys would have been very green, very fresh and very optimistic.”
From 1914, regular soldiers left the country’s shores to serve in Egypt, Gallipoli and France, prompting a call for Britain’s part-time soldiers to travel overseas for the war effort.
There was a huge response. But those who stayed behind made up the foundations of the 2/6th Battalion, which was tasked with the defence of our shores at home and to train new recruits for active service. It’s likely that the men shown were largely from Manchester and Stockport.
Mr Hart said: “By the time these photographs were taken, the battalion was almost at a full fighting strength of 1,000 men and would begin training for its eventual overseas deployment in February 1917.
“Certain clues in the images help us narrow down the date.
“For example, the service caps are not the trench caps which were issued in 1916.
“Further clues point to late winter, as the trees are bare and the ground looks recently thawed from a particularly cold winter.
“Finally, some of the men appear in their dress uniform, which is red, and some men do not appear to have a uniform at all.
“This is all again due to shortages experienced in this time as equipment and uniforms were all given as a priority to battalions which were overseas already.”
Sadly, the battalion is said to have suffered heavy losses.
Records show it was so reduced in numbers from April 1918 that it was disbanded in France in the July.
The images, revealed as Manchester prepares to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War this November, will be kept and preserved at the centre to honour their memories.
For full details visit tameside. gov. uk/ local studies.
●● Men of the 6th battalion, the Manchester Regiment, training in Southport in early 1915