– Preston author David Huggonson on how proud Preston went to fight for King and country, in the town’s own words.
They were Preston’s lost generation. But we may never know for sure how many of the town’s young men died on the battlefields of France and Belgium during World War One.
Even 100 years on, the true tally locally from the bloodiest conflict in history has never been accurately measured.
Just short of 2,000 names appear on the Roll of Honour in the Harris Museum.
It is believed at least 400 more homegrown lads are missing from that list because details were never put forward for inclusion by their grieving families.
And the author of a new book about Preston during the 1914-18 war believes the total figure could be much larger still.
“It’s very difficult to say how great an impact it had on the community here,” said David Huggonson.
“With Preston being a garrison town we just don’t know exactly how many of the men left from here and never came back. It’s going to be thousands.”
David has spent much of the past decade researching and writing ‘Preston in the First World War’ which is now in the shops ahead of the 100th of the outbreak of hostilities on July 28.
It started as a project for his university dissertation and became a “labour of love.”
But David’s work is unusual in that, unlike regular history books, it looks at the four-year conflict through the eyes of the people who lived it.
“I didn’t want to tell the story using my words, I wanted to tell it using the words of those who saw what happened and either wrote it down at the time or told their stories later,” he explained.
“I thought that would be a much more interesting way of presenting it. They tell the story in a far better way than any historian could.
“It’s a first-hand account and you can almost feel you are there with them.”
David draws on thousands of documents, newspaper clippings, military papers, church newsletters and sound archives to tell the story of Preston at war.
Not only does it follow the fortunes of soldiers – some as young as 15 – who set out enthusiastically for the front, but also paints a picture of life back home where the town’s womenfolk did their bit in the munitions factories, praying each day they would not get the dreaded telegram that their loved ones had perished.
Part of the book tells the story of the Preston Pals, a collection of eager young volunteers from all walks of life who enlisted together on the promise of being able to fight together.
But while Pals regiments were great for morale, they could prove devastating for a community if, as happened with the famous Accrington Pals, a town’s young men were virtually wiped out in a single morning.
The Preston Pals, or 7th (Service) Battalion, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, had all signed up on the same day in September 1914 following an appeal by Cyril Cartmell, son of the town’s Mayor. They were shoulder-to-shoulder with their mates and, after parading before crowds of wellwishers on the Flag Market, they marched down to the railway station ready to go to war.
For many that would be the last time they saw their home town, although the exact number who didn’t return is not known.
“The Preston Pals are an interesting micro-study,” said David.
“We’re not sure exactly how many died and how many survived.
“It’s very difficult to get an accurate number.
“A lot of them were friends, neighbours, workmates or they just knew each other some other way. They represented all walks of life, from professional people to abourers.
“It wasn’t just the working classes who signed up, the whole of Preston society got involved.
“While most of them remained together at the front, others were moved around.
“So it’s not easy trying to trace what happened to them all.”
The men of the 7th Battalion went straight off for training and it was July 1915 before they landed in France ready to take on the enemy.
The regiment’s 6th Battalion, also raised in Preston a month earlier, was sent off to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in Turkey.
Many of those didn’t return either.
Once in France, the 7th Battalion had their first taste of action at Pietre, mounting an attack which was designed to be a diversionary tactic for the bigger Battle of Loos.
After a year in the theatre of war they arrived at the Somme.
July 1, 1916 is seared into British military history as the bloodiest day ever.
Some 19,240 were killed and 35,493 injured – figures which have never been matched in any conflict.
Many of those casualties came in the morning as the Allies launched wave after wave of attacks on the German lines. The Preston Pals were listed in the order of battle that day, but only in the afternoon. Yet after the catastrophic failure of the morning assaults, the decision was taken to call off further attacks.
So the lads from Preston escaped the heavy losses sustained by other battalions that day.
They got their turn in the Somme days later.
And, within a couple of weeks, it was reported only around 480 remained from an original strength of 900.
After that, some of the surviving soldiers were transferred to other units and new faces replaced the casualties, meaning the Battalion lost much of its original identity.
David said: “I’ve been fascinated with this since I did a work placement at the Harris Museum.
“The number of casualties must have had a profound impact on the town of Preston.
“Everyone would have known someone who was affected.
“There wouldn’t have been many in a town this size who wouldn’t have been touched by the war.”
Preston in the First World War by David Huggonson and published by Amberley Publishing is available at Waterstones (£14.95).
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