Staying Together, Fighting Together, Dying Together

In his one-volume history of the American Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom (Ballantine Books, New York, 1988), James McPherson notes how the protagonists mobilized for war:

In the North as in the South, volunteer regiments retained close ties to their states. Enlisted men elected many of their officers and governors appointed the rest. Companies and even whole regiments often consisted of recruits from a single township, city or county. Companies from neighboring towns combined to form a regiment which received a numerical designation in chronological order of organization: [e.g., the 15th Massachusetts Infantry]…Ethnic affinity also formed the basis of some companies and regiments….Sometimes brothers, cousins, or fathers and sons belonged to the same company or regiment. Localities and ethnic groups retained a strong sense of ‘identity’ with ‘their’ regiments. This helped to boost morale on both the home and the fighting fronts, but it could mean sudden calamity for family or neighborhood if a regiment suffered 50 per cent or more casualties in a battle, as many did.

As I read this, I thought it sounded grimly familiar. I was correct, for in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo & The Somme (Vintage Books, New York, 1977), the magisterial John Keegan, writing on those elements of Kitchener’s Army that were to fight at the Somme, informs us that:

Perhaps no story of the First World War is as poignant as that of the Pals….[The] the Earl of Derby…called in late August 1914 on the young men of Liverpool’s business offices to raise a battalion for the New Army, promising that he had Kitchener’s guarantee that those who ‘joined together should serve together’. The numbers for the battalion were found at the first recruiting rally, and the overflow provided two others. The clerks of the White Star shipping company formed up as one platoon, those of Cunard as another…the Pals idea at once caught hold of the imagination of communities much smaller, less self-confident, less commercially dominant than Liverpool. Accrington, the little East Lancashire cotton town, and Grimsby, the North Sea fishing port, shortly produced their Pals, Llandudno and Blaenaw Festiniog, the Welsh holiday resorts another, the London slum boroughs of Shoreditch, Islington, West Ham and Bermondsey theirs….

The promise of tragedy which loomed about these bands of uniformed innocents was further heightened by reason of their narrowly territorial recruitment; what had been a consolation for the pangs of parting from home – that they were all Pals or Chums together from the same close network of little city terraces or steep-stacked rows of miners’ cottages -threatened home with a catastrophe of heartbreak the closer they neared a real encounter with the enemy. Grave enough in the case of the 30th, with its three Liverpool or Manchester brigades, the threat bore even more heavily on the 34th, containing not only the so-called Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish Brigades – 8,000 young men all domiciled in or around Newcastle-on-Tyne -but also a Pioneer battalion, the 18th Northumberland Fusiliers, raised by the Newcastle and Gateshead Chamber of Commerce from the shop assistants of the city: the notion of a regiment of Kippses and Mr Pollys fine-tunes the poignancy of the Pals idea.

5 thoughts on “Staying Together, Fighting Together, Dying Together

  1. My great-grandfather, Michael Ryan won the silver star for going behind enemy lines at Normandy beach. He was a member of the famous Fighting 69th from hells kitchen New York, primarily Irish guys. Hence the name of my firstborn.

      1. Thanks for the link! I’d really love to know more about him. His son, Eugene Ryan, was really my idol. I loved him dearly, and I’ve never wept like the day that he passed away. In classic Irish fashion, Grandpa Gene had bought a bar for his father Papa Mike, and then they had a falling out, and never spoke to one another again, so I just don’t know much about him. All that I have is a picture of my great grandfather, with a young Gene Ryan, and I look a lot like they did! It may sound silly to some, but carrying on the family name, common as it may be, has always been very important to me. I have two sisters, and my dad’s two brothers are not married and won’t have kids, so it fell to me. My grandpa Gene used to make me root beer floats, we’d watch wrestling together, and he would show me the old fashioned handcuffs from the old days. He never bragged, but he would quietly show me pictures and medals from his days in the police force, and some amazing stories. He never shared them with anyone else. My dad found a picture of him in life magazine being shot at on a rooftop in Harlem. It was hidden in the attic and nobody had ever seen it.

        I always think about him. Thankfully, his grave is right there in Greenwood cemetery. I left him boxing medals that I had won, but they are not there anymore. It’s difficult for me to not know more about the man that I loved, and where he came from. I do everything that I can to pass along who we are to my children, and what their family history is.

        This is really a great link, thanks so much for passing it along.

      2. this post has launched a search in the family. I had it wrong. he won the silver star, in france, for the fighting 69th, for going behind enemy lines, but it was not wwII, and not normandy beach. It was WWI. I am on trying to find a needle in a haystack. thanks again.

      3. JR:

        You know, the moment you said your great-grandfather won the silver start in France, I knew it couldn’t have been WWII! You and I are roughly the same age – my grandfather would have been in his thirties during WWII. I’m glad this post triggered some family archaeology.


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