Soldier, Soldier Reel History of Britain


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Soldier, Soldier

Melvyn Bragg reveals footage telling the history of modern Britain. He looks back to World War I at the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Museum and Barracks in Preston.


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented

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and changed forever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time, we could see life

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through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series we'll bring these rare archive films back to life

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell

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to step on board and relive moments they thought were gone forever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time,

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come face to face with their younger selves

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and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story -

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our story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967

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to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored and loaded up with remarkable film footage,

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preserved for us by the British Film Institute

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and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we'll be travelling to towns and cities

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across the country and showing films from the 20th century

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that give us the "reel" history of Britain.

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Today, we're pulling up in 1914 to hear about the Pals Brigades -

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groups of friends who joined up together

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to fight for King and country in the Great War.

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MUSIC: "It's A Long Way To Tipperary"

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Today we're at the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Museum and Barracks in Preston

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and our films today are about the thousands of young men,

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often teenagers,

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who volunteered at the outset of the First World War.

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Coming up, the sacrifice made by a Lancashire town.

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I just think, what a waste. What a waste of a whole generation.

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Recollections of the news no-one wanted to receive.

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This is the diary that was kept by my grandfather

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and there's an entry about Don's death.

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"Too upset to work."

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And stories of great heroism.

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He took a troop of soldiers into no-man's-land

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and he brought them all back again safely.

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Today, we'll be showing films about the young men

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who went into the First World War.

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Who, in the words of a later inscription,

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"gave their today, so that we could have our tomorrow."

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The barracks here in Preston were built in 1848

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and throughout the First World War received and equipped

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thousands of infantry recruits from East Lancashire.

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When war broke out in 1914,

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the British Army was massively outnumbered by its German enemy.

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More troops were urgently needed.

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The man put in charge of finding them

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was Field Marshall Lord Kitchener.

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His solution was the Pals Battalions.

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Workmates, neighbours, brothers were all encouraged to join up together.

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The message was as simple as it was powerful, "Your Country Needs You."

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Kitchener called for 100,000 volunteers, but within a month,

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half a million men from across the United Kingdom

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had answered the call.

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As a shortcut to creating tight-knit fighting units,

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the Pals Battalions were a huge success,

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but this new method of recruitment would also carry a terrible cost.

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My guests today have come from all over the country to share with us

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their stories of the men who fought in the First World War.

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Some of them will be seeing the films we are about to screen for the very first time.

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They'll be showing us photos of their loved ones

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and telling stories of the most extraordinary heroism.

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Rita Humphrey has travelled from Maidstone in Kent

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to tell us about her remarkable great-uncle, Walter Tull.

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Walter was a top footballer with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town.

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When war was declared,

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he immediately offered his services to the British Army

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and, like many other professional players,

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joined the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment,

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known as the Footballers' Battalion.

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-Now, you're here to talk about your great uncle?

-Yes.

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What sort of man was he?

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He was the first British,

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coloured British officer in the, er, in the British army,

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but he wasn't recognised with the medals and things he should have had

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because he was black

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and they didn't think that black people should

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have medals or anything like that.

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So, er, we're still fighting now

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to try and get, I think, the Victory medal.

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Rita's about to see a film commissioned by the War Office

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recorded during the Battle of the Somme in 1916,

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where her Great-Uncle Walter fought.

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What feelings will it stir of the uncle her whole family was so proud of?

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Made me feel really, sort of, all tight inside,

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very upset to think that, you know,

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people had to go through those sort of things, you know.

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It just brings it all back to you.

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What they had to go through, I think was absolutely terrible, I really do.

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Walter Tull, Rita's great-uncle,

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was the first black professional outfield footballer in Britain

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when he answered Lord Kitchener's call

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and joined the Footballers' Regiment.

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He'd not had an easy life.

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'He started off in the orphanage and became a good footballer

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'and then Tottenham Hotspur signed him up.'

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He joined the Footballers' Regiment, which was the Fourth Middlesex.

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'He went through...

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'hell, I should say, because he was black.

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'Apparently, black men in those days couldn't have a commission,

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'but he went from sergeant...

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'up to second lieutenant.'

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Remarkably, through his dedication on the battlefield,

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Walter Tull became the first black officer in the British Army in 1917.

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He was 29-years-old.

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One year later,

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in 1918, just a few months before the war ended,

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Walter found himself back at the Somme

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as the German spring offensive got underway.

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He always put his men first.

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He took a...a troop of soldiers out across into no-man's-land

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and he brought them all back again safely.

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But then, the second time, when, er, he had to go out,

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he took the men, always...always in the front line, he never was behind,

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and, er, he got shot.

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Walter's loyal troops didn't want to leave him in no-man's-land.

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Some of his men tried to get him back

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because they were all so very fond of him,

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but unfortunately, because of the German machine guns,

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they couldn't get him back.

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Walter was only 29 when he died in 1918.

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His career as a soldier was a distinguished one,

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but, like so many of the other soldiers,

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his body was never recovered.

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'He was a just a humble young man who was doing his duty.'

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I mean, he was just one young man amongst millions.

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'It was very sad.'

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Here on Reel History today,

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we're at the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Museum and Barracks

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in Preston to hear remarkable stories

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of the brave men who fought for our country in the First World War.

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Julian Farrance is a military expert from the National Army Museum in London.

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He's come along to explain why friends and colleagues

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were persuaded to join up together in the so-called Pals Battalions.

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'Well, the Pals Battalions

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'were originally brought up as a recruiting tool'

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and one of the ways that they tried to do that

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was to bring in this idea of associations,

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people being able to recruit with their friends

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because obviously joining the army is a bit of a daunting idea.

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It's a big institution that you've got no idea about,

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so if you're able to join with your friends,

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you've got your social hierarchies worked out. That works well.

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The works officer and manager

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is going to be the officer of the Battalion

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and then you'll have the foremen will be the NCOs

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and then the ordinary factory workers will be the soldiers.

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'How effective were these Pals armies thought to be?'

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'Because of their "unit cohesion", to use a modern phrase,'

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the fact that they are...

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they have very strong relationships within the Battalion,

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they are an extremely effective fighting force.

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But the Pals Battalions experiment proved disastrous.

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When single battles brought heavy casualties,

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whole communities of men were wiped out.

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For the families of the Pals

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who fought in the Battle of the Somme in 1916,

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it was a catastrophe.

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If you've got all of your recruits coming from one location

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and they go into action and they sustain heavy casualties,

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entire communities of young men can be wiped out

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and that's exactly what happens on the 1st July 1916

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in places like Hull and Liverpool and Manchester

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and Lancaster and Accrington.

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Entire streets blacked out with crepe and bombazine

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because all of the young guys had been either badly injured or killed.

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It's estimated that over 700,000 British men lost their lives

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during the Great War.

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I can hardly imagine how devastating these losses must've been,

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right across the country

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and for local communities, like this one here in Lancashire.

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Accrington was one of the smallest towns in England

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to raise a Pals Battalion for the First World War

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and after the first day of the Somme, after 20 minutes,

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virtually every family in the area was deeply affected.

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More than 700 Accrington men went over the top that day,

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but only 136 returned, able to fight on.

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Les Bond's uncle Harry

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was one of the men who signed up for the Accrington Pals.

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He's brought memorabilia along

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to show me what men like his uncle were up against

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when they got to France.

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The original qualifications to join, to join up, was five foot six.

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Some of them didn't get in because they weren't five foot six,

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so they reduced the height qualification to five foot three.

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Now I'm five foot seven,

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so if I'm five foot three, me rifle is bigger than me.

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On the 1st July, they had to go across no-man's-land with,

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well, all the time, they had the full kit,

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which weighed about 66 lbs, plus this

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and on the 1st July, they were carrying a pick or a shovel at the same time,

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to dig what they thought was going to be the German front trenches out,

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which obviously wasn't the case.

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Cos the Germans were dug in so deeply and the artillery hadn't got to them.

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Les has researched the Pals' exploits in the war.

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At the end of June 1916,

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the battalion reached the banks of the River Somme in France

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and prepared for what would become the largest and bloodiest battle of the First World War.

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'The night before the main battle, before the big push,

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'they had to do a forced march, which was six miles, really,'

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but it took them ten hours to do it

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and they arrived in the frontline trenches

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at four o'clock in the morning.

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This incredible film

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was shot by two official government cinematographers -

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Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.

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Released in August 1916,

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it's taken from a famous propaganda film about the Somme,

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seen by millions across the world.

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Just after dawn on the 1st July 1916,

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the Accrington Pals were sent over the top.

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They went over at 7.20, the first wave, as the bombardment ceased.

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The first wave got up and walked into no-man's-land

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and then at half past, the officers blew whistles

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and the third and fourth wave came out of the trenches

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and they walked across.

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Now the Germans, knowing that the bombardment had ceased,

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stuck their heads out of their fox holes

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and to their amazement,

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see these line of men just walking towards them.

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There was that much smoke in the first few minutes

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that they couldn't see each other

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and the General, Hunter Weston,

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who was in charge of that part of the battle,

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he said not one man turned back,

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despite this tremendous scything down of the lads around them.

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720 men went over the top that July morning

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and over 580 were either killed, wounded or missing in action.

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When the news reached Accrington, every home drew its curtains

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and the town's church bells tolled non-stop.

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Virtually every family had lost a father, a son, a husband.

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The Battle of the Somme dragged on for 20 weeks

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and claimed the lives of 108,000 British soldiers.

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Les's research has brought him to a stark conclusion

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about the decisions made in 1916.

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I just think, what a waste.

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What a waste of a whole generation

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because after they'd got the numbers for the 11th Battalion,

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for the East Lancs,

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the county, literally, was stripped of young men.

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A whole generation left the county.

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All day, our vintage mobile cinema

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has been screening rarely-seen footage of the First World War.

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Our specially invited audience

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have been sharing their family stories of the Great War.

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Just seems completely unjust.

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Vanda Isherwood's grandfather William Lowther

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signed up for the Accrington Pals Brigade along with his two brothers.

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Vanda's grandmother voiced reservations about the mass sign up.

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She thought how silly Grandfather was to enlist.

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He was a collier.

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He wasn't a very young man, I think he was 33 when he died,

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but she thought how foolish to enlist

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when you had a wife and a young family,

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but I since believe that...

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they could've been ostracised if they didn't join,

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or they were very short of employment and it was attractive.

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There would be regular money coming in and meals.

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All three brothers lost their lives.

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Vanda's about to see harrowing footage of the Somme

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and explain to us the tragic events her grandfather endured

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on the opening day of battle.

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'He had a brother who joined earlier

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'and he was killed the year before, in Gallipoli.

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'And then on the 1st July, when my grandfather was killed,'

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he had another brother killed the same day

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and apparently not very far away

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from where my grandfather was on the Somme.

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The loss for women back home was immeasurable.

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The death of Vanda's grandfather left her grandmother widowed

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and her mother fatherless.

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They moved to Manchester to try and start a new life alone.

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With the dreadful...

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trauma they'd gone through, they then had to rebuild their lives,

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which wasn't made easy for them.

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So, it is a real tribute that they managed to build new lives

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for themselves and their families, but it was at a great price, really.

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It must have been tremendously difficult and hard work for them,

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that hadn't been on the cards when they were first young...

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married women.

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Hundreds of men from towns across East Lancashire

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joined the Accrington Pals.

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Their stories are now mainly re-told by grandchildren

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and great grandchildren,

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but here with us today is Veronica Abbott

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with a story about her father, Thomas Leach,

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one of a group who joined from Chorley in Lancashire.

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Veronica's never seen film of the Accrington Pals before.

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This newsreel from 1915

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shows the Battalion leaving their training site on Salisbury Plain

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to see active service.

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My father was at a seminary at Ushaw, which is over in Yorkshire.

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He was training to be a priest.

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I presume he came home, er...

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for the...summer holidays

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at the time when all the furore was being whipped up.

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You know, sort of, "Your Country Needs You,"

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and obviously volunteered.

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Ironically, once Veronica's father was in the army,

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he was trained as a marksman.

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'To actually be a marksman and have to kill,

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'to a man who was going to be a priest,

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'had to have been incredibly difficult for him.'

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The shock of what Veronica's father witnessed

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saw his life after the war take a completely different path

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to the one he had planned before he volunteered.

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He never went back to the seminary.

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I presume that what he experienced had been...

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too great for him to really cope with.

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Like so many of his generation, Veronica's father wouldn't,

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or couldn't, talk about his time in the army.

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'My mother would say he would go very quiet.

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'Possibly go and sit in another room.'

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He did a beautiful tapestry of a crinoline lady, um...

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which wasn't a thing that a Victorian man would normally have done.

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You know, sort of, all the intricate stitching.

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Again, I think it was presumably to take his mind off. I don't know.

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I didn't know him in his heyday.

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I'm the youngster of a very large family.

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By the time I was really taking notice,

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he was already crippled with rheumatoid arthritis.

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To me, he was a lovely father.

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You know, you can't really say anything more than that.

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Today we're at the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Museum and Barracks in Preston,

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hearing First World War stories.

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With some dramatic archive footage from the front line,

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we can bear witness to the horrific conditions in the trenches

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endured by the battalions of soldiers,

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often friends, sometimes brothers.

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Richard Bell's grandfather, William, joined up along with his brother, Donald.

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William survived, but his brother did not.

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Donald Bell received the highest award for valour

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during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

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Well, these are replicas of the Victoria Cross

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and other medals awarded to my great-uncle -

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Second Lieutenant Donald Simpson Bell.

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He was awarded this for an action that took place on the 5th July

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during the Battle of the Somme.

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He, together with two other soldiers, dashed across no-man's-land

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and put the machine-gun post out of action,

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thus enabling the rest of his regiment to proceed.

0:22:230:22:28

Unfortunately, five days later, on the 10th July,

0:22:280:22:33

in an attack on Contalmaison, he sadly lost his life.

0:22:330:22:38

Richard's come along to watch our rare footage of the First World War.

0:22:420:22:46

Making these films near the front lines

0:22:530:22:55

were a small number of news correspondents

0:22:550:22:58

working under the authority of the War Office.

0:22:580:23:01

It was dangerous work.

0:23:010:23:03

What memories will these films evoke of Richard's grandfather and his great-uncle,

0:23:050:23:11

who were both willing volunteers?

0:23:110:23:13

In 1914, of course, they had no idea of what they were going to face.

0:23:150:23:19

I suppose they all thought they were going to march off

0:23:190:23:22

and it'd all be over in a few months

0:23:220:23:23

and they'd come home and that'd be it. And, of course, it wasn't.

0:23:230:23:26

Donald was one of the thousands of British casualties at the Somme.

0:23:280:23:32

His brother William, Richard's grandfather, was also serving in France

0:23:320:23:36

and made an entry in his diary when he learned of his brother's death.

0:23:360:23:40

'There's an entry... on 19th July.'

0:23:420:23:48

"Telegram about Don's death.

0:23:480:23:50

"Stay on lorry all day. Too upset to work."

0:23:520:23:56

And so that's how he first got to know

0:23:560:23:58

that his younger brother had been killed.

0:23:580:24:01

It always brings a lump to my throat. I feel...

0:24:010:24:04

I feel like they're talking to me.

0:24:060:24:08

And, um...

0:24:080:24:10

..my grandfather never spoke of any of this when I was a small boy.

0:24:150:24:19

And I think that's quite common, that these veterans didn't want to,

0:24:210:24:26

you know, very rarely spoke about what they had been through

0:24:260:24:29

and what they had suffered and what they'd seen, um...

0:24:290:24:34

And they just wanted to keep it inside

0:24:340:24:36

and I suppose to try and forget all about it

0:24:360:24:39

because it must have been horrifying to live through.

0:24:390:24:43

So, having these now,

0:24:430:24:45

it's a very real connection back to those times and, um...

0:24:450:24:50

something means a lot to me.

0:24:500:24:52

It's unbearably sad to think of all these young men,

0:25:050:25:08

friends, brothers and colleagues, who lost their lives.

0:25:080:25:11

I've travelled to the Accrington War Memorial

0:25:140:25:17

in Oak Hill Park, Lancashire.

0:25:170:25:19

First World War memorials like these were the first time in our history

0:25:190:25:24

that ordinary men were remembered by name.

0:25:240:25:27

They're listed in alphabetical order, regardless of rank.

0:25:270:25:31

Les Bond, who I met earlier,

0:25:340:25:36

wrote a poem about one of the Pals with his late brother.

0:25:360:25:40

It seems a fitting way to commemorate the sacrifice

0:25:400:25:42

that these ordinary men made for us.

0:25:420:25:45

In an Accrington pub hangs a picture

0:25:460:25:49

In a frame on a wall or a bar

0:25:490:25:52

It's geet one man's name Tommy Atkins

0:25:520:25:55

And a date, July 1st in Great War...

0:25:550:25:58

..Tommy thowt hard As he traipsed home up lane

0:26:020:26:04

How were he gonna tell wife?

0:26:040:26:06

He'd made a decision to go and enlist

0:26:060:26:09

Aye, even to lay down his life...

0:26:090:26:12

..Tha' looks gradely tough in the uniform, Tom

0:26:220:26:25

Have one with me from top shelf

0:26:250:26:27

Eli, give Tommy a tot and a handshake

0:26:270:26:31

Good luck, Tom

0:26:310:26:32

God bless, good health

0:26:320:26:35

Sarah-Jane was cream-silning her doorstep

0:26:350:26:40

Her Tommy was soon home on leave

0:26:400:26:42

He'd penned a few words fro' somewhere in France

0:26:420:26:46

See thee soon, bonny lass Don't to grieve...

0:26:460:26:49

..She looked at yon telegram And grabbed hold o' kids

0:27:000:27:04

Tears down her cheek getting wetter

0:27:040:27:07

He'd set off all week for ought station

0:27:070:27:10

And come back in a government letter...

0:27:100:27:13

In a Lancashire pub hangs a memory

0:27:170:27:20

In a frame on a wall or a bar

0:27:200:27:22

Donated with Tommy's young widow

0:27:220:27:26

And a date, July 1st, in Great War.

0:27:260:27:29

The idea of appealing to a group of young men,

0:27:450:27:48

a group of pals, to go off together to fight as volunteers in the war

0:27:480:27:52

was thought to be a great idea at the time

0:27:520:27:55

and when they were mown down and whole communities were wiped out,

0:27:550:27:58

the Army was quick to withdraw it

0:27:580:28:01

because it had worked in one way

0:28:010:28:02

and then it was devastating in another.

0:28:020:28:05

But I think why it remains almost more poignant

0:28:050:28:08

than ALL the other terrible things that happened

0:28:080:28:11

was because it was about something deeper than anything else.

0:28:110:28:15

It was about friendship.

0:28:150:28:17

Next time on Reel History...

0:28:220:28:24

..we're at Blaenavon in Wales

0:28:270:28:28

to salute the coal miners who slaved underground in the 1930s.

0:28:280:28:33

You had to be down the pit by six

0:28:330:28:35

and you knew you were down there for eight hours.

0:28:350:28:39

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:560:28:59

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, to tell the history of modern Britain.

At the Queen's Lancashire Regiment Museum and Barracks in Preston, Melvyn looks back to the First World War, when British men answered the call to fight for king and country. Rita Humphrey shares the remarkable story of her uncle, Walter Tull, who overcame great prejudice to become the first black officer in the British Army. Richard Bell talks about his great uncle Donald who received the highest award for valour during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And Accrington man Les Bond gives his verdict on the sacrifice made by the men of his home town's Pals Battalion, including his uncle Harry, who died at the Battle of the Somme.