The story of the West Ham Battalion during World War One is one that is well-known to supporters of West Ham United Football Club. In December 1914 the Mayor of West Ham successfully applied to the War Office to raise an infantry unit of local men to serve in the British Army, who had by then already suffered heavy losses on the Western Front. Formed as the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Essex Regiment, the West Ham Pals were born.
Volunteers, many of them West Ham United‘s first generation of supporters, flooded the recruiting offices around the East End and by late February the required 1,000 men had enlisted. They had no uniforms, no rifles and many had no military experience. However, they all wanted to “give a good smacking to the Germans”.
The Council soon applied for their cap badge to include two crossed hammers, in reference to their association with the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company, however this was refused. Nonetheless, the retained strong links with West Ham and the battle cry “Up The Hammers!” was used throughout the war.
The battalion trained locally before progressing to Advanced Infantry Training on Salisbury Plain. Tragically, three of the volunteers were to be killed during this training, however, this did not deter their eagerness to meet the Germans on the field of battle.
After landing in France in December 1915, they would go on to fight the whole war alongside the 17th (Service) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, better known as the Footballers’ Battalion. Meanwhile, back in United Kingdom, the Reserve Companies of the played at the Boleyn Ground in an effort to encourage more local men to enlist.
The West Ham Battalion acquitted themselves very well on the battlefield and fought actions during the Battle of the Somme, at Vimy Ridge and Cambrai. Many Officers were awarded the Military Cross (one twice!) while many men from the ranks won the Military Medal and Distinguished Conduct Medal (second only to the Victoria Cross).
Their battalion’s epic “Last Stand” at the Battle of Cambrai even made the front pages of many newspapers in late 1917. By the end of World War One, out of the original 1,000 men, roughly one quarter were killed, half were severely disabled from wounds and one quarter survived with their scars inside. They never received a Victory Parade and sadly the West Ham Battalion was quickly forgotten and relegated to history.
In 2009 I organised a memorial plaque at the Boleyn Ground to recognise these Hammers, which was unveiled by Sir Trevor Brooking in front of many supporters – including an Honour Party from the Royal Anglian Regiment.
A couple of years later I released the definitive history of the in my book “Up The Hammers!” and have worked hard to have the sacrifices made by these men remembered. It began as a mission to find out what happened to my Great Grandfather, an original volunteer from Limehouse, killed in action with the Hammers, but quickly developed into a need to commemorate the courage of all the men who served in the West Ham Battalion during World War One.
“Up The Hammers!”
Elliott Taylor is the author of Up The Hammers!: The West Ham Battalion in the Great War 1914-1918