When war was declared on August 4, 1914, the first men to enlist were Territorials and ‘old volunteers rejoining the colours’.

But, before long, young men from all walks of life, without any military experience, were joining up with their friends and workmates in ‘pals’ units. Allan Tunningley looks at how this mix of tried and untried soldiery from Westmorland and Cumberland swelled the ranks of the Border Regiment, ultimately helping Britain and its allies to achieve a hard-won victory.

THE Westmorland Gazette’s first issue after war was declared breezily reported how the call to arms was ‘causing an unusual activity and excitement’ throughout the county’.

In particular, Kendal was revealed as ‘the centre of hard work and enthusiasm for the embodiment of men for service’. Much of the focus was on the Drill Hall in Aynam Road, the headquarters of the Westmorland half of the 4th Border Regiment and the Kendal Squadron of the Westmorland and Cumberland Yoemanry.

The editorial revealed that the place was buzzing with Territorials and ‘old volunteers rejoining the colours’ as they underwent medical and kit inspections.

“With very few exceptions, the whole of the men were passed as sound and healthy,” the Gazette declared.

The report then listed items of uniform the soldiers would be provided with by the ‘County Association’, including a great coat, two service dress caps, a forage cap and two service dress jackets.

This was followed by a list of what the soldier had to provide themselves, which included shaving brush, tooth brush, comb, fork, holdall, pair of ankle boots, pair of braces, a ‘housewife’ with buttons, needles and thread, a clasp knife, razor, two flannel shirts, two pairs of worsted socks, two pairs of drawers (mounted men only), two towels and spoon.

For those who didn’t have ‘servicable boots’, 400 pairs were being made available by Somervell Bros, Netherfield; while Messrs R W and TK Thompson, were able to supply suitable shirts. Once properly kitted out, the volunteers were ready to go to war with one of Britain’s premier fighting regiments.

Although the Border Regiment was only 33 years old when the Great War broke out, it already had serious battle history. The regiment was officially formed in 1881 when the 34th and 55th Regiments of Foot were amalgamated. But through the 34th, the Border Regiment could trace its history back to the Spanish War of Succession and later the Austrian War of Succession. Back home, the regiment also played a part in crushing the Jacobite rebellion of 1745.

The regiment’s antecedents also included action during the relief of Quebec, the Crimean War and the American War of Independence. In 1782, the 34th Regiment became the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot and the 55th Regiment the 55th (Westmorland) Regiment of Foot.

In 1881, the militia and rifle volunteers of Cumberland and Westmorland also became reserve battalions of the regiment, with the Royal Cumberland Regiment of Militia and the Royal Westmorland Regiment of Militia becoming the 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Border Regiment respectively.

When the First World War broke out, the Border Regiment was only five battalions in strength - two regular, one special reserve and two territorial. The 1st Battalion was stationed in Burma, the 2nd at Pembroke Dock, the 3rd and 4th Battalions in Carlisle and the 5th at Workington.

As with every other regiment of the British Army, the Border Regiment expanded considerably in size as the war the progressed. It was a small regiment compared to many of the others and fighting initially involved just the 2nd and 5th Battalions. But as the conflict progressed, the Borders expanded to form 16 battalons and fought in six theatres of war,18 operations and 68 battles between 1914 and 1918.

The 1st and 6th battalions were at Gallipoli in 1915-16 and the following year, six of the regiment’s battalions took part in the battle of the Somme. In 1917, the regiment fought in Arras, Bullecourt and at the Battle of Messines. Six of its battalions took part in the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) while other battalions fought on the Salonika front in Macedonia and in Italy.

Early in the conflict, the regiment’s new volunteers, including older recruits, were sent to India and Burma to take over from the more seasoned regular soldiers who were needed to fight in France.

Other battle honours include Langemark 1914-17; Cambrai 1917-18; Lys 1918; and Vittorio Veneto 1918.

When the British Expeditionary Force set out to the Western Front after war was declared on August 4th, everyone thought it would all be over by Christmas. But shortly after arriving on the Western Front in 1914, the 2nd Battalion of the Border Regiment was to experience an early taste of the industrial scale warfare that was to last for four years.

In its first encounter with the enemy at Kruiseik Hill, the men of the 2nd Battalion were surrounded in their trenches on three sides by the enemy and as a result suffered more than the other three battalions fighting in the same battle.

For a week they were under constant enemy artillery at America Ridge, machine gun and sniper fire. Sometimes up to 150 shells an hour landed on their position, causing many deaths and serious casualties - yet each attack was repulsed During the whole of the Great War, the Border Regiment sustained a total of 7,450 and was awarded 64 battle honours.

Border Regiment VCs

THE Border Regiment was awarded five Victoria Crosses during the course of the First World War.

Among the recipients was James Alexander Smith (1881-1968) of Workington, and Abraham Acton (1893-1915), from Whitehaven, who both gained Britain’s highest military honour for their gallantry while fighting together at Rouges Bancs, France on December 21, 1914.

Smith, 33, and Acton, 22, who were both privates, went out voluntarily from their trench and rescued a wounded man, who had been lying exposed against the enemy’s trenches for 15 hours. On the same day, they again left their trench under heavy fire to bring in another wounded man. They were under fire for 60 minutes while conveying then wounded men to safety.

Smith survived the war and lived to the age of 87. Acton was killed in action at Festubert, France, on 16 May 1915, but his body was never found - he is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial. Border

Regiment Factfile

  • Type - Infantry
  • March - John Peel
  • Motto - Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense — Evil be to Him who Evil Thinks
  • Anniversary - October 28, Arroyo Day, commemorating an action against the French in the Spanish War of Succession
  • Active - until 1959. Ultimately amalgamated into the Duke of Lancaster Regiment
  • Max fighting strengh - 16 battalions raised in First World War