“Soon after the outbreak of war it became evident to those directing the Cumberland and Westmorland Territorial Force that, whilst a good proportion of Border Counties men were anxious to play an able-bodied man’s part in the struggle, many hesitated to offer themselves for general service without knowing where or with whom they might have to train and serve," says thelonsdalebattalion.co.uk.

"The Earl of Lonsdale, quick to see and understand this, submitted to the War Office a proposal to recruit a special local Battalion of Cumberland and Westmorland men.”

Such was the genesis of The 11th Bn Border (Lonsdale) Regiment, one of the earliest ‘Pals Battalions’ of the First World War.

Recruiting began in September 1914 charged with recruiting four Companies, with D Coy being the West Cumbrian Company based in Workington.

Recruits reported to Blackhall (Racecourse) Camp to begin the transition from civilian to Infantry soldier within the creation of a brand-new Regiment. Once the battalion was up to strength, (approx. 1000), equipped and drilled in Regimental disciplines they then moved out to Wensley Camp Leyburn as part of Brigade training and then to Salisbury Plain for Divisional training.

During each phase, archived reports from the Lonsdale Bn reveal a concern for the problems faced by such a large body of fighting fit men contained in close proximity. These ranged from matters of sanitation, hazards of night excursions without lights etc., to promoting a wholesome behaviour within and without the lines.

Interestingly, working parties were supplied during harvest to local farms; football and cricket matches were organised with prestigious oppositions, while local groups sought to supply the Battalion with home comforts etc. The Wesleyan church in Middleham even converting their school room into a reading room for the battalion.

With their deployment to Salisbury Plain, amongst the huge number of troops preparing for Flanders, separated from home and all that was familiar, the problems now revolved around having nowhere to go. But here church agencies had begun to supplement the provision of the War Office with large Marquee Tents offering refreshments, recreations and a quiet place for personal reflection.

While the Church gave enormous amounts money, material and man hours in support of the physical needs, ‘Tommy’s, spiritual needs were never forgotten. Meetings were regularly held, Christian Soldiers could tell of their confidence for the future – whatever that might be – while ministers would explain the message of the Bible and offer personal copies, (The Christian Messenger (1915/44) reported 10,000 soldiers taking pocket testaments).

Over in Flanders, the church was able to replicate this support only to units in the rear, for obvious reasons. At the front, the work amongst the soldiers was carried out by the Royal Army Chaplaincy Department, supported by Scripture Readers from The Army Scripture Readers’ Society (ASRS).

Scripture Readers (ASRs) had worked amongst soldiers since the Napoleonic War, and had been deployed to various theatres including India and South Africa. With the onset of The Great War, embedded ASRs within the originally deployed Expeditionary Force went too. One such was ASR Harry Wisbey, whose diary of those early weeks in August September 1914 are transcribed into ‘Rough Journal’.

As the war continued, ASRS obtained official permission to send ASR’s to the front Hospitals. Here ASR Bill Ransley, ministered to the wounded of both sides during and after the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 where The Lonsdales lost 500 out of 900. His diary of that period mentions no units, only individuals. Were some from 11th Bn Border (Lonsdale) Regiment?

The Border Regiment has moved on and is part of the history of The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment maintaining its fine traditions. A.S.R.S. has moved on too. Now known as SASRA, following the formation of the RAF, it continues to place ASRs within Garrisons, seeking to stand alongside our Soldiers and Airmen/Women in support of the Chaplaincy, making the love of God known.

(‘SASRA at the Somme’ extracts from ASR Ransley’s diary, and ‘Rough Journal’ extracts from ASR Wilsey’s diary, both available from SASRA)

SASRA is a Keswick Ministries mission exhibitor and regularly have a stand at the Keswick Convention where visitors can meet SASRA staff to find out more.