Lessons from The Accrington Pals for effective business relationships

Friday morning saw a nationwide two-minute silence at 7.28am, the time when the British, Commonwealth and French forces went over the top a century ago on the first day of The Battle of the Somme.

After this silence, the emotion and poignancy of the #Wearehere tribute evoked a truly human response. Created by Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, it was a ‘human memorial’ of the battle, sending silent ‘ghost’ soldiers into cities and towns.

Young men, immediately conspicuous because they were dressed in the dull-green uniforms of World War I mixed with people going about their Friday morning business. They were just there: not speaking, not even moving much. Waiting, expressionless, for who knows what.

A small crowd gathered, taking photographs. A woman caught the eye of one of the men. She tried to speak to him. Without speaking or dropping his gaze, he pulled a small card out of his pocket and handed it to her. It gave the name, rank, age and battalion of a solider who died at the Somme, as well as their place of death.

There was no narrative. They were a presence. Shortly afterwards, the men, as if by some unspoken sign, began to sing, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here – a song of weariness and resignation that was sung in the trenches, and they moved off.

Fought between 1 July and 18 November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War. It was the largest battle on the Western front. It saw over one million wounded, killed or missing on both sides of the battlefield – affecting the lives of millions more back home.

There were 19,240 British dead as night fell on the Somme frontline on 1 July 1916, a human catastrophe on an unthinkable scale. The British plan had been that heavy artillery rained down on the enemy defences for days beforehand would make it possible for the British to walk, starting at 7.30am, across no man’s land to take German trenches in time for a good lunch.

The plan failed. German defences were far better than anticipated. German troops had hidden safely in deep dugouts during shelling the previous week and emerged quickly, catching the Allies by surprise and shooting them down in vast numbers.

The Battle of the Somme continued for another 140 days as Britain’s attempts to consolidate its gains quickly degenerated into a series of bloody piecemeal fights for scraps of woods and villages. There was an average British casualty rate of 3,000 a day. Finally, winter weather brought it all to a sodden halt on November 18. The net gain was a strip of land twenty miles wide and six miles deep.

Over the years, it has become the defining symbol of the First World War – of horror, stupidity, and futility, a pessimistic narrative bubbled up through the memoirs of old soldiers and the provocations of writers and artists. A German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, put it succinctly:  Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.

Its key moments – the charge ‘over the top’, the waves of men cut down, the stupid optimism and the shattering disillusion – are the central images of the conflict. Look no further than the moving final sequence of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which the protagonists charge into the camera and into nothingness. The battle is never named, but it is unmistakably a picture of first day of the Battle of the Somme.

On 1 July 1916, as cricket was being played in Accrington, 584 men from the town were dead or wounded on the Somme. Several British ‘pals battalions’ – units made up of men all from the same local areas – suffered losses that were devastating for their communities at home

The Accrington Pals is the best remembered of the battalions raised in Lancashire in the early months of the War back in 2014 in response to Kitchener’s call for a volunteer army. Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinct local identity.

A month after the outbreak of war, the Accrington Observer & Times of 8 September 1914 reported that the War Office had accepted an offer made by the mayor of Accrington to raise a complete battalion. When recruitment began on 14 September, 104 men were accepted in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together; by 24 September the Accrington battalion had reached a full strength of 1,100 men.

The Pals were ordered to France, to take part in the attack on the Somme, the objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre, and form a defensive flank facing north. In the early evening of 30 June, the 11th East Lancashires left camp at Warnimont Wood for an arduous seven-mile trek to the trenches of Serre. At 2.40am on Saturday 1 July, they reached the front line trenches.

At 6.30am, the British artillery commenced its final furious bombardment of the German front line. At 7.20am, Captain Tough led the Pal’s first of the battalion’s four waves 100 yards into No Man’s Land. A few minutes later, the second wave followed, led by Captain Livesey.

At 7.30am, the leading waves rose and walked in line towards the German positions. Machine gun and rifle fire immediately tore into the advancing lines of infantry. One British observer likened the lines of dead to swathes of cut corn at harvest time. Incredibly, groups of Pals defied the machine gun fire, threaded their way through the barbed wire and dropped into the German front line.

All was in vain. Behind, the third and fourth waves suffered dreadful losses before reaching No Man’s Land. The leading companies were cut down, some of the Pals – their officers killed or wounded – pressed on towards Serre, never to be seen again. The remaining survivors in the German front line, bereft of reinforcements, were forced to withdraw. By 8am, the battle for Serre was effectively over.

In its first major action, the Accrington Pals battalion suffered devastating losses. When the roll was called by RSM Stanworth that evening, less than one hundred men answered their names. Records show that out of 720 soldiers who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes.

Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry – drummer Spencer John Bent; Private William Young; Second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith; Second Lieutenant Basil Arthur Horsfall.

As The Somme passes over the horizon of living memory, I was struck by a number of thoughts from the commemoration of that first day of battle around the humanity of teamwork. It was the camaraderie that struck me as the lifeblood to the cohorts of soldiers. It is what fuels that spirit of unity and togetherness at times of extreme challenge, and what must have been distress, creating a palpable connection.

However, there were a number of other thoughts I had reflecting on the battle, which I think we can take into our everyday business thinking.

Relationships mean everything During the most adverse encounters a team will ever face, the relationships and friendships between its members bind them together. Hardships create strong bonds within a team, which in turn, serves to strengthen the team even more. Trusting one another will inevitably lead to teams that will overlook individual motives in place of team objectives. Simply put, interaction fuels action and a collective resolve, mental strength in a crisis.

Listen to everyone, but trust your own judgment Imagine the military briefings at 7.28am on 1 July 2016. Leaders gather to discuss mission parameters, variables, strategies and tactics, and while everyone weighs in with their opinion, ultimately, the highest-ranking officer makes the decision. In business, one bad decision may not mean ‘life or death’, but it can have a detrimental impact on the fate of your business.

Every situation you encounter and every decision you make is different. There is no easy or single formula for success. The best leaders are those who listen to everyone, are receptive to advice and seek to learn from others – yet have an unwavering trust and confidence in themselves to always make the best decision possible. At the end of the day, you are accountable for your business, and, as such, trusting your own judgment is paramount.

No one is left behind Wounded and dead soldiers were carried on comrade’s backs and inside crowded vehicles to safety, on to a proper burial, although the names of 72,000 dead and missing soldiers at the Tiepval Memorial shows the scale of the deaths at The Somme.

Everyone counts, and everyone looks out for each other. Everyone crosses the line together. That makes for a highly effective team and for a sense of safety despite the perilous circumstances, just knowing that someone’s got your back. Pulling each other together and watching for each other’s success.

Leading from the front Many of the videos show officers leading the charge out of the trenches and going over the top first. In the Somme, some 17% of the officers were lost, refuting the criticism that they didn’t stand in line. They were often the first to die on the charge up the field. This was literally about leading from the front, and in such circumstances, decision-making isn’t a democracy – the leader is in charge and their behaviour shows this.

Camaraderie In business as in the military, teams have a well-honed sense of camaraderie that helps team members read one another’s signals, move as one, and watch each other’s backs. This sense of commitment and connection is an essential component of effective teams. The more people value their relationships with one another, the better they will perform for one another and thus for the organisation.

We can only imagine the camaraderie that existed in The Accrington Pals, a collaborative and collegiate culture that got things done, working as one. Camaraderie is about creating a common sense of purpose and the mindset that we have a common goal and shared destiny.

Trust Trust in business is an essential ingredient for an organisation to function, a vital element in the emotional contract between leaders and their co-workers, and between colleagues. Without trust, an organisation is morally bankrupt, as the lack of trust eventually manifests itself in customer relationships. Imagine standing in the trenches at The Somme. The need to trust everyone around you, and for them to trust you, to perform and support the effort, must have been absolute.

The 100th anniversary year of The Somme reminds us of the loss of so many ordinary men and their sacrifice, and the devastation suffered by the Pals battalions. The stories show the soldiers worked and lived together, creating an atmosphere and culture of unity, underpinned by empathy, peer camaraderie and trust.

Each aspect of the relationship between the solders offers in their own way insights in terms of how humanity and emotional engagement pervade even the most abhorrent environment. If you replicate the qualities and culture seen in 1916 in your business today, they will effectively leverage collective talents into strategies that will elevate your business performance beyond your competition. #Wearehere, who would have thought that ‘Pals’ would resonate with legacies for business 100 years later?

The organisation cultural legacies of the Christmas Day Truce & The Accrington Pals

For me, 2014 was memorable for the 100th anniversary commemorations of the commencement of World War One. They were poignant, especially a torchlight vigil in Towneley Park, Burnley on 3 August, a stark personal narrative of the impact of the War – 16% of the male population of the town lost their lives. It spurred me to find out more about the humanitarian aspects of the War, and the chronicles of two aspects of the War gave me particular cause for reflection – The Christmas Day Truce, and the story of The Accrington Pals.

The Christmas Day Truce of 1914 is celebrated as a symbolic moment of peace in an otherwise devastatingly violent War. Along the Western Front, a scattered series of small-scale ceasefires between German and British forces provided a brief festive respite. The arrival of December 1914 was proof, if any were needed, that the war would not be ‘over by Christmas’.

For the men at the front, months of tough fighting were to be followed by a festive period away from home. Throughout December, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. King George V sent a card to every soldier, and his daughter, Princess Mary, lent her name to a fund, which sent a small brass box of gifts, including tobacco or writing sets, to serving soldiers.

By Christmas Eve itself, the damp weather gave way to the cold and a festive frost settled on the Front. As the main night of celebration in Germany, candles and trees went up along parts of the German line. One account by a British soldier recalls:

It was a Christmas card Christmas Eve. There was white beautiful moonlight, frost on the ground. At about 8pm we saw some lights and we heard the Germans singing ‘Stille Nacht’. They finished their carol, we applauded them, then we thought we must reciprocate in some way so we replied with ‘The First Noel’.

When we finished they began clapping, then they struck ‘O Tannenbaum’. So we went on, first the Germans singing one of their carols then we’d sing another of ours. Then we started up ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and the Germans immediately joined in singing the Latin words of ‘Adeste Fideles’. Well I thought this was rather an extraordinary thing really to think of the two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

Along the Front, some men responded to the events of Christmas Eve by emerging from their trenches into No Man’s Land on Christmas Day and spontaneously exchanged gifts and took photos. However, the temporary truce did not have full support from the military hierarchy.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of British 2nd Army Corps Expeditionary Force, issued strict warnings to his senior officers about preventing fraternisation with enemy soldiers. High Command was angry, they feared that men would question the war, and even mutiny, as a result of fraternising with the enemy that they were meant to defeat. Stricter orders were issued to end such activity, with harsh punishment for any man caught refusing to fight.

Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessations of hostility along the Western Front, and it’s the ‘tunics for goalposts’ tales of football matches that really capture the imagination.

There is evidence that football was played in at least four places between troops from the opposing armies, including the 133rd Royal Saxony Regiment pitched against Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, where the Scots won 4-1. Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer, who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962. In Graves’s version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.

Another started after a ball was kicked from the British lines into No Man’s Land, outside the trenches around Ypres. The match was recorded by Staff Sergeant Clement Barker in a letter home. He described how the truce began after a German messenger walked across No Man’s Land to broker a temporary cease-fire. British soldiers went out and recovered 69 dead comrades and buried them. Sergeant Barker said the impromptu football match then broke out between the two sides when a ball was kicked out from the British lines into No Man’s Land.

Royal Field Artillery Lieutenant Albert Wynn wrote of a match against a German team (described as ‘Prussians and Hanovarians’) played by the Lancashire Fusiliers, near Le Touquet, using a ration tin as the ball. In Frelinghien, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers played football with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1. Many professional footballers served in the forces, those killed in action included Bradford Park Avenue’s Donald Bell – the only professional footballer to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The camaraderie shown by the soldiers to their enemy is poignant, amidst the horror in the mud. Camaraderie is a word I’ve used a lot this year as I’ve experienced a number of the War commemorations in Lancashire, home to a number of ‘The Pals’ regiments, where groups of men from the same town came together to go to war. Their stories epitomise camaraderie.

The Accrington Pals is the best remembered of the battalions raised in Lancashire in the early months of the War in response to Kitchener’s call for a volunteer army, due to the tragic outcome for the battalion and the town in terms of casualties. Groups of friends from all walks of life in Accrington and its neighbouring towns enlisted together to form a battalion with a distinctively local identity.

A month after the outbreak of war, the Accrington Observer & Times of 8 September 1914 reported that the War Office had accepted an offer made by the mayor of Accrington to raise a complete battalion. When recruitment began on 14 September, 104 men were accepted in the first three hours. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together; by 24 September the Accrington battalion had reached a full strength of 1,100 men. Around half the battalion had been recruited from Accrington, the majority of the remainder came from neighbouring towns.

The Pals were ordered to France, to take part in the attack on the Somme, the objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre, and form a defensive flank facing north. In the early evening of 30 June, the 11th East Lancashires left camp at Warnimont Wood for an arduous seven-mile trek to the trenches of Serre. At 2.40am on Saturday 1 July, they reached the front line trenches.

At 6.30am, the British artillery commenced its final furious bombardment of the German front line. At 7.20am, Captain Tough led the Pal’s first of the battalion’s four waves 100 yards into No Man’s Land. A few minutes later, the second wave followed, led by Captain Livesey.

At 7.30am, the leading waves rose and walked in line towards the German positions. Machine gun and rifle fire immediately tore into the advancing lines of infantry. One British observer likened the lines of dead to swathes of cut corn at harvest time. Incredibly, groups of Pals defied the machine gun fire, threaded their way through the barbed wire and dropped into the German front line.

All was in vain. Behind, the third and fourth waves suffered dreadful losses before reaching No Man’s Land. The leading companies were cut down, some of the Pals – their officers killed or wounded – pressed on towards Serre, never to be seen again. The remaining survivors in the German front line, bereft of reinforcements, were forced to withdraw. By 8am, the battle for Serre was effectively over.

In its first major action, the Accrington Pals battalion suffered devastating losses on 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. When the roll was called by RSM Stanworth that evening, less than one hundred men answered their names. Records show that out of 720 soldiers who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. The Accrington Pals were effectively wiped out in a matter of minutes.

The losses were hard to bear in a community where nearly everyone had a relative or friend who had been killed or wounded. Four members of the regiment were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry – drummer Spencer John Bent; Private William Young; Second Lieutenant Alfred Victor Smith; Second Lieutenant Basil Arthur Horsfall.

Two remarkable stories from the Great War, that make you question the humanitarian aspects of leadership, and fill me with thoughts of empathy, camaraderie and trust that must have been in the minds of those that fought. A hundred years on, what are the lessons from these War stories we can take, and their place in our business thinking, behaviours and actions in 2015?

Empathy Our capacity for empathy is built into our psyche as a means of coping with emotional situations. The anthropologist Franz Boas referred to this as the ‘psychic unity’ of humanity, and it’s important that this is set into our personal and collective moral compasses in our business culture, as an important prism through which we see the world.

The religious context of ‘goodwill to all men’ during the Christmas Truce must be acknowledged too, perhaps just as important was the soldiers’ ability to find commonality through culture, including song. For troops in opposing, enemy trenches, hearing singing from the other side must have made them seem more human – whilst fighting resumed by the morning of December 26 in most locales along the Front, in some places the truce lasted until New Year’s Day, soldiers were reluctant to fire on the men with whom they had just fraternized, as they were no longer amorphous enemies, but personalities with faces, emotions and backgrounds.

The Christmas Day truce showed empathy and benevolence for the enemy, which we don’t often see. However, this has a clear place in any business, in terms of respecting your competition – recall the actions of Andrew Flintoff to Brett Lee in the Second Ashes victory in 2005, showing compassion for his opponent at a moment of high adrenalin victory.

It isn’t about crushing competitors, rather it’s about your leadership based on strategy and confidence in your vision, which puts you in a superior position to your competitor by outwitting and outsmarting them. I would thus suggest that having a degree of empathy for your business rivals is ethically and morally the right mindset to have, determination to win is a natural instinct, but not at any cost.

Camaraderie In business as in the military, teams have a well-honed sense of camaraderie that helps team members read one another’s signals, move as one, and watch each other’s backs. This sense of commitment and connection is an essential component of effective teams. The more people value their relationships with one another, the better they will perform for one another and thus for the organisation. We can only imagine the camaraderie that existed in The Accrington Pals, a collaborative and collegiate culture that got things done, working as one.

Camaraderie is about creating a common sense of purpose and the mindset that we have a common goal and shared destiny. In short, camaraderie promotes a group loyalty that results in a shared commitment to and discipline toward even difficult work. The opposite would be employees coming to work, acting like lifeless robots and talking to each other only if they need to borrow a stapler.

However, whilst there are some negative aspects to consider, including groupthink and negative cliques, the benefits of shaping a culture to cultivate and build collaboration and unity are such that all businesses can benefit from genuine camaraderie between its people.

Trust We all have some level of trust that the people we pass on the street are not out to harm us (though that may not be true in every instance). In the context of the Christmas Truce, it is much more difficult to achieve that critical threshold of trust for individuals or groups who have been recently shooting at each other. The question is how that cycle of distrust can be conquered.

At some point, one side must make a leap of faith to trust, with no assurance that it will be rewarded. The officers during the Christmas Truce obviously took a huge risk by acting upon a moment of inspiration and leaving the safety of their trenches, but it paid off.

Trust in business is an essential ingredient for an organisation to function, a vital element in the emotional contract between leaders and their co-workers, and between colleagues. Without trust, an organisation is morally bankrupt, as the lack of internal trust eventually manifests itself in customer relationships.

So at the end of the 100th anniversary year of the start of the First World War and looking into 2015, we are minded by the Christmas Day truce and games of football, and the devastation suffered by the Pals battalions. The stories show the soldiers worked together, creating an atmosphere and culture of organic collaboration, underpinned by empathy, peer camaraderie and trust.

Each in their own way offers insights in terms of how humanity and emotional engagement pervade even the most abhorrent environment. If you replicate the qualities and culture in your business, they will effectively leverage collective talents into strategies that will elevate your business performance beyond your competition. Looking back to 1914, who would have thought that ‘tunics for goalposts’ and ‘Pals’ would resonate with legacies for business 100 years later?