A History of the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division During the Great War
by Rob Thompson
During the autumn of 1917 the BEF fought the titanic battle of Third Ypres known more commonly as ‘Passchendaele’. “Passchendaele” – the very name sends chills down the spine conjuring up images of immense suffering and unspeakable savagery. Inside the church of Passchendaele is a stained glass window donated by the people of Lancashire in 1928. This stands as a memorial to the endeavours of the little known 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division. Divisional memorials are commonplace in Flanders as they are the whole length of the Western Front, but this particular memorial is (as far as I am aware) unique on the Western Front. Its very location at the heart of that Vale of Suffering is special but that is not what makes it unique.
Most Divisional memorials on the Western Front follow a familiar pattern of presentation: the name of the division, a list of battle honours, and some form of inscription. However no such battle honours appear on the 66th Division Memorial. Instead, there are three windows: In the centre is St George, with the Civic Crests of Manchester and Salford. On the other two windows are the Civic Crests of the colliery, manufacturing, and cotton towns from which the 66th drew its recruits: Rochdale, Pendlebury, Bury, Blackburn, Burnley, Wigan, Bacup, and Oldham, amongst others.
This reflects the kind of Division the 66th was and how it thought of itself. This division was not the product of the parade ground, but of working class civic and regional pride forged out of the Industrial Revolution at the heart of which stood Manchester and its surrounding towns. This was the essence of the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Territorial Division and in many ways it reflects the true nature of those who fought on the Western Front – colliers, artisans, apprentices, weavers, dyers, warehouse and factory workers, clerks, under-managers, overseers, drivers, mechanics, wheeltappers and (of course!) shunters.
The 66th Division was one of the much-maligned Territorial Divisions so despised and distrusted by Kitchener and the Regular Army. First created by Lord Haldane in April 1908 the Territorials were meant to be Britain’s ‘real national army’. Despite initial enthusiasm generated by nationalism, invasion fears in 1909, and King Edward VII’s personal interest, by 1910 the Territorials were under-recruiting significantly. This led to criticism from the Regular forces and the media of the Territorials capabilities - training, artillery, and musketry standards in particular came under fire.
There was also a certain amount of snobbery at work too.
The Territorials tended to recruit from the working class, especially artisans, and were officered by the industrial middle-class – a ‘Town Clerks Army’ as Kitchener referred to them. The atmosphere and ethos of the Territorials tended to be more akin to a family than a military force and this did not exactly endear them to their more ‘martial’ cousins.
In turn this also meant that they were the most overlooked and least well equipped of Britain’s military forces. In 1914 the Territorials were still not equipped with the Lee-Enfield rifle and their artillery was armed with obsolete 15 pounder guns and 5” howitzers. Such was the state of the Territorials when war broke out in August 1914.