h t s i story o l e h t elf West B
nd YCV Members in the First W astâ€™s UVF a orld W ar
introduction: popular memory for many in the shankill the most familiar aspect of the story of local men in the First World War is the role played by the Ulster Volunteer Force. In this chain of events, having been formed in early 1913, the men of the UVF expected to take part in some kind of conflict over Home Rule. Instead, in September 1914, those men found themselves marching en masse into the British Army as part of the 36th (Ulster) Division, the formation which Edward Carson had persuaded the British government to establish to receive members of the UVF. The next year was spent training before the Division was sent to France in October 1915, with further acclimatisation and training on arrival. Many battalions did not find themselves seriously in action until the summer of 1916, and the first major attempt at engaging the enemy was of course the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. That date is forever etched in the annals of the British Army as its bloodiest day ever. It is also widely held to be the primary manifestation of Ulster’s contribution to the war effort. That story can be applied to all parts of the historic province of Ulster, each of which had their own UVF unit - there were UVF members in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal in addition to the counties
which now form Northern Ireland. To add to this, the Shankill has its own particular approach to the story. It is set out at its clearest on the information display outside the Shankill Memorial Garden, which says, ‘During World War One, members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, who had been instrumental in resisting Home Rule, joined the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army. Almost an entire generation of Shankill men was wiped out on 1 July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Of the 760 men who fought for the regiment, only 76 returned.’ These breathtaking figures, which are picked out in large letters on the information board, were the original inspiration for my book Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (2009). I had first seen them displayed in the Shankill Heritage Centre at Fernhill House when on holiday in Northern Ireland in 1999. Some years later I resolved to try to tell the story of those men, with the addition of the parallel story of men from the Falls, who also heeded their political leaders and joined the British Army believing that it would help to advance their cause – just as Unionists believed they could advance a different case through enlisting. The book became a story of West Belfast as a whole.
problems with numbers at a relatively early stage of research I realised that these figures in the popular story were problematic. In the first place, they vastly understate the massive level of the Shankill’s service and sacrifice in the First World War. I eventually found over 6000 Shankill men who had served during the war, and because of lost records the actual total will be higher than that. Meanwhile, I found nearly 1400 Shankill men who were killed in the war, around twice the number whose deaths are part of the popular story. So how does this relate to a story where 760 fought and only 10% returned? It is not exactly clear where the 760 figure comes from but it is probable that it came from a reading of the memoirs of F.P. Crozier, the
commanding officer of the 9th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles which was formed from the West Belfast UVF. Crozier wrote in his book A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1930) of ‘seven hundred men of the West Belfast battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles’ proving that they could ‘subordinate matter to mind’ and that after 1 and 2 July 1916 ‘only seventy men’ remained to ‘carry the torch’. He also said that he had trained ‘seven hundred men to kill or incapacitate at least an equal number before ‘going west’ themselves’ and wrote of 700 ‘dead and destroyed’. Of course, ‘going west’ was a common phrase for being killed, but in another part of his book he talked about 600 men who would ‘go West or to Blighty’, which would mean that at least some were
wounded. However, it is very clear from the official records, which are widely held to be at least very close to accuracy, that there were not around 700 dead in Crozier’s battalion on that day. Indeed taking the first two days of the Battle of the Somme together, it is likely that a maximum of five officers and 107 other ranks were killed in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles. That certainly fits with the widely accepted figure of around 5500 casualties in the entire Ulster Division on those two days with around 2000 of those being killed. None of this is to diminish the Shankill’s sacrifice on the Somme. In addition to those in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, at least another 61 Shankill men were killed on 1st and 2nd July 1916, a total of 173 dead
in just two days of the war. That means that nearly 13% of the Shankill’s wartime fatalities were on 0.1% of the days of the war, which is a massive concentration. Such a figure explains how that battle, and the deaths which flowed from it, were so traumatic at the time, and rightly are still given greater prominence in remembrance than any other part of the war. However, to focus only on the Somme overlooks the vast majority of those Shankill men who were killed during the war, and perhaps surprisingly, it overlooks a significant part of the history of the UVF. To understand that history it is necessary to go back to the pre-war years of the UVF and ask what type of men joined such an organisation?
the uvf and enlistment the most important factor in joining the UVF would have been to hold broadly ‘Unionist’ political sympathies (with the term ‘Loyalist’ seldom if ever being in use at that time). Some who joined might not have thought through the precise consequences of what they could be asked to do, such as fighting against the British Army in rebellion against law passed by the Westminster government. But others would have been well aware of what was expected, and as such the UVF would have had strong attractions to those with some kind of military experience. That might have meant former service in the British Army, or it might have meant men who were serving as reservists in the Army. As the equivalent of today’s Territorial Army, those who served in the reserve were liable to be called up to their regiments on the outbreak of war. In most cases that would have involved being called into one of the regular battalions of the British Army, the 1st and 2nd battalions of each regiment. For Belfast men that would usually be the Royal Irish Rifles, but might also be
the Royal Irish Fusiliers or the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and potentially any other unit of the British Army, especially if men had previously served elsewhere. The consequence of this was that any UVF man who was a reservist was called up immediately on the outbreak of war and was not able to join the Ulster Division. We also have to note that the Ulster Division was not formed until early September 1914, a full month after the outbreak of war. If one makes a reasonable assumption that members of the UVF would have been relatively keen to heed the call to fight for King and Country, some would not have wished to wait until ‘big house Unionists’ had done deals in London to set up the Ulster Division. Instead they would join a unit already in existence, or being formed more quickly. In some cases that meant battalions of the 10th (Irish) Division which was formed on 21st August 1914. Like the later 16th (Irish) Division it recruited across Ireland, but unlike the 16th which was broadly nationalist in its politics, the 10th was non-political. Neither Carson
nor Redmond were calling on supporters to join it. There were other reasons for UVF members to enlist prior to the formation of the Ulster Division. Individuals might make personal decisions over which regiments to join, perhaps due to some family connection with a particular regiment. There were also economic factors. In the first few days of the war a number of employers in West Belfast lost continental orders and men were laid off. Faced with unemployment and the hardship it would bring to their families taking the Kingâ€™s shilling was an obvious solution. So while some enlisted for idealistic reasons others could be driven by practical matters. The effects of these factors could be seen when enlistment for the Ulster Division began. In Belfast, each part of the UVF was allocated different days on which to enlist. The North came first on 4th September, followed on subsequent days by the East, West and South. The West Belfast UVF had been seen by some to be among the elite of the UVF and one would therefore expect
therefore that there would be no trouble in filling the ranks of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, the battalion which was to take men from the west. However, more than any other former Belfast UVF battalion in the British Army it was the 9th which had problems meeting its targets. Partly this would have been because the West Belfast UVF was smaller than other Belfast parts of the UVF but it would also have been affected by so many men having already enlisted or been called up as reservists. So while we might imagine that the West Belfast UVF simply became the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, the situation is far more complicated than that. As discussed below, its members served throughout the British Army. That means that even if one is primarily interested in the history of the UVF during the First World War, rather than others from Ulster who served, it is problematic to focus only on the Ulster Division.
the uvf and the british army so where did uvf members from West Belfast serve? The short discussion offered here is far from being a complete story and the numbers should not be taken as complete. We have no precise idea of how many West Belfast UVF men enlisted or how far there was an overlap between the 36th Division and the UVF other than for officers. The only records from which we might one day be able to gain a clearer idea are those of the UVF Patriotic Fund which are kept at the Somme Heritage Centre, but they are currently closed. Consequently, when writing about West Belfast, I had to draw together references to UVF membership from a range of sources, but mainly newspapers. The only men mentioned in newspapers were those who were unusual in some way for example, by being killed or wounded, winning a medal, or occasionally, by sending an interesting letter home. But most men were not killed or wounded or awarded gallantry medals, and of those who wrote interesting letters home only a small number appeared in newspapers. Moreover, men might have been mentioned in a newspaper without their UVF membership being specified. However, the cases identified do at least serve as a pointer to where men served
and what they did having moved from the UVF to the British Army. In the course of writing Belfast Boys, I found references to 142 West Belfast men who served having been members of either the UVF or the Young Citizens Volunteers. 68 of the men were dead, which is nearly half of the sample, but to reiterate, only those to whom something remarkable happens are mentioned in newspapers, so the actually fatality rate would be far below that. These are listed in the included tables. It must be stressed that these are not intended to be complete, but merely lists of those located by one historian, and it would be interesting to hear from anybody who has any corrections, amendments or additions. It will come as no surprise that the largest single number of men (55 of the 142) were in the 9th Royal Irish Rifles as shown in Table 1. The table indicates home addresses, and which part of the UVF they were in if it is known (with NB indicating North Belfast, and WB indicating West Belfast). It should be noted that because part of the Shankill was in the North Belfast parliamentary constituency, it was covered by the North Belfast UVF, even though such areas would have been thought of by many as ‘West’.
West Belfast UVF at Glencairn 1914
however, while the link between West Belfast and the 9th Royal Irish Rifles is well known, men from the area also served in other parts of the 36th Division. That mostly meant other infantry units, and the Young Citizens Volunteers were drafted into the 14th Royal Irish Rifles from across Belfast, as detailed in Table 2. There were also some among the divisional or brigade troops as set out in Table 3. Taken together, 81 of the 142 men identified served in the Ulster Division. There are also a further sixteen in Table 4 whose specific battalions or other units have not been possible (yet) to identify. There is a chance that some or all of these were in the Ulster Division. Intriguingly, that leaves another 45 men (nearly one-third of all those found) who definitely did not serve in the Ulster Division and it is these men who add the most significant ‘lost’ dimensions to the story of what happened to UVF members during the war. In the vast majority of cases, as Table 5 shows, such men served in the 1st and 2nd battalions of various Irish regiments. That would indicate that they had either enlisted as regular soldiers prior
to the war breaking out, or, more likely, that they were reservists who were obliged to join their regiments on the outbreak of war. In such battalions, UVF members would have served alongside nationalists, including members of the Irish National Volunteers. From those listed in Table 5, we can add many new dimensions to the UVF’s war story, simply by looking at where men were killed. The first fatality was Frank Todd from March Street who was killed on 22nd October 1914 serving with the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. Others killed at that time as the British Army fought to stop the Germans taking France’s channel coast were serving with regular battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and the Irish Guards. Taking the story further on, we can see deaths at Gallipoli in 1915 with the 1st Inniskillings. Such UVF members had been in action, and in some cases had died, long before the Ulster Division even arrived in France. In addition to those who served in these regular battalions a handful were found in other units as listed in Table 6.
the largest body of these men were in the 6th Royal Irish Rifles which was part of the 10th (Irish) Division. As stated earlier, that had been formed before the 36th and it is easy to imagine that an ardent member of the UVF, keen to enlist, would join the 10th Division rather than wait around for the 36th to be formed. Some of those men could also have been reservists in the Royal Irish Rifles who were dispatched to the 6th to add some experience to the newly formed battalion. Those who served in non-Irish regiments would have done so for a variety of reasons, ranging for family traditions to just having been in another part of the UK when they enlisted. â€ƒ Just like the listing for regular battalions, Table 6 includes Gallipoli deaths. It also includes the last identified UVF man from West Belfast to be killed in the war:
Robert Rea Bell, on 11th August 1918, serving with the 5/6th Royal Scots. But the most intriguing case is that of Isaac Hughes. He was killed while serving with the 8th Inniskillings, part of the 16th (Irish) Division. How did this former UVF member come to be serving in a nationalist unit? There are a number of possibilities, but sadly his full record does not seem to have survived. However, his medal index card says that he first entered active service in the Balkans in July 1915. Given that the 16th Division never served beyond the Western Front, he must at some point have been in another battalion of the Inniskillings (or even another regiment), but the case does at least point to the dangers of making assumptions about the men who served in â€˜politicalâ€™ divisions.
10th Irish Division at Basingstoke
conclusion: remembering the lost the information presented here only begins to tell the story of what happened to UVF members during the war. But it does point to some complexities of service in the war. The telling of ‘lost’ histories of the war is very much the vogue and often such stories have not been lost, just not told very often. However, the story of UVF members outside the 36th Division has, I would argue, been genuinely lost because it has been painted over by a powerful narrative of what happened on the Somme in July 1916. While those two days are much of the story of West Belfast’s UVF members in the war, they are far from all of it. Such men fought and died from 1914 through to 1918, not only on the Western Front but also at Gallipoli. They deserve to be remembered alongside those who gave their lives on the Somme.
remembering our past for those in the future