Belfast Soldiers in the Great War
As part of a series of articles commemorating the events of 1916, Jason Burke reflects on the recruitment of, and the role played by unionist and nationalist soldiers from Belfast in the Great War. (Image: Guildhall Stained-glass Windows commemorating the 36th, 16th and 10th Divisions)
The city of Belfast provided 46,000 volunteers for military service during the Great War. The outbreak of war in 1914 had immediate consequences for Ireland, and both sides of the Home Rule debate were forced to re-examine their positions in light of the developing European crisis. Unionists felt that Home Rule politics should be shelved for the duration of the war, while Irish nationalists sought to put pressure on the government to have Home Rule passed as an Act.
Such uncertainty, it was claimed, had an adverse effect on recruitment in Ulster during the early weeks of the war. Eventually a political truce developed in which Home Rule became law on 18 September 1914, but implementation was suspended for the duration of the war and there was to be special (though as yet undefined) provision for Ulster. This angered unionists, while nationalists rejoiced. Focus and energy could now be re-directed towards the war effort.
The first phase of recruitment was to call up the reserve. Many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and Irish Volunteers (as well as men with no connection to such militias) were also British Army Reservists and Special Reservists. Both were mobilised almost immediately after the war had been announced and approximately 3,000 reservists departed the Belfast shipyards for active service during this early period.
The next phase of recruitment was the search for volunteers. Each of the two political militias were offered for military service by their respective leaders. In Belfast Joe Devlin, the Home Rule MP for West Belfast, and a director of the Irish News, encouraged his supporters to enlist in an ‘Irish Brigade’ in the form of the 16th (Irish) Division. Nationalist leaders backed the war effort as a gesture of maturity in light of the promised Home Rule legislation and as a demonstration of a brand of Irish Nationalism that was comfortable within the British Empire.
For unionists, the war was an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to the Crown and to cement Ulster’s place in the United Kingdom, something that they had been trying to do before the war. In the form of the UVF, they had a ready-made army that became attractive to the War Office who was seeking to rapidly expand the British forces.
Edward Carson’s subsequent agreement with the War Office meant that UVF units could enlist and be kept together within the structures of an ‘Ulster’ Division. Recruits from Belfast formed the core of the Ulster Division’s strength.
Aside from politics, reasons for signing-up were plentiful and varied. Uneventful lives, lack of prospects, the potential for adventure and the group mentality were more prominent than political motives for many new recruits. For example, Belfast serviceman John Boyd enlisted because his two friends had already done so and he thought he ought to join them.
The middle and upper classes were motivated, amongst other things, by the chance to prove one’s self in the officer class of the military. Family economics will have played a part in such decision-making, but it would be inaccurate to suggest that many recruits had ‘no choice’ economically but to enlist – they did have a choice; they had a choice not to enlist. One thing which all the recruits had in common was the mistaken belief that they could make a difference.
Belfast men (and some women) found their way into almost every aspect of the Great War. They were even among the first casualties such as Private Hugh Bailie of the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment who died of wounds in Belgium on 26 August 1914. Civilians also were affected by the war in ways that we do not tend to consider. Patrick McGinley, a former teacher at a school in Clonard in West Belfast, and Margaret McClintock who had left Castlereagh Street behind in 1912 for a fresh start in New York, were lucky to survive the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915.
Others found themselves in odd environments, like the unidentified ‘Sinn Féiner’ who was discovered within the ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Wilfred Spender observed how the ‘Sinn Féiner’ had been ‘quite open about it’ even having the audacity to apply for leave during the Easter Rising in April 1916. ‘When asked why he joined us, he said that he wanted to fight – he thought it was his duty to do so – but that no Sinn Féiner would dream of joining the nationalists. (16th Irish Div.) All Sinn Féiners admired the UVF!!’ If nothing else, this anecdote reminds us of the complex and multi-layered situation of 100 years ago.
Both the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions were involved in their first major engagement of the war at the Somme. The battle was initially hatched as the ‘big push’ that could win the war, but by June 1916 it was an exercise in keeping the Allies in the war as the result of the German attack at Verdun. The Ulster Division was engaged on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle. Their objective was to advance towards the village of Thiepval and take a fortified German trench network named Schwaben Redoubt. They managed to advance before the end of an intensive artillery bombardment shortly before 7:30am.
Belfast veteran George Hill recalled this moment “when the barrage lifted on the morning of the First we went over the top in waves. We had practiced it when out of the line. Some of the lads had got hold of a football and kicked it ahead, shouting ‘up the Blues’ or ‘up the Glens’.”
The Ulster Division initially overwhelmed the German lines and took their stated objective, but the successes could not be maintained and they were forced to withdraw by nightfall. A German Corporal named Hinkel poignantly recalled this event: “They retreated in their droves from Schwaben Redoubt. Once again our machine guns chattered away. Once again our rifle barrels glowed red hot. Once again my men were seized by the reckless bravado which had gripped them in the morning. Many an Irish mother’s son lay down to the sleep from which there is no awakening.” Indeed, 5,500 lay dead, wounded or missing from the Ulster Division on the opening two days of this battle.
They were not alone. The 16th (Irish) Division was moved to the Somme sector in September and they were tasked with liberating the towns of Guillemont and Ginchy. Unlike the Ulsters, the Irish Division was part of a successful offensive, but it was success at a terrible cost. 4,330 casualties were sustained, of which 1,000 were dead.
In total, the 16th and 36th Divisions suffered almost 10,000 casualties at the Somme. They were, of course, part of a wider offensive in which Belfast men also featured with units other than the 16th and 36th. The battle eventually drew to a close in November 1916 with the British having advanced around seven miles, a meagre territorial gain at the expense of an astronomical loss of life. They played a part in a crucial battle, which, when viewed in a context of the entire conflict, allowed the Allies to go on and win the war.
Theirs was a loss not in vain.