The Home Rule Crises in the early 20th century in Ireland came to a temporary halt when war erupted in Europe in 1914. The Great War as it has become known commenced in 1914 and ended when peace was declared in 1918. For these four years Britain and itâs allies fought a war, which claimed so many lives it was described as the war to end all wars. In Ireland both nationalists and unionists put their differences aside and joined the rest of Britain in defending their country against the common enemy, Germany.
The Ulster Volunteer Force was in a unique position due to the successful gunrunning by Crawford. The importance of the gunrunning by the Ulster Volunteer Force was summed up by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Wilfred B Spender K.C.B. C.B.E. D.S.O. M.C.
"Looking back, the British have reason to be grateful to the Ulster people for their stand for the Empire and particularly Colonel Crawford, who brought from Germany, before the first Great War, more than enough arms to equip a Division in Northern Ireland. Germany lost these weapons at a vital time and they proved invaluable in training the 36th Ulster Division before itâs departure to France on 1915?".
The Ulster Volunteer Force, which became known as the 36th Ulster Division played a vital role in the Great War.
With over 80,000 members, it was clear that the UVF was in a position to make an important contribution to the recruitment of the New Armies. Lord Kitchener met with Sir Edward Carson in London who, although eager to help was concerned at how the situation in Ireland might turn while his force was away at war. The Government were not able to give any guarantees that might put Sir Edwardâs mind at rest. However, he later agreed to raise a Division, without any conditions, and within days had placed an order for 10,000 uniforms with a London firm of outfitters. The volunteers were quickly kitted out in their new uniforms unlike recruits elsewhere in Britain who had to endure weeks of drilling in inadequate boots and civilian clothes.
The 36th Ulster Division was swiftly raised, three infantry brigades being formed on a territorial basis from the regimental areas of the UVF to become battalions of the existing provincial infantry regiments. The divisional artillery was formed six months later with recruits from the London area.
107th Infantry Brigade 8th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (East Belfast Volunteers) 9th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast Volunteers) 10th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (South Belfast Volunteers) 15th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (North Belfast Volunteers) 108th Infantry Brigade 11th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (South Antrim Volunteers) 12th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrim Volunteers) 13th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (1st County Down Volunteers) 9th Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers (Armagh, Monaghan and Cavan Volunteers) 109th Infantry Brigade 9th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Tyrone Volunteers) 10th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Derry Volunteers) 11th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Donegal & Fermanagh Volunteers) 14th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (Young Citizen Volunteers) Pioneer Battalion 16th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (2nd County Down Volunteers) Artillery 153rd Brigade Royal Field Artillery 154th Brigade Royal Field Artillery 172nd Brigade Royal Field Artillery 173rd Brigade Royal Field Artillery Divisional Ammunition Column, Royal Field Artillery Royal Engineers 121st Field Company 122nd Field Company 150th Field Company Service Squadron Royal Inniskilling Dragoons 36th Divisional Signal Company: Royal Engineers Divisional Cyclist Company Royal Army Medical Corps 108th Field Ambulance 109th Field Ambulance 110th Field Ambulance 76th Sanitary Section, R.A.M.C Divisional Train, R.A.S.C 48th Mobile Veterinary Section
In July 1915, the Division moved to Seaford, on the Sussex coast of England. This was the first time that many of the men had been outside their native Ireland. Kitchener inspected the Division there on 27 July 1915, and later remarked to Carson "your Division of Ulstermen is the finest I have yet seenâ"
In October 1915 after several months of preparation in England, men of the 36th Ulster Division sailed across the Channel and began to disembark in France. The soldiers, drawn from all parts of the nine counties of Ulster, had previously trained at Finner Camp in Donegal, Ballykinlar in County Down, and the Clandeboye Estate near Bangor. All were volunteers with an overwhelming majority of them in their late teens and early twenties and, while many perhaps sought adventure and a chance to see some of the world beyond the confines of their own home towns and villages, they believed absolutely that their cause in going to war to free France and Belgium from German oppression and invasion was just and honourable.
During the next winter and spring they learnt their combat and trench skills in the quieter regions of the Western Front before moving, in June, 1916, to take over their allotted areas on either side of the River Ancre and west of the village of Thiepval in preparation for the forthcoming Battle of the Somme.
In November 1915 the Ulster Division initially concentrated in the area around Flesselles, some ten miles north of Arras. Gradually, men were sent in groups for familiarisation with trench warfare conditions, and were attached to the regular army 4th Division for the purpose in the (at this time) quiet are north of the River Ancre near Albert.
Later the Division was moved away from the fighting area, towards Abbeville, where it spent most of the winter of 1915-16 continuing training. One of the Brigades was attached to 4th Division for several weeks at this time, and the artillery finally joined in late November.
The whole Division finally took over a complete section of the front line on 7 February 1916, between the River Ancre and the Mailly-Maillet to Serre road. Division HQ was at Acheux. The next six weeks were quiet enough, but punctuated by mine explosions, sniping, many patrols and similar small-scale incidents.
In March 1916 the sector of the front held by the Ulster Division was extended to cover an area south of the river called Thiepval Wood. This wood, the name of which would become indelibly linked to the province of Ulster, served as a base until the commencement of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.
Thiepval comprised an area of some 100 acres of deciduous forest and was criss-crossed with deep communication trenches leading to the front line. Dugouts were excavated from the chalky earth and provided some shelter from the German artillery. Food stores and ammunition dumps were also constructed in the wood. It was near one of these dumps, on the morning of the 1st July, that Rifleman William McFadzean, 14th Rifles (Young Citizen Volunteers) won immortal fame when was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for an act of courageous self-sacrifice.
Thiepval Wood housed the four battalions of the 109th Brigade. The River Ancre divided 108th Brigade, with two battalions in the wood and two in the village of Hamel. Divisional Headquarters was at Aveluy Wood, which also housed the 107th Brigade.
1st July 1916 - As the morning mists cleared away on the 1st July, the assault waves of 130,000 British Infantry called their rolls and checked their arms and ammunition. Each man was in "fighting order" and with the extra burden of shovels, grenades, a Stokeâs mortar bomb, wire cutters a gas mask, a prepared charge of explosives for cutting gaps in wire, and other obstacles, many of them were carrying 90lbs.
At 7.30am, zero hour, the artillery barrage lifted off the first German line and moved onto the second. This was the first employment of the so-called rolling barrage. Steel-helmeted and with bayonets fixed, the infantry left their trenches and advanced. As a senior officer wrote to the Times Newspaper of the Ulster Division: "It was done as if it was a parade movement on the barrack square" They were closely packed in rigid lines, the military doctrine of the day being that they should swarm onto the enemy trenches as soon as their own artillery had lifted. But this stiff formation prevented the use of cover and inhibited initiative.
At first, south of the Ancre, everything went well and 108 and 109 Brigades moved over the German trenches with few casualties. Scarcely were they across, however, when the German batteries opened a barrage on "No Mans Land". Simultaneously the skilful and resolute German machine-gunners, who had remained safe from our bombardment, now sprang up from their shelters, pulling up their guns and heavy ammunition boxes, and raked our men from the flanks and the rear, thinning the khaki waves. Many officers fell and the men went on alone.
The Ulster Divisions position was now a vulnerable salient in the German line. A few hundred yards wide and raked by German fire. At dusk a powerful counter-attack by fresh German troops drove our men, almost weaponless, back to the second German line, which they held all the next day until relieved at night by the troops of the 49th Division.
They withdrew with their prisoners tattered and exhausted. They had suffered horrendous casualties. The Innsikillings lost more men than any British regiment had ever lost in a single day. Of the 15th Royal Irish Rifles, only seventy men answered roll call that night of the 1st of July. The total British casualties on that first day were 60,000.
Through no fault of their own, the blinding success that the Ulstermen had achieved had not been exploited. But the Battle of the Somme had inflicted on the Germans, a wound from which they never fully recovered. An historic eyewitness account of the battle stated "I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack I felt I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world."
Truly we may say of those who fell as said Pericles over the warrior dead in Athens, "So they gave their bodies to the Commonwealth and received, each with his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the greatest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or to actions as the occasion comes by."
In two days of fighting, the Ulster Division had lost 5500 officers and men - killed, wounded and missing. The first day of the battle had been the original anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne and as they went over the parapet, many shouted the old battle cries "NO SURRENDER" and "REMEMBER 1690". Many wore orange ribbons and one sergeant of the Inniskilling had on his orange sash. The Belfast newspapers, as elsewhere on 3rd July, reported the Somme Offensive, and spoke of brilliant successes. It was several days before the true horror of the casualties was known, and as day by day the lists in the newspapers grew longer, the whole Province went into mourning. No division was more closely-knit because its core had been the Ulster Volunteer Force and besides, the Ulster community was small and compact. In the streets of Belfast, as in other towns and villages throughout Ulster, mothers looked out in dread for the red bicycles of the telegram boys. In house after house, the blinds were drawn until it seemed that every family in the city had been bereaved. The casualty lists were full of familiar names, and always after them in brackets appeared the Ulster Volunteer Force units to which the casualty belonged. That year the Lord Mayor requested the suspension of business for five minutes at noon. In a downpour of rain, traffic stopped, and passers by stood silent in the streets - the Ulster Volunteers had sealed their covenant in blood.
Volumes have been written about the Battle of the Somme, which continued until November 1916. The author of the 36th Divisional History, the noted military historian Cyril falls says this of it: "But - and of this there can be no shadow of doubt today - it laid the foundations of final victory. The German troops were never the same after it, while our young levies, dreadful as were their sacrifices, were to arrive at a far higher standard of military virtueâ".
On 5 July the Division moved back to RubemprĂŠ, and five days later the Bernaville area, although the artillery remained in position. Replacement drafts began to arrive before the Division was moved north, to Flanders. Falls again: "On 12 July ... Brigade marching from the station of Thiennes into Blaringhem. The least practised eye could tell that to these men confidence was returning; that the worst of the horror they had endured had been shaken from their shoulders. They marched like victors, as was their rightâ".
The division was withdrawn from the front and moved to the area around St. Omer where it regrouped, received large numbers of fresh soldiers to replace those killed or wounded, and made ready for its next engagement - the Battle of Messines.
The small town of Messines lies at the southern end of a low, rounded ridge, which stretches eight kilometres northwards towards Ypres. The ridge overlooks the flat Flanders Plain and, in 1917 in the hands of the Germans, it dominated the southern sector of the Ypres Salient held by the British. Its capture was vital if the commander-in-chief's (Field Marshal Haig) strategic attack eastwards out of the Salient was to succeed.
The 36th Division joined the Second Army under General Plumer - a senior officer old-fashioned in appearance but with the deserved reputation both for meticulous battle preparation, and, in what had become a war of attrition, a keen regard for the saving of the lives of the men under his command. On a frontage of about 1,200 yards the Ulstermen took position south-west of the heavily fortified village of Wytschaete and, with the 16th Irish Division on its left, prepared for the day of attack - 7th June. At 3.10 a.m., with a roar clearly heard in London, nineteen monstrous British mines containing a total of 600 tons of high explosives were detonated under the defenders on the ridge. Beneath an intense artillery barrage the men of Second Army attacked the dazed and demoralised Germans and, by mid- afternoon, the entire ridge was in British hands. Wytschaete had held out for some time but after a fierce struggle it was captured by the combined efforts of the Irish and Ulster Divisions.
After its success at Messines the 36th was withdrawn for rest and to prepare for its next battle.
Perhaps even more than the "The Somme", "Ypres" is a name which recalls all the waste of life, horror, and squalor of the Great War. The old walled Belgian town of Ypres is situated about forty miles east of Calais and throughout World War One it was defended by the indefatigable bravery of British soldiers and the obstinacy of their high command. On a shallow plain, which barely rises above sea level, the clay soil of the land was drained by an intricate network of ditches; while to the east, north, and south a series of low ridges overlooked and commanded the town. From November 1914 the Germans held the ridges and by July 1917 the British "Salient" extended eastwards in an arc of about two to three miles in depth. Able to see almost every movement in the Salient and the town itself, the Germans had shelled the area continuously for years until all buildings were reduced to unrecognisable rubble and every field into an impassable quagmire pitted with millions of overlapping shell holes always filled with stinking liquid mud and often the decomposing remains of animals and the occasional bodies of dead soldiers.
It was through, and then out of, this area that Haig intended to make a massive and war-winning attack striking eastwards from Belgium and towards Germany. The implementation of the plan was given to Fifth Army, commanded by General Gough who, unlike Plumer, had a reputation for poor staff work and a lesser regard for the care and safety of his men. In early July the Ulster Division moved near to St. Omer again and into the command of Fifth Army.
The Battle of Third Ypres started on 22nd July when 3,091 British guns began a bombardment of the German positions which lasted until 31st July by which time some four and a quarter million shells had been fired. Then, at 3.50 a.m., in torrential rain twelve divisions made their attack on an eleven-mile wide front. Initially, on the left, some gains were made but on the right the attack slithered quickly to a halt. Thus things remained, for in the rain, which continued unabated day after day, neither man nor animal nor tank could move.
The 36th had been kept back from the original assault so that it could be used at a later date. But in the area north-east of Ypres and near the village St. Julien the division there was so badly battered and its soldiers so tired that it was decided to withdraw them and replace them much earlier than expected with the Ulster Division. This was accomplished in the rain and mud of the night of 2nd August and completed by the early hours of the next morning. There they existed for another fourteen days where all were soaked by the continual rain and suffered from a lack of food, of heating, and of drinkable water. Lying in trenches which were little more than watery scratches scooped out of the morass and feebly protected by sandbags filled with mud, the soldiers endured perpetual shelling and small arms fire. It was out of these conditions that, with the 16th Irish Division on its right, they were ordered to make an attack on 16th August in what has become known as the Battle of Langemarck.
The Ulster Division was to advance about two and a quarter miles to reach its objective - an imaginary "Red Line". At 4.45 a.m. the men left their trenches but: pounded by high-explosive, shrapnel, and gas shells; ravaged pitilessly by machine-gun fire from impregnable concrete pill boxes protected by barbed wire entanglements; saturated by the rain; lost in a featureless landscape; and encumbered by the clinging mud: only a little ground on the left was gained, and by nightfall most of those still alive were back where they had started. That any progress at all was made is a tribute to the bravery and determination of the men, for the ambitious plan, conceived in the comfort of a distant headquarters, defied reality and was fatally flawed. In the dreadful conditions of the battlefield the British artillery's preliminary barrage and its subsequent "creeping" covering fire, which went far ahead of the attackers, were ineffective; and a few supporting tanks, bogged down in the impassable mire, never appeared. Furthermore, a weary division, which had already sustained some 2,000 casualties due to enemy action during the previous two weeks, should never have been ordered to attack in the face of such overwhelmingly adverse odds.
For the capture of a few worthless yards of mud the attack resulted in 58 officers and 1278 men being gassed or wounded. During its sixteen days in the line, from 2nd to 18th August, the Division suffered the total loss of 144 officers and 3,441 men either killed, wounded or missing.
The pitiful tragedy of "Third Ypres" continued its bloody course until, on 4th November, the battle ended when the Canadians captured the muddy mound which had once been the village of Passchendaele - a name now associated irrevocably with the battle and which, perhaps, recalls more poignantly the sorrows of the men who fought there.
After Langemarck the Division was withdrawn to rest and to receive reinforcements. It did not, however, ever have the same character again for most of its original men had been lost in the everyday hazards of war, and in the Battles of the Somme, Messines, and Passchendaele. Many of the recruits, which filled the empty ranks, were from diverse other parts of the British Isles - often young conscripts aged about nineteen or twenty. Nevertheless, the division still had a significant part to play in many of the remaining battles and campaigns of the War such as: The Battle of Cambrai in November, 1917; the German Spring Offensive of 1918, and its advance through Belgium during the War's final hundred days.
Sir Philip Gibbs - an Establishment figure - was a reporter for the Daily Telegraph during the War and, because of strict army censorship, his newspaper reports printed then are often bland, dull, and follow the official line. However, in 1920, he published a book entitled, Realities of War, in which he writes openly about his feelings during his time on the Western Front. Many of his comments are very astringent, especially when analysing its conduct by British Generalship.
On page 388 of his book he records these observations on the Battle of Langemarck:
The Irish at Ypres 1917
The story of the two Irish Divisions, the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish in their fighting on August 16th, is black in tragedy. They were left in the line for sixteen days before the battle, and were shelled and gassed incessantly as they crouched in wet ditches. Every day groups of men were blown to bits, until the ditches were bloody and the living lay by the corpses of their comrades. Every day scores of wounded crawled back through the bogs, if they had the strength to crawl. Before the attack on August 16th the Ulster Division had lost nearly 2,000 men. Then they attacked and lost 2,000 more and over 100 officers. The 16th Division lost as many men before the attack and more officers. The 8th Dublin - had been annihilated in holding the line. On the night before the battle hundreds of men were gassed. Then their comrades attacked and lost over more and 162 officers. All the ground below two knolls of earth called Hill 35 and Hill 37, which was defended by German pill-boxes, called Pond Farm and Gallipoli, Beck House and Borry Farm, became an Irish shambles. In spite of their dreadful losses the survivors in the Irish battalions went forward to the assault with desperate valour on the morning of August 16th, surrounded the "pill-boxes," stormed them through blasts of machine-gun fire, and towards the end of the day small bodies of these men had gained a footing on the objectives which they had been asked to capture, but were then too weak to resist German counter-attacks. The 7th and 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers had been almost exterminated in their efforts to dislodge the enemy from Hill 37. They lost 17 officers out of 21, and 64 per cent. of their men. One company of 4 officers and 100 men ordered to capture the concrete fort known as Borry Farm, at all cost, lost 4 officers and 70 men. The 9th Dublin - lost 15 officers out of 17, and 66 per cent. of their men
The two Irish Divisions were broken to bits, and their brigadiers called it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth Army for having put their men into the attack after those thirteen days of heavy shelling, and, after the battle, they complained that they were cast aside like old shoes, no care being taken for the comfort of the men who had survived. No motor-lorries were sent to meet them and to bring them down, but they had to tramp back, exhausted and dazed. The remnants of the 16th Division, the poor, despairing remnants, were sent, without rest or baths, straight into the line again, down south.
I found a general opinion among officers and men, not only of the Irish Division, under the command of the Fifth Army, that they had been the victims of atrocious Staff work, tragic in its consequences. From what I saw of some of the Fifth Army staff-officers I was of the same opinion. Some of these young gentlemen, and some of the elderly officers, were arrogant and supercilious, without revealing any symptoms of intelligence. If they had wisdom it was deeply camouflaged by an air of inefficiency. If they had knowledge they hid it as a secret of their own. General Gough, commanding the Fifth Army in Flanders, and afterwards north and south of St. Quentin, where the enemy broke through, was extremely courteous, of most amiable character, with a high sense of duty. But in Flanders, if not personally responsible for many tragic happenings, he was badly served by some of his subordinates; and battalion officers, and divisional staffs, raged against the whole of the Fifth Army organisation, or lack of organisation, with an extreme passion of speech.
"You must be glad to leave Flanders." I said to a group of officers trekking towards the Cambrai Salient.
One of them answered violently:
"God be thanked we are leaving the Fifth Army area!"
Everywhere it fought it acquitted itself with courage and fortitude and by 11th November 1918, nine Victoria Crosses and a multitude of other gallantry medals had been awarded to the doughty men of the 36th Ulster Division.
The Division was demobilised between January and June 1919, having suffered 32,000 casualties during the war.