The city of Belfast provided 46,000 volunteers for military service during the Great War. This figure does not include the thousands more reservists and regular soldiers who also derived from Belfast. In recent years Eric Mercer’s research has demonstrated how Belfast possessed a complex set of factors which encouraged recruitment; factors that were unique to this city, least of which were patriotism and politics.
The outbreak of war had immediate consequences for Ireland. 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 affect 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, however there were two caveats attached; 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. Around 3,000 reservists departed the Belfast shipyards for active service during this early period. The Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast was eventually able to conclude that during the month of August ‘mobilisation of the Army and Naval Reserve was satisfactorily carried out, the response of the men being very prompt.’
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, MP for West Belfast, addressed nationalist audiences at venues such as St. Mary’s Hall in September 1914. He encouraged his supporters to enlist in an ‘Irish Brigade’ in the form of the 16th (Irish) Division. During this period ‘Wee Joe Devlin’ became a recruiting sergeant for the British Army in all but name, encouraging and securing hundreds of recruits for the 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 were seeking to rapidly expand the British forces. 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 which resembled the Pals Battalions elsewhere. Recruits from Belfast formed the core of the Ulster Division’s strength. However, despite the fact that both sides had been pledged to war in a climate of bitter political dispute, it does not seem to have translated to the men in respect of their motivations for enlisting. Reasons for signing-up were plentiful and varied; as many motives exist as the number of recruits because each decision was made by a personal judgment.
Uneventful lives, lack of prospects, the potential for adventure, and the group mentality were more prominent than political motives for many new recruits. Belfast serviceman John Boyd recalled in his diary that when he enlisted he was underage, and he didn’t join out of any great patriotic instinct, rather because his two friends had already enlisted and he thought he ought to join them. On the other hand 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. Professor David Fitzpatrick has elaborated that such recruits had an earlier choice to enlist during peacetime when the risks were significantly lower and the remuneration was no less attractive yet they chose not to avail of the opportunity at that stage. One thing which all the recruits had in common is the sentiment of a World War Two veteran who recalled recently how he and his pals enlisted in 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. Private Hugh Bailie of the 2ndSouth Lancashire Regiment died of wounds in Belgium on 26 August 1914, he had been taken prisoner during the opening exchanges of the conflict. Hugh Bailie’s war lasted for 12 days. Not all of Belfast’s casualties were military personnel however – civilians were affected by the war in ways that we don’t tend to consider. RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in May 1915 causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. But there were some survivors, some of whom came from Belfast. They included Patrick McGinley, a former teacher at a school in Clonard, and Margaret McClintock who had left Castlereagh Street behind in 1912 for a fresh start in New York.
Others found themselves in odd environments, like the ‘Sinn Feiner’ who was discovered within the ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division. Wilfred Spender revealed this news during the course of a letter to his wife Lady Lilian. Spender observed how the ‘Sinn Feiner’ 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 us – he thought it was his duty to do so – but that no Sinn Feiner would dream of joining the Nationalists. (16th Irish Div.) All Sinn Feiners admired the UVF!!’ If nothing else this short anecdote reminds us of the complex and multi-layered situation of 100 years ago.
Nevertheless, 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 Irish mothers’ sons lay dead, wounded or missing from the Ulster Division on the opening two days of this battle. Though 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 1000 were dead.
In total the 16th and 36th Divisions suffered almost 10,000 casualties at the Battle of the Somme. They were, of course, part of a wider offensive in which Belfast men also featured with units other than the 16thand 36th. The battle eventually drew to a close in November 1916 with the British having advanced around 7 miles, a meager territorial gain at the expense of an astronomical loss of life. However, the 16thand 36thDivisions did play 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.