Updated: Oct 7, 2019
Jason Burke & Richard S. Grayson
Over the past decade and more, we have been gathering material on those from East and West Belfast who served in the First World War. Material on the East has come from Jason Burke’s East Belfast and the Great War project, while information on the West was gathered for Richard Grayson’s book Belfast Boys. Our approach has been based on a ‘military history from the street’ method which aims to find and record details of allthose from the two parts of the city who served, not only those in the units particularly known to be linked to the areas. Those units included the 9th Royal Irish Rifles (for the Shankill), the 6th Connaught Rangers (for the Falls and Short Strand), and the 8th Royal Irish Rifles (across East Belfast). The story of their war is central to any account of how men from these parts of the city served but we found that it was only the tip of the iceberg. Men served in many other parts of the British army, navy and air force. They did so for a wide range of reasons such as being reservists (called up as war broke out), having a family connection to a particular regiment, or wanting to volunteer as soon as war broke out without waiting for the 36th (Ulster) or 16th (Irish) Divisions to be formed.
As we have presented our research, especially talking to local people in Belfast, we have been struck by the persistence of the narrative that members of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913-14 enlisted in the Ulster Division from September 1914, were deployed in France in October 1915 and then saw their first heavy action on the Somme on 1st July 1916. However, our detailed research tells us that this is only part of the story of what happened to the UVF members who served in 1914-18. Taking just West Belfast, around one-third did not serve in the Ulster Division. They include men like William Shearer of Seventh Street, who served in the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and was killed in September 1915 at Hooge. Earlier, in December 1914, Michael McGivern, from Merrion Street, had been killed in the same battalion. He was a member of the Irish National Volunteers, and came to be serving alongside an Ulster Volunteer like Shearer because both men were British army reservists and were called up as war broke out. In East Belfast the UVF were around 9,000 strong at their peak in the summer of 1914; they were one of the strongest UVF regiments in Ulster. Just over 3,000 of these men saw military service in the First World War and from a sample of 240 East Belfast UVF members around one-third did not serve in the Ulster Division. They include men like Private Hugh Bailie who was recalled as a reservist to serve with the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment, a regular unit of the British Army. He died in the opening weeks of the war on 26 August 1914 after being taken prisoner in Belgium. Bailie was a member of the East Belfast UVF, the Orange Institution, and the Royal Black Preceptory; his unionist credentials were sterling, yet Hugh Bailie’s war was over before the 36th Ulster Division had even been formed. Thus the story of the war for some men who might have fought against each other in a civil war over Home Rule was not one of enlisting in units with a particular political allegiance, but of service side by side in regular battalions of the British army which paid no attention to religion or politics when recruiting.
Other Ulster Volunteers found themselves serving alongside men from across the island of Ireland for a different reason: it took Edward Carson a month to secure War Office agreement for the formation of the Ulster Division and some in the UVF did not want to wait to enlist. Instead, they joined battalions of the 10th(Irish) Division which was non-political and consisted of a full range of people from across the divides. That division was deployed at Gallipoli in August 1915, two months before the Ulster Division arrived in France and so the first heavy action seen by volunteers (as opposed to called-up reservists) with a UVF background was in Turkey not on the Western Front.
To help people understand and visualise the full complexities of service, data on nearly 400 men verified as UVF members in 1913-14 who went on to serve in 1914-18 have been placed on an interactive map by colleagues from the Living Legacies centre at Queen’s University Belfast. It can be viewed online at: http://go.qub.ac.uk/GOSDWW1
However, we know that thousands of men served in the pre-war UVF and went on to serve in British forces yet there is no record of their UVF membership. This is because unlike parts of Ulster outside Belfast, who produced lists of all those serving from the UVF, that never happened in the Belfast newspapers. Our database has been constructed only through painstaking research on newspaper stories about individuals.
This is where we are making an appeal to people with information hidden away in draws and attics. If you have any material on the men on the map, or others who are not on the map but did serve in the 1913-14 UVF before joining up, we would be very pleased to hear from you. Contact details are on the website (but simply, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org). We are especially interested in gathering copies of photos and family stories which can be included in the online database and preserved for posterity.
We hope that this can be part of a much wider project eventually. We would like to include all the data we have on service for the whole of East and West Belfast (around 6,000 for the East and about 8,500 for the West), and in time, it would be good to draw in the North and South of the city. However, for now, we are starting with the UVF because its story connected to the Ulster Division is so central to how many people today remember the war. Understanding the complexities of service of just that cohort of men can go a long way to showing how varied the nature of service was in the First World War.
Jason Burke led the ‘East Belfast and the Great War’ project.
Richard S. Grayson is Professor of 20th Century History at Goldsmiths, University of London.