Updated: Oct 7, 2019
The First World War is an event that remains seared onto the psyche of east Belfast 100 years after it ended, yet we will never know the precise historical reality of what happened due toits sheer scale. Nevertheless, the past four years of centenary commemorations and events have helped us to uncover a little more of this elusive reality and a local history has taken shape. A case can now be made that approximately 9,000 residents from the East Belfast constituency saw military service during the First World War. ‘Ballymacarrett’s own’, the 8th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, has become symbolic of the sacrifice and continues to be honoured with reverence in this part of the world, not least because of its roots in the Ulster Volunteer Force and its record at the Somme and at Messines. In addition to the familiar Irish regiments, men from east Belfast served in a vast array of military units; from the Scottish, English, Welsh, naval and flying units; to Australian, American, Canadian, South African and even Indian units. These men served in every imaginable (and unimaginable) theatre of war and, consequently, men from the same streets as you and I lie in graves that are scattered across the world. In addition to the well-known Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in France and Belgium, men from east Belfast can be located in Turkey, Italy, Romania, Greece, Germany, Israel, Egypt and Iraq. For east Belfast, this was undoubtedly a ‘world war’ in every sense of the phrase.
The east’s women also made a valuable contribution to the war effort. The Willowfield Women’s Emergency Corps, for example, held door to door collections for servicemen and were engaged in the knitting and sewing of useful garments that could be sent to the front; such groups were replicated across east Belfast. Others opted to utilise their skills by joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment for service at home or abroad. Gertrude Taylor and Ida Martin died during their service with the VAD, both were from the Belmont Road. Others served with distinction, such as Gertrude Noble from Jocelyn Gardens who was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her service in the war.
By the end of the war approximately 1,500 east Belfast residents had died. Statistics, however, can mask the personal experience of the war which is often one of hurt and anguish. The loss of three sons in the space of ten months, Aaron, William and Joseph, will have been particularly distressing for their parents Joseph and Margaretta Gardner of Hatton Drive. Others, such as James McKimm took his own life in October 1916, just four months after enlisting. These snippets show that behind every statistic there is a human story.
In November 1918, news of the Armistice was heralded by the sounding of ships’ sirens that echoed across the city of Belfast. In the shipyards, at Queen’s Island and Workman & Clark, thousands of workers raised deafening cheers of relief in scenes that were ‘without parallel in the history of the city’. Some workers opted to take holiday leave meaning that by 12pm Royal Avenue and Castle Place were ‘thronged by enthusiastic crowds’. At the close of the school day, children joined with impromptu parades on streets lined with flags that had appeared in an impressive display of haste. Across the city, sporadic bonfires were lit and fireworks were sent into the sky. Armistice day in Belfast, as it was elsewhere, was welcomed by a highly charged and emotional outpouring of relief and joy.
In many ways though, the ‘end’ was not the end. On the same day that the Armistice was announced, the Belfast Evening Telegraphpublished an image of an east Belfast man who remained missing at the front. Second Lieutenant Clarence James Boyd lived in Connsbrook House, Strandtown and had been serving with the Seaforth Highlanders. Boyd, an Old Campbellian, was later reported in December 1918 to have returned home from Germany after being taken prisoner of war.
Evidence exists for at least 47 war-related deaths after the Armistice came into effect. Many of these were due to illness and injury sustained during the conflict. Private Samuel Currie, for example, of 20 Island Street, died on 11 November 1918 and is buried in Barrow-in-Furness, England. Other curious instances include Private Samuel Victor Halliday of Cappy Street who died in Budapest on 19 November 1921 as part of an inter-Allied mission of control for Austria. Nevertheless, the newspaper image of Clarence James Boyd is a blunt reminder that the outpouring of relief and joy witnessed in Belfast on 11 November 1918 was far from a unanimous experience. For those that had lost loved ones, the end of the war was in fact the cruel beginning of a post-war period of mourning and sorrow. For those that clung to precious hope that their loved one might yet be located, the war lingered on in their minds; because an end to the war might mean an end to their hope, and an end to the hope meant that a loved one would not be returning.
The past four years of commemoration have witnessed immense gratitude towards the dead, and a growing sense of appreciation and acknowledgement of the survivors. In east Belfast, approximately five out of every six men who served in the war came home. Many of these came home carrying intolerable burdens; some of these burdens were visible and others were invisible. Bobby Gillespie, for example, from St. Leonards Street returned from his service with the Royal Engineers without part of an arm and without several fingers on the opposite hand. Consequently, he found it difficult to find employment and plunged into a state of depression. Bobby Gillespie took his own life at a house in Cable Street in 1937, proof, if ever it was needed, that the effects of the First World War were far reaching and long lasting in east Belfast.
Survivors came home to a political landscape which had changed remarkably from the one they knew in 1914. They returned to an Ireland that was extremely volatile, evidenced by the spreading violence from 1919. In east Belfast, this meant an explosion of street violence from 1920-1922 which was difficult for the veterans to avoid, for some this meant exchanging one battleground for another. The Ballymacarrett Civilian Specials were formed to protect life and property in the area and its ranks were filled by ex-servicemen; similar units were raised in Willowfield and elsewhere. East Belfast veterans also quickly joined the ranks of the re-constituted Ulster Volunteer Force and the rejuvenated Irish Republican Army which had a unit in Ballymacarrett. Approximately 350 men from the Short Strand found service during the First World War and there is evidence to show that some of them swapped a British military uniform for IRA garb shortly after their return.
The centenary of the war has served to highlight, amongst other things, the complexity of east Belfast’s First World War story. Some tragic and wonderful stories have emerged which have often challenged our perceptions of the war and of the world around us. A litany of books, projects and events have introduced new layers to existing narratives. The story of the Catholic Rooney brothers from Short Strand who served in the predominantly Protestant 36th (Ulster) Division can now be juxtaposed with stories of men from the same area who died in the Easter Rising wearing British uniform, of UVF men serving in the predominantly Catholic 16th (Irish) Division, and of others who came home from the war to join the IRA. Fresh understanding of the role of the Navy and of the Royal Flying Corps, as well as the disastrous events at Gallipoli, are just some examples of the complexity which has been rightly enhanced our understanding of the First World War. By striving towards that elusive historical reality of knowing exactly what happened in the Great War, we have managed to exhume a First World War history in east Belfast that we can all find ways to engage with and be proud of.