Belfast Telegraph

Ulster Covenant: Citizen militia answers the rousing call to arms

The Ulster Volunteers were raised as the shock troops of opposition to the third Home Rule Bill. Richard Doherty reports

What connects the South Down Militia, the Boer War and the Ulster Volunteer Force? The answer is Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hugh Wallace, a County Down lawyer, who commanded 5th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles in the Boer War. Until 1881, Wallace's battalion had been the South Down Militia.

The 5th Rifles volunteered for overseas service and sailed for South Africa in 1901. As well as patrolling, they manned block houses and captured 168 Boers trying to reach Kemp's Commando with fresh horses.

Six men were Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) and four received decorations for outstanding service. Wallace was appointed a Companion of the Bath (CB), as well as receiving that MiD.

Back home, Robert Wallace resumed his legal practice. His expertise led to a leading role in the formation of another militia a decade later - the Ulster Volunteer Force.

It's generally believed that Edward Carson and James Craig formed the UVF, but the story of its birth is not so simple.

Even before the third Home Rule Bill began its journey through parliament, unionists were concerned that the 1911 Parliament Act could lead to such a Bill becoming law.

When thousands of Orangemen paraded on Craig's grounds on September 23, 1911, their ranks included a Tyrone group that caught the leadership's eye.

These men, the most smartly turned-out on parade, marched and drilled with military precision. Their military bearing sparked an idea in the minds of the unionist leadership.

That idea was a citizen militia to oppose any change in Ulster's position within the United Kingdom. The Orange Order provided an obvious framework for such a body. Before long, Orange lodges and Unionist clubs were drilling enthusiastically, ready for the day when they might be called upon to show their muscle.

Robert Wallace re-enters the picture. With James Campbell KC, who became Ireland's Attorney General in 1905, he discovered an obscure legal loophole that might have been drafted for his purpose.

Any two justices of the peace could authorise local drilling as long as it was directed towards making citizens better able to maintain the rights and liberties of the British constitution. This seemed to summarise opposition to Home Rule.

On January 5, 1912, Wallace made the first application to authorise drilling and marching for this purpose. Two Belfast magistrates approved his application. Many other applications followed.

Ulster Volunteers drilled and trained with a sense of purpose. Carson reviewed volunteers across the province. Lisburn volunteers paraded with wooden rifles and batons. Portadown's horsed volunteers had Union flag pennants fluttering from bamboo lances; they also wore slouch hats. Without doubt, unionist Ulster was preparing for action.

The title Ulster Volunteer Force was adopted in January 1913, when the Ulster Unionist Council decided to form a body numbering 100,000 men who had signed the Covenant.

Embracing every class in Ulster, the UVF was commanded by a retired Indian Army officer, General Sir George Richardson. Other retired officers also became involved.

As a more military structure was adopted, some real rifles appeared. In 1907, the Liberal Government had allowed the Peace Preservation Act to lapse and with it the prohibition on importing arms into Ireland.

Money was raised and arms were bought. The UVF's weapons were brought into the province via Larne on the steamship Clyde Valley, also known as the Mountjoy II in memory of the vessel that relieved Derry in 1689.

Leading Belfast UVF figure Fred Crawford masterminded the successful landing of German rifles at Larne and their distribution to the UVF.

The creation of the UVF was followed by the formation of the Irish Volunteers, who also brought in guns from Germany. Although Ireland looked set for civil war, gun-running was overtaken by events elsewhere. With the outbreak of the Great War, Ireland's quarrel was sidelined and civil war prevented.

Nationalist and unionist volunteers clamoured to join the British forces to fight the Germans. The Irish Volunteers split. Some followed Patrick Pearse, but the majority chose John Redmond. And the authorities in London realised that Ireland's two citizens' militias provided rich recruiting grounds.

Many Redmondites joined 16th (Irish) Division. Carson was not so quick to offer the UVF to the Army. As a result, when an Ulster Division was authorised, it became the 36th Division. Meanwhile, many potential recruits had joined 16th (Irish) Division.

One of the latter's brigades - 49 Brigade - was designated the Ulster Brigade. At least two of its four battalions were each almost 50% Protestant and unionist in character, with a significant number having signed the Covenant.

With 13 infantry battalions, plus ancillary units raised in Ulster, 36th Division absorbed more than 14,000 of the UVF. The Division's artillery was raised in London. 36th Division crossed to France in late-1915 and was soon in frontline service.

On July 1, 1916 it wrote its own page in history. That date still resonates not only throughout its native province, but much farther afield. It has a unique place in Ulster unionist folk memory. In Professor Keith Jeffery's words, the losses of the Division on that opening day of the Somme campaign marked the "Union sealed in blood" - Ulster's equivalent of Pearse's blood sacrifice in Dublin several weeks earlier. It also marked the end of the Division as a body truly representative of unionist Ulster.

Replacements included men from other UK regions, including Catholics (although a small number of Catholics had served in the original formation). Losses in subsequent battles reduced even more the numbers of founding personnel.

The Division suffered heavily in the German spring offensives of 1918, in which 16th (Irish) Division was destroyed, but was rebuilt for the final Allied offensive, the British-led 'Hundred Days' that led to Germany's defeat.

After the war, 36th (Ulster) Division was disbanded. There was no homecoming parade in Belfast. Instead it simply faded away. But many of its men made a mark on local history.

Ulster Division men were among the early members of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC). Others took up arms in 'the troubles' after the Great War and the outbreak of the so-called Anglo-Irish War. Often they were in conflict with men they had fought alongside in France and Flanders.

36th Division's memory was not allowed to die. Parades marked the anniversary of the first day of the Somme battles - and continue to this day, long after the final veteran was laid to rest.


From Belfast Telegraph