Arming the U.V.F.

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XVII

If the "evil-disposed persons" who so excited the fancy of Colonel Seely were supposed to be Ulster Loyalists, the whole story was an absurdity that did no credit to the Government's Intelligence in Ireland; and if there ever was any "information," such as the War Office alleged, it must have come from a source totally ignorant of Ulster psychology. Raids on Government stores were never part of the Ulster programme. The excitement of the Curragh Incident passed off without causing any sort of disturbance, and, as we have seen, the troops who were sent North received everywhere in Ulster a loyal welcome. This was a fine tribute to the discipline and restraint of the people, and was a further proof of their confidence in their leaders.

Those leaders, it happened, were at that very moment taking measures to place arms in the hands of the U.V.F. without robbing Government depots or any one else. That method was left to their opponents in Ireland at a later date, who adopted it on an extensive scale accompanied by systematic terrorism. The Ulster plan was quite different. All the arms they obtained were paid for, and their only crime was that they successfully hoodwinked Mr. Asquith's colleagues and agents.

Every movement has its Fabius, and also its Hotspur. Both are needed—the men of prudence and caution, anxious to avoid extreme courses, slow to commit themselves too far or to burn their boats with the river behind them; and the impetuous spirits, who chafe at half-measures, cannot endure temporising, and are impatient for the order to advance against any odds. Major F. H. Crawford had more of the temperament of a Hotspur than of a Fabius, but he nevertheless possessed qualities of patience, reticence, discretion, and coolness which enabled him to render invaluable service to the Ulster cause in an enterprise that would certainly have miscarried in the hands of a man endowed only with impetuosity and reckless courage. If the story of his adventures in procuring arms for the U.V.F. be ever told in minute detail, it will present all the features of an exciting novel by Mr. John Buchan.

Fred Crawford, the man who followed a family tradition when he signed the Covenant with his own blood,[84] began life as a premium apprentice in Harland and Wolf's great shipbuilding yard, after which he served for a year as an engineer in the White Star Line, before settling down to his father's manufacturing business in Belfast. Like so many ardent Loyalists in Ulster, he came of Liberal stock. He was for years honorary Secretary of the Reform Club in Belfast. The more staid members of this highly respectable establishment were not a little startled and perplexed when it was brought to their attention in 1907 that advertisements in the name of one "Hugh Matthews," giving the Belfast Reform Club as his address, had appeared in a number of foreign newspapers—French, Belgian, Italian, German, and Austrian—inquiring for "10,000 rifles and one million rounds of small-arm ammunition." The membership of the Club included no Hugh Matthews; but inquiry showed that the name covered the identity of the Hon. Secretary; and Crawford, who sought no concealment in the matter, justified the advertisements by pointing out that the Liberal Government which had lately come into power had begun its rule in Ireland by repealing the Act prohibiting the importation of arms, and that there was therefore nothing illegal in what he was doing. But he resigned his secretaryship, which he felt might hamper future transactions of the same kind. The advertisement was no doubt half bravado and half practical joke; he wanted to see whether it would attract notice, and if anything would come of it. But it had also an element of serious purpose.

Crawford regarded the advent to power of the Liberal Party as ominous, as indeed all Ulster did, for the Liberal Party was a Home Rule Party and he had from his youth been convinced that the day would come when Ulster would have to carry out Lord Randolph Churchill's injunction. That being so, he was not the man to tarry till solemn assemblies of merchants, lawyers, and divines should propound a policy; if there was to be fighting, Crawford was going to be ready for it, and thought that preparation for such a contingency could not begin too soon. And the advertisements were not barren of practical result. There was an astonishing number of replies; Crawford purchased a few rifles, and obtained samples of others; and, what was more important, he gained knowledge of the Continental trade in second-hand firearms, which had its centre in the free port of Hamburg, and of the men engaged in that trade. This knowledge he turned to account in 1912 and the two following years.

He had been for nearly twenty years an officer of Artillery Militia, and when the U.V.F. was organised in 1912 he became its Director of Ordnance on the headquarters staff. He was also a member of the Standing Committee of the Ulster Unionist Council, where he persistently advocated preparation for armed resistance long before most of his colleagues thought such a policy necessary. But early in 1912 he obtained leave to get samples of procurable firearms, and his promptitude in acting on it, and in presenting before certain members of the Committee a collection of gleaming rifles with bayonets fixed, took away the breath of the more cautious of his colleagues.

From this time forward Crawford was frequently engaged in this business. He got into communication with the dealers in arms whose acquaintance he had made six years before. He went himself to Hamburg, and, after learning something of the chicanery prevalent in the trade, which it took all his resourcefulness to overcome, he fell in with an honest Jew by whose help he succeeded in sending a thousand rifles safely to Belfast. Other consignments followed from time to time in larger or smaller quantities, in the transport of which all the devices of old-time smuggling were put to the test. Crawford bought a schooner, which for a year or more proved very useful, and, while employing her in bringing arms to Ulster, he made acquaintance with a skipper of one of the Antrim Iron Ore Company's coasting steamers, whose name was Agnew, a fine seaman of the best type produced by the British Mercantile Marine, who afterwards proved an invaluable ally, to whose loyalty and ability Crawford and Ulster owed a deep debt of gratitude, as they also did to Mr. Robert Browne, Managing Director of the Antrim Iron Ore Company, for placing at their disposal both vessels and seamen from time to time.

Now and then the goods fell a victim to Custom House vigilance; for although there was at this time nothing illegal in importing firearms, it was not considered prudent to carry on the trade openly, which would certainly have led to prohibition being introduced and enforced; and, consequently, infringements of shipping regulations had to be risked, which gave the authorities the right to interfere if they discovered rifles where zinc plates or musical instruments ought to have been.

On one occasion a case of arms was shipped on a small steamer from Glasgow to Portrush, but was not entered in the manifest, so that the skipper (being a worthy man) knew nothing—officially—of this box which lay on deck instead of descending into the hold. But two Customs officials, who noticed it with unsatisfied curiosity, decided, just as the boat cast off, to make the trip to Portrush. Happily it was a dirty night, and they, being bad sailors, were constrained to take refuge from the elements in the Captain's cabin. But when Portrush was reached search and research proved unavailing to find the mysterious box; the skipper could find no mention of it in the manifest and thought the Customs House gentlemen must have been dreaming; they, on the other hand, threatened to seize the ship if the box did not materialise, and were told to do so at their peril. But exactly off Ballycastle, which had been passed while the officials were poorly, there was a float in the sea attached to a line, which in due course led to the recovery of a case of valuable property that was none the worse for a few hours' rest on the bottom of the Moyle.

Qualities of a different sort were called into play in negotiating the purchase of machine-guns from Messrs. Vickers & Co., at Woolwich. Here a strong American accent, combined with the providential circumstance that Mexico happened to be in the grip of revolutionary civil war, overcame all difficulties, and Mr. John Washington Graham, U.S.A. (otherwise Fred H. Crawford of Belfast) played his part so effectively that he did not fail to finish the deal by extracting a handsome commission for himself, which found its way subsequently to the coffers of the Ulster Unionist Council. But he compensated the Company by making a suggestion for improving the mechanism of the Maxim-gun which the great ordnance manufacturers permanently adopted without having to pay for any patent rights.

Major Crawford was, however, by no means the only person who was at this time bringing arms and ammunition into Ulster, which, as already explained, although not illegal, could not be safely done openly on a large scale. Ammunition in small quantities dribbled into Belfast pretty constantly, many amateur importers deriving pleasurable excitement from feeling themselves conspirators, and affording amusement to others by the tales told of the ingenious expedients resorted to by the smugglers.

There was a dock porter at Belfast, an intense admirer of Sir Edward Carson, who was the retailer of one of the best of these stories. He was always on the look-out for the leader arriving by the Liverpool steamer, and would allow no one else, if he could help it, to handle the great man's hand-baggage; and when Carson was not a passenger, any of his satellites who happened to be travelling came in for vicarious attention. Thus, it happened on one occasion that the writer, arriving alone from Liverpool, was hailed from the shore before the boat was made fast. "Is Sir Edward on board?" A shake of the head brought a look of pathetic disappointment to the face of the hero-worshipper; but he was on board before the gangway was down and busy collecting the belongings of the leader's unworthy substitute. When laden with these and half-way down the gangway he stopped, and, entirely careless of the fact that he was obstructing a number of passengers impatient to land, he turned and whispered—a whisper that might be heard thirty yards off—with a knowing wink of the eye:

"We're getting in plenty of stuff now."

"Yes, yes," was the reply. "Never mind about that now; put those things on a car."

But he continued, without budging from the gangway, "Och aye, we're getting in plenty; but my God, didn't Mrs. Blank o' Dungannon bate all? Did ye hear about her?"

"No, I never heard of Mrs. Blank of Dungannon. But do hurry along, my good man; you're keeping back all the passengers."

"What! ye never heard o' Mrs. Blank o' Dungannon? Wait now till I tell ye. Mrs. Blank came off this boat not a fortnight ago, an' as she came down this gangway I declare to God you'd ha' swore she was within a week of her time—and divil a ha'porth the matter with her, only cartridges. An' the fun was that the Custom House boys knowed rightly what it was, but they dursn't lay a hand on her nor search her, for fear they were wrong."

This admiring tribute to the heroic matron of Dungannon—whose real name was not concealed by the porter—was heard by a number of people, and probably most of them thought themselves compensated by the story for the delay it caused them in leaving the steamer.

By the summer of 1913 several thousands of rifles had been brought into Ulster; but in May of that year the mishap occurred to which Lord Roberts referred in his letter to Colonel Hickman on the 4th of June, when he wrote: "I am sorry to read about the capture of rifles."[85] Crawford had been obliged to find some place in London for storing the arms which he was procuring from his friends in Hamburg, and with the help of Sir William Bull, M.P. for Hammersmith, the yard of an old-fashioned inn in that district was found where it was believed they would be safe until means of transporting them to the North of Ireland could be devised. The inn was taken by a firm calling itself John Ferguson & Co., the active member of which was Sir William Bull's brother-in-law, Captain Budden; and the business appeared to consist of dealing in second-hand scientific instruments and machinery, curiosities, antique armour and weapons, old furniture, and so forth, which were brought in very heavy cases and deposited in the yard. For a time it proved useful, and the Maxims from Woolwich passed safely through the Hammersmith store. But the London police got wind of the Hammersmith Armoury, and seized a consignment of between six and seven thousand excellent Italian rifles. A rusty and little-known Act of Parliament had to be dug up to provide legal authority for the seizure. Many sportsmen and others then learnt for the first time that, under the Gun-barrel Proof Act, 1868, every gun-barrel in England must bear the Gun-makers' Company's proof-mark showing that its strength has been tested and approved. As the penalty for being in possession of guns not so marked was a fine of £2 per barrel, to have put in a claim for the Italian rifles seized at Hammersmith would have involved a payment of more than £12,000, and would have given the Government information as to the channel through which they had been imported. No move was made, therefore, so far as the firearms were concerned, but the bayonets attached to them, for the seizure of which there was no legal justification, were claimed by Crawford's agent in Hamburg, and eventually reached Ulster safely by another route. About the same time a consignment of half a million rounds of small-arm ammunition, which was discovered by the authorities through faulty packing in cement-bags, was also confiscated in another part of the country.

These losses convinced Crawford that a complete change of method must be adopted if faith was to be kept with the Ulster Volunteers, who were implicitly trusting their leaders to provide them with weapons to enable them to make good the Covenant. More than a year before this time he had told the special Committee dealing with arms, to which he was immediately responsible, that, in his judgment, the only way of dealing effectively with the problem was not by getting small quantities smuggled from time to time by various devices and through disguised ordinary trade channels, but by bringing off a grand coup, as if running a blockade in time of war. He had crossed the Channel on purpose to submit this view to Sir Edward Carson and Captain Craig early in 1912, but at that time nothing was done to give effect to it.

But the seizure of so large a number as six thousand rifles at a time when the political situation looked like moving towards a crisis in the near future, made necessary a bolder attempt to procure the necessary arms. When General Sir George Richardson took command of the U.V.F. in July 1913 he placed Captain (afterwards Lieut.-Colonel) Wilfrid Bliss Spender on his staff, and soon afterwards appointed him A.Q.M.G. of the Forces. Captain Spender's duties comprised the supply of equipment, arms, and ammunition, the organisation of transport, and the supervision of communications. He was now requested to confer with Major Fred Crawford with a view to preparing a scheme for procuring arms and ammunition, to be submitted to a special sub-committee appointed to deal with this matter, of which Captain James Craig was chairman. Spender gave his attention mainly to the difficulties that would attend the landing and distribution of arms if they reached Ulster in safety; Crawford said he could undertake to purchase and bring them from a foreign port. Crawford's proposed modus operandi may be given in his own words:

"I would immediately go to Hamburg and see B. S. [the Hebrew dealer in firearms with whom he had been in communication for some six or seven years, and whom he had found perfectly honest, and not at all grasping], and consult him as to what he had to offer. I would purchase 25,000 to 30,000 rifles, modern weapons if possible, and not the Italian Vetteli rifles we had been getting, all to take the same ammunition and fitted with bayonets. I would purchase a suitable steamer of 600 tons in some foreign port and load her up with the arms, and either bring her in direct or transfer the cargo to a local steamer in some estuary or bay on the Scottish coast. I felt confident, though I knew the difficulties in front of me, that I could carry it through all right."[86]

The sub-committee accepted Crawford's proposal, and, when it had been confirmed by Headquarters Council, he was commissioned to go to Hamburg to see how the land lay. On arriving there he found that B. S. had still in store ten thousand Vetteli rifles and a million rounds of ammunition for them, which he had been holding for Crawford for two years. After a day or two the dealer laid three alternative proposals before his Ulster customer: (a) Twenty thousand Vetteli rifles, with bayonets (ammunition would have to be specially manufactured). (b) Thirty thousand Russian rifles with bayonets (lacking scabbards) and ammunition, (c) Fifteen thousand new Austrian, and five thousand German army rifles with bayonets, both to take standard Mannlicher cartridges.

The last mentioned of these alternatives was much the most costly, being double the price of the first and nearly treble that of the second; but it had great advantages over the other two. Ammunition for the Italian weapons was only manufactured in Italy, and, if further supplies should be required, could only be got from that country. The Russian rifles were perfectly new and unused, but were of an obsolete pattern; they were single-loaders, and fresh supplies of cartridges would be nearly as difficult to procure for them as for the Italian. The Austrian and German patterns were both first-rate; the rifles were up-to-date clip-loaders, and, what was the most important consideration, ammunition for them would be easily procurable in the United Kingdom or from America or Canada.

But the difference in cost was so great that Crawford returned to Belfast to explain matters to his Committee, calling in London on his way to inform Carson and Craig. He strongly urged the acceptance of the third alternative offer, laying stress, among other considerations, on the moral effect on men who knew they had in their hands the most modern weapon with all latest improvements. Carson was content to be guided on a technical matter of this sort by the judgment of a man whom he knew to be an expert, and as James Craig, who was in control of the fund ear-marked for the purchase of arms, also agreed, Crawford had not much difficulty in persuading the Committee when he reached Belfast, although at first they were rather staggered by the difference in cost between the various proposals.

It was not until the beginning of February 1914 that Crawford returned to Hamburg to accept this offer, and to make arrangements with B. S. for carrying out the rest of his scheme for transporting his precious but dangerous cargo to Ulster. On his way through London he called again on Carson.

"I pointed out to Sir Edward, my dear old Chief," says Crawford in a written account of the interview, "that some of my Committee had no idea of the seriousness of the undertaking, and, when they did realise what they were in for, might want to back out of it. I said, 'Once I cross this time to Hamburg there is no turning back with me, no matter what the circumstances are so far as my personal safety is concerned; and no contrary orders from the Committee to cancel what they have agreed to with me will I obey. I shall carry out the coup if I lose my life in the attempt. Now, Sir Edward, you know what I am about to undertake, and the risks those who back me up must run. Are you willing to back me to the finish in this undertaking? If you are not, I don't go. But, if you are, I would go even if I knew I should not return; it is for Ulster and her freedom I am working, and this alone.' I so well remember that scene. We were alone; Sir Edward was sitting opposite to me. When I had finished, his face was stern and grim, and there was a glint in his eye. He rose to his full height, looking me in the eye; he advanced to where I was sitting and stared down at me, and shook his clenched fist in my face, and said in a steady, determined voice, which thrilled me and which I shall never forget: 'Crawford, I'll see you through this business, if I should have to go to prison for it.' I rose from my chair; I held out my hand and said, 'Sir Edward, that is all I want. I leave to-night; good-bye.'"

Next day Crawford was in Hamburg. He immediately concluded his agreement with B. S., and began making arrangements for carrying out the plan he had outlined to the Committee in Belfast. As will be seen in the next chapter, he was actually in the middle of this adventure at the very time when Seely and Churchill were worrying lest "evil-disposed persons" should raid and rob the scantily stocked Government Stores at Omagh and Enniskillen.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

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Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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