Ulster in the War

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XX

More than a year before the outbreak of the Great War a writer in The Morning Post, describing the Ulster Volunteers who were then beginning to attract attention in England, used language which was more accurately prophetic than he can have realised in May 1913:

"What these men have been preparing for in Ulster," he wrote, "may be of value as a military asset in time of national emergency. I have seen the men at drill, I have seen them on parade, and experts assure me that in the matter of discipline, physique, and all things which go to the making of a military force they are worthy to rank with our regular soldiers. It is an open secret that, once assured of the maintenance unimpaired of the Union between Great Britain and Ireland under the Imperial Parliament alone, a vast proportion of the citizen army of Ulster would cheerfully hold itself at the disposal of the Imperial Government and volunteer for service either at home or abroad!"[90]

The only error in the prediction was that the writer underestimated the sacrifice Ulster would be willing to make for the Empire. When the testing time came fifteen months after' this appreciation was published all hope of unimpaired maintenance of the Union had to be sorrowfully given up, and only those who were in a position to comprehend, with sympathy, the depth and intensity of the feeling in Ulster on the subject could realise all that this meant to the people there. Yet, all the same, their "citizen army" did not hesitate to "hold itself at the disposal of the Imperial Government, and volunteer for service at home or abroad."

In August 1914 the U.V.F., of 100,000 men, was without question the most efficient force of infantry in the United Kingdom outside the Regular Army. The medical comb did not seriously thin its ranks; and although the age test considerably reduced its number, it still left a body of fine material for the British Army. Some of the best of its officers, like Captain Arthur O'Neill, M.P., of the Life Guards, and Lord Castlereagh of the Blues, had to leave the U.V.F. to rejoin the regiments to which they belonged, or to take up staff appointments at the front. In spite of such losses there was a strong desire in the force, which was shared by the political leaders, that it should be kept intact as far as possible and form a distinct unit for active service, and efforts were at once made to get the War Office to arrange for this to be done. Pressure of work at the War Office, and Lord Kitchener's aversion from anything that he thought savoured of political considerations in the organisation of the Army, imposed a delay of several weeks before this was satisfactorily arranged; and the consequence was that in the first few weeks of the war a large number of the keenest young men in Ulster enlisted in various regiments before it was known that an Ulster Division was to be formed out of the U.V.F.

It was the beginning of September before Carson was in a position to go to Belfast to announce that such an arrangement had been made with Lord Kitchener. And when he went he had also the painful duty of telling the people of Ulster that the Government was going to give them the meanest recompense for the promptitude with which they had thrown aside all party purposes in order to assist the Empire.

When war broke out a "party truce" had been proclaimed. The Unionist leaders promised their support to the Government in carrying on the war, and Mr. Asquith pledged the Government to drop all controversial legislation. The consideration of the Amending Bill had been shelved by agreement, Mr. Asquith stating that the postponement "must be without prejudice to the domestic and political position of any party." On this understanding the Unionist Party supported, almost without so much as a word of criticism, all the emergency measures proposed by the Government. Yet on the 10th of August Mr. Asquith astonished the Unionists by announcing that the promise to take no controversial business was not to prevent him advising the King to sign the Home Rule Bill, which had been hung up in the House of Lords by the introduction of the Amending Bill, and had never been either rejected or passed by that House.

Mr. Balfour immediately protested against this conduct as a breach of faith; but Mr. Redmond's speech on that occasion contained the explanation of the Government's conduct. The Nationalist leader gave a strong hint that any help in the war from the southern provinces of Ireland would depend on whether or not the Home Rule Bill was to become law at once. Although the personal loyalty of Mr. Redmond was beyond question, and although he was no doubt sincere when he subsequently denied that his speech was so intended, it was in reality an application of the old maxim that England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity. In any case, the Cabinet knew that, however unjustly Ulster might be treated, she could be relied upon to do everything in her power to further the successful prosecution of the war, and they cynically came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to placate those whose loyalty was less assured.

This was the unpleasant tale that Sir Edward Carson had to unfold to the Ulster Unionist Council on the 3rd of September. After explaining how and why he had consented to the indefinite postponement of the Amending Bill, he continued:

"And so, without any condition of any kind, we agreed that the Bill should be postponed without prejudice to the position of either party. England's difficulty is not Ulster's opportunity. England's difficulty is our difficulty; and England's sorrows have always been, and always will be, our sorrows. I have seen it stated that the Germans thought they had hit on an opportune moment, owing to our domestic difficulties, to make their bullying demand against our country. They little understood for what we Were fighting. We were not fighting to get away from England; we were fighting to stay with England, and the Power that attempted to lay a hand upon England, whatever might be our domestic quarrels, would at once bring us together—as it has brought us together—as one man."

In order to avoid controversy at such a time, Carson declared he would say nothing about their opponents. He insisted that, however unworthily the Government might act in a great national emergency, Ulstermen must distinguish between the Prime Minister as a party leader and the Prime Minister as the representative of the whole nation. Their duty was to "think not of him or his party, but of our country," and they must show that "we do not seek to purchase terms by selling our patriotism." He then referred to the pride they all felt in the U.V.F.; how he had "watched them grow from infancy," through self-sacrificing toil to their present high efficiency, with the purpose of "allowing us to be put into no degraded position in the United Kingdom." But under the altered conditions their duty was clear:

"Our country and our Empire are in danger. And under these circumstances, knowing that the very basis of our political faith is our belief in the greatness of the United Kingdom and of the Empire, I say to our Volunteers without hesitation, go and help to save your country. Go and win honour for Ulster and for Ireland. To every man that goes, or has gone, and not to them only, but to every Irishman, you and I say, from the bottom of our hearts, 'God bless you and bring you home safe and victorious.'"

The arrangements with the War Office for forming a Division from the Ulster Volunteers were then explained, which would enable the men "to go as old comrades accustomed to do their military training together." Carson touched lightly on fears that had been expressed lest political advantage should be taken by the Government or by the Nationalists of the conversion of the U.V.F. into a Division of the British Army, which would leave Ulster defenceless. "We are quite strong enough," he said, "to take care of ourselves, and so I say to men, so far as they have confidence and trust in me, that I advise them to go and do their duty to the country, and we will take care of politics hereafter." He concluded by moving a resolution, which was unanimously carried by the Council, urging "all Loyalists who owe allegiance to our cause" to join the Army at once if qualified for military service.

From beginning to end of this splendidly patriotic oration no allusion was made to the Nationalist attitude to the war. Few people in Ulster had any belief that the spots on the leopard were going to disappear, even when the Home Rule Bill had been placed on the Statute-book. The "difficulty" and the "opportunity" would continue in their old relations. People in Belfast, as elsewhere, did justice to the patriotic tone of Mr. Redmond's speech in the House of Commons on the 3rd of August, which made so deep an impression in England; but they believed him mistaken in attributing to "the democracy of Ireland" a complete change of sentiment towards England, and their scepticism was more than justified by subsequent events.

But they also scrutinised more carefully than Englishmen the precise words used by the Nationalist leader. Englishmen, both in the House of Commons and in the country, were carried off their feet in an ecstasy of joy and wonder at Mr. Redmond's confident offer of loyal help from Ireland to the Empire in the mighty world conflict. Ireland was to be "the one bright spot." Ulstermen, on the other hand, did not fail to observe that the offer was limited to service at home. "I say to the Government," said Mr. Redmond, "that they may to-morrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. I say that the coast of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her armed sons, and for this purpose armed Nationalist Catholics in the South will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North."

These sentences were rapturously applauded in the House of Commons. When they were read in Ulster the shrewd men of the North asked what danger threatened the "coast of Ireland"; and whether, supposing there were a danger, the British Navy would not be a surer defence than the "armed sons" of Ireland whether from South or North.

It was not on the coast of Ireland but the coast of Flanders that men were needed, and it was thither that the "armed Protestant Ulstermen" were preparing to go in thousands. They would not be behind the Catholics of the South in the spirit of comradeship invoked by Mr. Redmond if they were to stand shoulder to shoulder under the fire of Prussian batteries; but they could not wax enthusiastic over the suggestion that, while they went to France, Mr. Redmond's Nationalist Volunteers should be trained and armed by the Government to defend the Irish coast—and possibly, later, to impose their will upon Ulster.

The organisation and the training of the Ulster Division forms no part of the present narrative, but it must be stated that after Carson's speech on the 3rd of September, recruiting went on uninterruptedly and rapidly, and the whole energies of the local leaders and of the rank and file were thrown into the work of preparation. Captain James Craig, promoted to be Lieutenant-Colonel, was appointed Q.M.G. of the Division; but the arduous duties of this post, in which he tried to do the work of half a dozen men, brought about a complete breakdown of health some months later, with the result that, to his deep disappointment, he was forbidden to go with the Division to France. No one displayed a finer spirit than his brother, Mr. Charles Craig, M.P. for South Antrim. He had never done any soldiering, as his brother had in South Africa, and he was over military age in 1914; but he did not allow either his age, his military inexperience, or his membership of the House of Commons to serve as excuse for separating himself from the men with whom he had learnt the elements of drill in the U.V.F. He obtained a commission as Captain in the Ulster Division, and went with it to France, where he was wounded and taken prisoner in the great engagement at Thiepval in the battle of the Somme, and had to endure all the rigours of captivity in Germany till the end of the war. There was afterwards not a little pungent comment among his friends on the fact that, when honours were descending in showers on the heads of the just and the unjust alike, a full share of which reached members of Parliament, sometimes for no very conspicuous merit, no recognition of any kind was awarded to this gallant Ulster officer, who had set so fine an example and unostentatiously done so much more than his duty.

The Government's act of treachery in regard to "controversial business" was consummated on the 18th of September, when the Home Rule Bill received the Royal Assent. On the 15th Mr. Asquith put forward his defence in the House of Commons. In a sentence of mellifluous optimism that was to be woefully falsified in a not-distant future, he declared his confidence that the action his Ministry was taking would bring "for the first time for a hundred years Irish opinion, Irish sentiment, Irish loyalty, flowing with a strong and a continuous and ever-increasing stream into the great reservoir of Imperial resources and Imperial unity." He acknowledged, however, that the Government had pledged itself not to put the Home Rule Bill on the Statute-book until the Amending Bill had been disposed of. That promise was not now to be kept; instead he gave another, which, when the time came, was equally violated, namely, to introduce the Amending Bill "in the next session of Parliament, before the Irish Government Bill can possibly come into operation." Meantime, there was to be a Suspensory Bill to provide that the Home Rule Bill should remain in abeyance till the end of the war, and he gave an assurance "which would be in spirit and in substance completely fulfilled, that the Home Rule Bill will not and cannot come into operation until Parliament has had the fullest opportunity, by an Amending Bill, of altering, modifying, or qualifying its provisions in such a way as to secure the general consent both of Ireland and of the United Kingdom." The Prime Minister, further, paid a tribute to "the patriotic and public spirit which had been shown by the Ulster Volunteers," whose conduct has made "the employment of force, any kind of force, for what you call the coercion of Ulster, an absolutely unthinkable thing."

But a verbal acknowledgment of the public spirit shown by the U.V.F. in the first month of the war was a paltry recompense for the Government's breach of faith, as Mr. Bonar Law immediately pointed out in a stinging rejoinder.

The leader of the Opposition concluded his powerful indictment by saying that such conduct by the Government could not be allowed to pass without protest, but that at such a moment of national danger debate in Parliament on this domestic quarrel, forced upon them by Ministers, was indecent; and that, having made his protest, neither he nor his party would take further part in that indecency. Thereupon the whole Unionist Party followed Mr. Bonar Law out of the Chamber.

But that was not the end of the incident. It had been decided, with Sir Edward Carson's approval, that "Ulster Day," the second anniversary of the Covenant, should be celebrated in Ulster by special religious services. The intention had been to focus attention on the larger aspects of Imperial instead of local patriotism; but what had just occurred in Parliament could not be ignored, and it necessitated a reaffirmation of Ulster's unchanged attitude in the domestic quarrel. Mr. Bonar Law now determined to accompany Sir Edward Carson to Belfast to renew and to amplify under these circumstances the pledges of British Unionists to Ulster.

The occasion was a memorable one in several respects. On the 17th of September Sir Edward Carson had been quietly married in the country to Miss Frewen, and he was accompanied to Belfast a few days later by the new Lady Carson, who then made acquaintance with Ulster and her husband's followers for the first time. The scenes that invariably marked the leader's arrival from England have been already described; but the presence of his wife led to a more exuberant welcome than ever on this occasion; and the recent Parliamentary storm, with its sequel in the visit of the leader of the Unionist Party, contributed further to the unbounded enthusiasm of the populace.

There was a meeting of the Council on the morning of the 28th, Ulster Day, at which Carson told the whole story of the conferences, negotiations, conversations, and what not, that had been going on up to, and even since, the outbreak of war, in the course of which he observed that, if he had committed any fault, "it was that he believed the Prime Minister." He paid a just tribute to Mr. Bonar Law, whose constancy, patience, and "resolution to be no party even under these difficult circumstances to anything that would be throwing over Ulster, were matters which would be photographed upon his mind to the very end of his life."

But while, naturally, resentment at the conduct of the Government found forcible expression, and the policy that would be pursued "after the war" was outlined, the keynote of the speeches at this Council Meeting, and also at the overwhelming demonstration addressed by Mr. Bonar Law in the Ulster Hall in the evening, was "country before party." As the Unionist leader truly said: "This is not an anti-Home Rule meeting. That can wait, and you are strong enough to let it wait with quiet confidence." But before passing to the great issues raised by the war, introduced by a telling allusion to the idea that Germany had calculated on Ulster being a thorn in England's side, Mr. Bonar Law gave the message to Ulster which he had specially crossed the Channel to deliver in person.

He reminded the audience that hitherto the promise of support to Ulster by the Unionists of Great Britain, given long before at Blenheim, had been coupled with the condition that, if an appeal were made to the electorate, the Unionist Party would bow to the verdict of the country. "But now," he went on, "after the way in which advantage has been taken of your patriotism, I say to you, and I say it with the full authority of our party, we give the pledge without any condition."

During the two days which he spent in Belfast Mr. Bonar Law, and other visitors from England, paid visits to the training camps at Newcastle and Ballykinler, where the 1st Brigade of the Ulster Division was undergoing training for the front. Both now, and for some time to come, there was a good deal of unworthy political jealousy of the Division, which showed itself in a tendency to belittle the recruiting figures from Ulster, and in sneers in the Nationalist Press at the delay in sending to the front a body of troops whose friends had advertised their supposed efficiency before the war. These troops were themselves fretting to get to France; and they believed, rightly or wrongly, that political intrigue was at work to keep them ingloriously at home, while other Divisions, lacking their preliminary training, were receiving preference in the supply of equipment.

One small circumstance, arising out of the conditions in which "Kitchener's Army" had to be raised, afforded genuine enjoyment in Ulster. Men were enlisting far more rapidly than the factories could provide arms, uniforms, and other equipment. Rifles for teaching the recruits to drill and manoeuvre were a long way short of requirements. It was a great joy to the Ulstermen when the War Office borrowed their much-ridiculed "dummy rifles" and "wooden guns," and took them to English training camps for use by the "New Army."

But this volume is not concerned with the conduct of the Great War, nor is it necessary to enter in detail into the controversy that arose as to the efforts of the rest of Ireland, in comparison with those of Ulster, to serve the Empire in the hour of need. It will be sufficient to cite the testimony of two authorities, neither of whom can be suspected of bias on the side of Ulster. The chronicler of the Annual Register records that:

"In Ulster, as in England, the flow of recruits outran the provision made for them by the War Office, and by about the middle of October the Protestant districts had furnished some 21,000, of which Belfast alone had contributed 7,581, or 305 per 10,000 of the population—the highest proportion of all the towns in the United Kingdom."[91]

The second witness is the democratic orator who took a foremost part in the House of Commons in denouncing the Curragh officers who resigned their Commissions rather than march against Ulster. Colonel John Ward, M.P., writing two years after the war, in which he had not kept his eyes shut, said:

"It would be presumptuous for a mere Englishman to praise the gallantry and patriotism of Scotland, Wales, and Ulster; their record stands second to none in the annals of the war. The case of the South of Ireland, her most ardent admirer will admit, is not as any other in the whole British Empire. To the everlasting credit of the great leader of the Irish Nationalists, Mr. John Redmond, his gallant son, and his very lovable brother—together with many real, great-souled Irish soldiers whose loss we so deeply deplore—saw the light and followed the only course open to good men and true. But the patriotism and devotion of the few only show up in greater and more exaggerated contrast the sullen indifference of the majority, and the active hostility of the minority, who would have seen our country and its people overrun and defeated not only without regret, but with fiendish delight."[92]

No generous-minded Ulsterman would wish to detract a word from the tribute paid by Colonel Ward to the Redmond family and other gallant Catholic Nationalists who stood manfully for the Empire in the day of trial; but the concluding sentence in the above quotation cannot be gainsaid. And the pathetic thing was that Mr. Redmond himself never seems to have understood the true sentiments of the majority of those who had been his followers before the war. In a speech in the House on the 15th of September he referred contemptuously to a "little group of men who never belonged to the National Constitutional party, who were circulating anti-recruiting handbills and were publishing little wretched rags once a week or once a month," which were not worth a moment's notice.

The near future was to show that these adherents of Sinn Fein were not so negligible as Mr. Redmond sincerely believed. The real fact was that his own patriotic attitude at the outbreak of war undermined his leadership in Ireland. The "separatism" which had always been, as Ulster never ceased to believe, the true underlying, though not always the acknowledged, motive power of Irish Nationalism, was beginning again to assert itself, and to find expression in "handbills" and "wretched rags." It was discovering other leaders and spokesmen than Mr. Redmond and his party, whom it was destined before long to sweep utterly away.

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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