A County at War: Fermanagh

In 1911 County Fermanagh had a population of just over 61,000 people. Of that 34,750 (56.18%) were Roman Catholic, the remainder being various Protestant denominations. Two parliamentary constituencies existed, with the North Fermanagh seat narrowly returning a seat for Unionism, and the South Fermanagh seat being a safe nationalist seat. The County was divided religiously, communally and politically. Just before the outbreak of the war, the Home Rule Crisis had brought into existence two groupings in Ireland whose goals sat at polar opposites. County Fermanagh was no exception.

According to their own records, at its peak the Ulster Volunteer Force in the County had 3,699 Volunteers (although the R.I.C. in September 1914 placed it at a much lower approximate 2,800), over one in every eight men within its boundaries and about 35% of all those eligible for membership. Three Battalions strong, it was based in Unionist and Nationalist areas; had substantial armaments; and had been training continually for in excess of 18 months. It was backed up by its own cavalry regiment, the Enniskillen Horse; who according to intelligence had a large number of reservists within the ranks. Other specialised units were created in conjunction with the Volunteers to provide support such as the Ulster Signalling Despatch Riding Corps, Nursing Corps, Ulster Special Service Force and Motor Car Corps; and alongside the U.V.F. and Horse each had a united common purpose, to prevent the implementation of Home Rule.

Their opposition came in the form of the Irish National Volunteers, whose inception came almost one full year after the U.V.F. at a meeting in the Rotunda in Dublin in November 1913. The County Inspector noted of them that they were deficient in organisation, however like their Ulster Volunteer counter-parts they were drilling regularly and in most cases did so under the instruction of army reservists. Numbers were estimated at 4,000 by July 1914, and were said to have the support of most Nationalists in general including the Roman Catholic Clergy. The number of arms in their possession was very low, however efforts made to procure weapons were on-going, and fundraising for this cause was proving relatively successful. For these Fermanagh Nationalists the goal was not just Home Rule, but in particular to ensure that their county would not be excluded not if but when it was implemented.

On the 1st August the R.I.C. County Inspector for Fermanagh issued his confidential intelligence report for July 1914. He remarked that the County is quiet, though notably clarified those remarks with the statement that ‘Party tension is however un-relaxed’. Within the space of just four weeks he had revised his view considerably, writing that the Ulster Volunteers and Irish National Volunteers had reduced their number of drills and that ‘political tension has to a considerable extent relaxed since the commencement of the war’.

When Britain declared War on Germany on the 4th August 1914, almost immediately the entire United Kingdom fell in behind the cause of ‘defeating the hun’. In the Northern part of Ireland it had the additional benefit of giving tens of thousands of men and their leaders an excuse to set aside political and militaristic posturing. Many did genuinely believe they were heading for civil war, and now came an excuse and opportunity to step back without loss of face. As British foreign secretary declared ‘The one bright spot in the whole of this terrible situation is Ireland’.

According to the pages of the local papers as early as the 6th August, ‘There is not a man or woman in Fermanagh who will not be feeling, directly or indirectly, the affects of the present war’. The first affected were reservists in the ranks of the Ulster Volunteers and Irish National Volunteers who were returning to their different corps as early as the 5th August. As the Fermanagh Times stated ‘From Belleek and Garrison on one side, to Clones and Newtownbutler on the other side, men were yesterday evening (Wednesday 5th) saying goodbye to their relatives and neighbours’.

With the announcement of war widespread panic came as well, and food stuffs rose in price in the County straight away. The Times saw fit in its edition of 13th August to go as far as to include an article entitled ‘some pertinent questions’ demanding to know how much profit grocers had made since the outbreak of war, and if indeed the current prices were justified by the state of the wholesale market’. The panic manifested itself in other ways as well, with rumours of German spies in Enniskillen taking hold of the popular imagination, some more naive individuals spreading tales that amounted to no less than an impending German invasion!

The more practical aspect of war namely enlistment soon came to take precedence over all other interests. For Ulster Volunteers and Irish National Volunteers alike, their respective leaderships were encouraging enrolment in government forces. This was not a sentiment that set easy with either group of Volunteers. Edward Carson’s calls for men to enrol was clarified by 3rd Battalion Fermanagh U.V.F. Commander Charles Fausset Falls that ‘no one will be asked to serve outside Ulster until Sir Edward Carson notifies that he is satisfied with the attitude of the Government with regard to the Home Rule Bill and Ulster’. As was noted elsewhere, most thought that a satisfactory outcome should have come before any volunteering for service. John Redmond’s encouragement to the Irish Volunteers was marginally more open, but did limit the calls for the men to prepare for ‘home defence’ only, and in Fermanagh at least this was heeded. By the 13th August the 2nd Battalion of Fermanagh National Volunteers had publically declared its decision to ‘act in home defence if called upon’.

For the big house Unionist families of Fermanagh the topic of whether or not to support enlistment was less of a contentious issue, simply because of long held military traditions and associations. Many of their number were already officers within the army and as such were at the frontlines or on route to them. Viscount Crichton, the oldest son of Lord and Lady Erne, was a Colonel commanding a brigade of Guards. The son of Edward Archdale was the commander of a Torpedo Cruiser Fleet; while Viscount Cole son of Lord and Lady Enniskillen was the commander of the North Irish Horse. Other notable families with serving children included the Porter Porter’s of Belle isle and the son of Sir Arthur Douglas Brooke 4th Baronet, later to be 1st Viscount Brookeborough.

In spite of any dissent that may have existed in the ranks, the Officers within the Fermanagh Ulster Volunteers were very quick to speak out in support of the war effort. After an inspection during the second week of August 1914, the men of the Brookeborough Company U.V.F. and its Cycle Corps detachment, heard the commander of the 3rd Fermanagh Battalion C. F. Falls tell them that if indeed Redmond was genuine in offering the Irish Volunteers for the defence of Ireland during the war, he could see no reason why Fermanagh Unionists should not offer their services to the Empire. Accompanied by Colonel Doran and Assistant Adjutant Mr S. C. Clarke, Mr Falls optimistically suggested that the County Ulster Volunteers should be able to raise 1,000 men from its three Battalions to form one complete Battalion to assist the Empire’s forces at home or abroad.

Despite the enthusiasm of the U.V.F. Officers, the Unionist landed gentry and indeed some of the upper echelons of the Irish National Volunteers; in August 1914 recruitment was not impressive. The R.I.C. inspector went as far as to state that ‘army recruiting in this county has not been successful’. The doubt’s surrounding Home Rule were the core reasons for this in both parties, and within the Nationalist Volunteers had another side effect in that Irish Volunteers were also now not attending drill’s in case they may be ‘eventually forced to serve’. The figures from the Inspector of both bodies by October stated that 214 Irish National Volunteers had joined the army (including 144 reservists), while 324 Ulster Volunteers had enlisted (including 100 reservists).

For the Irish Nationalists enlisting, the 6th Connacht Rangers became one of the main Battalions of choice. For Unionists, the formation of an Ulster Division for the U.V.F. saw the creation of another Battalion of the traditional County Regiment specifically for their number. The 11th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was officially formed in September and from inception and given the levels of recruitment, was designed to incorporate the Ulster Volunteer Force members of County Fermanagh and County Donegal. Two companies were quickly raised, with A Coy largely composing Donegal men, and B Coy the Fermanagh men. Uniquely in the Ulster Division, the militant Unionists of the rest of the British Isles formed the basis of C Company via a recruitment drive from the British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union.

By 20th September 1914 the men of the 11th were in camp at Finner in Donegal, being joined intermittently by new drafts of recruits. The two Captains appointed within the Battalion reflected its make-up, Enniskillen solicitor Charles Falls previously commander of the 3rd Battalion Fermanagh Volunteers; and Lord Leitrim previously commander of the Donegal Regiment Volunteers.

As of 3rd October 1914 the 11th had fewer than 500 men in its ranks. This was less than half the necessary strength for an infantry Battalion, namely 1,007 Officers and other ranks. In Fermanagh In an effort to recruit more men, a recruiting route march by the Fermanagh Company through their home territory took place between 7th and 16th November. The successful enterprise saw the U.V.F. basis of the Battalion emphasised by different local bodies of armed Ulster Volunteers accompanying the Company as it passed through their areas; including Pettigo, Enniskillen, Tempo, Maguiresbridge, Lisnaskea and Newtownbutler.

The Ulster Division required a cavalry squadron, and as was logical it was established in Enniskillen, ancestral home of the famous Inniskilling Dragoons. It was also of course the command centre of the anti-Home Rule Cavalry Regiment the Enniskillen Horse. Commander of the Horse William Copeland Trimble had actually offered the services of the body as an army reserve to the Secretary of State for War as early as August 1913, and this new ‘U.V.F.’ squadron of Dragoons recruited heavily from it. This is unsurprising given that an H.Q. Irish Command report on the Ulster Volunteer Force in September 1913 stated that ‘with the exception of half a dozen men, the men belong to the North Irish Horse special reserve.’ Copeland Trimble later claimed he had been promised command of this new Regular Army squadron but was passed over, a fact that is not surprising given that at this stage he was 62 years of age.

While recruitment and training were the issues of prime importance and activity in Ireland, for those regular soldiers from Fermanagh who found themselves at the front in the early stages of the war, there was a remarkable enthusiasm and optimism that would be severely challenged during the years ahead. In a letter from the front lines that reached his mother and sisters on the 30th September 1914, Lieutenant Richard Annesley West, a Boer War veteran and son of the late Captain Augustus West of Whitepark Brookeborough; was brimming with positive thoughts. He wrote to his family that he was ‘Very fit and well, better than I have been for years’, told them the life suited him, and that it was a ‘very healthy country’. It was also his view that it was a much more pleasant existence than during the South African wars with the Boer.

Twenty four months later, on the 2nd of September 1918 while serving with the tank corps, Captain West lost his life. In the process he was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation records that after an attack in which his men had suffered heavy casualties and were under the face of heavy machine gun and rifle fire, West reorganised and rallied his troops inspiring them to defeat the attack. In the midst of the situation he rode amongst his men calling to them ‘Stick it men; show them fight; and for God’s sake put up a good fight.’ Shortly after his cries he was riddled by machine gun bullets.

In a more light-hearted commentary, in December 1914 a short snippet of news appeared in newspapers across the Empire that would have instilled a sense of pride within the County. Sergeant James Bryan Stewart, a 32 year old auctioneer of Drumclay near Newtownbutler, was said to be the biggest soldier in the entire British Army at 6ft 1.5 inches, 24 stone weight and with a chest measurement of 43.45 inches! The syndicated news item also went on to claim that there were few regiments in the British Army that could beat the 11th Inniskilling Fusiliers for their size, with A and B companies including some giants of 6 feet 3! Stewart was said to be an international water polo player, an old ‘varsity rugby man’ and a sports enthusiast. His brothers Charles and Jack also had enlisted. All three brothers survived the war, and all three are listed as former pupils of Portora Royal School within its extensive memorial listing.

Meanwhile training for the 11th had been progressing very quickly. In January they took part with another three Battalions in a march of their entire Brigade to their new base at Shane’s Castle near Randalstown, incredibly bad weather making it an arduous ordeal that included walking from Finner to Omagh Barracks. A few months later, on May 8th 1915, over 1,000 officers and men of the Battalion participated in the immense march past of the entire 36th Ulster Division in Belfast.

During this period the Battalions first casualty came in tragic circumstances, when Private Thomas Rowe drowned on the 18th of January near Belfast. Rowe of Aghalure Lisnaskea, had signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 in the local Parochial Hall. He received a full military funeral from the Mater Hospital, with his Union Flag draped coffin mounted on top of a horse drawn carriage, and accompanied by a military band and his fellow troops.

Back at home, recruitment meetings where common in Fermanagh, with the platforms regularly shared by individuals who not long before had been involved in movements in direct conflict. A Brookeborough recruitment meeting in the Courthouse in May 1915 included high profile Irish Volunteer and former East Tyrone M.P. Professor Tom Kettle; Edward Archdale the chairman of Fermanagh Ulster Volunteers County Committee and Colonel Leslie commander of both the County Monaghan U.V.F. and a newly formed Reserve Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 12th. Chaired by Brookeborough Unionist Club President Colonel Doran, Archdale opened the proceedings by saying they should congratulate themselves on the meeting given there were representatives of ‘all classes’ present. Mr Montgomery of Blessingbourne near Fivemiletown said that something extraordinary must have happened to bring the evening about, with unionists feeling the Union would be no good to them, and Nationalists feeling Home rule would be no good to them; if the Germans were allowed to win the war. Despite the sentiments expressed, recruitment was still far from the levels the speakers would have liked.

Of those that did join the colours, the theme of groups of brothers and extended family members is one repeated across the British Isles. In terms of solely those who fell, the Fermanagh War Memorial lists 31 sets of two brothers who died, and two sets of three brothers. Perhaps one of the most impressive records was that of the Orr family from Brookeborough. Father Sergeant John Orr had served with commendation in the South Africa Wars, and set aside his carpentry trade to re-enlist for the Great War. He eventually took with him four of his six sons, John, Henry, William and Thomas.

All five were said to have enlisted with the Inniskilling Dragoons; with John, Henry and William all travelling to France with the 36th Ulster Division in October 1915. The three older brothers continued their service together during the war, serving first with the 2nd Battalion North Irish Horse, then transferring into the newly consolidated battalion of Irish Fusiliers and North Irish Horse, the 9th (North Irish Horse) Royal Irish Fusiliers in August 1917. William was wounded and discharged from service as no longer physically on 29th July 1918 aged 22. John was captured in March 1918 in the retreat from St Quentin. Henry had been killed in action on the 22nd August 1917 during the Battle of Langemarck at Moeuvres. He was 22.

By this stage the men of the 11th were still in training at Randalstown, and in July embarked on the next major leg of their journey as a military formation. On the 7th of the month they were the last Battalion of the 36th Division to make their way to what would be their final base in the British Isles, Seaford on the Sussex Coast of England. Their stay there was notable for participation in a further high profile review of the entire Division by both the King, George V, and Lord Kitchener. Between the 3rd and 5th of October they would make their final key journey, this time to France.

The 11ths first few months in France were relatively un-eventful; however a temporary postponement of leave in January was reported at home and resulted in much disappointment. February was a sombre month for the men of the Fermanagh Ulster Volunteers, when the son of the popular Commander of the 1st North Fermanagh Battalion Charles D’Arcy Irvine of Castle Irvin Irvinestown was officially confirmed as killed. Bearing his fathers name, Captain Charles D’Arcy Irvine had served with the Leinster Regiment and had been missing since August 1915. He was unofficially believed killed then at Suvla Bay, but the news was not established until 3rd February.

At the same time, Fermanagh women were continually working away to provide their men folk on the Western Front with various comforts. In some respects they appear to have been overzealous, and in the Fermanagh Times of 27th January 1916 were advised that there was a plentiful supply of mufflers and mittens, and that the ladies should focus themselves on producing socks. Among the items received by the 11th Battalion fund from 6th to 22nd January were 15 pairs of socks, 16 pairs of mittens and 5 mufflers from Mrs Wilson of Tempo Manse; 12 pairs of socks, 6 pairs of mittens and 6 mufflers from the Honourable Cecil Corry; 1 muffler and 1 pair of mittens from Mrs Ben Maguire; and 4 pairs of mittens from Mrs Beatty Derrydoon Newtownbutler. Events to come would place the thoughts of mufflers, mittens and sock’s well to the backs of people’s minds.

On the 2nd of March 1916 the German’s having tunnelled under the trenches of the 11th, exploded a huge mine. In the process several of the 11th’s own miners became trapped in tunnel they had been constructing. With a total disregard to his own safety, Private Louis Hazlett made his way down a 40 foot tunnel, and rescued three trapped men. For his actions Private Hazlett was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It was the first award for bravery received by the Battalion. Another Fermanagh man to receive an award during March was Captain Porter of Belle isle of the 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers. He had the honour of being received by the King himself who presented him with the Distinguished Service Order.

The day of the War that would most touch the people of Fermanagh was yet to come. On the morning of the 1st July 1916 the men of the 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were given the mission of supporting the 9th Battalion Inniskilling’s in the attack. Their objective was a third line of German trenches. Code named ‘Lisnaskea’. The men did indeed reach ‘Lisnaskea’, but with terrible consequences. On that worst day in British Military history, the 11th Battalion suffered some of the worst casualties of any battalion. Of a strength of less than 700 men, a total of some 12 Officers and 577 men were killed, wounded or missing.

A slower information age combined with media embargoes meant news of events on the Somme were slow to trickle through, and Fermanagh Orangeism continued on with its already scaled back plans to commemorate the July anniversaries. On Sunday 9th July Orange services took place in all the traditional venues including Rossorry, Derryvullen and Garvary. At the Parish Church Enniskillen the local Orangemen met in the grounds before putting on their regalia and marching into the building. The Rev Canon Webb did not understate his message in regards to the faith of those present and those at the front, ‘God was a sure refuge from generation to generation for his own people, but traitors to the faith and rebels to His authority have no claim on his protection unless they humbled themselves and repented of their sins’. It was his hope that the war would make all more attentive to their religious duties. Canon Webb told those present that their thoughts on the day were ‘turned to the Great Battle in which so many of their comrades had been engaged, and in which some alas had fallen’. He went on to tell the congregation that one of the ways in which they could show their sympathy for those who had been wounded or lost their lives, would be to fill up the vacant places within the Ulster Division. At this stage he and few others present truly realised the full scale of events on the 1st of July, and the impact they would have.

Enniskillen man Lance Corporal J. Quinn wrote to his father Mr Thomas Quinn of the Diamond Enniskillen giving an insight to the proceedings on that fateful day, ‘I got out all right but it was proper hell. The machine guns mowed down our fellows like sheep. The 11th Battalion got it pretty bad… I saw a lot of them lying killed over the top… You could not but have pity for the poor devil’s (the Germans). They ran out to us with their hands up and begged for mercy. Some of them got the bayonet. One poor fellow had the two eye’s blown out of his head and he was a frightful looking case… Our Division has made a name for itself’.

Stories of heroism and bravery would soon be brought to the attention of the world, not least that of Enniskillen born Eric Norman Frankland Bell. At just 20 years of age, on the 1st July 1916 Bell was serving as a Temporary Captain in the 9th Royal Inniskilling’s leading a Light Trench Mortar Battery after his commanding officer had been killed. During that first day of the Somme, Eric crept forward and shot a German Machine Gunner, only to follow up his action on three further occasions by advancing alone and throwing mortars among the enemy. He was killed trying to reorganise men who had no officers. For gallantry at Thiepval, Temporary Captain Eric Norman Frankland Bell was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The 1st of July is far from the sole story of the war. Messines, Ypres and Cambrai in 1917 in particular would take a massive toll on the 11th Inniskillings and on Fermanagh in general. Given the very geographically confined recruitment basis of the 36th Ulster Division, it was however the first of July 1916 that most left a mark. It physically touched the heart of Fermanagh in a way other battles would never. There was not a town or village in the county that did not have a grieving family from the day’s events. The scale of its losses eventually led to the destruction of the 11th before the end of the war, its remaining men transferring to the 9th Inniskillings on 1st February 1918.

In total the Great War Memorial for County Fermanagh in Enniskillen lists some 650 of those who were killed. Over half were Inniskillings, and the 11th Battalion bore more losses than any other British formation. There is little doubt the names of many hundreds of other Fermanagh natives who made the ultimate sacrifice have been lost to posterity. What we do know however is the County contributed to the war effort, all its people experienced the war, it suffered because of the war, and it remembers the war. It should continue to be explored and re-discovered. The People, the places, the events. It should never be forgotten.

1 Comment

  1. An excellent piece which I thoroughly enjoyed reading; what a surprise to see my grandfather’s account included. I am referring to Louis Hazlett. He recounted his exploits to me when I was a child; I am very proud of him.

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