Upon the advent of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, Irish Unionism in partnership with the Orange Order canvassed Orange Lodges across the entirety of Ireland. The purpose was to establish the strength of feeling against the idea of Home Rule and the degree to which Orangemen in particular would be prepared to go to prevent its imposition. During that period and the nature of the two house Parliamentary system, there never was a possibility of it coming to pass, but to help ensure their cause was heeded, the muster roll of an ‘Orange Army’ was leaked to English newspapers. It was largely a paper exercise; however the detailed organisation roll was impressive. Four divisions were subdivided into Brigades. Within the Fourth Brigade of the Third, or Mid Ulster, Division; were the Coleraine men. Named the 1st regiment of Sir Hervey’s Volunteers, its nine companies numbered 570 volunteers with a reserve of 297. Almost thirty years before the Home Rule Crisis, Coleraine was acknowledging its willingness to use force against Home Rule if necessary.
Just seven years later another organisation emerged to lobby against Home Rule, this time in the form of the Ulster Defence Union. A six hundred man assembly was elected from across Ulster, with each parliamentary constituency electing a number of delegates in ratio in relation to their unionist electorate. The thirty eight North Derry delegates included in their number eleven Coleraine men including Stewart Hunter, Rev. James Smyth, William Eccles, Hunt Leitch, Drummond Grant, Thomas Carson, Joseph Carson and Rev. O’Hare. Few realised that some twenty years later they would again be involved in another new movement against Home Rule.
On the 8th of January 1912, over eight months before the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the County Londonderry Grand Master of the Orange Order attended a grand Unionist meeting in Coleraine. Captain Watt stated to the gathered audience unambiguously that Home Rule must be resisted, and if needs dictated, that resistance should be by force of arms. At the same meeting visiting Unionist MP for North Armagh William Moore told the Coleraine crowd that ‘if the time came for organised defence against invasion of their constitutional rights as citizens of the United Kingdom, no one was going to have time to ask for gun license’s’. While drilling was undoubtedly being carried out in the area by that date, indeed R.I.C. intelligence detailed its unsubstantiated belief that drilling near Coleraine was happening as early as September 1911, their intelligence did not identify a particularly high level of militancy. During the months ahead this would rapidly change.
In the aftermath of the Ulster Covenant the Ulster Unionist Council took the decision to form the Ulster Volunteer Force, with the motivations several in number. Carson and Craig recognised the need to band together the many different bodies currently drilling and create a central control; but they also realised that the PR and propaganda uses of a mass citizen army against Home Rule would be invaluable. County committee’s were appointed to oversee the organisation, funding, and equipping of the force in their area; with the North Derry area being given County status in its own right by virtue of its size. A 23rd of April 1913 committee listing includes in its number Captain Horace Gaussen of Rock House Portstewart, Canon Cunningham of Ballyrashane Rectory, Andrew McFeaters of Bridge Street and William Jackson of Castlerock.
Drilling was increasing swiftly, and by August the R.I.C. believed that about 700 men were drilling in County Londonderry under the auspices primarily of Unionist Clubs and Orange Lodges. There is little doubt that there were some within local Unionism thinking ahead in terms of armaments as well. On Tuesday 24th June 1913 a steamer that arrived at Coleraine was boarded by customs. Two cases were impounded. Each contained 30 rifles.
The structure of the Ulster Volunteer Force was one that was continually evolving, and some areas where slower to organise than others. R.I.C. intelligence estimated the North Derry constituency to have just 1,496 men in September 1913. Captain James Craig visited the town on Friday 17 October, and yet again there was no ambiguity within the sentiments expressed. Craig stated clearly that any Dublin Parliament would have a one hundred thousand strong loyal army to deal with. Craig’s visit helped to stimulate more growth in the body, and just a few months later an official County Londonderry U.V.F. return of numbers (dated 9th January 1914), details a North Derry Division Volunteer Force numbering 2,414 Volunteers. Coleraine District was divided into five areas including Quilly numbering 341; Articlave and Castlerock in the Ballywildrick District numbered 51; and the Portstewart District composing Portstewart and Burnside consisted of 106 men.
North Derry would eventually come to be configured as the North Londonderry Regiment, composed of three Battalions. By May 31st 1914 the R.I.C. estimate of its total strength had increased to 3,305, but at their peak in June official documents had the battalions jointly numbering 3324 men. The first Battalion was known as the Faughan Valley Battalion, centered on Eglington; while the second Battalion was the Roe Valley Batt with Headquarters in Limavady. The third Battalion was the largest in the Regiment with 1,304 Volunteers. Known as the Bann Valley Battalion, the unit’s base was in Coleraine and it was composed of seven Companies.
Under the command initially of Portstewart’s Captain Horace Gaussen, after Gaussen moved into the staff officer role for the entire Division the 3rd Battalion command was taken over by Captain R. Bruce. Among his support staff were Adjutant Mr Samuel Willis and Quartermaster William McLeese. ‘A’ company was Articlave under Commander William Jackson, while ‘B’ Company was under W.A. Patterson and covered Ballinteer and Leck. ‘C’ through to ‘F’ Coy’s were all designated ‘Coleraine’ Companies. ‘C’ Coy officer in command was R.S. Knox; ‘D’ Coy O.C. F. Glenn; ‘E’ Coy O.C. H.A. Anderson and ‘F’ Coy O.C. was W.J. McKenny. ‘G’ Company covered the Portstewart area and was commanded by Henry O’Neil J.P. The Coleraine mounted troop was officered by Captain Fry and troop commander D.H. Christie. The battalion also had its own nursing and ambulance corps, cycling corps, signaling corps and motor dispatch riders. A post house for the 3rd Battalion was located at Eastleigh, Adelaide Avenue. Under the charge of post mistress Mrs. Leslie Smith, the office worked under the code designation of CR.
From late 1913 right through to the beginning of the Great War and beyond, the activities of the Coleraine Volunteers could be read about almost weekly in the local papers. Route marches and drills were the most common, but there were also inspections, camps, fundraising concerts and events, and church services.
Despite structure not being fully finalised, what is described as the ‘Coleraine Company’ Ulster Volunteer Force over 300 strong, were presented with colour’s on 8th August 1913. All available information would suggest that it was the first presentation of colour’s to any Ulster Volunteer unit. The gift of North Derry M.P. Hugh Barrie and his wife, Mrs. Barrie passed the standard over to the Coleraine men in front of the Manor House after they had proceeded there from their drill hall on the Waterside. There to cheers she told them that she had no fear that the Coleraine Company (would), if they should be called on, make sacrifices for the cause which was so dear to their hearts.
A typical church event was like that in early May. The Balinteer and Leck Volunteers met at Ballinteer Orange Hall then proceeded to Dunboe Presbyterian Church where a sermon was given by the Rev. J.G. Keers. The church was recorded as being crowded with many unable to gain admission. Route marches were almost weekly occurrences such as that in Coleraine itself on 16th May 1914. The four Coleraine companies gathered at the Diamond, where they were then under the leader ship of Battalion O.C. Bruce and Adjutant Willis, both of whom were mounted. At 7pm almost 400 Volunteers accompanied by their band marched to Portstewart via the Ballysally Road, being met on route by the Portstewart Coy.
The largest gathering the Battalion participated in had been on the 16th April 1914, when the entirety of the North Londonderry Regiment and the City of Derry Regiment were reviewed by Sir Edward Carson at Drenagh, Limavady. There were an estimated 4,000 Volunteers in attendance. The local men were also involved in arguably the most famous event of the entire period, the arrival of the Clyde Valley at Larne. The Belfast Newsletter following 24th April 1914 reported that the local companies all turned out every available man for the mobilisation that evening, which would soon be world news. Motor vehicles were recorded as passing through the town at 3.30am, with the operation only ending at 4am. In late July the G.O.C. of the Ulster Volunteers himself Sir George Richardson travelled to the North West and on his journey reviewed a local contingent of U.V.F. who had met him at Coleraine train station. Richardson told them the ‘crisis time was imminent’. He also took the opportunity to thank the local force for its contribution to the Larne Gun-Running; an event he said would go down in history.
The largest mobilisation of solely the Bann Valley Battalion took place on 4th June at Downhill Castle near Castlerock, home of the Bruce Dynasty. The entire Battalion had been ordered to mobilise at short notice for what they were told was ‘particular service’, and around 1,000 men responded to the instruction despite being oblivious to its purpose. The Coleraine, Ballinteer and Leck men arrived by train; while the Portstewart and Articlave units joined them at Downhill. The actual purpose of the night had been to carry out a test exercise that was based on the premise that an enemy was advancing on Downhill Castle. The men were divided into separate bodies and deployed throughout the area, sentries were posted, and scouts and cavalry patrolled the grounds. The elaborate exercise came to an end after three hours, after which the 700 Coleraine Volunteers returned by train and the Portstewart men travelled home by boat. The commander of the entire Derry Division Major Ross Smyth had been overseeing the proceedings.
Upon the outbreak of war many Coleraine men would embark on a new venture. The army battalion of choice for the local Volunteers was the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Under the command of the Derry U.V.F. Division Commander Ross Smyth, the unit soon was known as the ‘Derry’s. Most local men ended up in C Company of this new army battalion. Some joined for the good of Ulster, Ireland and the Empire. Some wanted escape from the drudgery and hard labour in the factory’s and on the farms. Some simply sought adventure, filled with romantic ideas of seeing new sights and feeling new experiences. In truth there was very little romantic about what many would see and experience. Eventually over 160 names would be listed on Coleraine War Memorial of local men who fell on the fields of Battle far from home.