A Force for Ulster

Since the very first home Rule Bill of 1886 Unionism had been drilling and arming itself, indeed several County Armagh Unionists were unsuccessfully prosecuted for the practise in that very year. Truly mass and wide scale quasi-military mobilisation however did not start until the approach of the Third Home Rule Bill.

In February 1912 a confidential Royal Irish Constabulary report from the Deputy Inspector General detailed the extent of military drilling in Ulster.Within it the document listed the numbers known to be attending drill sessions across the Province, including over 6,000 men regarded as actively training in Belfast. 

The pattern was replicated right across the North of Ireland, with County Tyrone alone having 29 different drill centres recorded, in total involving almost 1,400 men. In reality the figures were highly likely to have been much larger, given that the document relied on both the knowledge and efficiency of local R.I.C. officers, and the level of secrecy local Unionists treated their drilling.  Despite these failings, over seven months before the signing of the Ulster Covenant, an incredible 12,208 Unionists were defined by the R.I.C. as engaged in regular drill.

Primarily this activity was through the many Unionist Clubs in existence, but the Orange Order and other community based organisations too played a significant role. News sources across Ulster and beyond were referring to these men as bands of ‘Ulster Volunteers’ from as early as 1910, but what is now known as the Ulster Volunteer Force did not come into being until after the Ulster Covenant in the last few months of 1912.  By December 1912 the majority of Counties had organising committees for the Force in place, the massive task of bringing together many different independent groupings under one banner underway.

At the January 1913 meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council, the creation of this ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’ was formally placed before delegates to be rubber stamped. This was despite the decision having already been taken and a fledgling Force already being in existence. It was agreed unanimously to establish an army consisting of a maximum of 100,000 men between the ages of 17 and 65 years of age, with the pre-requisite that each member must have signed the Ulster Covenant. This condition was eventually relaxed, and indeed special membership forms were created to allow Catholic Unionists to become members.

There were of course several political, social and psychological reasons for the creation of a universal anti Home-Rule Army. Some of which are debatable as to their importance, but at a purely organisational level it cannot be denied that there was a level of professionalism and forethought present in the creation of the U.V.F. unrivalled for a civilian body during this period in world history. From its formalisation in January 1913, the U.V.F. grew and developed continually right up until the outbreak of the Great War. Intelligence notes from the Chief Secretary Office Judicial Division numbered the Force at 56,561 members on 30September 1913, but by 31 May 1914 had reassessed it as just fewer than 85,000. Official Volunteer records in July 1914 bring the numbers much closer to 100,000.

The Ulster Unionist Council established a Military Council and an Ulster Volunteer Committee to deal with all aspects of the Force, with the Ulster Volunteer Committee consisting of a number of different ‘boards’. A Finance Board supervised and audited all expenses, with a Supply Board primarily looking after food supplies. The Personnel Board was involved in recruiting suitable officers, while the Ulster Volunteer Advisory Board addressed issues directed to them concerning a range of subject matters. A Railway Board focused solely on the Railway network and its relevance and use to the Force, and the Transport Board was primarily concerned with listing and registering all means of transport available to the Volunteers, including motor vehicles, steam vehicles and horse.

The Volunteers were to be organised under a British Military like system, modified to allow for the numbers involved and the geographic basis of the force. The structure was to consist of Divisions based on County, subdivided into Regiments (taking the place of the Brigade in the British Military), Battalions, Companies, Half-Companies, Sections and Squads. In all 11 County Areas were created. Belfast and City of Derry were both given individual County Status, Belfast owing to its size and Londonderry owing to its symbolic importance within Ulster and Irish Unionism. Each County was then broken down into Regiments according to the Unionist population, with consideration given to natural community catchment areas when defining central location and boundaries. The largest Regiment was East Belfast with six regular Battalions and two special Battalions consisting of over 10,000 volunteers, while the smallest was Cavan Regiment with three Battalions numbering 2065 men. At its peak the U.V.F. consisted of 20 Regiments, further sub divided into 70 Battalions.

Each Battalion consisted of a varying number of Companies, dictated largely by geographic distribution of Volunteers. In rural areas where the Unionist community was thin there could be as many as 16 Companies in a Battalion, however where possible, the desired number was eight. A recommended Company was to consist of One Commander, two half Company Commanders, a Quarter master, four section commanders and one hundred volunteers. Detailed orders were given on how each Company should be equipped, the list including 2 carts, 6 bicycles, 30 shovels or spades, a saw, and 1 crowbar. One cart was to be for ammunition, the other classed as a ‘baggage cart’ and to be equipped at all times with 100 blankets, 4 cooking pots and a range of provisions.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the U.V.F. was its establishment and application of specialist units within its ranks, some of which were truly ground breaking in the political and social world of 1914. Special Forces, Motor Corps, Signalling and Despatch Riding Corps, Medial and Nursing Corps; and a full mounted Regiment all existed within the Force.

The Ulster Special Service Force was essentially only manifest on a large scale in Belfast, and consisted of 150 men from each of Belfast’s 20 Battalions. These men where those who had given an undertaking to be able to immediately mobilise for any eventuality when notified, with all having special training and fully equipped. Special Forces units are documented as being established right across Ulster but to a much smaller extent.

The Motor Car Corps was an incredible innovation for the times, brought into existence as a direct result of the Transport Board. It was organised into Squadrons consisting of 28 vehicles and a further 4 motor cycles, broken down into Sections and Squads. One Squadron was designed to be able to transport a full Company of Volunteers. The U.V.F. was the first organisation in the world to use the motor car in a large scale military capacity, its most noteworthy exercise being the Gunrunning of April 1914.

The Ulster Signalling and Despatch Riding Corps were created to replace the regular Post Office and thus minimise intelligence breaches. Forty Three Post Houses were set up across Ulster, all but one having a Post-Mistress in charge, and a despatch corps of motor cyclists made daily runs across the entire network. These communications were then in turn spread to outlying Volunteer units by means of further motor cyclists, cyclists and even boats. Signallers also conveyed messages via means of flags and lamps. The Corps is acknowledged as having some of the most up to date telegraph equipment available, and is also credited with the development of a new type of signalling lamp that could be used in day light as well as at night.

The Ulster Volunteer Medical and Nursing Corps were formed in 1913, with the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council being the prime driving force behind it. It was the organising committee’s goal that each company of the Volunteers should also have one female Voluntary Aid Detachment, it being asserted that all women over the age of 16 and who had signed the Declaration should be giving their time to the movement as much as was physically possible. In all the Voluntary aid detachments of the UVF consisted of 3,520 nurses, with a further 600 doctors and nurses undertaking to aid the units if their services were required. In what was a very male chauvinistic age before female suffrage, the U.V.F. made moves to transcend those established boundaries.

Among other elements of the Force were a full mounted Regiment, the Enniskillen Horse, consisting of over 300 men and mounts; an Artillery Regiment and an Engineer Corps.

This has been just a very brief glimpse into the structure and organisation of the Ulster Volunteers. In recent years many academics have revisited the Force, revising and re-evaluating history as some now see being the role of a historian. Much has been made of deficiencies within the Volunteers in terms of armaments; drill attendance; and a supposed lack of experienced military personnel, with it used to argue how the Force was in fact inefficient and no match for the British Army. What is seldom understood however is that it never was meant to be a match for the Regular Army. The U.V.F. was a peoples Militia. Far away from the complex ongoing political bargaining, it was a means to galvanise and unify a people. It provided unity in purpose and approach, leadership and an outlet for frustrations and anger. It instilled discipline, control and confidence. These qualities are those which every army hopes to attain, but seldom can muster universally. Added to this the undoubted expertise that the Volunteers had gained, and irrespective of all revision, it is without question that they could have easily overcame the R.I.C., controlled Irish Nationalists on most of the island; and quite possibly if had been called for, held its head high against the official army of its own country.

Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission

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