The area in and around Antrim town is no stranger to conflict. From the 4th Century AD it was a centre that would be attacked at different stages by a range of Viking marauders and Celtic clans, but by the end of the 16th Century it was already being referred to by some as ‘Gall-Antrum’ translating as ‘Antrim of the English’. Even a strong element of local support for the 1798 Rebellion never removed this Anglo-Irish identity, indeed in the Rebellion’s aftermath it would solidify and strengthen. By the advent of Home Rule being first proposed in 1886 the area, like the County as a whole, was firmly Unionist. As a local newspaper remarked in 1912 ‘Belfast has today five of the greatest industries of their kind in the world, and it is the third part in the Kingdom. All this has been done under the Act of Union. Why should every other part of the country have worked similarly and prospered under the same laws?’. Ulster was prospering under the Union, and with it so was Antrim and its surrounding countryside and villages including Randalstown, Crumlin and Glenavy. It and its people had no desire to risk that by changing their relationship with England.
The Ulster Covenant campaign was enthusiastically received locally. On Ulster Day Antrim Town Unionists gathered at the Protestant Hall before marching as a body (the very language indicating the militaristic character present in the periphery of the day and of events to come) to meet the Muckamore Unionist Club. A mass gathering then took place at Millrow Presbyterian Church where a cross denomination service took place, after which the Covenant was signed back in the Protestant Hall. Almost every house in Antrim is recorded as displaying a Union Flag. Further West in Randalstown proceedings where similar, and again men gathered to march to several services. In the aftermath of the services a procession once again formed up and made its way to Shane’s Castle where sports were held.
‘Sports’ was a commonly used term of the day for drilling and related activity, and there is no doubt that local Unionists were immersed in such activity. The Ulster Volunteer Force envisaged in late 1912 and formalised in January 1913 was slow to take the mantle of the sole Unionist military vehicle. Unionists Clubs were the main stay of activity for many during the year. In June 1913 Randalstown Unionist Club held a fete at Shane’s Castle which actually was simply a cover for a drill competition and display. Drill squads from Unionist Clubs in Randalstown and Muckamore were joined by squads from Ballymena and Queens Island Belfast, with each competing for an overall prize. On the day a Mr Davis from Holywood Unionist Club adjudged Randalstown B Squad the worthy overall winners.
In September 1913 an advisory Board was appointed for the Ulster Volunteer Force, and with it came renewed efforts to mobilise the body and increase the membership. A series of reviews were announced where Carson would be inspecting Volunteers, beginning in Kilkeel on 17th September and ending on 4th October in Armagh City. Among the engagements where four County Antrim venues on 20th of September including Ballyclare, Loughanmore, Antrim and Randalstown. In Loughanmore Volunteers were inspected at the home of Lieutenant General Sir William Adair, the overall Commander of the entire County U.V.F. In Antrim the town is recorded as being lavishly decorated and a massive fete was arranged in the Castle grounds of Viscount Massereene to raise funds for the Unionist cause. The volunteers present are once again recorded as being inspected doing various drill movements. Finally at Randalstown the Lisburn Standard reported that the front of the market-house was the setting for a muster of 500 of the local force. This final of the day’s reviews saw Carson tell the Randalstown rally that the spirit of the Ulsterman never dies, and whether it be long, or whether it be short, they would carry on their struggle not for a day, but for year after year.
Just a week prior to the Antrim inspections, the official U.V.F. returns for County Antrim to Headquarters dated 12th August detailed four County divisions; South, East, Mid-Antrim and North, numbering a total of 6285 men. Within the Southern division it included Randalstown district with 268 men. This was broken down between Hillstown with 54, Randalstown with 94, Magherabeg with 34, Staffordstown 49 and Ballydrummaul with 37. Antrim district numbered 149 split between 130 in Antrim and 19 in Muckamore. Crumlin had 134 men with 103 at Crumlin and 31 at Gartree; while Glenavy had 123 men at 7 different centres including 78 at Glenavy, 15 at Ballydonaghy, 5 at Crewe and 10 at Fourscore. Killead had 52 men listed between British, Gortnagallon, Aldergrove, Dungonnell and Ballynadrenta.
The Regimental structure for the County had not been fully formalised at this stage, however eventually a South Antrim Regiment was put in place under the command of Lieutenant – Colonel H.A. Pakenham, consisting of three distinct Battalions. The 1st was centred on Lisburn while the 2nd encompassed the area running from Dunmurray down to Aghalee. The 3rd Battalion of the South Antrim Regiment Ulster Volunteer Force was the ‘Antrim’ Battalion, with its main centres Antrim and Randalstown, also stretching down to and encompassing Killead, Dundrod, Glenavy and Crumlin.
The Officer in Command of the 3rd South Antrim Battalion, ‘Antrim’, was the 12th Viscount Massereene and Ferrard, the ornately named Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. Born in 1873, by the formation of the Volunteers the Viscount had already had substantial military experience. After enlisting in the cavalry regiment 17th Lancers in 1895, he was promoted to Captain in 1900 and until 1902 served in the Boar War. During this short period he was wounded and received two mentions in dispatches, and was later decorated DSO (Distinguished Service Order). He had retired from the service in 1907, but would later re-enlist with many of his own men upon the outbreak of the Great War, serving at the rank of Major with the North Irish Horse. Second in Command was W.H. Webb, a linen manufacturer from Randalstown who also was the president of the local Unionist Club. Upon the Viscount’s return to the Army he would assume the command of the Battalion. Adjutant was a Captain Richardson.
The company areas within the Battalion covered Randalstown, Antrim, Muckamore, Dungonnell, Crumlin, Gartree, Glenavy, Ballyhill and Dundrod. A, B and C companies where all within the greater Randalstown area, with A coy having 5 sections, the first 3 being Randalstown itself and the 4th and 5th Ballylurgan. B Company also had 5 sections stretching into the Staffordstown area, with C Company’s 4 sections having 2 based in Hillstown, 1 in Caddy and 1 in Ballydrummaul. One of the Randalstown Commanders was brother of W.H. Webb, Oswald Brooke Webb. Glenavy was under the command of Dr Arthur Museen, Dungonnell A. Greer, Muckamore under the command of S. G. Haughton, and H. B. Murray over one of two Antrim companies. Webb, Mussen and Murray had all been prominent members of the County Antrim organising committee of the UVF that had been appointed in the fledgling days of the Force on 20th December 1912.
The district also had two post houses within its boundaries for the use of the Ulster Signalling and Despatch Riding Corps. In Antrim, codenamed AN, Mrs Haughton was post mistress in the Protestant Hall. In Crumlin Miss English was post mistress in the Camlin House office in Main Street. At its peak strength just after the outbreak of the War, the 3rd Antrim Battalion would be the largest in the South Antrim Regiment with 1567 volunteers.
By late 1913 the various units were openly drilling and participating in such events as route marches and socials. Church services for Volunteers were a very common occurrence from this stage on. At a service for the Ulster Day anniversary in Muckamore Parish Church Volunteers from Antrim, Dungonnell and Muckamore Companies all attended, while in February 1914 a large church service took place at Glenavy, where Volunteers from Glenavy, Crumlin, Gartree, Fourscore, Crew and the Mount all marched to the Parish Church under the command of the Regimental Commander.
In early March the Randalstown Companies of the U.V.F. met at the Market Yard where all 13 sections of the 3 local Companies were reviewed before taking part in a drill competition. One man from each section was judged as being the best in their unit and each was awarded a medal. At the close of the Saturday activity W.H. Webb and O.B. Webb entertained the estimated 420 men at a smoking concert. Just a few days later the annual general meeting of Antrim Unionist Club was presented with a report on the local Volunteers stating that they now had two companies consisting of 227 Volunteers, all of whom were most efficient.
A notable feature of the activity of the entire South Antrim Regiment is the large number of occasions that the whole body was gathered together. True military competency was adjudged to require large bodies of men to be training together, and to this end the Regiment was more active than most others within Ulster. Men of the third Battalion first joined with comrades from the 1st and 2nd Battalions in March 1914, where a camp of instruction was held at the home of Regimental Commander Pakenham. The Langford Lodge setting ,just a few miles from Crumlin, involved around 130 regimental officers being given instruction in a variety of military subjects and manoeuvres. The camp began with a 9.30 am march to Gartree Church on the Sunday, after which dinner was served at camp at 1 o’clock. Monday’s schedule for the men included classes on Musketry, section drill, advance guard and a lecture on ‘Company in attack’. A mark of the importance of the occasion was the attendance of General Sir George Richardson, General Officer in Command of the Volunteers, on the Tuesday to make an inspection.
On the 13th April the South Antrim men were once again graced by the presence of Sir Edward Carson, this time to receive the presentation of Regimental and Kings Colours. The 3rd battalion was presented standards by Carson himself, as were the 2nd battalion (1st Battalion Lisburn had received colours some time previously). Around 80 nurses, primarily from the 3rd Battalion, also took part in the proceedings where the Belfast Newsletter reported almost 3000 men were on parade. The same report remarking that all of the troops were equipped with bandoliers, belts and haversacks and that the men of the 3rd Battalion were particularly striking. They alone wore slouch hats, each with a small red plume and a badge inscribed with the letters ‘3rd S.A.’. Carson presented the 3rd Battalion with its colours, the King’s colour being the gift of Lady Massereene and the Regimental colour purchased via a collection from across the Battalion area. Carson’s address to the men concluded with the rallying cry that ‘It was the spirit of the men behind the walls of Derry that held the city, and it is your spirit that is going to hold Ulster for us’.
In July the entire 3rd Battalion participated in a parade and church service within the grounds of Antrim Castle, over 1200 being said to be lined out on a part of the facility formerly known as the cricket ground. The area was no stranger to the use of volunteers having been regularly used by the Antrim contingent of the Battalion as a parade ground. A small medical corps of 24 nurses also attended under a Mrs Collins, with a crowd of 3000 spectators present at the proceedings.
After the outbreak of the Great War the Battalion was still very active, with yet another joint engagement with the rest of the Regiment taking place on Monday 3rd August. In the Regiments largest ever muster, over 3000 volunteers took part in a massive mimic battle near Stoneyford, with It reported that many of those taking part had to march considerable distances to the setting from early morning. The scenario for the day was that a force was advancing south to attack an enemy based at Hillsborough, with the role of the 3rd Battalion being that of the advancing enemy. Under the charge of Viscount Massereene, the proceedings were viewed by Antrim Divisional Commander Adair and Colonel Hacket Pain from Headquarters. The men were drenched during torrential down pours during the manoeuvres which lasted over six hours.
With the advent of War many Volunteers who were reservists immediately returned to service, whilst many others also enlisted prior to the formation of the 36th Ulster Division. Enlistment for the entire duration of the war was high in the area, as indicated by several surviving sources. Antrim 1st Presbyterian Church alone recorded 123 parishioners joining the ranks, while Antrim 2nd Presbyterian Church recorded 44 and Randalstown Old Congregation recording 81.
The majority of 3rd Battalion Ulster Volunteers who enlisted ended up within the ranks of the 11th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, including several prominent officers. One of the most notable is one of the Randalstown Company Commanders Captain Oswald Webb. The commander of D Company died from wounds received on the 1st July at the Battle of the Somme. The Webb family would not be the only one to be touched by the events of the Somme. The localised basis of recruitment for Kitcheners Army would unfortunately ensure that every street and rural community that had been under the banner of the 3rd battalion South Antrim Regiment Ulster Volunteer Force would have first hand experience of the death and injury inflicted during the Great War.