The Shipyard Volunteers, East Belfasts answer to Home Rule

The cranes Samson and Goliath are iconic symbols of Unionist East Belfast. The ship yards of the East however were playing their role in the unfolding history of Ireland long before the famous twin heights came into being.

The shipyards of East Belfast are legendary. Universally there are few who do not know it was the home of the tragic Titanic, but much more than that, it was the home of what was once the worlds biggest ship yard. With over 30,000 staff, Harland and Wolff was one of the most innovative firms of its day, and that innovation was largely facilitated by the men of the staunchly Unionist East side of Belfast City. There was prosperity in the shipyards and East End of Belfast, and that prosperity was believed by all as being the direct result of its links to the United Kingdom and the British Empire. It was no suprise therefore that when the third Home Rule Bill emerged and that link was perceived to be under threat, that the men of those same ship yards signed the Ulster Covenant in their tens of thousands. Later they would take their Covenant oath to its ultimate manifestation by enlisting in their thousands to the ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

From the very beginning of its formalised inception in January 1913, the Ulster Volunteer Force was organised in every town village and hamlet across the Province. East Belfast was no different, indeed it appears to have recruited mass numbers of men into the ranks very quickly. Military intelligence, direct from the Chief Secretary Office Judicial Division, placed the number of East Belfast Volunteers at just 2,500 in September 1913. These figures however seem to be seriously flawed. Official returns of the Regiment to Headquarters on the 5th September 1913 listed the numbers as a much more realistic 8599 men. That particular returns document also possibly says much more about the Regiment than just numbers. The UVF Headquarters had issued a returns form, entitled an O Form H 2, to every organising district of the Volunteers, and each had to detail the various localities under its jurisdiction and the number of men enrolled at each. The form of the East Belfast contingent is unique in that it was filled in using code, making the exact place of each number of men unknown only to the officers and those with the relevant cipher. The exercise suggests a level of sophistication, expertise and determination in the East Belfast UVF exceeding many other areas. Further official documents in 1914 record the Regiment having numbers in excess of 10,000, making it the largest Regiment in the entire Force.

Consisting of 6 battalions, the Regiment had originally begun to be organised by work place, with early reference to different ‘Shipyard’ units common. This was however abandoned for the more normal geographic based structure. Its overall commander was Colonel Robert Spencer Chichester. Chichester was born in 1873, and in a short military career had became a Major in the Irish Guards, then Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Irish Rifles, with whom he fought in the Boer War. Regimental staff Officer was Arthur Gregg and Chief Intelligence Officer Dr William Gibson. The Regiments 1st Battalion consisted of the Ballynafeigh and Newtownbreda areas, with commander being J. B. Niblock and J. McWilliam Adjutant. The 2nd was Willowfield under G. Massingham, and the 3rd Mountpottinger under C. W. Henderson, his second in command being Joseph McConnell. Prominent Unionist and MP for North Antrim P. Kerr-Smiley was the commander of the 4th Battalion Victoria. Kerr-Smiley was the chairman of famous Belfast newspaper The Northern Whig, and had had a distinguished military career. Avoniel made up the 5th Battalion, with 1st in command James Wagner, while the 6th was Strandtown and Knock under Mr Harold Coates.

From mid 1913 until well into 1914, each seperate Company in the entire Regiment was meeting and drilling at its own centres. Further joint operations between companies and single Battalion mobilisations also occurred. In March 1914 the 2nd Battalion, Willowfield, were inspected at the Giants Ring Ballylesson. Five of its companies were present in the form of A Coy Tullynacross, B Coy Drumbeg and Drumbo, C Coy Purdysburn and Edenderry,  D Coy Ballycoan and E Coy Mealough. An elaborate series of military formations and manoeuvres was carried out, eventually coming to an end and three cheers being given to the King. The men then proceeded back to their own drill centres, some of which were as far as 6 miles away. The 1st Battalion had a large church parade to Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church in May, officiated by the Rev Dr Workman. The sermon stated very clearly that this latest crisis in Ireland was simply yet another ‘single battle in the age long battle between popery and Protestantism’. Later in the month the Victoria Battalion, number 4, was presented colours at Tamor Street, the flags being the gift to the Battalion of Mr John Dowling and Mr Bell. In all 400 Volunteers were present to witness the ceremony, which also included commander P. Kerr-Smiley being presented with an engraved silver sword. Not every Battalion of Ulster Volunteers across the Province were presented with colours, however all 6 East Belfast Battalions appear to have been recipients of personalised Battalion flags.

Over New Year of 1914, a special camp of instruction was held for the Regiment, with all Battalion Commanders, Company Commanders, Half Company Commanders, Section leaders and Squad leaders present. The week long camp was organised totally on military lines, the goal being to ensure that all present might be ‘better equipped for training the men under their command in the methods of up to date warfare’. The schedule included lectures on discipline, instructions for cleaning arms, accuracy in aiming from a tripod, camp sanitation, and field signals and movements. A special rifle range had been prepared for the camp, with moving and ‘disappearing’ targets.

Arguably the Regiments finest hour took place on January 17th 1914, when its ranks were inspected by Sir Edward Carson. The Ormiston Grounds were the location, with the event all ticket. It had been made very clear in advance of the event that no men would be permitted entrance to the grounds if they were not members of the volunteers, unless exempted by ‘by age or physical disability’. Each Battalion left its notified starting point across the east of the City around 3 o’clock. The 1st and 5th assembled at Bloomfield Avenue, the 2nd and 3rd also from Bloomfield at the Beersbridge road end, and the 4th and 6th from the Old Skating Rink on the Newtownards Road. The day was policed by 130 men from the North and South Belfast Regiments, with almost all headquarters staff in attendance at the proceedings.  The inspection, in the form of a march past, was accompanied by the Rescue Brass Band positioned on a nearby platform. The various tunes the Battalions marched past to included The Boys of the Old Brigade, The Red White and Blue, Britannia Pride of the Ocean and Let the Hills Resound. Following inspecting all the troops, Edward Carson made a short address thanking the men of the East for turning out in such numbers, the Newsletter placing it at a very precise 3,437, and told them that that which they were preparing for was getting closer. The ‘crisis’ was nearing, but both his determination and that of the Volunteers was growing. In a powerful oration, Carson stated ‘We shirk nothing. We ask for nothing but to remain citizens of the United Kingdom, and when the day comes we will show that there is not a body of men that can wrench from us that which we were born to’. The day was also notable for the presence from England of the 6th Duke of Portland, an individual whom the papers proudly noted had a particular connection with Irish Loyalism, given his ancestor the 1st Duke of Portland had accompanied William Prince of Orange to England. In his brief address, the Duke described the Volunteers as a ‘movement born in the hearts of the people’.

At Orangefield in April 1914 there was a complete Regimental inspection, with 2000 Volunteers present along with a special delegation of visitors from Scotland. Just two months later on Saturday 25th July 1914, the entire East Belfast Regiment was once again mobilised, this time for a route march. An estimated 3000 volunteers were on parade, the 6 Regimental Battalions also accompanied by the East Belfast Ulster Special Service Force and the 1st Battalion of the Young Citizen Volunteers, who had just became affiliated with the Volunteers in March 1914. The Ulster Special Service Force was a hand picked Battalion, consisting of approximately 100 men from each ‘normal’ Regimental Battalion, who were able to commit themselves to immediate duty. Effectively a special forces stand by unit, the U.S.S.F. was primarily a Belfast based initiative. The East Belfast U.S.S.F. was under the charge of Lieutenant Colonel A. Hill Trevor, with adjutant Mr J. L. Fry, and the entire unit was given pride of place at the front of the procession. Commander of the 1st Battalion East Belfast Young Citizen Volunteers was Mr J. E. Gunning. The march also included two Colt Machine Guns and a maxim gun, which combined with a large number of volunteers fully armed made an imposing spectacle. Bands played a prominent role in the display, with the Young Citizen Volunteers accompanied by their own band, and Mountpottinger 3rd Battalion headed by the Duke of York Pipe band. Six ambulance detachments took up the rear of the parade, whilst a cycle corps was also in attendance.

Just a few short days after the July inspection the atmosphere within the Province changed as what became known as the First World War was declared. Sense of impending Irish crisis was immediately averted, and focus on the battle against the ‘Hun’ took precedence. The men of the East Belfast Regiment were immediately enlisting, however the majority of those who fought were to serve with the 8th Battalion (East Belfast) Royal Irish Rifles as part of the 107th Brigade of the 36th Ulster Division. The Battalion, like much of the rest of the Division, suffered horrendous casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

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

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