The demographic shape of several areas has changed dramatically since the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912. Few places illustrate this as well as the historic walled City of Londonderry. Quincey Dougan looks at the development and activity of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the Maiden City.
The Ulster Volunteer Force at its peak numbered almost 100,000 members, split into some 20 Regiments, 70 battalions and over 500 Companies. While some areas mustered only a few men because of the nature of the local population’s religious make-up, there is not one part of the Province of Ulster that did not have a presence to some degree. What may surprise many however is that Londonderry City supplied more than just a Company or Battalion to the Force, in fact managing to recruit an entire Regiment. The City of Derry Regiment U.V.F. as it was known, the rest of the County supplying two other Regiments’s both referred to as Londonderry, had by August 1914 the impressive number of almost 3500 volunteers in the ranks.
As far back as its first introduction in 1886, Londonderry Unionists were, along with their fellow countrymen, organising against the imposition of Home Rule. Initially the movement wasn’t particularly militant, being very confident in both its arguments and position, but this began to change by the second bill in 1893 which saw the formation of the Ulster Defence Union. Its Central Assembly of 600 included 13 City representatives.
The same year saw the birth of another new Unionist phenomena- the Unionist Clubs of Ireland. By 1912 like the rest of Ulster, the structural development of the local Ulster Volunteers largely took place via the conduit of the Unionist Clubs. The Unionist Clubs, effectively local branches of the Unionist Party formed specifically to oppose Home Rule, were drilling and taking militaristic form at several locations as early as 1911. In 1912 Londonderry had two primary Unionist club branches serving the greater City area. On the City side there was Londonderry City Branch, while on the Waterside was Glendermott Branch
Both Clubs appear to have adopted a militant stance from an early stage in the crisis, with both having Drill and Rifle sections within their ranks. Leader of the City Branch section was captain of the Church Lads Brigade and future founder member of the Ulster Special Constabulary J. M. Harvey, while his counterpart in Glendermott was ex army officer Captain Ross-Acheson Smyth. Smyth would later command the local Volunteers and in the Great War lead the 10th Inniskillings before being killed in a domestic accident near his home in Ardmore in September 1917.
In July 1912 a letter in the Irish Times noted that ‘Londonderry Unionist Drill Exhibition – Review by Major Ross Smyth, J.P. This afternoon an event took place which was looked forward to with great interest by the Unionists of the City. It was the first public parade and exhibition of drill by the City Unionist Club.’ In the aftermath of the Ulster Covenant both of these units were already participating in joint drills in each others districts. It is alleged that on at least one occasion in 1912 a combined parade took place consisting of over 300 men, which was fully armed. By October there is verified evidence that arms had been procured by Londonderry Unionists, when on 12th of the month the City branch made their way from their Drill Hall at Abercorn Road around the City and back, with No.1 section armed and under the charge of J. M. Harvey.
Whilst the U.V.F. was officially formalised in January 1913, it was many months before it began to take its final profile. In many areas Unionist Clubs remained the prime expression and source of military preparation. This is very apparent in Londonderry City where right until August 1913 the two clubs were regularly being reported in the local papers as taking part in route marches and parades. At that stage the Volunteers appeared to have not been heavily recruiting in the North West, and that month notices appeared in many local papers encouraging Unionists and Orange Lodges to form U.V.F. units. The first record of the official formation of a Company of the U.V.F. appears to have taken place in Victoria Hall on the Waterside in July, however it would be early 1914 before the papers referred to local Company’s and Battalions of the organisation. Initially the local formation of Volunteers appears to have taken the shape of three Divisions, with the designations A, B and C. A was the North Ward Cityside, B the South and West Wards Cityside and C the Waterside. By this time Glendermott Unionist Club was acting within the confines of the North Londonderry County 1st Battalion of the U.V.F. These Divisional areas were still being referred to well into 1914, but it is clear that from late 1913 the Regiment had moved into a more formalised military basis.
The last available official returns to U.V.F. headquarters prior to the outbreak of The Great War, detail a three Battalion strong City of Derry Regiment. Its Commander by this stage was Captain Marshall Morris, a retired officer and Englishman who was recruited and appointed to the Volunteers via the British League for the Support of Ulster. Strength was given as 3480 and the headquarters listed as being in 24 Hawkins Street Derry. The 1st Battalion is given as Waterside, with strength of 840. T. F. Cooke with an address of The Caw was O.C., a member of the Cooke shipping family.The 2nd Battalion was south, east and west with 1405 men under the leadership of another Englishman, Guy Percival Morrish from Shantallow. The North ward Battalion was the 3rd, its 1235 volunteers being under Regimental Commander Marshall Morris.
In a unique anomaly, within the Force in the City the most northern part actually worked under the auspices of a different County, namely the 5th Battalion County Donegal Regiment. The City Side unit’s prime interaction with other units was also with County Donegal. This is not surprising given it recruited from within the old City boundary. North side to the Strand Road, West side up to Sherrifs Mountain and Ballymagroarty, Southside out to the Letterkenny Road and the Waterside, with its boundary being the Strabane Road, the Glendermott Road (to where the Irish Street estate now is) and the Limavady Road up to Caw.
In terms of weaponry, as detailed in early newspaper coverage, it is clear that local Unionists were well armed prior to the Larne gun running exploits in April 1914. Several Rifle Clubs were in existence prior to the Ulster Covenant campaign, including the Cathedral Lads Brigade who had access to full bore and small bore rifles, and the YMCA. The Volunteers had access to two separate rifle ranges located on Carlisle Road and on Abercorn Road at the Unionist Club Drill Hall. Early Royal Irish Constabulary reports of 1914 covering the City went as far as to state unambiguously that ‘every male protestant has a revolver’. The U.V.F. leadership stated on several occasions that Volunteer units were not to carry weaponry, however this was ignored by many across the Province and indeed it did not prevent men carrying weapons in their personal capacity. At the Relief of Derry procession in August 1913 the Rosemount Conservative Flute Band was attacked at the bottom of William Street for the third consecutive year, and responded with drawn revolvers fired at a mob of over 100 people. Several men were arrested following the incident, however were acquitted in December. Those arrested were all Ulster Volunteers.
At the very beginnings of the Home Rule Crisis the Unionist Club is recorded as purchasing rifles legally and selling them to members, with gun running ‘outside the law’ also being carried out. It appears much of this activity was done jointly in conjunction with the Donegal Volunteers, in particular with their Commanding Officer Lord Leitrim. Leitrim’s boat ‘The Ganniamore’ regularly ferried armaments from Glasgow, and whilst there were strong customs activity and suspicion surrounding the vessel, it was never ‘caught in the act’. Local folklore also speaks of guns making their way to the City via Sligo through Nationalist business men who were not aware their cargo contained weaponry.
The Larne Gun Running did of course increase the weapons available to the City Volunteer Regiment significantly. The Maiden City can in fact take some of the credit for the entire Larne operation, with its main protagonist the legendary Major Fred Crawford revealing in retiremeGunnnt how the Siege of Derry provided his main inspiration for the plan. In a letter dated June 1941 Crawford detailed how he had attempted to imagine the Siege whilst attending inspections of the local U.V.F., his inspiration for changing the name of the primary ship used, the Clyde Valley, to the Mountjoy II.
Local units were of course mobilised for the night of 24th April 1914 operation, with the City working in tandem with Donegal and North Londonderry Regiments. The outcome was the arming of all those considered effective within the ranks i.e. fully trained and drilled, and deemed worthy of possession of a rifle. It can be concluded from available evidence that the 1st Battalion had primarily Steyr Rifles, the 2nd Martini Enfield’s (Martini Henry’s converted to take .303 ammunition), and the 3rd with the more modern Long Lee Enfield’s.
During 1913 and 14 as the City of Derry Volunteers were increasing in number and training, three members of the Force lost their lives in unnatural circumstances. Francis Armstrong was killed in the Fountain area when R.I.C. fired into the area during a period of rioting. Armstrong was inside his own house when struck by a stray bullet that came through a window. Two Volunteer nurses also died in tragic circumstances, coincidentally both losing their lives in Argyle Street, but in separate house fires. Nurse Lily Birney and Nurse Maud Kelly were both part of the Ulster Volunteers Nursing Corps, and each had U.V.F. funerals. The main floral tributes at both came from D Company 3rd battalion (which recruited from the local area) and Londonderry Ulster Volunteer Hospital.
The Maiden City Volunteers had several distinguished men within its ranks; one of the most notable was James McEllmun Wilton (later Knighted). Wilton went on to win the Military Cross with the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers, and despite being badly wounded on 1st July 1916, was Mayor of Londonderry twice and President of the Irish Football Association from 1914 to 1945. He had been capped eight times for Ireland. Wilton is remembered as being well liked by both sides of the political divide locally, laid the foundation stone for the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, and it is a mark of his prominence in the Unionist movement that he escorted Sir Edwards Carson’s coffin alongside Sir James Craig.
In the recent past several academics have questioned the military capabilities of the City of Derry Regiment Volunteers. This has been based on the scarcity of newspaper reports on its activities and the lack of regular military personnel within its number. In terms of press coverage however, the lack of publicity actually suggests a consciousness of security implications and increased military outlook and operational status. It was apparent for instance, that during joint mobilisations with units outside of the City Regiment, Officers of other districts were named whilst those of the City were not provided to reporters. Even in terms of the high profile publicity campaign in the aftermath of the Gun Running, on the proceedings in Londonderry the Newsletter reported that ‘Full details of the movements, however, are not available, the officers in charge maintaining a close secrecy and declining to give any information beyond stating that the operations were carried out with the greatest celerity’. This was whilst highly detailed reports of movements were being issued from many other areas across the Country. It can be reasonably assumed from the available evidence that there was a conscious operational decision not to divulge information to the press. There is no doubt the very large Nationalist presence in the adjacent districts was also a factor of the policy of increased secrecy.
In terms of military personnel within the numbers, it could actually be argued that this was a benefit locally, permitting the local Battalions to focus solely on operational effectiveness as opposed to concentrating on the niceties of simply looking the part. Whilst no badges specific to the Regiment either existed or survive, it was presented with its own military Colours, the distinctive City coat of arms over laid on a field of Crimson. Today these still hang in the Cathedral.
Upon the outbreak of war the men of Londonderry City and County Ulster Volunteers would eventually make up the ranks of the 10th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers – ‘The Derry’s’. Formed on 15th August 1914 at Finner Camp Donegal, of the four Battalion Company’s, Londonderry City would provide the bulk of both A and B Coy. The City connection with the Battalion was even greater within the Battalion band who mostly came from the Hamilton Flute. Over the course of the next 4 years the horrific events of the battlefields of Europe would touch the families and friends of the City of Derry Regiment Volunteers directly. Many Derry’s were never to return.
Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission