Organising an Army…. the armbands of the U.V.F.

The Ulster Volunteers were a truly massive Force, with almost 100,000 men and women in the ranks of its main body and its various special units when combined. Not surprisingly as an almost exclusively voluntary and civilian militia, the finances simply did not exist to provide the entire U.V.F. with a standard form of uniform. Instead the many different units purchased their own uniforms and equipment according to local resources, regarded as an acceptable practise as long as broad guidelines and criteria issued by the Headquarters staff were adhered to.

The Force however did have some standardisation in dress. One element was of course the Volunteer lapel Badge which bore each volunteer’s number on the rear along with a reference initial for his County. All Volunteers were under orders to wear this badge at all times. The other item that every U.V.F. Volunteer and unit shared was the Canvas armband.

The Force was divided into a large number of units and subdivided parts. At the highest level the U.V.F. was split into County Divisions. These were then broken down into Regiments and further divided into Battalions. At its peak there were a total of 20 Regiments and 70 Battalions. Each of these Battalions consisted of Company’s that where themselves split into Half Coy’s, Sections and Squads. Canvas Armlets were deemed the best solution in order to clearly define these different bodies and their various officers.

Canvas armbands were first issued in October 1913, with prior to that printed paper versions being used across the Province. One of the first official Volunteer orders, U.V.F. Order 0.8. 20th October 1913, referenced that ‘…canvas armlet with strap and buckle attachment… will shortly be issued for the use of all organised battalions.’ It further stated that they would be available via County Secretary and were to be worn by Volunteers at every parade. Notably a document issued by Lt. Colonel T.V.P. McCammon entitled ‘Instructions as to the Requisition and issue of Canvas Armlets’, outlined very clearly at the end that ‘…these armlets are not to be issued to non-effectives, or to any man who is considered inefficient.’

Armlets were primarily issued in three colours in the form of blue, red and drab (khaki); a detail clarified officially by H.Q. staff at the beginning of May 1914 via official U.V.F. Order no. 46. Blue armbands were for those officers at divisional and regimental commander rank and their associated staff, with these particular armbands having yellow markings. Battalion commanders and their officers (including command ranks of each company) were red ; and all remaining ranks were drab including Sergeant-Majors, Section Commanders, Squad Commanders and the normal Rank and File Volunteers. The armlets of the Headquarters staff were issued in Red Canvas.

The basic design saw each Armlet topped with the letters U.V.F, with at the bottom the name of the particular Regiment or Division. The central part of the armband contained the Regimental Battalion number when appropriate i.e. on the vast majority of armbands barring those for Divisional leaders or specialised units. The one exception appears to be County Donegal and a few surving older North Belfast armbands. In both cases the Regimental number appears on the bottom and Regiment name in the centre. The Donegal armbands were made of linen/ vellum type material.

The original Armlet requisition form defined the different markings for each rank of the Force. Drab armlets for Rank and File had no markings; Squad commanders had one line, Section commanders’ two lines and Sergeant Majors three lines. Half Company commanders were red with a marking of one ring, Company commanders were red with two rings, Battalion second in command and adjutants were red with a Red Hand at both sides; and Battalion commanders’ red with a Red Hand and one ring at either side. Those issued to Regimental Commanders were blue with Red Hand and two rings, while Divisional Commanders were blue with Red Hand and three rings. Other Regimental and Divisional level staff armbands took the same form as those of the officers at Company and Battalion while also on blue canvas.

These accounted for the vast majority of armbands issued to the Force, and it would appear that almost 90,000 were distributed. There were however also many other variations on the format. At Company and Battalion level armbands were created that had the letter T on either side designating the Battalions Transport staff; QM designated Quarter Master; and images of two small flags designated Signalling corps. Those Armlets in connection with the Nursing and Medical Corps tended to be printed on white canvas with most featuring a red-cross in the centre. U.V.F. hospital staff had hospital written within this red-cross. Across the Ulster Signalling and Dispatch Riding Corps, Motor Car Corps, Ulster Special Service Force, Young Citizen Volunteers and Enniskillen Horse there were yet further variations.

The breadth and detail of the armlet scheme within the U.V.F. illustrates the factual reality that it was not just people ‘playing soldiers’. The Volunteers took their existence seriously. They were an army who had dedicated themselves to fight for a cause. The Armlet designation system is just one of many elements of its preparation and organisation that clearly illustrated this.

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


  1. Could you clarify to where “Donegal 2” referred to? A UVF Nurse’s index card from the British Red Cross was written up as date of joining March 1913, Place “Donegal 2”. Many thanks

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