The Great War. Ulster Greets Her Brave and Faithful Sons. 1919.
( Printed by WG Baird, Royal Avenue.)
I was given this book and an Ulster Covenant recently by a friend. Both are a bit like myself – old battered and but still hanging together. I’m pretty sure they are genuine. The Covenant appears to be covered in Linseed oil and over the years it has become brittle. The writing on both book and Covenant concerns a William Curry Junior who signed the Covenant on that day in 1912. I checked the Covenant roll on the PRONI site and found that 8 William Curry’s had signed at the City hall. Is it possible that William Curry Jnr went to war and got back safely or was he too young to go? It is difficult to precisely identify who this person was.
There are a number of interesting points in terms of the context of 1919. Ireland was still one country. The Easter uprising and subsequent executions had taken place 3 years previously and N.Ireland was still 2 years off. In Belfast, events were starting to shape another round of killings in the small back streets. The first RIC officer was killed by republicans and Dail Eireann was outlawed by the British government.
The book appears to be written by the ‘Citizens Committee to the Ulster Service Men’ which was headed by the Lord Mayor, J.C. White. It is classed as a souvenir of the Peace Day Saturday 9th August 1919. The book starts by looking at the financial contributions to the war effort. References are made to the ‘North of Ireland’. Belfast had contributed over 46,000 men to the army. The Ulster woman’s gift fund raised 120,000 for POWs which was a considerable amount in the early 20th century. Hospitals are mentioned which were involved in treating men who returned. The UVF hospital in Botanic Avenue, Galwally, Craigavon, Gilford and the ‘Mental Hospital on the Grosvenor Road’.
The first chapter concerns the 36th (Ulster) Division which is a brief rundown of the structure and the events of 1st July 1916. After the Somme, mention is made of the 36th at Cambrai and St Quentin. Quite a few changes had taken place in the Division after the slaughter at Thiepval. Moving on quickly the chapter covers Messines and Bailleul in 1918 when the suffering began again. The final period of the war showed that the Ulster Division was fighting alongside their Belgian compatriots in the Courtrai (now Kortrijk ) area. The war ended on November 1918. Many Ulster men would have been based in Mouscron. The Division did not begin to return to Ulster until the next year but they had a special visitor in January 1919 in the shape of the Prince of Wales. He who would become Edward VIII but would abdicate in 1936. There are then brief official histories of some of the battalions of the division. On page 47 there is a list of decorations won by the division which includes 9 Victoria Crosses, 71 Distinguished Service Orders, 459 Military Crosses and 1294 Military Medals.
The next chapter concerns the Tenth Division at Gallipoli. It notes that the North of Ireland provided 5 battalions into the division. This division was sent to Gallipoli in August 1915. Another debacle. After the clear defeat by the Turkish forces the Division was sent to Servia in September 1915. They would stay in the Balkans for 2 years before going to Egypt via Palestine. The division was so weakened it did not serve as a whole in the latter stages of the war in France. The 5/ 6/ th Royal Irish Fusiliers were gassed at Anchy before fighting their way across the La Bassee Haute canal. At one point they were transferred into the 16th Irish Division.
The next chapter is devoted to the Ulster presence in the 16th Irish Division. This was in the form of the Inniskilling and Royal Irish fusiliers. This division is cited as a ‘great division’ and nobly upholding ‘the fame of Irishmen as fighters’. Mention is explicitly made of the 6th Battalion, Connaught Rangers which had 600 men from Belfast, “.. chiefly from the Falls road..” Mention is made of the attacks by the Division on Guinchy and Gullemont before the great attack on Messines-Wytschate in June 1917. This is where the Irish and Ulster Divisions would fight, suffer, and die, side by side.
Further chapters cover various battalions e.g. 1st and 2nd Regular Battalions of the Irish Rifles. Mention is made of the Territorials and the Woman’s Army. In terms of the women’s contribution mention is made of the Queens Marys Army Corp as well as Queen Alexandria’s nursing service. Women are recognised as nursing here in the north and in many places in France. Ulster women are praised for doing important work here and in Coventry where they worked in munitions factories. There is a list of the V.C. winners and a brief account of their actions. Reference is made to Ulster’s contribution to the Navy which has been understated in many other accounts of the Great War.
It would appear that Saturday August 9th 1919 in Belfast was a big day. Special trains laid on, much ado in the local press exhorting people to come out. The march would go down the Antrim road, Clifton Street, Donegal street, Royal Avenue and finish in the Ormeau Park where food had been laid on for the men and women. Reading this piece of history raise so many questions. It has certainly glossed over the horrendous aspects of the war. It may not have bene intended as spin but it could be seen as glamorising to some extent the war.
Another topic of the book is the money donated to the war effort but what monies were donated to the aftercare of the returning rifleman or private? Note the headline Urgent appeal to get another £13,000, a huge amount in those days, for what end? Admittedly both ordinary citizens and the Government would be short of cash but it’s the old, old story; if a conflict is involved there always seems to be money for that. So accepting a day out, a march, a meal and a booklet what else was given to the returning soldiers? I do not know nor will this booklet tell us. I suspect that fact would not be announced from the roof tops. It also seems somewhat ironic that some of the Ulster soldiers would return to Belfast, leaving the horrors of the trenches behind. A Belfast where in a short period of time they would hear the echoes of war on the streets with rifle fire and massed riots.
The booklet and Covenant are genuine pieces of our history. Fascinating to think they lasted this long. Fascinating to think of the changes and events since that day, over 95 years ago.