Ballymena 1914 -‘A platoon would have five Wilsons or Armstrongs’

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The Infantry of the 36th (Ulster) Division was formed due to its close association with the Ulster Volunteers, on perhaps the most strictly territorial basis of any Division of the New Armies.

The general rule was that battalions were drawn from the larger regimental areas of the U.V.F., companies from the smaller, and platoons from battalion areas.

This had the great advantage that it engendered a natural companionship and spirit of pride in the units. The company, the platoon, was a close community, an enlarged family. The old clan-names of the Northumbrian and Scottish Borders were clustered thick together. A platoon would have five Armstrongs or Wilsons or Elliots, a company half a dozen Irvines or Johnstons, a battalion half a score of Morrows or Hannas.”

There is probably no better summation of what the original Ulster Division embodied than the description above, penned by the distinguished military historian, Cyril Falls.

A Fermanagh man, Falls served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during the war and was selected to write the ‘Divisional History’ in its aftermath.

He was later to gain worldwide fame and acclaim as an author of definitive military texts.

And he could have been writing specifically about the recruits from the Ballymena district when he refers to the ‘old clan names’ which were so prevalent in the formation.

The territorial comradeship which existed in the ranks of the Division and this was reinforced by the undisputable fact that many of the new soldiers were also members of the Orange Order, which was in full bloom in Ulster at this time.

Each lodge kept a roll of honour detailing the men serving with the forces and one of the best examples is provided by LOL 472. Despite its roots lying in the townland of Ballykeel, the majority of members were drawn from the crowded streets of the town and specifically the terraces of the Harryville district. In December, 1915, the Observer recorded:-

The following is a list of the names of Ballykeel Lodge men who have joined the colours and a few who are engaged in munition work:- Joseph Richardson, Alfred Street , 1st Btn RIR; Alex. Richardson, Alfred Street, 12th RIR; James Lennox, Moat Road, 12th RIR; Robert Herbison, Springwell Street, 12th RIR; George Steele, Moat Road, 12th RIR; John Turbett, Moat Road, 12th RIR; James McCauley, Moat Road, 12th RIR; John Bell, Queen Street, 12th Btn. RIR; Daniel McNeice, Queen Street, 12th RIR; David Clarke, James Street, 12th Btn. RIR; Alex. Moody, Alfred Street, 12th RIR; George Thompson, Alfred Street, 9th Btn. RIR; David McCullough, Bridge Street, 9th Btn. RIR; Thomas Larkin, Springwell Street, 9th Btn. RIR; David Allen, Alfred Street, 9th Btn. RIR; Robert Moore, North Street, RGA; William Russell, Castle Stret, RGA; Adam Lynn, Alfred Street, Innis. Fus.; James Winnington, Moat Road, Innis. Fus.; Arthur Holmes, Canadians, formerly of Moat Road; David Buchanan, Waveney Road, NIH; Samuel Steele, Alton Terrace, NIH; William McNeill, Edward Street, NIH; George Hamilton, formerly Waring Street, War Work; Anderson Crawford, Larne Street, War Work; Edward Steele, Moat Road, war Work; Archie McNeice, Queen Street, War Work; Alex. Thompson, formerly Larne Street, War Work; John Tennant, Francis Street, War Work; Wm. Murray, formerly Moat Road, War Work; George Kernoghan, formerly Casement Street, War Work.

Of the 23 men of military age recorded on this roll, six would die before the end of the war with one, Arthur Holmes of the Canadian forces, receiving a Military Medal for bravery while acting as a medic at Vimy Ridge.

Most of the others suffered wounds and some spent the last months of the conflict in captivity. Of the men on ‘war work’, several were to lose children during the war. Other lodges suffered greater losses and thus it is no surprise that so many banners feature scenes from the Great War, an indication of the impact which the period of 1914-1918 had on the Orange institution. But these pre-war links to ritual, parades and politics must have been a source of comfort to many in the trying early months of military life.

It was not long before they discovered that their Divisional Commander was a keen advocate of physical training.

As Falls records:-

“Training was in full swing by the end of September, 1914, the 107th Brigade being at Ballykinlar, the 108th at Clandeboye and Newtownards, and the 109th at Finner; where the accommodation consisted at this early date almost entirely of tents. By good chance the weather of the first three weeks of October was fine and mild, but thereafter, and before the hutting was completed, a very wet and severe winter set in. “The U.V.F. training was a great advantage. It was easy to handle bodies of men, the most ignorant of whom could at least number, form fours, march in step, and keep alignment from the first. And the old organization held till it could be replaced by the new. As one Commanding Officer writes: ‘The U.V.F. officers and N.C.O.’s kept the men in order till we straightened out into the regular army formation’.

“ The enthusiasm of the men of those days of 1914 is something that no officer who served with them can ever forget; something perhaps, also, that none but those officers who began their training in the first six months of the war ever witnessed. “The Divisional Commander (at that stage Major-General C. H. Powell, C.B) was a firm believer in marching, not only as a preparation for that feature of military life, but as a creator of toughness and endurance to meet the varied strain of war. By the early months of 1915 one brigade route march of from twenty to twenty-five miles, and shorter battalion marches each week, had become the general rule. Numerous recruiting marches were also carried out, which provided further training in marching and march-discipline, and at the same time exhibited detachments of the units from the countryside to the remotest villages in their area. Everywhere they were received with the greatest pride and enthusiasm.”

It was a punishing schedule and inevitably some proved unfit for the challenge and faced medical discharge.

However, most of them thrived on nourishing, if unexciting, army rations and letters to home were almost universally cheerful. Any ‘good news’ about the local lads was bound to find itself prominently displayed in the Observer’s column entitled ‘Items about our local soldiers’.

The following promotions have taken place in connection with the Ballymena recruits 12th Btn. RIR (Central Antrims):- Sergts. J. H. Wright and Norman Henry; L/sgts. Robert Baird and Samuel McGarry; Corp. Samuel Cumming; Lcpls. Wm. Grant, George Montgomery, James Watson, Thos. Nesbitt, Robert Barr, Alex. Greer.

But it was not all good news. One of the first men to enlist was a fresh-faced 19-year-old from the townland of Slatt, on the outskirts of Ballymena. John Bowden must have proved himself a good soldier in his short time with the army, having been appointed Lance-corporal. However, has was not destined to go overseas with his comrades, falling prey to illness on April 1, 1915 while stationed at Newtownards Camp. What the illness entailed is not clear.

Young Bowden was brought home and his body hauled through the town on a carriage pulled by his pals from 12th Rifles. A newspaper photograph of the funeral shows streets thronged with mourners as the first of many local men in the ranks of the battalion went to his grave.