Ch. 2 - Marching as to war .. Ballymena 1914-1918

At the seat of power in Westminster, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, had decided, almost from the outbreak of the conflict, that Britain would require a ‘new army’ to play a meaningful role in the battles to come.

Tuesday, 14th February 2012, 9:42 am

He was distrustful of the Territorials and was convinced that the only way forward was to raise ‘service’ battalions which would exist for the duration of the war.

Kitchener, the epitome of the Imperial soldier, was soon staring down from walls and hoardings across the British Isles. His eyes, according to veterans, seemed to follow them at every angle. And his finger pointed directly at their patriotic souls, pressing home the poster’s simple message: ‘Your Country Needs You.’

In England, Scotland and Wales this appeal brought forth thousands upon thousands of eager volunteers. They were the men of K1 ‘The First Hundred Thousand’ … it was an indication of the strength of patriotic feeling at the time. Today, it can be dismissed as jingoism at worst and naivete at best.

But this response cannot be ignored for the simple reason that it seems to confirm the historical judgement that, for many, it was the most popular war in history.

As always, things were ‘different’ in Ireland.

Some ignored political considerations and simply rushed to the nearest recruiting office to join up. In the main, these first-come, first served volunteers found themselves incorporated into the battalions which were to form the 10th (Irish) Division.

A mixture of catholics and protestants from Ballymena found themselves swept up in this rush and most of them were soon badged as soldiers of the 6th (Service) battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. Irish military historians have argued that the 6th Rifles deserve the honour of being described as the least ‘political’ of the volunteer formations raised in Ireland during the Great War.

UVF men mixed with national volunteers, Orangemen with devout catholics, ‘corner boys’ with well-to-do tradesmen.

They were drawn by a sense of adventure, a thirst for excitement and a desire to prove themselves as fighting men. And, of course, for many it was a wage with good allowances for those with dependants left to keep the home fires burning.

But Kitchener had his eyes on a bigger prize.

He was well aware of the manpower and skills which existed in the ranks of the Ulster Volunteers, the pro-union armed force created by Sir Edward Carson.

These were men who had smuggled guns into Ulster with the avowed aim of fighting any attempt to impose political ‘home rule’ on the protestant dominated north of the island.

While the UVF was obviously not up to the high standards of the regular British army, it was, nevertheless, a martial formation, trained in drill, small arms and with a modicum of military discipline – although there were exceptions to that broad description.

He was also keen to have those members of the pro-home rule National Volunteers in the ranks of the British army.

Political overtures were made to Carson and also to Redmond, the nationalist leader, and it was announced that any movement on the issue of home rule would be postponed until the end of hostilities.

With this hurdle cleared, both Carson and Redmond called on ‘their’ men to take the King’s shilling.

For Carson and the UVF it was a sign of their loyalty to the crown, an indication of their overwhelming desire to be identified with the Empire and Great Britain.

Redmond had to walk a precarious tightrope. He made it clear that those national volunteers who served in the British army would be fighting, not for Britain and her Empire, but for the rights of small nations (poor little Catholic Belgium was a much used recruiting phrase) to self determination.

In Ballymena, the men of the 1st battalion, North Antrim Regiment of the UVF, responded to their leader’s call with a will.

In the third week of September, the meeting room of the Protestant Hall was packed with local UVF men eager to join the fight against the Kaiser. Soon more than half of the 12th (service) Bn. of the Royal Irish Rifles was made up of men, and boys in some cases, from Ballymena and District. Around 300 men enlisted on that one day with many others, for a variety of reasons, travelling to Belfast recruiting offices.

They had been designated as the ‘Central Antrim Volunteers’, allocated to 108 Infantry Brigade and throughout the war, the battalion was to maintain this close association with the town and its surrounding villages and farms.

The recruiting fever of 1914 offers many examples of under-age enlistment and the town of Ballymena was no exception. Henry Brown, for instance, managed to bluff his way past the recruiting sergeant with a claim to be 19 years of age.

But his ruse was discovered when his understandably worried parents produced the young man’s birth certificate revealing that his true age was 15.

In a letter to the commander of the battalion, which had by now been sent to camp at Newtownards for basic training, Brown’s father wrote:

“Would you be so good as to let Henry Brown of ‘A’ Company off as you will see by his birth certificate that he is to(o) young and I think that he is not fit for route marching.”

Lt. Col. R. McCalmont duly granted this request on February 26, 1915. His authorising signature appears at the bottom of Brown’s medical form. The information contained on this fine example of military bureaucracy tells its town story about selection criteria at this period when droves of men were literally begging to be enlisted.

Brown’s age is, of course, falsely given as 19. His height is recorded as five feet three inches and his weight 111lbs (around eight stone). His standard chest measurement is given as 33.5 inches with an expansion of two inches.

From a modern perspective, the enthusiastic Master Brown would be considered small and underweight but the doctor who examined him in 1914 classed his physical development as ‘good’, an opinion which tells us a great deal about the health standards of the day.

But perhaps the best discharge certificate is that of James Lawrence Clarke, of Alexander Street, Ballymena. He enlisted on September 24, 1914 and served until December, 15 1914, a total of 83 days.

And this despite the fact that he suffered from:-

“deafness, both ears for last five years, has not heard a word of command since joining the battalion ..”

One can only imagine his performance on the drill square! It is also noteworthy that Clarke’s brother, John, signed on at that the same recruiting station, obviously well aware of his sibling’s disability.

Understanding the Ulster Division

“The Infantry of the 36th Division was formed on perhaps the most strictly territorial basis of any Division of the New Armies; the general rule being 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.

It has been argued that vast majority of men who flocked to answer Kitchener’s call in 1914 would not have joined the army under any other circumstances. The same generalisation could be applied to the recruits from Ballymena.

Most of those who joined in September 1914 were town dwellers. They were a mixture of labourers, mill workers, skilled men, clerks and shop assistants. Few had been unemployed at the time of enlistment and most would have been in receipt of wages in excess of the standard army pay of the time.

Poverty is often quoted as a reason for enlistment but even cursory research of enlistment papers and reports in the local press of the time demonstrates that the economic factor was negligible.

Peer pressure may have played a significant role but looking back from the cynical perspective of 2010 it would be foolish to dismiss the simple truth that pure patriotism and a desire to ‘act the man’ was the defining motive for a huge number.

Take for example, the membership of two local flute bands. The Ballymena Observer announced in January, 1915:-

The Seven Towers Flute Band have given six of their youngest members to Kitchener’s army and the Royal Navy:- Messrs. James Moore (1st Flute); Robert Parke (2nd Flute); Thos. Colville and Harry Walsh (3rd flute) William J.McNiece (F flute) and Samuel McFetridge (bass drum).

The Young Conquerors Flute Band have also shown a fine example of patriotism in giving seven of their members to the King’s army. The following are the names - Hugh McDowell, Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers; Samuel Wilson, Royal Dublin Fusiliers; James Barr, Hugh Smith, Robert Magee, William J. Magee and James Thompson all of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles.

The following members of Ballymena Brass Band have joined the colours and are now on active service:- John Wallace, double bass, 11th RIR; John Erwin, 1st trombone, RIF; John Davison, 2nd trombone 18th RIR; John McCay, solo cornet 18th RIR; John Anderson, 2nd cornet 12th RIR; David Adair, 2nd cornet 12th RIR; Alexander Wallace, solo horn 12th RIR; Herbert Marshall, 1st baritone 5th RIR; William Blair, flugel horn, 4th RIR; J. Montgomery 2nd horn RIF; W. J. Woodcock 1st trombone Canadian Ex. Force; James McClean, solo cornet, Canadian Ex. Force.

The band has a few young lads endeavouring to learn the instruments so as to keep the organisation moving until the ‘boys’ come back.

Similarly, local football and sports teams expressed pride in their members’ service. It is rare to find a report on an individual which does not remark on their allegiance to long forgotten local clubs like ‘Summerfield FC’ or ‘Southend Olympic’.

Perhaps the best known of these was the diminutive John Houston, who had been a professional footballer with both Everton and Linfield.

John Houston of Ballymena, the Irish International Association football player, has joined the 4th Btn. Royal Irish Rifles, stationed at Carrickfergus, retaining the rank of Sergeant which he previously held in the 2nd Btn. Sergt. Houston formerly played for South End Olympic and Linfield and for the past three seasons he has been attached to Everton. He is a brother Private Leslie Houston of Ballymena who was killed in action while serving with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Houston, who had joined the Rifles in 1907, was later to win the Military Medal for bravery.

Thus the induction into the harsh rigours of army life must have been cushioned for many by the presence of brothers and friends with whom they could share good times and bad times alike.

Reference has already been made to the intensity of 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:-

Ballykeel LOL 472 - Men who are ‘doing their bit’

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.