When Ballymena packed up its troubles .. and went to war

ON a damp Saturday afternoon in July, 1916, the people of Ballymena were engaged in the myriad humdrum pursuits typical of any small market town.

Tuesday, 31st January 2012, 11:22 am

Young women admired the fashions which adorned the many shop windows in the thriving town centre and young men undoubtedly admired the ladies as they promenaded along the streets.

Others tended neatly kept allotments which would hopefully burst forth with a good crop of vegetables for the pot. Those with less horticultural tendencies could spend an afternoon in the male dominated conviviality of the numerous pubs or watch an amateur football game in the local park.

It was a half day holiday for many of the town’s mill workers, most of whom had money in their pockets and a desire to spend it.

Everyone counted their blessings that the works horn would not sound again until Monday morning. Saturday was always a good day to be alive.

But for hundreds of men from Ballymena and District, Saturday, July 1, 1916 was a day of sweltering heat – and unparalleled horror.

At around the same time as the shopkeepers in their home town were opening up for business, the blood of men who had volunteered for service in the 36th (Ulster) Division was soaking into the fields of France. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme and for Ballymena, like so many other towns across Britain and Ireland, the cost in death and sorrow to its citizens would be uniquely dreadful.

The human pain of that day would be etched into the collective consciousness for many years to come. To this day, the anniversary of the battle’s opening day is marked across Northern Ireland by memorial parades and when local people think of the First World War, the carnage of the Somme will be at the forefront of their minds.

Wives, parents, sons and daughters mourned for individuals. The source of their sorrow was the shattering loss of loved ones who would never again bounce babies on their knees, kiss a sweetheart goodnight or simply sit down for tea after a hard day’s work.

On a communal level, the events of that day would take on iconic significance, specifically amongst the unionist population of what was then simply ‘Ireland’. Ballymena and district provides an almost perfect example of how the Somme became more than just another a battle on yet another foreign field.

On that first day, the overwhelming majority of those from Ballymena who fought and died were drawn from the unionist fold and the protestant faith. Many had been members of the pre-war Ulster Volunteer Force, dedicated to opposing government plans for ‘Home Rule’ in Ireland. A significant proportion were members of the Orange Order and to this very day, the losses suffered by this organisation are remembered on sombre banners carried with pride on the ‘Twelfth’ day.

From the perspective of the 21st century, and almost 100 years after the day in question, such a statement undoubtedly reeks of political incorrectness. Nevertheless, it remains a reality which will be well understood by those who live in Northern Ireland, where, despite the laudable political progress of recent years, there remains an indelible mark of tribal instinct.

For that very reason, the Great War, was for many years, viewed as ‘our war’ by the protestant community and the Somme was very much their battle to be defended to the last beat of the lambeg drum.

Thankfully, a much more balanced view of the part played by Irishmen of every class and creed is now soaking into the consciousness of people throughout this troubled island.

Even in Ballymena, a unionist bastion, there is hugely increased awareness of the ‘inclusive’ nature of the conflict.

Not so long ago, after delivering a lecture on the Somme to members of the town’s family history society, I was approached by a middle aged man who produced a yellow and faded clipping from his pocket.

It was a report of the death, in July 1916, of Private Charles McManus of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Ballymena Observer, July 28, 1916 - PRIVATE Charles McManus, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was severely wounded in action, has since died from wounds in an hospital in England. He was a son of the late Mr. John McManus, Robert Street, Ballymena. His body arrived for burial in Ballymena by the 11.10am train when it was conveyed to his relatives’ residence in Alexander Street and later in the evening interred in Crebilly Burying Ground. A large and respectable concourse of townspeople followed the remains on each occasion.

“I’ve got this bit from the old paper about my grandfather,” said the man. “The thing is, I reckon he was at the first day on the Somme but I was asking around and someone told me he couldn’t have been at the Somme because he was a Catholic.”

Few outside Northern Ireland will grasp the significance of this seemingly illogical statement. To me it made perfect sense.

Quite simply, the person who spoke to John McManus honestly believed that local casualties from 1st July 1916 had been drawn from the overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – protestant and unionist ranks of the 36th (Ulster) Division. And since Charles McManus was a catholic …so the story goes.

In short, this exchange is a vivid illustration of the power of communal belief which still exists and which needs to be challenged by all with a genuine interest in the war itself and the social history which is irrevocably linked to its effects.

I knew the answer to John’s query. His grandfather had served with the first – or regular – battalion of the Inniskillings. He had joined the army before the war and had fought with his regiment at Gallipoli where they were part of the ‘Incomparable’ 29th Division, before being brought to the Western Front in readiness for the ‘big push’ of summer 1916.

Charles had received the wounds from which he later died when the 1st Inniskillings had attacked near Beaumont Hamel on that hot summer morning. The men he charged with were drawn from across the social and religious spectrum. Most were Irish but many were ‘honourary Irishmen’, who had made the famous old regiment their country and family.

The man who had misinformed John had been unaware, because he had never bothered to find out, that the first day on the Somme was not just about the sacrifice of the Ulster Division. He had not known that the Inniskillings had two regular battalions engaged on that day. In all probability he still does not know.

Nor will he have heard of the Dublin Fusiliers’ participation .. or of the Royal Irish Regiment’s role.

To his credit, John McManus enjoyed a hearty laugh when I explained the military intricacies of his grandfather’s service.

“I just knew that boy was talking a lot of old nonsense,” he smiled, returning the clipping to his pocket.

Since then, John has visited the Somme and walked the ground where his ancestor shed his blood.

He is just one of many of an increasing number throughout Ireland who are proud of those who fell in 1914-1918, be they ‘catholic, protestant or dissenter’. It is through such chance encounters that a more rounded history of that terrible period can be properly told.

In truth, the role played by Irish catholic and nationalist soldiers was, in general terms, largely swept under a republican carpet in the wake of the Easter Rising and the bitter Anglo-Irish War which led to partition. For the emerging unionist administration at Stormont, the part played by staunch protestants and unionists in the war was extolled.

In the fledgling Republic, politicians who had fought the British on the streets of Dublin or roamed with IRA flying columns in Cork and Kerry had little sympathy for their fellow Irishmen and co-religionists who had taken the King’s shilling in whatever circumstances.

While Michael Collins, de Valera and Patrick Pearse became central to the founding story of ‘the nation’, those who had served with the British army, many in the belief that their service would guarantee ‘home rule’ were largely dismissed as mere misguided puppets of perfidious Albion.

Times have changed and this series will hopefully put Ballymena’s 1914-1918 ‘experience’ into the perspective it deserves.

Des Blackadder

February, 2010