BALLYMENA 1914-1918

Click here to edit subtitle

Setting the scene - Ireland in 1914

Courtesy of Imperial War Museum

STAND at the heights of Crebilly on a clear day and look down on the contemporary town of Ballymena.

It has grown remarkably in recent years with new road networks, the Ecos Centre and many housing estates.

Present day Ballymena would have shocked a person of 1914 vintage with its size and obvious wealth.

Prior to the First World War, Ballymena had a population of around 12,000 people with a further 13,000 in the rural districts.

That figure is less than half of today’s Borough population and many of the little townlands of 1914 have long since become accepted as part and parcel of ‘the town’.

When one contemplates this enormous growth which took place mostly in the latter half of the 20th century, it makes the toll taken on the area by the seemingly insatiable demands of the first ‘Total War’ all the more poignant.

Imagine a Ballymena where the two vast Ballykeel estates were countryside; a Harryville which ended as a housing area at Casement Street on one side and Queen Street on the other; Ballee was simply farm land with the odd labourer’s or farmer’s house dotted here and there.

The north end of the town had its major centres of population in Alexander Street - now a car park - Springwell Street, Albert Place, Garfield Place and long forgotten clusters of houses in ‘Flag Lane’ and ‘William Street Square’.

In the central part of the town streets like Mill Row vanished under the bulldozer in the 1970s, although Clonavon still stands from that time; huge chunks of Galgorm Street have disappeared and so too the famous portrait of King Billy was once at the entrance to a collection of tiny terraced streets.

There were no private developments at Carniny, Galgorm or Ballymoney Road.

The average Ballymena citizen of 1914 lived in cramped conditions with only the very basic facilities to call on. Despite the advent of the car, most people journeyed for any distance by rail and most town deliveries were made by the 1914 equivalent of ‘white van man’ in a horse and cart.

But from these little streets where wages were poor and life often short, came hundreds upon hundreds of volunteers for ‘Kitchener’s Army’. But a great many of them did not look upon the man made famous by the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster as their natural leader - they had their own charismatic chief in Sir Edward Carson, the Dublin born QC who was absolutely determined to oppose Home Rule by whatever means.

One of the most apparent means at his disposal was his own ‘private army’ - the 80,000 men who were members of the Ulster Volunteers.

The history of the pre-1914 UVF is widely documented and available. Suffice to say that the men of 1912 - 14 joined their local volunteer unit because they sincerely believed that Ulster might well have to fight and they were determined - as were there many sympathisers on the British mainland and through the Empire - that Ulster would be right!

How many of them seriously thought they would end up in a confrontation with Britain’s tiny - but extremely professional - army is impossible to gauge. What we can say for certain is that Carson’s staff imported huge numbers of rifles for illegal purposes in the famous ‘Clyde Valley’ gun-running incident. Nor were these rifles just for show and bluster.

In the ranks of the UVF were hundreds - perhaps several thousands - of men who had served with the British army.

Many of them were officers of the landed gentry class or sons of the Manse and Rectory. Even greater numbers were ex-soldiers and NCOs who had seen action in the Boer War and many of the other ‘little wars’ of Empire.

Above: Local solicitor and prominent Ulster Volunteer Robert Cliffird Orr (killed in action as Captain Orr, Somerset Light Infantry 1914) with members of the nursing corps of the North Antrim Regiment, Ulster Volunteer Force.

While they were more militaristic in outlook and without doubt better trained, the Ulster Volunteers who flocked to ‘the colours’ in 1914 shared many of the qualities of the mushrooming ‘Pals Battalions’ being formed in mainland Britain.

These battalions enlisted so they could serve together as cohesive units. Thus you had battalions made up of London Postmen, Glasgow Boys’ Brigade members or Liverpool clerks. There was a great spirit of unity and comradeship in these enthusiastically patriotic units - a spirit which helped the army, desperate for reinforcements - to mould them into fighting men for the battles ahead.

But when dozens of these units were thrown into the maelstrom of World War One, the scale of slaughter affecting small towns and villages could be truly awful. In Ballymena, like many other towns in Northern Ireland, if you ask the average person in the street to mention a First World War battle they will reply ‘The Somme.’

Most certainly, Ulster did suffer sad losses on the 1st day of that meat-grinding battle, but casualties were equally horrendous throughout the length and breadth of Britain. There is a tendency nowadays to simply think in terms of ‘The Somme’ and the charge of the 36th (Ulster) Division, but it should be remembered that the Great War lasted from 1914-18 and there were other days and months when Ballymena was to feel the pain of loss.

And it should not be forgotten that a number of Ballymena men whose political aspirations were diametrically opposed to the more numerous Ulster Volunteers also joined the colours.

Many of these served with famous Regiments of yesteryear such as the Leinster Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, The Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the well-respected ‘Dubs’ - the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Nationalists, for whom the establishment of an Irish 'home rule' parliament in Dublin had been the principal political aim for most of the 19th century, were committed to the war effort by their leader, John Redmond, in September 1914. This was on the grounds that the necessary legislation had been passed (though in fact it was suspended for the duration of the war), and that the 'freedom of small nations' (such as Belgium or Serbia) was that of Ireland as well.

The plight of gallant, Catholic little Belgium, invaded by a militaristic aggressor, was disadvantageously compared with Ireland, achieving freedom (so Redmond argued) within the British Empire, rather like Canada or Australia.

Unionists, who were particularly concentrated in the northern province of Ulster, naturally needed less justification to join up. Having from 1912 organised a sizeable, armed, paramilitary 'Ulster Volunteer Force' (UVF) to oppose home rule and secure the union with Great Britain, they could scarcely stand idly by when Great Britain itself went to war.

Despite some jockeying for party advantage, a substantial proportion of the UVF enlisted to form the predominantly unionist and almost wholly Protestant 36th (Ulster) Division. Nationalists, themselves mostly Catholic, joined the other two of Lord Kitchener's 'New Army' divisions raised in Ireland: the 10th (Irish) and 16th (Irish) Divisions.

But Irishmen joined up for more than political reasons.

Some were simply after adventure, like Tom Barry, later to become a noted IRA commander, who enlisted in June 1915 'to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man'.

For others there was an economic motive. James Connolly, the socialist revolutionary, said that employment opportunities were so bad in Ireland that men had no choice but to enlist. It was, he asserted, 'economic conscription'. Certainly an unskilled worker might more than double his pay by joining up.

By some accounts, Francis Ledwidge, poet, nationalist and trade union organiser, enlisted on the rebound from an unhappy love affair. And yet others, as the historian Philip Orr has argued, may have been borne along on 'a surge of naive patriotism'.

The first of the Irish New Army Divisions to see action was the 10th Division, which landed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in August 1915. The composition of one battalion, the 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, illustrates the wide social range of Irish recruits. 'D' Company, which was nicknamed 'The Footballers' included many rugby-playing professional men, as well as a professor of law from Dublin University who died at Suvla.

But another company in the battalion contained Dublin Dockers, many of them 'Larkinites' after the charismatic radical trade union leader, James Larkin. Francis Ledwidge, who served here with the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, remarked after one battle, 'It was a horrible and a great day. I would not have missed it for worlds.'

Not all nationalists followed John Redmond's lead. A small minority of separatist republican radicals broke away to form the 'Irish Volunteers' and, believing the old nationalist adage that 'England's extremity is Ireland's opportunity', they began planning for a rebellion against British rule in Ireland. At Easter 1916, led by James Connolly and Patrick Pearse, some 1,800 volunteers seized the General Post Office (GPO) and various other major buildings in Dublin, proclaimed an Irish republic, and held out for a week before overwhelming force obliged them to surrender.

Irishmen fought on both sides, and some 500 people were killed during the Rising, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire. But the fatalities which had the greatest long-term impact were the subsequent executions of 15 leading rebels, including Pearse and Connolly. The sharp suppression of the Rising was undoubtedly influenced by the general belief that the rebels were acting with German connivance and help. Widespread public revulsion at the executions exacerbated a growing alienation from the British administration in Ireland. In turn this fuelled support for the republican separatist movement, Sinn Féin, which comprehensively defeated the Redmondite nationalists in the December 1918 general election, thus providing a political underpinning for the Irish war of independence (1919-21).

Perhaps the most difficult process was that faced by those nationalist volunteers in the British army who had set off, fired by John Redmond's claim that 'Ireland's highest interests' lay 'in the speedy and overwhelming victory of England and the Allies'.

Having helped raise what he described as 'a distinctively Irish army, composed of Irishmen, led by Irishmen and trained at home in Ireland', Redmond asserted in the middle of the war that 'the achievements of that Irish army have covered Ireland with glory before the world'. But by the time the survivors of the war returned home, words like these had turned into empty rhetoric.

In a more definitively nationalist Ireland, where many hearts had been thrilled by the valour of the men of 1916, there was no triumphant welcome home. It was as Tom Kettle, a former nationalist MP who was killed on the Somme serving with the 16th Division, had predicted. 'These men' (the 1916 leaders), he wrote, 'will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down - if I go down at all - as a bloody British officer.'

So it was to be. Many veterans returning to nationalist areas met grudging acceptance, hostility, or even physical violence. For all of them the high public honour and celebration with which they had departed contrasted sharply with the changed circumstances of their return. The disillusionment which, across the world, many returning soldiers felt with the outcome of the war, that the prodigious costs had not been matched by commensurate benefits, was felt especially sharply in nationalist Ireland.

In July 1919, 4,000 people attended a fête organised in Celtic Park, Belfast, 'in honour of the Belfast men of the 16th Irish Division'. It was, reported the press, 'a notable demonstration of the part played by Belfast nationalists' in the war. Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast, declared that their fallen comrades had 'died not as cowards died, but as soldiers of freedom, with their faces toward the fire, and in the belief that their life-blood was poured out in defence of liberty for the world. Unfortunately,' he continued, 'the close of the war brought to Ireland no peace and freedom, but strife and repression.'

The 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising was remembered with great celebrations across independent and nationalist Ireland. Similarly the sacrifices of the Ulster Division on the Somme were commemorated in Northern Ireland. By this stage the great mass of Catholic, nationalist Irishmen who had volunteered and served in the war had virtually been forgotten, in a sort of Irish 'national amnesia'. Their history and their experiences did not fit in with either the republican legacy of southern Ireland or the unionist tradition of the North.

But 30 years later, on the 80th anniversary of the armistice, 11 November 1918, the President of Ireland and Queen Elizabeth II together dedicated a memorial at Messines to all the Irish people who had fallen in World War One. This 'Island of Ireland Peace Tower' was conceived as a device to assist political and social reconciliation.

Equally, a great many men were not ‘political animals’ to any great degree at all.

Among many of these young men there must have been a yearning for adventure and travel. Not for them the red-bricked terraces, their horizon was in far-off lands many a universe away from loom and forge, tailors shop or hayfield.

One of the most surprising discoveries has been the large numbers of ‘regulars and reservists’ in Ballymena and District.

Many of these men had served in India, Arabia and in the bushveldt of Southern Africa.

There was even one venerable recruit who had fought in the Afghan War in 1879!

All were to find that modern industrial warfare was a far cry from the deeds of daring so often described in the ‘Boys’ Own’ tales of that period.

Aside from the relatively short war of movement in the late summer and autumn of 1914, the Great War, on the Western Front at least, was to be defined by the trench lines which zig-zagged their way from Switzerland to the English channel.

Many of the pre-war regulars and reservists from the Ballymena area fought in battles around the Belgian mining town of Mons or in last ditch stands at obscure map references such as Le Cateau.

Those reservists who had been hastily called back to the colours were particularly tested in these days. It was not the violence of the fighting which plagued them as much as their poor, blistered feet.

Men who had been fitted with rock hard new army boots only days before were asked to march up to 20 miles a day in scorching heat with a rampant German army hot on their heels.

It is no wonder that many troops would please with their officers: "For Gawd’s Sake .. let us stand and fight!"

British army discipline carried the day and thanks to a number of stout rearguard actions, the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ was able to out-march the enemy, re-group and go back on the counter-offensive during the epic ‘Battle of the Marne’.

But the early set-piece battles and many unheard of skirmishes proved costly for the original BEF. Unlike continental armies it was a volunteer formation, which although highly trained and motivated, lack the strength’ in depth’ to play in the European super-league of war and civilisation.

Those who had predicted defeat for the German army and a victorious entry into Berlin by Christmas were to be disappointed. One man who had taken ‘the long view’ from the very outset of the war was Sir Herbert Kitchener - the legendary victor of Khartoum.

Despite his graduation from the late Victorian school of Empire builders and Redcoats, ‘K of K’, in his post of Minister of War, moved swiftly to recruit a highly patriotic male population.There is little doubt now that his famous poster was an essential ingredient in the recruiting campaign which strove desperately to fill the ranks of the depleted regular army and to create citizen soldier force which would eventually go on to win the war. (2006)