Bringing in a wounded Man after the assault and Crossing the Sunken Road at Beaumont Hamel
(courtesy of Imperial War Museum (c) IWM (Q752))
The 36th Ulster Division originated in the prewar Home Rule crisis. The Ulster Volunteers, otherwise known as the UVF or Ulster Volunteer Force (and having nothing in common with more recent groups who have appropriated that designation), were a unionist paramilitary force founded to be one of the levers that would assist in the blocking of the Liberal government's Home Rule for Ireland scheme. Many of those who had signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912 had organised themselves into the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913 to give credence to the view that resisting Home Rule 'by all means necessary' meant armed resistance to the upcoming Third Home Rule Act, due in 1914. With a rival and larger Irish Volunteers being formed by nationalists, ultimately led by Redmond, in response, outright civil war in Ireland seemed possible, especially after the Larne and Howth gun runnings of 1914. However, the outbreak of World War I changed everything: the Act was put 'on hold' until after the expected short war in Europe. Carson urged his men to join the war on the British side, as did Redmond in his famous Woodenbridge speech. J J Lee says, 'Between August and December 1914, 43,000 men enlisted in Ireland and a further 37,000 between January and August 1915... in the first year, a disproportionate number, about half, came from Ulster'. These men, Carson's men, were to form the core of the 36th Ulster Division, and some thirteen battalions were created for the three Irish regiments based in Ulster: the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rifles.
Broadly speaking, and space makes only this possible, the regular battalions, the recalled reservists and the territorials did much of the fighting in 1914 and 1915, and the men who had rushed to the colours in 1914 were not to be in large-scale actions until 1916. The Somme Offensive of 1916 was to be the testing ground for the Ulstermen, and they fought magnificently.
The 36th Division was one of the few divisions to make promising gains on the opening day of the Somme battles. It attacked between the Ancre and Thiepval, in a sector that lay astride the marshy valley of the River Ancre and the higher ground south of the river. Its units were to cross the ridge before them, take the German first line, then the German second line near Grandcourt. Ahead of them was also the Schwaben Redoubt, a particularly well fortified section of the German line.
Martin Middlebrook, the well-respected military historian, says the men were 'ordered out from the [Thiepval] wood just before 7.30am' and that undetected they had crept close to the German lines. At zero hour they jumped up 'and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line ..... By a combination of sensible tactics and Ulster dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.' Indeed, the Ulster Division was the only division of X Corps to achieve its objectives on the opening day. The price was heavy. After just two days of a battle 5,500 officers and enlisted men were killed, wounded or missing. Of nine Victoria Crosses awarded to British forces for actions during the battle, four were given to 36th Ulster Division soldiers. The war correspondent Philip Gibbs said of the Division, "Their attack was one of the finest displays of human courage in the world'. It was all in vain, too.The units left and right of them did less well, their losses colossal, and the Ulstermen were exposed in a narrow salient, open to attack on three sides. Short of ammunition and supplies, a counter-attack unfolding, they had to withdraw and give up virtually all they won at such terrible cost.
Village of Wytschaete captured on 7th June 1917 by the 16th (Irish) Division & the 36th Ulster Division
Photograph courtesy of Imperial War Museum - (c) IWM (Q5460)
The Ulster Division remained a key fighting unit after 1916. In 1917 it took a leading role in the Battle of Messines, capturing Wytschaete.
The 7th June saw the opening of the the attack. British tunnelling had allowed the British to place huge explosive charges beneath German positions on the Messines Ridge and these were detonated with a thunder that was clearly heard in London. The detonation of 600 tons of high explosives killed thousands and left the Germans dazed and demoralised as the Second Army advanced. By mid- afternoon, the Messines Ridge was in British hands, and though Wytschaete village held out it was eventually captured by the combined efforts of the Irish and Ulster Divisions.
After its success at Messines the 36th was withdrawn for rest and to prepare for its next battle. The battle at Messines was deemed a huge success for the British and the impact on the troops was considerable. Morale improved: 'their tails were up' because the bombardment, the strength of the attack, the use of military intelligence, and 'the first real application of strategy seen on the battlefield since the outbreak of the war,' meant that gains were made and had been consolidated by the 12th June. The Ulster Division could relax for a time.
The Division arrived in Belgium soon after, and after the 31st July was involved in the Ypres Offensive. It spent two days supporting the 55th Lancaster Division before moving into the front line itself. However, their key contribution was made after the 16th August in the Battle of Langemarck, a part of the Third Battles of Ypres (Passchendaele, 1917). The 107th, 108th and 109th Brigades all fought, though they and others made few gains. Their actions during the battle cost them dear; since a June debut they had lost approximately 205 officers and about 4500 other ranks, perhaps one third of their number.
The Cambrai Offensive (Cambrai contained a strategic rail junction), including the capture of Bourlon Wood, was also part of the Division's experience that year. The Germans were fully occupied in the Ypres salient and the Allies felt a surprise attack at Cambrai was likely to succeed, partly because it would use combined cavalry, air power, artillery and tanks to support infantry. Planning and training was meticulous.
The 36th Division was assigned the role of capturing the German trenches between the Bapaume-Cambrai Road and the Nord Canal, a difficult task since these trench lines were part of the highly developed Hindenburg Line.
The initial attack went well, several trench lines and up to five miles of land being overrun. There were, however, not enough reserves available and by November 30th, the Germans were ready to counter-attack. Moreover, many isolated British army units had weaknesses in their command structures. The counter-attack was so effective that on December 3rd, Haig gave the order for the British units still near to Cambrai to withdraw “with the least possible delay from the Bourlon Hill-Marcoing salient to a more retired and shorter line.”
Innovative as it undoubtedly was, the British 'all arms' or 'combined arms' assault was not initially successful enough to stop the Germans from eventually regrouping. Once they did so, British troops were pushed back. Success, as sometimes claimed in British circles, at Cambrai is, therefore, overstated. The losses, however, thankfully did not resemble those of the Somme or Passchendaele: the British lost 'only' 44,000 men during the battle, some of them from the 36th Division.
The Division was substantially reorganised in February 1918, and on 21 March 1918, the day the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, it was holding a sector of the British front line and Forward Zone south west of St Quentin. The main defences, largely isolated strongpoints, were subjected to an onslaught, but the Ulstermen held on for several hours under intense bombardment before they were surrounded and cut off. Indeed, the Germans, their ranks increased by many troops from the Eastern Front that were released by the Russian surrender of 1917, pushed forward with remarkable speed all along their planned line of attack, throwing back Allied troops at a pace they would never have believed possible. It is claimed, however, that the ferocity of the onslaught caused the Allies to concentrate on keeping control of essential areas, notably the approaches to the Channel Ports and the rail junction of Amiens; the Germans were left to occupy strategically worthless ground. In any event the Germans, unable to move supplies and reinforcements fast enough, began to run out of momentum, and by late April 1918, the danger of a German breakthrough had passed. In August 1918, the Allies began a counter-offensive with the support of fresh US troops. This Hundred Days Offensive resulted in the Germans retreating or being driven from all of the ground taken in the Spring Offensive, the collapse of the Hindenburg Line and the capitulation of the German Empire that November. However, by the end of the Spring Offensive, the 36th Ulster Division had suffered around 7,000 casualties and were no longer really an effective unit.
The war ended on the 11 November and what remained of the Division was at Mouscron, north east of Tourcoing. It remained there throughout the period of demobilisation and ceased to exist on 29 June 1919. The Great War had cost 36th (Ulster) Division just over 32000 men killed, wounded or missing.
Winston Churchill summed up the 36th (Ulster) Division's role in a way that is hard to better. He said,
The record of the Thirty-Sixth Division will ever be the pride of Ulster. At Theipval in the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916; at Wytschaete on 17 June 1917, in the storming of the Messines Ridge; on the Canal du Nord, in the attack on the Hindenburg Line of 20 November the same year; on 21 March 1918, near Fontaine-les-Clercs, defending their positions long after they were isolated and surrounded by the enemy; and later in the month at Andechy in the days of 'backs to the wall', they acquired a reputation for conduct and devotion deathless in military history of the United Kingdom, and repeatedly signalised in the despatches of the Commander-in-Chief.