‘For God and Ulster ... No surrender’
Celebrated with sashes, banners and murals, the role of the Ulster Division, particularly at the Somme, has become embedded in unionist culture
British soldiers eating hot rations in the Ancre Valley during the Battle of the Somme, October 1916. Photograph: Lt E Brooks/ IWM via Getty Images
Members of Orange Order in 2006 march to the Ulster Tower in the Somme battlefield. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Soldiers going over the top. Still from commemorative film made later in 1916 (The Art Archive / Imperial War Museum).
A unique first World War culture flourishes in Northern Ireland. A tour of the working-class streets in loyalist parts of Belfast will offer the visitor an array of vivid murals, painted on walls and gable ends, which celebrate the prowess of the 36th Ulster Division at Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme. In this infamous campaign, 2,000 young Ulster soldiers died on the opening day. The murals often overlook memorial gardens which jointly commemorate those who fell in the first World War and those loyalist combatants who died in the recent Troubles.
The imagery in this remarkable display of public art is obviously dominated by scenes of warfare from the Western Front. There are scarlet poppies, Union flags and the iconography of British military commemoration, along with the Ulster Volunteer Force motto, “For God and Ulster”. In bygone times throughout Northern Ireland, paintings of “King Billy on the wall” portrayed William Prince of Orange striding across the River Boyne on a white charger, as a conquering Protestant hero.
Now, loyalist iconography is more likely to feature an Ulsterman in British army uniform, clad in khaki and clutching his Lee-Enfield rifle as he awaits orders to “go over the top” and face the German machine guns.
Of course several first World War battles had a range of subsequent meanings. Gallipoli furnished both Turkey and the Australians with a foundation narrative of combat and bravery.
The battles at the Somme and Verdun provided darker stories of human waste, grim suffering and strategic folly for Britain and France as these nations faced imperial decline. In the local cultural narrative of Ulster unionism, the Somme began to play a crucial role, featuring that tragic battle as a counterweight to the events of Easter 1916, a blood sacrifice that was meant to copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s bond to the Union.
Up to 150,000 people each year visit the Ulster Tower on the Somme battlefields. For many who make the journey, there is a sense of pilgrimage and a belief that Thiepval is a loyal Ulsterman’s holy ground.
Unity in Ulster Division
In the crisis-ridden months that preceded 1914, Sir Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) armed itself with smuggled rifles and planned to take on the role of a standing army, as unionist leaders planned for their own separate government in Belfast that would come into existence at the very moment that Home Rule was implemented.
When the first World War began in August, there was uncertainty in unionist ranks as to the wisdom of enrolling in the armed forces. Ulster was still volatile. The political future on the “home front” was very uncertain.
But within weeks, high-level negotiations had led to the establishment of the 36th Ulster Division, whose internal structure would reflect the territorial make-up of the UVF. This unit would provide a home for Ulster Volunteers and could incarnate unionist fire, self-discipline and patriotism on the foreign battlefield.
Throughout the winter which followed, the men trained in a variety of locations throughout Ulster. Then, in May 1915, they marched past the City Hall in central Belfast before leaving for England. As the Ulster Division paraded through the streets that day, with each battalion reflecting the regional county make-up of Ulster, it became an early embodiment of the fledgling Ulster unionist identity which emerged from the dying body of the old Irish unionism.
After further training in England, the division sailed for France and it would spend much of the following winter serving in the line. Its exploits were followed with deep interest back home in Ulster, fed by a cascade of letters and postcards from the front and by glowing articles in the local newspapers. By the summer of 1916, the Ulstermen were prepared for participation in the “big push” which the British generals hoped would break through the German lines and begin the journey towards Berlin. This “big push” was centred on the French region of the Somme and it would involve thousands of new British recruits who had volunteered for service in the early months of the war.
At 7.30pm on July 1st, along with their comrades from other units, the Ulster Division rose from their trenches and attacked their objectives.
Despite making excellent progress in the early stages of the battle, hundreds of young men fell victim to machine-gun fire and high explosives. The generals had hoped the British artillery would have flattened the enemy lines in the days before fighting commenced. This did not happen. As well as 2,000 deaths, the division experienced another 3,000 casualties. Many had been severely wounded, taken prisoner or were reported missing. A few days later, having been withdrawn from the line, the 36th Ulster Division was moved north to Flanders. It would take part in several other major battles before the war ended but it would never be a unionist army in the same proud, distinctive way again.
Meanwhile, a flood-tide of grief swept across tight-knit Protestant communities in the north of Ireland.
After the war, as conflict in Ireland intensified and partition took place, the infant Northern Ireland state sought out new rituals. Before long the Somme was being invoked at ceremonies of commemoration on July 1st each year, complementing the familiar British services of remembrance on November 11th. As the first day of July was the date of the battle of the Boyne on the old, pre-Gregorian calendar, Orange services and parades were already being held on this date.
The importance of the loyal orders in establishing the Somme as a feature of unionist culture must be stressed. Orange Lodges were established in memory of the battle, banners featured the deeds of first World War soldiers, new commemorative sashes and collarettes were worn and a lore was created that included stirring stories of Orangemen going into battle wearing their regalia and calling out “No Surrender”.
In France, an Ulster Tower was established in 1921. At home in Belfast, an impressive cenotaph was built in the grounds of the city hall where Carson had once signed the Ulster Covenant and where, a decade later, King George had opened the new Northern Ireland parliament.
As time passed and another world war took place, Northern Ireland’s role a guardian of the western approaches added to the military mythology already in place.
By 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, there was a well-attended parade of first World War veterans at Balmoral on the outskirts of Belfast. Before long, however, the old men who had survived the trenches would be thinned by old age and mortality.
But three years later, with the onset of the Troubles, that distant war in France and Flanders would gain fresh symbolic significance. As the North became ever more militarised during the 1970s, young men in Protestant and unionist communities joined the police, the army and the prison service. Many more joined paramilitary organisations such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, as the war with the IRA developed. (The name of the old UVF had been appropriated by the senior loyalist combatant Gusty Spence.) It was during their incarceration in prisons such as Long Kesh that loyalists began the process of re-imagining the first World War as an element of relevant political heritage for their particular situation.
The prison huts were named after battles where the Ulster Division had fought and vivid murals were painted on the walls. The fatal glory of the Ulster troops at Thiepval seemed to be an important ancestral quality to honour, especially for men who were engaged in the emotionally complex task of understanding their own acts of “pro-state terrorism”, actions which had landed them in jail, some serving life-sentences.
But the story of the Somme was significant too for those unionists and their families who were members of the police, army and prison service, indeed for a whole community under siege. A story that featured the combat, loss and endurance of the first World War soldier mattered to a community that was in constant danger and obliged to manifest martial qualities on a daily basis.
So the Orange Order continued to honour the Somme sacrifice in a range of memorials, and a Somme Association was founded in 1990 which would create a local museum and an educational project. It would also restore the Ulster Tower.
Cheap tours to the Western Front were becoming possible for those who wished to visit the grave of a family member. From 1987 onwards a number of local books, based on the oral record of Ulster first World War veterans, were published. Some, such as The Road to the Somme, became essential reading.
After the ceasefires of 1994, the Somme narrative grew in importance, rather than receding. loyalist leaders, on emerging from the years of violence, advocated a conflict resolution strategy that would focus on historical education and heritage. The story of the 36th Ulster Division was to be a key topic in that project.
Many former loyalist combatants are enrolled in organisations which are modelled on the Old Comrades Associations within British war-veteran culture. These organisations treasure the first World War story, organise visits to the battlefields and promote drama and poetry with a first World War theme.
New parading bands still continue to be formed with a Somme motif in their regalia. Many march in first World War uniforms. New tunes are written for these bands with wartime names. Research has been undertaken by many loyalists and unionists into their family story and how it inter-links with war. The Somme narrative has become a people’s history.
Loss and heroism
Many people in the North are intrigued by the first World War without having any unionist convictions or any intent to further the cause of loyalism. Indeed many Irish nationalists in the North are also fascinated with the long-buried story of ancestral involvement in the war. Republicans are particularly interested in a war that they see as an imperialist venture which radicalised the Irish people in 1916 afterwards. Nonetheless, the widespread fascination in unionist circles with the first World War indicates that the tragic stories of loss and heroism from 100 years ago does speak into contemporary times with great resonance for a community that is under continued ideological and political stress.
In the current politics of these islands, Britishness is being re-defined by multi-culturalism and by the Scottish nationalist project. Northern Ireland is experiencing demographic change that may lead before long to a Catholic majority. The search for a significant and enduring pro-union heritage assumes ever greater importance.
At one time, the story of the Williamite victory at the Boyne possessed real meaning within the narrative of reform and democratic progress that was a mainstream discourse of British imperial identity.
In this discourse the glorious revolution of the late 17th century was a victory over authoritarian kingly rule and heralded an era of enlightenment and progress.
However the Irish battles that initiated the Williamite era are of little significance in Britain today. This contrasts with the ubiquitous 21st-century rituals of Remembrance Day, the wearing of the poppy and public acknowledgment of Britain’s participation in two world wars. Given Britain’s continued military engagement in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuation and the growth of this remembrance culture is understandable.
In diligently remembering the Somme, and foregrounding the the first World War rather than the Boyne, Ulster unionists and loyalists are thus holding tightly to a set of sacred and unifying rituals which may be found all over Britain in 2014. And this is important at a time when the old Northern Ireland state has been so radically changed, including alterations in policing, the exercise of law and the structures of governance, and when further change may well be coming down the line. Battles such as the Somme, where loyalty was so powerfully expressed, matter greatly.
The first World War will no doubt continue to matter as public history throughout Ulster in future years. The war-like qualities valorised by a memorial culture are not needed for the challenges of adaptation and creativity within a post-conflict society. Other inspirational material will be needed within unionism. This material will surely have to feature the remarkable stories of the evolution of participatory democracy on these islands, the empowerment of working class communities, the liberation of women, the push for racial equality in a post-colonial context, the importance of ethnic diversity and conviviality, and the pursuit of educational attainment, technical accomplishment and sustainable entrepreneurship.
There is no reason why a heritage that embraces these things cannot sit alongside the stories of valour and tragedy which have inspired the vivid murals of the Somme.