Maj Gen Oliver Nugent: The suspect unionist

The correspondence of the Ulster Division’s commander, Maj Gen Oliver Nugent,is a fascinating insight into tensions within unionism, and his oftenscathing views on his military colleagues

The correspondence of the soldier who commanded of 36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme makes for fascinating reading. During active service in the Great War, Maj Gen Oliver Nugent wrote several letters each week to his wife Kitty. They often reveal his frustrations with military colleagues and politicians. They also enable us to see some of the difficulties involved in commanding such a highly politicised unit within Kitchener’s New Army.

The Ulster Division’s commander had been born in 1860 into a landed family which possessed ancient Norman origins. By the latter part of the 18th century, the Nugents of south Cavan were fully integrated into the Protestant Ascendancy and in a fashion that was typical of Anglo-Irish gentry, they had sent several family members into the armed forces in order to guard the ever-expanding territory of the British Empire. Oliver Nugent followed suit and by 1914 he had served in locations as various as Bermuda, South Africa and India, rising through the military hierarchy to occupy the rank of colonel.

As the crisis over the 3rd Home Rule Bill intensified in 1914, Nugent left full-time army service in order to focus on the political conflict in his native Cavan. He was involved in raising a volunteer militia made up of local Unionists who were prepared to resist the Liberal government’s legislation. However, being located in the southern-most part of rural Ulster where Protestants were a small minority, he clearly felt little solidarity with the more aggressive Belfast leaders of the Unionist Club movement. It was a movement which had been shaped by them into a well-armed Ulster Volunteer Force. (UVF)

Shortly after the British Empire went to war in August, Nugent was given a role in British home defence but by May 1915 he had been placed in charge of an infantry brigade in the 14th Division which was fighting in Belgium. After four months with this unit, he was chosen to replace Maj Gen Sir Charles Powell as commander of the 36th Division. Powell was considered unfit for the challenges of the battlefield to which the Ulster soldiers would head in October on completion of their training.


In the early months of his new command, Nugent was determined to get rid of any senior staff he thought to be incompetent, including men who had been senior figures in the UVF. He was also forthcoming in his correspondence with Kitty about the “military incompetence” of several battalions of his division. On October 26th, 1915 he wrote to her that: “The Belfast Brigade is awful. They have absolutely no discipline and their officers are awful. I am very much disturbed about them. I don’t think they are fit for service.” He added a warning: “Don’t breathe one word of this to a living soul please.”

Nugent’s concern that his criticisms would become a source of conflict with senior Ulster Unionists was a constant theme during the months that lay ahead. The letters of Captain Wilfred Spender, who was the division’s general staff officer and had been a senior figure in the UVF, offer a vista of this conflict between the “Belfast Brigade” and their commander. In November, when the brigade were sent to gain experience in the front-line trenches with another division, Spender reported that “they have gone off . . . swearing that they don’t want to come back and will do their best not to if he commands.”

Nugent’s relationship with men like Spender, who had been at the forefront of self-confident, militant unionism in Belfast, was coloured by his own very different sense of identity. He was from a family with an attachment to the Irish midlands rather than the “Orange” north-east. He referred in his letters to “these narrow, intolerant Ulster Presbyterians” and was amused in January 1916 when he received a medal from the Pope as a reward for his strict enforcement of the respect that Protestant soldiers must show to Catholic churches in France. However, shortly after the medal arrived, he wrote glumly to Kitty, expressing his fear that “there will be plenty of people in the north of Ireland who will quote the Pope’s medal as a proof that I am a traitor and a RC.” He went on say that he had little “sympathy with the narrow-minded outlook of the extremists up in the north” just as he had precious little time for “Sinn Féiners”.

Later in that month he reminded his wife that “the Nugents were for James and against William in the days when the North was founding itself . . . it is merely a geographical accident that we live inside Ulster”. He believed he was an unwelcome figure at the head of a dominantly Unionist body of men. He feared he was “suspect as to my politics . . .” and he now believed he should have “refused to have anything to do with” armed unionists in the pre-war years.

Throughout the first winter in France, Wilfred Spender kept a close watch on Nugent. Writing to his wife, Spender noted that Nugent had “quite different convictions to the stalwarts of the Covenant”. He believed the commander of the Ulster Division hoped for accommodation between unionism and nationalism. As a result, Nugent would clearly “want watching later after the war”. Spender was also concerned about rumours that the heavily nationalist 16th Division might soon be placed in the same Army Corps as the 36th. He was opposed to such “experiments in political fusions” as he suspected that they were meant to prefigure an all-island accommodation in Ireland.

A subject which irritated Oliver Nugent was the sectarian argument in Ireland over the provision of gifts for soldiers who had become prisoners of war. The “Ulster Women’s Gift Fund”, run by powerful unionist women, was unhappy with the approach of the Irish Women’s Association, which wanted to present gifts to all Irish prisoners, including Ulstermen from the 36th Division. Given that John Redmond’s wife was involved in this body, it seemed to these influential unionist ladies that yet another attempt was being made to further the nationalist agenda. Nugent wrote to Kitty, expressing his anger at the way these “Ulster ladies” were behaving.

In due course, Lady MacDonnell of the Irish Comforts Association did send £500 to the Ulster Division and Nugent was happy to receive the money. On June 1st, he wrote to his wife expressing his belief that some people at home would have liked him to hand the money back along with a letter which registered his scorn for a gift that emanated from “a nationalist woman”.

However, there were more important things than this to consider by April 1916. The Easter Rising had broken out when Nugent was in England on leave. He spent the time with his wife and so the archive of his correspondence in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland contains no letters to Kitty from this period. However, in May and June, after his return to the front, there were several comments on the Irish rebellion. He mostly expressed his sorrow rather than deep anger – “Poor wretched Dublin, what a country and what a people” he wrote on May 14th.

However, he also deplored John Redmond’s “audacity” and “impertinence” in calling for leniency with regard to the execution of rebel leaders. His reactions do in fact mirror those of the unionists in the north of Ireland whom he so deeply distrusted – he told Kitty that it was Augustine Birrell, the Irish Chief Secretary, who should be chosen for execution due to his complacency in recent months with regard to the looming separatist threat. And he suggested that Birrell was “as directly responsible for the destruction and murders as if he had planned them” and that he was nothing better than a “miserable buffoon”.

As Lloyd George and Herbert Asquith travelled to Ireland in the aftermath of the Rising, there was fresh talk of Britain's willingness to negotiate an Irish settlement. Inevitably, this meant the thorny issue of partition was on the agenda.

This prospect disturbed him and his earlier doubts about the wisdom of the pre-war Ulster Volunteer project began to resurface. On June 6th, even as his Ulster Division was preparing for action in the Somme offensive, he wrote to Kitty: “I always maintained that the physical force movement was a mistake and the arming of Ulster a still greater mistake. It gave the other side a lead and now neither side will disarm and we have no government strong enough to enforce disarmament.”

Two days later he re-iterated his fear that the “Irish question is to be settled by the exclusion of Ulster, except Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal”. However, the letter also expressed his intense disapproval of the leaders of the rebellion, suggesting breezily that “a little more shooting wouldn’t do them any harm”. On June 9th he wrote once more to his wife, boiling with anger at “the Belfast people” who supported a six-county settlement and “want us to be handed over in order to save themselves”. On the following day, he began his letter by telling Kitty, sardonically, “you and I may as well join the Sinn Féiners at once”. On June 18th, he also expressed grave doubts about Sir Edward Carson’s negotiating powers in the current political storm. He suggested that Lloyd George had “fooled” Carson in recent talks about the Home Rule Bill. He offered the opinion that the unionist leader had “lost some of his mental power”.

However, in the last few days of June, preoccupation with the Somme campaign would be the major feature of Nugent’s letters. On June 23rd, he assured Kitty that the Ulster Division was now as “fit and as keen as men can be”. Then on the morning of July 1st, the assault at Thiepval began. The division which he commanded crossed No Man’s Land and broke through the German defences although it did so at a terrible human cost. On the following day, the 36th Division would be withdrawn from the line, having suffered 5,500 casualties, including 2,000 fatalities.

When the commander of the Ulster Division wrote to his wife in the course of July 2nd, the last Ulstermen were still hanging on desperately in some of the German trenches, awaiting relief by another division. Understandably, he was still in a state of deep shock. Nugent was faced with the horrifying reality that – as he put it – “the Ulster Division no longer exists as a fighting force”. The questions he had posed about the discipline and skill of the men in previous months seemed no longer valid. He assured his wife that the Ulstermen had proven themselves, saying, “I did not believe that men were made who could do such gallant work under the conditions of modern war”.

Nugent continued to praise his men in the emotional letters he sent home during the following week, even as his surviving men were moving north to Belgium for recuperation and redeployment. Soon, an influx of new soldiers would begin. Many of these troops were conscripted soldiers from various parts of the British Isles. Voluntary recruitment in unionist Ulster, whilst not at a standstill, had dramatically declined.

Nugent’s irritation with political unionism remained. He continued to be critical of some of the higher-ranking Ulster women with whom he had had dealings. On July 15th, he told Kitty dismissively that these ladies were “the most self-centred people I have ever met. If . . . you do not subscribe to every Ulster prejudice and if you are not as intolerant as they are, they will have nothing to do with you.” By now, Nugent was aware of public criticism in Ulster that he had persistently pushed his men onwards into danger during the course of July 1st, rather than withdrawing them. The divisions on either side of the 36th had failed to make a breakthrough, thus leaving the Ulstermen exposed to German fire from three directions. Withdrawing the men, it was said, would have saved many lives.

Adding to his torment was the fact that Wilfred Spender had written a letter to a prominent fellow-unionist which had been published in the local press. It had expressed Spender’s opinion that the bloody events of the Somme had convinced Nugent at last of the quality of his men. Spender suggested that “the General now knows he has commanded the best troops in the world and confesses it”. Nugent was appalled at Spender’s “impertinence” and his “disloyalty” towards himself as commander. He was glad to see him move to another division shortly afterwards.

Oliver Nugent remained with the 36th Division until the summer of 1918. Then he was sent as a divisional commander to India, where he remained until 1920 before returning home to Ireland. The War of Independence was now underway, yet despite his role as a senior military man and his avowed opposition to the Rising, he remained unharmed during the IRA’s military campaign.

Nugent was soon involved in several projects that focused on the 36th Division’s post-war legacy.

These included the erection of the memorial structure known as the Ulster Tower on the site of the Thiepval offensive. He opened many war memorials in Ulster and was always at pains to point out the need for an inclusive approach to commemoration, despite the political chasm which had opened between many battlefield comrades.

Nugent died in 1926 and his funeral service was held in St Anne’s Cathedral in central Belfast. Although numerous old soldiers turned up at this service, there was no official representation from the Northern Ireland government. Ten years before his death, when the leader of the 36th Division was still counting his terrible losses at the Somme, Oliver Nugent had expressed the hope that “the politicians won’t try and make political capital out of us”.

It was a naive thought, given that military victories and defeats have both played a key role in political narratives throughout history. Warfare involving Irishmen at the Somme would prove to be no different and it is not surprising that the charge of the Ulster Division at Thiepval still possesses huge resonance for loyalists and unionists, in times of cultural uncertainty.

The fact that Nugent was a critic of Ulster unionism will not rob the Somme story of its mythic power for those who see the deaths at Thiepval as a crucial sacrifice.

However, the Nugent correspondence, when complemented by that of Wilfred Spender, does shed light on the fraternal yet vexed relationship between the British armed forces and militant unionism, which would exist after the Great War was over, just as it had existed during the tumultuous years of the Home Rule crisis. I am indebted to Nicholas Perry, whose judiciously edited selection of Nugent's letters supplied much of the evidence for my argument: Perry, Nicholas (ed.) "Major-General Oliver Nugent and the Ulster Division 1915-1918" (Army Record Society, 2007)

Philip Orr is a writer, military historian and teacher who has written extensively on the Somme. His “Field of Bones: The Irish Division at Gallipoli” is published by Lilliput (€20)