How unionists and nationalists fought side by side in the first World War

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: OLIVER FALLONreviews Belfast Boys, Richard S Grayson, Continuum 272pp, £25

ON DECEMBER 18th, 1915, 36 officers and 952 men of the Sixth Connaught Rangers arrived at Le Havre.

Nearly one-third of the men in the ranks had enlisted in west Belfast. Over the next 2½ years the Belfast men fell alongside the recruits from Ballymote, Boyle, and Ballinasloe as the battalion fought at Guillemont, Ginchy and Messines before the battalion was annihilated in the German offensive of March, 1918.

In the last 10 years interest in the involvement of Irishmen in the Great War has intensified.

In the six counties the sacrifice of the unionist population has never been forgotten and retains its significance with Remembrance Day ceremonies and vivid neighbourhood murals.

Almost universally ignored, by all sides, has been the sacrifice of Belfast men of the nationalist tradition.

Richard S Grayson’s book Belfast Boys examines the civilians of west Belfast from either side of the sectarian divide who enlisted in the British army at the outbreak of the first World War. The author skilfully explains the huge political division that separated the working class populations around the two main roads that stretch west from the city centre at the time. Huge numbers of unionists enlisted in newly-formed Ulster regiments.

Particular attention is paid to the Ninth Royal Irish Rifles recruited from the Shankill. Many of these recruits were already trained members of the UVF and joined up as friends, comrades and neighbours.

Fierce opposition to Home Rule continues to be cited as the sole reason for the massive enlistment among this section of the community. However, Grayson’s research does point out that “there were also practical reasons for enlistment, such as unemployment and low pay”.

Linen production, a major source of employment in Belfast was badly affected by the loss of some continental markets on the outbreak of war. Thus, the motivation of Belfast men, who enlisted, like men all over Ireland, is not as clear cut as we suppose.

Less well known is that on the other side of the divide Joseph Devlin, Home Rule advocate and MP for Catholic west Belfast, encouraged men of the Irish National Volunteers to answer Redmond’s call.

Thousands of nationalists made their way to Mill Street recruiting office and enlisted before being sent south to swell the ranks of the Sixth Connaught Rangers and Seventh Leinsters.

Men from west Belfast were killed, gassed and horribly wounded. Soldiers and their families from both traditions shared a common cross of suffering. Pragmatists such as Major Willie Redmond saw the war as, though an evil thing, one which might unite both traditions. And these war heroes would return to a united Ireland once victory had been achieved.

Unfortunately, events at home changed the political landscape and by the time the war ended Redmond was dead, his Home Rule party no longer a viable entity and partition inevitable.

Grayson covers the Belfast that ex-soldiers returned to in 1919 and how some veterans were sucked into militant groups.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that the Great War continues to be remembered with pride by one community, but has been erased from common memory in the other.

The only physical reminder on the Falls Road is the Cross of Sacrifice in Milltown Cemetery. It stands, only yards from the republican plot, over the graves of soldiers who died of wounds after being returned home.

Belfast Boys is provocative, meticulously researched and referenced. It examines the thousands of men from both communities, including names and addresses, who fought and died in first World War.

Most importantly, it illustrates how history can often be shaped by the elevation of one set of heroes at the expense of others with the common, unspoken consent of both sides.

Oliver Fallon is a military historian and researcher for and founder member of the Connaught Rangers Association. www.connaughtrangersassoc.com