Boys from the West… the West Belfast Volunteers

When the Act of Union uniting Great Britain and Ireland came into effect in 1801, the population of Belfast was almost totally Protestant. What the Act rapidly brought with it however was a very fast growth in local industry, and with that came the need for more workers. This need combined with the Famine in the late 1840’s across rural Ireland meant a massive influx of Roman Catholics from far outside its natural catchment area; and by 1850 Belfast was 35% Roman Catholic. For reasons of simple natural security and additional factors such as common worship patterns, the bulk of these new citizens began to settle in one area in the West, namely the Falls Road. The Falls Road however ran parallel to the already existing, and one of the largest concentrations of Protestant workers then in Ulster, the staunchly ‘Orange’ Shankill Road. The closeness of these two religiously and politically different communities and the resulting conflict would ensure that in the coming decades, the Greater Shankill area of West Belfast would become a strong barometer for Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist opinion for the entirety of Ireland.

Unionists in West Belfast were organising from the very outset of the launch of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, and by the second in 1893 many locals were involved in the first mass anti-Home Rule organisation, the Ulster Defence Union. Among the 600 men within its general assembly several local gentlemen were listed. Some of the surnames were already names well ingrained locally and some still are to the modern day. Local U.D.U. representatives included Alexander Bryans of 48 Duncairn Street, Dr T.A. Davidson of 126 Agnes Street, Thomas Murphy of Woodvale Street and David Fleck from 226 Tennent Street.

This anti Home Rule mobilisation continued right through to what became know as the Ulster Crisis. At the famous procession to Balmoral in April 1912 a large West Belfast contingent was prominent; with A.T.Q. Stewart stating it was led into the grounds by the equally famous Major Fred Crawford. When the Ulster Covenant campaign was introduced in August 1912 local enthusiasm was very high, and eventually on Ulster Day over 14,000 would sign the document within the Parliamentary constituency. Venues utilised included Woodvale Presbyterian Church, Bellevue Mission Hall and the uniquely named Mission Hall for Adult Deaf and Dumb.

With the official formalisation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in January 1913, the West Belfast Regiment very quickly began to take shape. By September 30th the Intelligence Notes from the Chief Secretary Office of the Judicial Division, British Intelligence, numbered the West Belfast U.V.F. at 1200 men. By May 1914 the intelligence files had not increased the figure substantially; having it at just 1280 men spread over two battalions. Official Headquarters returns however from the very peak of the Force, just after the outbreak of the Great War, list the Regiment as having the considerably more significant figure of 3500 men.

Before the end of 1913 the West Belfast Regiment had a commanding officer appointed in the form of Colonel John Henry Patterson, a military personality that many were already well aware of. Patterson had written a lively account of his experience as an engineer constructing the Mombassa to Uganda Railway Line in 1898, when he had allegedly killed two lions. He had given the book the very colourful name ‘Man Eaters of Tsavo’. This episode quite possibly is the reason that the Larne gunrunning would be given the code name Operation Lion. Born in County Longford, he had several periods of service in the army from 1885 to 1897, and from 1900 to 1908 when he was forced to resign when he was accused of murdering his wife’s lover whilst on a safari. He was recruited to take a command in the Ulster Volunteers by the British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union, although unlike most other ‘League’ recruits to the U.V.F., he did so purely on a professional basis and did not exhibit any great sympathy for the Ulster Loyalist cause. In his biography he described his period commanding the Regiment as ‘just a job’.

The commanders of the 1st and 2nd Battalions came from much less exotic backgrounds. First Battalion O.C. was Stewart Blacker Quinn Esquire of Wellington Street, an accountant who supposedly had political ambitions although never did manage to get elected. Second Battalion Commander was John Graham Esquire of 97 Donegall Street, who appears to have been involved in the banking industry. Neither Commander had any military experience. The first Battalion was the smallest of the two with 1700 men, whilst the second Battalion had 1800 men.

Arguably one of the most important leadership figures in the West Belfast Regiment command structure was the sometimes controversial Captain Frank Percy Crozier. Like Patterson he was recruited to the U.V.F. via the British League for the Support of Ulster, but unlike Patterson Crozier had actually joined the league shortly after its formation in 1913 and was a supporter of the Ulster cause. He received a direct invite to take a command from Carson and Craig at a London dinner. Born in 1879 and with a childhood spent outside Dublin, as well as Soldier his career included being a mercenary in Africa and a farmer in Canada. A very strict disciplinarian, during the first world war he ordered the shooting of several sentries who fell asleep on duty, he carried this discipline into his duties within the Volunteers, namely as commander of the West Belfast Ulster Special Service Force. He was highly decorated in the War, and stayed in Ireland afterwards as a commandant in the ranks of the Black and Tans. Like Patterson he authored several books, one of which had the very subtle title ‘The men I have killed’. In his later years Crozier would renounce the cause of the Ulster Volunteers, and became an anti-war campaigner and pacifist.

Throughout 1913 was effectively a building phase for the Ulster Volunteers, with many areas not working on a collective basis, but West Belfast does appear to have formalised its regimental structure at a very early stage in comparison to the rest of Ulster. 

The first mobilisation of the entire Regiment came on the 1st anniversary of Ulster Day in September 1913, when the entire Belfast Division paraded to the Balmoral Showground’s. Several men from the two Battalions from the West of the City had small orange standards mounted on the bayonets of their rifles. The men of the first Battalion are recorded as receiving a loud cheer when they entered the grounds.

From the very start of 1914 just like the rest of Ulster, West Belfast was seeing drills by various sections and companies taking place daily. All units were meeting a minimum of once per week at this stage, with some of the venues Fernhill House and Glencairn. Former Soldiers and reservists were prominent in training the local corps, with the men who utilised Stewarts Yard on the Shankill profiting from the tuition of Royal Irish Rifles Sergeant Major Brannigan and Sergeant Samuel Roberts.  An Andersonstown Company was being drilled by Charles Bell and his brother Francis, both previously of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. Charles Bell would later be killed in action on 25 April 1915 while on duty with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.

As well as drills, church parades and services were common, such as that held on Sunday 12 April at Townsend Street Presbyterian Church. Approximately 350 men from the Regiment marched to the Church, where a cross denomination service took place. Minister Rev William Corkey, himself a member of the local corps of Volunteers, was joined by Methodist minister Rev H G Collier and Church of Ireland minister Rev G Armstrong.

What could be argued as being the highlight in the short history of the West Belfast Regiment to date came at the start of May 1914, when both Regiments were presented with Kings and Regimental Colours. Good weather helped to bring large crowds of spectators out at the grounds of James Cunningham at Glencairn. The same grounds appear to have been utilised as a base for several Volunteer Companies, and also were the location of a camp of instruction during Easter 1914.

The occasion was policed by men from the North Belfast 1st Battalion, who also supplied a field ambulance corps in case of emergency. The ceremony began with the tradition singing of the unofficial ‘Ulster’ Hymn ‘O God our help in Ages Past’, with over 2000 Volunteers in attendance joined by four detachments from the West Belfast Nursing and Medical Corps. The importance of the occasion was further signified by the presence of almost all the Headquarters Staff and several prominent figures in the political world. 

A short religious service concluded with the presentation of the colours. A Belfast Newsletter report spoke of the Regimental colours as being exceedingly appropriate in the matter of design with “a replica of the UVF badge in St Patrick’s blue occupied the centre of the flag, which was of orange silk and underneath it in each case was the name of the battalion. The fringes, cords and tassels were of bullion.  As a whole the colours made a really attractive display, and it is certain that they will be not only long treasured but loyally guarded by the men of the West Belfast Regiment.” Both Battalion Commanders and Regimental Commander Patterson were then among those who addressed the gathering. Final speaker was General Officer in Command of the Force Sir George Richardson, who wished the two Battalions good luck with their colours and hoped that they would become ’emblazoned with many honours and distinctions’. 

At a further large parade in Glencairn in June the officers and men were presented with drums and bugles. This time 120 nurses took part. Edward Carson, James Craig and George Richardson were in attendance. In his speech to the West on the day Carson made a strong focus on weapons saying ‘May I congratulate you on this splendid turn-out.  I am glad to see not only you here present, but I think I recognise some of the cargo of the Mountjoy… Now, men, remember your arms, and keep them, no matter what happens.  I rely on every man to fight for his arms, and to let no man take them from him.  I don’t care who they are, or what authority they have got. I tell you stick to your arms.  I rely upon you to keep your arms with a view to keeping the peace.  We are not the peace-breakers. It is the people who would come to take away what we have got who are the peace-breakers”. He kept a strong emphasis on discipline, telling the men that it was that discipline which would deliver victory.

There is no doubt that the people of West Belfast were particularly enthusiastic about the Volunteers, illustrated very clearly by Lady Lillian Spenders remarks on the subject of being in this parade with the Regiment. In her diary entry of 10th June 1914 she wrote that ‘Almost the whole day the road was lined with ragged, cheering crowd.  Our car was next but one to Sir Edward’s and the General (Richardson) came in for a lot of cheers on his own account. It was the most deafening, and wildly exciting experience I ever had. Beshawled women waved a baby in one arm and a Union Jack in the other, and incredibly dirty and unkempt men waved caps and flags, and fairly danced with excitement.  ‘God love ye’ quavered a toothless old crone, and ‘God bless ye’ shouted others.  ‘No Home Rule’ bawled the men, thrusting their faces almost into our car; ‘Hooray’ shrieked the children, most ear piercing of all’. 

The local corps of Ulster Special Service Force are worthy of singular mention when discussing the activity and escapades of the West Belfast Volunteers, in no small part due to the leadership of F.P. Crozier. Its not fully apparent why a former soldier held in such high regard by many and with such obvious ability, he rose to command a full Brigade during the Great War, was only given control of a relatively small unit of the Force. He was however held in high esteem and in the confidence of Carson and Craig, and perhaps for this reason the unit under his command took up the role of guarding the two ‘leaders’ on many occasions. His commitment to stern and almost uncompromising discipline may also be a factor. On one occasion after a Volunteer was dismissed from the USSF, Crozier deliberately called at his house to lift his uniform in order to embarrass him publicly. ATQ Stewart states this simple threat of dismissal from Crozier was such that Volunteers would make any sacrifice, even to stop drinking, in order to avoid his uniform and rifle taken from him and the accompanying ridicule.

On Carson’s return from Liverpool in March 1914 100 members of the West Belfast USSF bedecked in bandoliers, haversacks and putties served as a welcoming guard. The same month the local newspapers were reporting how 200 men from the units marched to Craigavon to serve once again as guard for Edward Carson. This time the men wore full uniform including khaki cap and khaki tunic. During the Larne Gunrunning operation, they performed possibly one of the most important roles on the night, mounting guard at the Old Town Hall in Belfast. Under contingency plans for an Ulster Provisional Government, Crozier was assigned as Chief Executive Officer for policing and law and order within the entire Belfast Division.

Some academics have noted of West Belfast Volunteers that they were generally of a very low class and suggest ill discipline, however in May 1914 Lillian Spender wrote of the them that while ‘its men are of a lower class than the others, as they are all in Devlin’s constituency, which is the slummiest in the city…. they marched every bit as well as the others, and looked just as keen and determined’.

When the outbreak of War came, it would not be long before the West Belfast Volunteers would become involved. The deal between Carson and the War Office to constitute the 36th Ulster Division was closely followed by a rally for Volunteers at Stewarts Yard. Here they were addressed by British League for the Support of Ulster patron and Wolverhampton MP Colonel Hickman, as well as 1st battalion Commander Stewart Blacker Quinn and James Craig, all encouraging them to enlist. The day following the opening of enlistment for the Division, 360 men assembled at the same yard, where after being presented with a box of cigarettes, they marched to the railway station to board trains for Donard Camp near Newcastle. These men became the corps of the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. Within one week of the call to arms from Carson, approximately 500 West Belfast men had enlisted, joining the many reservists who had already returned to the ranks. USSF O.C. Crozier would command, in his own words, ‘the Shankill Boys’ in the 9th Battalion during the tragic events that would unfold on the 1st July 1916. Out of over 700 men, at close of play he was left with just 70.

Article Copyright Quincey Dougan 2013
Not to be copied or reproduced without permission

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