Ulster Unionism and the Somme
By Philip Orr
Almost 2,000 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division died on the first day of the Somme campaign. When it was withdrawn from the line, the division had won a reputation as courageous soldiers. The men had actually broken through the German lines, unlike most of the British infantry on that bloody day. What is more, they had done so at one of the best-defended parts of the enemy lines, the heavily fortified Schwaben Redoubt. The popular assumption was that the Ulster Division’s roots in the militarised world of pre-war Unionist politics had made it into a disciplined and aggressive body of fighting men. And this may well be true.
Certainly the Ulster Volunteer Force which had spearheaded Unionist resistance to Home Rule was a paramilitary organisation, oath-bound, intensively drilled and committed to the installation of a provisional government in Belfast, should a Dublin parliament become a reality. By the summer of 1914, the UVF was carrying thousands of rifles, smuggled in from Germany in recent weeks, this act of sedition having been blessed by an English Tory party which saw Irish devolution as a threat to the United Kingdom and to the Empire. As Lord Kitchener assembled his new volunteer armies to face the Germans, he was determined that the men of the UVF should be recruited. As a result, the infantry division known as the 36th was established in September 1916. It had a deeply Unionist ethos and attracted thousands of Ulster Volunteer recruits.
When the men of the 36th marched through Belfast in a last proud farewell to Ulster in the spring of the following year, they attracted vast crowds who bore witness to this impressive physical embodiment of northern Unionist identity. Battalion after battalion, drawn from each county of Ulster, paraded past the gleaming edifice of the City Hall where the Solemn League and Covenant had recently been signed. They were on their way to serve their King, their Protestant God and their country on the fields of France.
Inside the 36th Division, many men were members of the Loyal Orders and they improvised lodge meetings when in training or at the front. Orange sashes were stowed away in many men’s kit bags. News of the division’s exploits in France throughout the winter of 1915/1916 was followed closely at home. In tightly knit communities, brothers, cousins and neighbours who had gone to fight together were accorded the status of defenders and Christian warriors. Thus when news of the tragic losses and stirring military achievements at the Somme began to arrive, the impact was immense. Indeed, the scene was set for the dramatisation of a supreme founding story for the northern state which would emerge after partition in 1922.
And fate seemed to have loaned a hand in turning the story of the Somme into an inspirational Unionist narrative. On the old, Julian calendar the 1st day of July had been the date of the Battle of the Boyne – an important victory for the Protestant cause during the Williamite wars in Ireland. The date was already marked by parades in Ulster, though not on the scale of the celebrations witnessed each year on the 12 July. Now, in the summer of 1916, another river became the scene for a mythic battle in the Unionist history book. On the banks of a tributary of the River Somme, a sacrifice had been made which would surely tie Ulster to the empire for good, banishing any thought of ‘Dublin rule’ from the minds of British politicians, at least as far as the north of the island was concerned.
As Nationalists moved along an ever more militant post-war path, inspired by the Easter Rising and led by Sinn Féin and the IRA, the Northern Ireland state began to take shape. A Belfast parliament was opened in 1921 amidst scenes of terrible sectarian violence – the streets and roads of Ulster witnessed brutal killings and there were all too many examples of workplace expulsion, ethnic cleansing, arson and mayhem. Only by 1923 did an uneasy calm settle on the northern counties, with strict legislation and draconian policing in place, in order to lock down the new and highly contested political order.
During these early years of the Northern Ireland state, public war memorials were built in town squares and memorial plaques were placed in churches where Protestants worshipped and workplaces where they laboured. Union flags flew every 1 July and 11 November during solemn public ceremonies of grief and remembrance. In 1922, an ‘Ulster Tower’ was built on the site of the 36th Division’s battlefield in France – the first of its kind on the entire Western Front. A grand new cenotaph was constructed in 1929 in the heart of Belfast, beside the City Hall where the British monarch had so recently opened the proud new northern parliament.
However, as the decades passed, the Somme veterans aged and a Second World War dominated public memory of local involvement in global strife. By the 1960s Northern Ireland was beginning to reach for modernity. It would have seemed quite clear to any interested observer that the Somme story had lost its immediacy. In 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Ulster and witnessed a parade of the last Somme veterans. The whole affair was carefully orchestrated but relatively low-key. What few people realised was that Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ were about to erupt. And it was in this new period of civil strife that the Somme story developed a fresh life of its own.
Some of the first stirrings took place in the gaols where Loyalist paramilitaries experienced incarceration during the 1970s. Many prisoners belonged to an organisation that re-employed the name ‘Ulster Volunteer Force’. They saw themselves as heirs to the militant Unionist struggle of yesteryear. They were inspired and fortified by the heroism and sacrifice of the Ulster Division at the Somme. Prison huts were named after various Great War battles and murals were painted on their walls in order to express the Somme heritage. This was the precedent for the widespread flowering of Loyalist Great War murals in working-class areas of Ulster. These murals deal colourfully with the topic and often use the poppy flower as an emblem of respect for the dead of the Somme but also for dead Loyalist combatants of more recent times.
There are now a number of Somme memorial gardens in Loyalist areas, all of them lovingly devised and carefully tended. Clearly, to invoke the story of volunteer soldiers who engaged in acts of valour at the Somme offers associative dignity to the Loyalist paramilitary narrative. The tragic and militarily futile nature of the deaths may also speak at some deeper level of the disillusion so often felt in Loyalist circles with the current peace process. The process is seen as having yielded few material or cultural benefits for Loyalists. Political and demographic changes continue to awaken deep fears in such communities of cultural annihilation. Many Loyalists still feel themselves to be in the ‘front-line trench’.
More widely throughout the Unionist and Loyalist communities, the Orange Order continued to revere the Somme narrative during the Troubles. Indeed it had done so all through the preceding decades, naming Orange lodges after the Ulster Division and dedicating banners to those who had fought and died. Hundreds of members of Loyal Orders were killed at the hands of the Republican movement during the recent conflict, many of them members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Defence Regiment of the British Army. Regular remembrance of the First World War dead afforded a commemorative template that could satisfy the need to mourn one generation of dead brethren while paying respect to an earlier one. The parading culture of Orangeism had always been deeply connected to each summer’s Somme anniversaries. Parades on 1 July were especially important to Unionists and Loyalists in the Protestant stronghold of East Belfast.
Even as the violence of the Troubles was lessening and paramilitary ceasefires were being put in place, massive civil disorder could easily break out whenever Nationalist residents refused to accept Orange Order parades in their vicinity and the most significant of these disputes was at Drumcree in the 1990s, involving a Nationalist blockage of a ‘traditional route’ taken by Portadown Orangemen. It is important to note that that this parade was part of a Somme memorial event in a nearby church. The Ulster Division’s significance as a marker of embattled protestant culture was given new potency.
Of course, as technological advance permitted more people to become amateur researchers many Ulster men and women took a deeper interest in finding out about their ancestral connection to the First World War, without necessarily having a discernibly political motive. Cheaper air fares allowed them – like interested individuals everywhere – to travel to France and Flanders on pilgrimage. The Ulster Tower, which had been built on the site of the famous battle, swiftly became a popular destination for visitors. While its staff maintained a balanced and apolitical stance on Somme remembrance, the site did begin to attract Loyalist bandsmen and Loyal Order members in abundance. Indeed in recent years, a number of Loyalist flute bands have taken to wearing an Ulster Division replica uniform when making trips to France and Flanders as well as during the home-grown 12th July celebrations. Famous First World War tunes are regularly played. Poems, dramas and ballads with a ‘Somme theme’ are now part of the cultural repertoire in Loyalist culture. In June 2016, a full-scale re-enactment of the opening day at the Somme was skilfully staged in Belfast’s Woodvale Park in an event organised by Loyalist ex-combatants.
There were by now, in the early years of 21st century, many deep reasons why the Somme narrative was important to Ulster Unionists. The key contextual issue was the way in which Britain was rapidly changing into a more diverse and secular state yet still retained its appetite for military engagement all across the world, as America’s junior partner. There was little sympathy in England for public rituals of Unionist loyalty involving commemoration of the long since forgotten Glorious Revolution – especially when such rituals led to civil disorder, but by focusing on the story of Ulster sacrifice during the First World War, Unionists and Loyalists could link their culture into the ever-popular and highly respected rituals of Remembrance Day – rituals that have been given huge added importance as Britain finds itself heavily involved as a military power in a succession of wars in the Middle East, resulting in the deaths of many young British soldiers.
It is also the case that to win the hearts and minds of young Loyalists, Unionist culture needed to invoke something more appealing and relevant than the Battle of the Boyne, whose imagery seemed increasingly ancient, regal and ceremonial, its prime emblem being a monarch on horseback, clad in 17th century attire as he bestrides the River Boyne. The image of a teenage boy in Great War khaki, who lived on a familiar Belfast street, doomed to heroic destruction in the face of German machine guns, was more suited to contemporary needs. The Somme narrative and the sites of memory connected to it in France and Flanders offer a strong, emotive endorsement of the political and moral legitimacy of a people who have often seen themselves as the neglected defenders of Britain’s Irish frontier over the centuries. Their belief that this ‘defender’ role involved an unacknowledged but sublime sacrifice in 1916 is a reason for them to relish the globally respected sites of pride, memory and melancholia that the Western Front provides.
However, it is important to state that a culture which is overly focused on memory and mourning is an unhealthy one. It is also clear that a society which is preoccupied with military history is in danger of neglecting other aspects of its heritage. And above all else, in a time of swirling change on these islands, when the very notion of an inclusive Britishness is under huge threat, the qualities that were valorised in Great War soldiering in the bloodbath of the Somme are surely not the ones which are needed to meet new challenges.
Ulster Unionism and Loyalism will need to be nimble, sophisticated, innovative and future-oriented in the years to come. The Somme will continue to matter of course as one of the Unionist stories of identity but to keep on emphasising a heritage centred on the Western Front is to focus on an obedient courage that will be of little avail in the future.
Phillip Orr is a Belfast-based writer and playwright. His books include ‘The Road to the Somme: Men of the Ulster Division Tell Their Story’, first published in 1987.