36th ULSTER DIVISION
By the time that Sir Edward Carson had announced in Belfast that an ‘Ulster’ Division was to be formed from within the ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force, many members, fearful the war might be over before they reached the front, enlisted into other divisions. A recruiting office was opened near The Old Town Hall and as each man was attested he went from one room to another and was kitted out with uniform and equipment at the expense of the U.V.F, unlike recruits elsewhere in Britain who had to endure weeks of drilling in inadequate boots and civilian clothes.
The 36th (Ulster) Division was swiftly raised, three infantry brigades being formed on a territorial basis from the regimental areas of the U.V.F to become battalions of the existing provincial infantry regiments. The divisional artillery was formed six months later with recruits from the London area.
107th Infantry Brigade
8th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (East Belfast Volunteers)
108th Infantry Brigade
11th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (South Antrim Volunteers)
109th Infantry Brigade
9th Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (Tyrone Volunteers)
16th Bn Royal Irish Rifles (2nd County Down Volunteers)
153rd Brigade Royal Field Artillery
121st Field Company
Service Squadron Royal Inniskilling Dragoons
36th Divisional Signal Company: Royal Engineers
Divisional Cyclist Company
Royal Army Medical Corps
108th Field Ambulance
76th Sanitary Section, R.A.M.C
Divisional Train, R.A.S.C
48th Mobile Veterinary Section
To the great regret of all Ulster, it was ruled that Sir George Richardson the Officer commanding the U.V.F, could not take command of the Division, owing to the seniority of his rank. Major-General C.H. Powell, an officer with a distinguished record in the Indian Army was appointed to command the Division. After training in England the senior officers were sent to France for instructional purposes, being attached to the 5th and 18th Divisions. On his return, Gen. Powell that during his absence, Major-General O.S.W Nugent D.S.O who had commanded a brigade in France, had been appointed to succeed him. Gen. Nugent was to remain with the division for over two and a half years. Today General Nugent’s name is universally associated with the Ulster Division.
Build up to Offensive
By the summer of 1916, the German Army had penetrated deep into Northern France. At Verdun, the French Army was being bled to death. Britain resolved to make a supreme effort to relieve her ally. The plan of the British Commander-In-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, was to attempt to break through German lines with fifteen British and five French Divisions. Then, swinging northwards and southwards, roll up the Germans flank. Haig deliberately chose, as the point for this break-through, the strongest part of the German line, believing that to be defeated here would demoralise the German troops. Nowhere on this line were the defences more formidable than in the area selected as the objective of the 36th (Ulster) Division, the ridges on either side of the River Ancre (a tributary of the Somme) north of the village of Thiepval including the supposedly impregnable Schwaben Redoubt.
In March 1916 the sector of the front held by the Ulster Division was extended to cover an area south of the river called Thiepval Wood. This wood, the name of which would become indelibly linked to the province of Ulster, served as a base until the commencement of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.
Thiepval comprised an area of some 100 acres of deciduous forest and was criss-crossed with deep communication trenches leading to the front line. Dugouts were excavated from the chalky earth and provided some shelter from the German artillery. Food stores and ammunition dumps were also constructed in the wood. It was near one of these dumps, on the morning of the 1st July, that Rifleman William McFadzean, 14th Rifles (Y.C.V’s) won immortal fame when was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for an act of courageous self-sacrifice.
Thiepval Wood housed the four battalions of the 109th Brigade. The River Ancre divided 108th Brigade, with two battalions in the wood and two in the village of Hamel. Divisional Headquarters was at Aveluy Wood, which also housed the 107th Brigade.
Ulster Division objectives and description of the Battle.
As the morning mists cleared away on the 1st July, the assault waves of 130,000 British Infantry called their rolls and checked their arms and ammunition. Each man was in "fighting order" and with the extra burden of shovels, grenades, a Stoke’s mortar bomb, wire cutters a gas mask, a prepared charge of explosives for cutting gaps in wire, and other obstacles, many of them were carrying 90lbs.
At 7.30am, zero hour, the artillery barrage lifted off the first German line and moved onto the second. This was the first employment of the so-called rolling barrage. Steel-helmeted and with bayonets fixed, the infantry left their trenches and advanced. As a senior officer wrote to the Times Newspaper of the Ulster Division: "It was done as if it was a parade movement on the barrack square" They were closely packed in rigid lines, the military doctrine of the day being that they should swarm onto the enemy trenches as soon as their own artillery had lifted. But this stiff formation prevented the use of cover and inhibited initiative.
At first, south of the Ancre, everything went well and 108 and 109 Brigades moved over the German trenches with few casualties. Scarcely were they across, however, when the German batteries opened a barrage on "No Mans Land". Simultaneously the skilful and resolute German machine-gunners, who had remained safe from our bombardment, now sprang up from their shelters, pulling up their guns and heavy ammunition boxes, and raked our men from the flanks and the rear, thinning the khaki waves. Many officers fell and the men went on alone.
The Ulster Divisions position was now a vulnerable salient in the German line. A few hundred yards wide and raked by German fire. At dusk a powerful counter-attack by fresh German troops drove our men, almost weaponless, back to the second German line, which they held all the next day until relieved at night by the troops of the 49th Division.
They withdrew with their prisoners tattered and exhausted. They had suffered horrendous casualties. The Innsikillings lost more men than any British regiment had ever lost in a single day. Of the 15th Royal Irish Rifles, only seventy men answered roll call that night of the 1st of July. The total British casualties on that first day were 60,000.
Through no fault of their own, the blinding success that the Ulstermen had achieved had not been exploited. But the Battle of the Somme had inflicted on the Germans, a wound from which they never fully recovered. An historic eyewitness account of the battle stated "I am not an Ulsterman, but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack I felt I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world."
Truly we may say of those who fell as said Pericles over the warrior dead in Athens, "So they gave their bodies to the Commonwealth and received, each with his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the greatest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or to actions as the occasion comes by."
In two days of fighting, the Ulster Division had lost 5500 officers and men – killed, wounded and missing. The first day of the battle had been the original anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne and as they went over the parapet, many shouted the old battle cries "NO SURRENDER" and "REMEMBER 1690". Many wore orange ribbons and one sergeant of the Inniskilling had on his orange sash. The Belfast newspapers, as elsewhere on 3rd July, reported the Somme Offensive, and spoke of brilliant successes. It was several days before the true horror of the casualties was known, and as day by day the lists in the newspapers grew longer, the whole Province went into mourning. No division was more closely-knit because its core had been the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F) and besides, the Ulster community was small and compact. In the streets of Belfast, as in other towns and villages throughout Ulster, mothers looked out in dread for the red bicycles of the telegram boys. In house after house, the blinds were drawn until it seemed that every family in the city had been bereaved. The casualty lists were full of familiar names, and always after them in brackets appeared the U.V.F units to which the casualty belonged. That year the Lord Mayor requested the suspension of business for five minutes at noon. In a downpour of rain, traffic stopped, and passers by stood silent in the streets
The Ulster Volunteers had sealed their covenant in blood.