The Ulster Volunteers 1913-1914: force or farce?

Published in 1913, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Home Rule, Home Rule Crisis, Issue 1 (Spring 2002), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 10

In January 1913, Ulster Unionist resistance to Home Rule entered a more militant phase with the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Work published on the UVF to date (most notably, A.T.Q. Stewart, The Ulster Crisis: resistance to Home Rule 1912-1914 [London 1967]) has concentrated largely on the Larne gunrunning of 24 and 25 April 1914, when, in a meticulously planned operation 24,600 rifles were landed in Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee and dispersed throughout the province. But what about more mundane issues, such as the organisation, officering and personnel of the UVF between January 1913 and July 1914? Were the Ulster Volunteers an efficient military ‘force’, or simply a theatrical ‘farce’, designed to frighten Liberal politicians and boost attendance figures at Ulster Unionist demonstrations?
The organisation of the UVF was a constant problem for the Belfast Unionist leadership. The UVF itself largely grew out of the Orange Order and the Unionist Clubs, which had started to drill by March 1912. Other UVF units had more obscure origins. In Magherafelt, the ‘Catch my Pal’ Temperance Society had started drilling twice weekly by May 1912; while in Londonderry, the Church Lads’ Brigade provided a precursor to the UVF in that city. Elsewhere, many units were formed on purely private initiative. By October 1912, Osbourne Young, a former sergeant in the Imperial Yeomanry, had established a small cavalry unit in Omagh. Some of these units only reluctantly came under the control of UVF headquarters in Belfast. As late as October 1913 Newry Unionist Club was trying to reassert its control over the local UVF.

No uniformity in command structure

With the arrival of Lieutenant General Sir George Richardson as general officer commanding the UVF, in June 1913, a regimental system was established, which attempted to replicate the Cardwell-Childers system which had been introduced in the British army in 1881. Thus, each county was to provide a UVF regiment, which would be formed from a number of battalions. In Belfast, each parliamentary constituency (North, South, East and West) provided a regiment. This slavish reproduction of the British army territorial system was not at all satisfactory for UVF purposes: regiments varied greatly in strength; while the North Belfast regiment ultimately had eight battalions, West Belfast never rose above a strength of two. Similarly, while in 1913 a British battalion consisted of eight companies, in the UVF there was no uniform establishment. The North Down battalion had fifteen companies in October 1913, while in mid 1914, 1st Battalion, Fermanagh regiment, had seven companies. On top of that companies in the battalions also varied greatly in size. These discrepancies became even more pronounced over time. While in July 1914, County Cavan had only one regiment with four battalions, recruitment in County Down had proved so successful that there were North, South, East and West Down regiments, with a total of eleven battalions. The irony was that UVF forces were strongest in the areas where they would be least useful in the event of conflict.
The other major problem with the UVF’s regimental system was that it took little account of what individual personnel would be prepared to do in the event of a crisis. This was belatedly recognised by the formation of the Special Service Force in January 1914. One Special Service company was raised from each Belfast battalion, including, wherever possible, former army personnel and members of the Special Reserve (the forerunner of the modern Territorial Army). There was an attempt to raise a Special Service Force in rural units, but the results were far from satisfactory, with many companies unable to spare sufficient numbers of men. The Special Service Force again drew on British army practice, replicating the manner in which Imperial Yeomanry companies had been formed during the Boer War (1899-1902).

Many refused to serve outside their own county

The problems of this system in the Ulster context were manifest. Such a system inevitably removed the most experienced and dedicated personnel from a unit as soon as any danger threatened. For example, two of the three retired soldiers serving in ‘A’ Company, 1st. Battalion, Fermanagh Regiment, were members of the Special Service Force. Some UVF units refused to participate in the Special Service Force scheme. According to Colonel Oliver Nugent the Cavan UVF could not spare men for service elsewhere in the event of trouble:

The County of Cavan…is geographically and politically isolated from North East Ulster, with a small Unionist community scattered over an area of 460,000 acres in the midst of a Nationalist population. It is clear that as far as this County is concerned there will be no men available for other work after the requirements of home defence have been provided for.

Likewise, Captain the Hon. Arthur O’Neill MP, commanding officer of County Antrim made it clear that none of his men would serve outside the county. The idea of mutual assistance, implicit in the Special Service Force scheme, made little sense, when entire counties refused to become involved in the system.
Similarly, the roles of Special Service Force troops, in the event of trouble, were poorly planned. For example, British military intelligence believed that, in the event of hostilities, two UVF troops of the Enniskillen Horse, would be moved to Belfast for police duty. While UVF headquarters staff may have been considering the ease with which mounted troops could overawe Nationalist protesters, the truth was that Unionists, in the minority in Fermanagh, would not have been able to spare some of their best men for service in Belfast. They were unlikely to abandon their own families and homes to the mercies of the Irish Volunteers or British soldiers, to carry out ill-defined duties in Belfast. A British military intelligence report in March 1914 confirmed the problems of the UVF regimental system:

The divisional and regimental organisation seems to be giving way for fighting purposes to a system of a mobile striking force with sedentary troops, local guards and police…There is no reason to change the previous estimate of from 80,000 to 110,000 all ranks. A striking force of 10-15,000 men has been formed + promised £1 a week on embodiment.

Further organisational problems were caused by ill-discipline and poor drill attendance in some units. South Down UVF units appear to have suffered from poor discipline, leading to the dismissal of a number of men. Indeed, in the ninety-nine-strong ‘H’ Company of the 1st. Battalion, South Down Regiment, 38 per cent of men had attended less than half of the drill parades carried out in early 1914. By contrast, in the 741-strong 1st. Battalion, Fermanagh Regiment, only six men were poor attenders and five were classed as ‘unreliable’. There was clearly much regional variation. In March 1914, Sir Neville Chamberlain, inspector general of the RIC, believed that only 30,000 of the estimated 81,410-strong UVF would immediately be ready in the event of hostilities and most of these would be from Belfast.

Competence of officers and NCOs

The numbers of competent officers and NCOs involved in the UVF is another matter worthy of consideration. While much has been made of the involvement of British officers in the UVF (Hew Strachan has suggested that ‘62 per cent of the latter’s [UVF’s] divisional, regimental and battalion commands were held by former officers’), the reality was very different. Very few retired British army officers and other ranks were involved in the UVF and many of those who were, were long past their best.
In August 1913, the RIC, whose intelligence on such matters appears to have been very good, compiled a list of soldiers and ex-soldiers drilling UVF units: only four serving and nine retired officers and six serving and eighty-four retired other ranks were involved. By the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 there were no more than fifty-eight retired officers training the UVF: too little to provide the professional leadership necessary for the seventy-three infantry battalions, much less the assorted cavalry, despatch, signalling and headquarters units which the UVF possessed by July 1914.
The usefulness of the retired officers and other ranks involved in the UVF varied. General officer commanding, Lieutenant General Sir George Richardson, was sixty-six in 1913 and had retired from the Indian army in 1908. Richardson was thus rather old to be commanding a force which consisted of c.100,000 men and seems to have been viewed as an amiable figurehead by both UVF officers and the Ulster Unionist leadership. However, Colonel William Hacket Pain, who became the senior staff officer of the UVF, had retired from the army as recently as February 1912. He brought a wealth of experience to his new post having been, amongst other things, acting adjutant general of the Egyptian army from 1897-8. By contrast, Lieutenant Colonel T.V.P. McCammon, who retained his command of the 5th. (Special Reserve) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles during the entire January 1913 to August 1914 period, showing a serious division of loyalties, was officer in charge of administration in the UVF. It says much for McCammon’s lack of expertise that, in the crisis period of 1915, he was removed from a similar post in the 36th. (Ulster) Division due to his age and inexperience. Of the officers involved in the UVF, Colonel Oliver Nugent was undoubtedly the most competent. During the Great War he was to command the 36th. (Ulster) Division from September 1915 to April 1918 with some distinction. With reference to retired other ranks involved in drilling the UVF less information is available. However, an RIC report on the drilling of Orangemen in Magherafelt in September 1912, suggests that not all provided high quality training:

The instructor is Robert Hamilton of Rainey Street. He was a private in the Inniskilling Fusiliers, and was invalided on account of insanity. He does not belong to the Army Reserve.

Equipment

The equipment provided for the UVF has been the subject of much scholarly attention, notably by Alvin Jackson and Charles Townshend. While Captain Wilfrid Spender did organise the issuing of some blue uniforms to UVF units, the main supply responsibility of UVF headquarters was weaponry. In August 1913 an enterprising Belfast firm, Gregg and Company, offered dummy wooden rifles for sale to UVF units at between one shilling and one shilling and sixpence, depending on the quality of wood used, and this says much about the UVF arsenal at this time. Indeed, in January 1914 the 10,700 strong County Antrim UVF had only 150 British Lee Enfield and 200 Italian Vetterli rifles, the latter without ammunition!
Even the Larne gunrunning of April 1914 only partially redressed this situation. As late as July 1914 the 100,000-strong UVF had only 37,048 rifles of a wide variety of makes. This, according to Charles Townshend, would have created a ‘logistical nightmare’ in any battle situation. Also, as Alvin Jackson has highlighted, ‘the amount of ammunition available to the UVF would scarcely have trained the force, let alone equipped it for a prolonged battle’. The UVF armoury was also rather antiquated. Most rifles were of the single shot type and about one-fifth were Vetterli rifles, from the bargain basement of the international arms market, having been withdrawn from service in the Italian army in 1887. The UVF possessed no field artillery, no more than six machine guns (all with insufficient supplies of ammunition) and pitifully few revolvers. In this context, the Larne gun-running appears to have been carried out, as Alvin Jackson has stressed, to boost morale in the UVF (many of whose members were, by April 1914, disillusioned with drilling with dummy guns) rather than to equip it as a modern military force.

What was its military function?

One final problem with the UVF is assessing what it was actually formed to do. Sir Edward Carson, in Paul Bew’s opinion, was motivated to raise the force simply to control the Loyalist hooligan element in Belfast. However, it is worth noting that the UVF units themselves do not appear to have been comprised of hooligans. A military intelligence report of March 1914 stated that ‘the UVF are drawn from a comparatively respectable class of citizens’. Similarly, in the 1st. Battalion, Fermanagh Regiment, 62 per cent of the members were farmers and nine per cent shopkeepers, businessmen, clergymen or gentlemen. Equally, as Alvin Jackson has pointed out, Carson must have been fairly certain that any bloodshed caused by the UVF would have seen British Conservative support for the Ulster Unionist cause evaporate.
Other politicians and UVF officers voiced concerns about the planned combat role of the force. Lord Dunleath, heavily involved in the County Down UVF, believed that the Ulster Volunteers would not fight against British troops. Colonel Oliver Nugent was concerned that if Catholics were attacked in Belfast, then Protestants in Cavan would be the butt of reprisals. He, therefore, played down the military aspects of the Cavan UVF:

The organisation proposed [in Cavan] has nothing in common with a military organisation…I have therefore used no purely military titles and so far as the forces enrolled in the county are concerned I prefer to call them the Cavan Volunteer Force and not the Cavan Regiment.

Sounding an even more placatory note, Godfrey Fetherstonhaugh, Unionist MP for North Fermanagh, publicly suggested a compromise settlement in January 1914 to prevent a civil war. Thus the UVF was a poorly armed force with an ill-defined role and one suspects that, despite the existence of elaborate contingency plans drawn up at UVF headquarters in the event of an actual war, much would have devolved to rural commanders.
Realistically, the UVF could only have proved an effective military force if, like the IRA five years later, it had adopted guerrilla tactics, modelled on those practised by the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902. James Craig, himself a Boer War veteran, was firmly opposed to this policy. He was aware that such a war would be condemned by the vast majority of the British public and he also expressed fears that UVF morale would collapse during a prolonged campaign. However, the truth of the matter is that the UVF lacked the training, modern weapons, logistical support and, crucially, artillery and cavalry required for the ‘stand up fight’ with British troops which Craig envisaged in the event of Home Rule being enacted.
With regard to the propaganda role of the UVF it appears that, by June 1914, the force had become a useful political auxiliary to the Ulster Unionist Party. For example, on 25 June 1914, after the collapse of the Buckingham Palace conference, 4,000 men of the East Belfast and Young Citizen Volunteers Regiments paraded through Belfast. This suggests that Ulster Unionists found the UVF, at least in Belfast, easier to mobilise for political demonstrations and more easily disciplined than either the Orange Order or the Ulster Clubs. Similarly, UVF units played a prominent role in rural Unionist demonstrations and it is revealing that W.C. Trimble raised the Enniskillen Horse, not because he felt it militarily necessary, but because he believed it would appear impressive as a guard of honour to Sir Edward Carson when he visited the town!
So were the Ulster Volunteers a ‘force’ or a ‘farce’? Certainly, they were not an efficient, modern, military force as they were poorly equipped, badly trained and, in most cases, inadequately officered. However, they were rather more than a ‘farce’ acting out theatrical performances at Ulster Unionist demonstrations. In military terms, the UVF was capable of subduing the RIC (which had around 3,500 officers in Ulster) and Irish Volunteers; to some extent this had been proved during the massive gun-running operation of April 1914. The UVF was not, however, capable of engaging in a ‘stand up fight’ with British troops. Had civil war erupted in Ulster in August 1914 one suspects that while some units (notably the Belfast Special Service Force) would have fought on, possibly using guerrilla tactics, until forced to surrender, others, especially in rural areas where Protestants were in the minority, would have surrendered before a shot was fired.

Timothy Bowman is a research fellow at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University, Belfast.

Further reading:

P. Buckland, Irish Unionism 1885-1923 (Belfast 1973).

A.T.Q. Stewart, The Ulster Crisis: resistance to Home Rule 1912-1914 (London 1967).

C. Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland: government and resistance since 1848 (Oxford 1988).

P. Bew, Ideology and the Irish Question: Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism, 1912-16 (Oxford 1994).

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