From imperial rebels to pledged defenders of the realm

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

Clandeboye camp

In the spring of 1914, Ulster’s political antagonisms reached fever pitch. The British government sent military reinforcements to guard key installations in the north of Ireland, while Royal Navy gunboats sailed along the coast. On an April night, ships docked at Larne, Bangor and Donaghadee, bringing consignments of rifles purchased by unionists in Hamburg. Within days, Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force carried the smuggled weapons on parade.

Newtownards was one of the Ulster towns where armed unionism dominated. Situated ten miles from the eastern suburbs of Belfast in a fertile agricultural district, it was perfectly placed to benefit economically from proximity to the city. The town’s own textile factories also offered work to many of its 10,000 inhabitants. As a confident community with a strongly Protestant culture, Newtownards had a sizeable unit of Ulster Volunteers.

In March the ‘Curragh Mutiny’ had occurred, in which some British officers had stated their unwillingness to ‘coerce’ Ulster. This had revealed a deeper story beneath the pressing conflict between British policy and the anti-Home Rule pro-ject. It was a story of close links between the British military tradition and unionism. The early weeks of the war would confirm the connection at a local level in places such as Newtownards.

Finding a role for the UVF

Local men of the Ulster Volunteer Force training in the Clandeboye demesne during the Home Rule crisis that preceded the outbreak of the war. (Somme Heritage Centre, Newtownards)

Local men of the Ulster Volunteer Force training in the Clandeboye demesne during the Home Rule crisis that preceded the outbreak of the war. (Somme Heritage Centre, Newtownards)

Negotiations were in place between the unionist leadership and the military authorities to create an infantry division that would attract large numbers of Ulster Volunteers, although some UVF men had already made individual responses to the call to arms. The UVF had been reluctant to join up in large numbers, given the volatility of the recent political situation. The Chronicle reflected on 5 September upon a speech by Edward Carson in which he indicated that the Home Rule issue was now ‘parked’, with provision for suitable amendments after the war. A new military unit, geared specifically to unionist sensibilities, was in preparation. It was very desirable for UVF men to present themselves for foreign service, to protect their beloved Empire. The Chronicle hoped for a fresh surge of recruitment and the pleasure of seeing ‘chums and pals soldiering side by side’ in ‘the hour of the empire’s greatest peril’.

Four companies of Ulster Volunteers supplied the first substantial local contingent to enter the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army. On 17 September, 129 UVF men assembled in the town, standing in military formation, organised by their commanders, based at the Orange Hall. A troop of Scouts assisted with marshalling the men, who moved forward at 45-minute intervals to the recruiting office, while a crowd cheered and applauded.

Hugh Brown
The Chronicle reported that the first Ulster Volunteer to sign up was Hugh Brown. On completing a successful medical examination, Brown was sworn in by a magistrate and then taken to a committee room of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families’ Association for information about pay and separation allowances. Like other successful recruits, Brown proceeded to the pay office, where he received his statutory six shillings and was measured for his uniform. Like every other recruit that day, Hugh Brown received a bar of McClinton’s Hibernia shaving soap, a gift from John McClelland, local justice of the peace. Brown was also given a card, on which were inscribed the following words:

‘I would be true for there are those who trust me,
I would be pure for there are those who care.
I would be strong for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave for there is much to dare.
I would be a friend to all, the foe, the friendless,
I would be always giving and forget the gift.
I would be humble for I know my weakness,
I would look up and laugh and love and lift.’

Hugh Brown was a bricklayer and a veteran of the Boer War. Aged 38, he was older than most men who joined the army. At 5ft 11in. he was five inches taller than the average height for an adult male. As an experienced soldier he did not actually join the 36th Division until 1915, after a spell spent with a reserve battalion. The majority of his colleagues, however, were allocated straightaway to the new division. They assembled on the following day in order to march to the gates of the nearby Clandeboye estate, home of the marquis of Dufferin and Ava, where accommodation was being erected. As the recruits left the town, they were led by a fife band belonging to the Scouts. The Clandeboye demesne would have been familiar to the local Ulster Volunteers, as they had already trained there in pre-war months. Like so many of the estates belonging to the Ulster gentry, Clandeboye had been made available by its unionist owners to the UVF for ‘camps of instruction’, drill, rifle practice and military manoeuvres.

The rest of the Ards
On the evening of 14 September the Cottown company of the local UVF had met in their drill hall and the proceedings had included speeches, animated conversation and games. Their drill officer presented each of the recruits with a purse of sovereigns. The evening concluded with God save the king and a chorus of Auld lang syne. In Portaferry, on the tip of the Ards peninsula, half the local Ulster Volunteers had volunteered for service, but many of these men were too old for soldiering. A smaller contingent made its way to Ballywalter, where there was a recruiting office. Then they marched along the coast to Donaghadee, where they took a train to Newtownards before going on foot to Clandeboye. One important event for many soldiers and their families was a visit to the local photographer before leaving for Clandeboye or during an early leave. Lyttle’s photographic studio in Regent Street offered a ‘deal’ of 24 postcards displaying two different ‘poses’, all for three shillings.

As winter approached, there was pressure on the accommodation at Clandeboye, as three other battalions from counties Antrim and Armagh joined the local battalion. In due course, purpose-built huts were constructed at Clandeboye and at a site on the Ards Recreation Ground. Meanwhile, each Sunday, local people made their way on foot or bicycle to the gates of the camps where their relatives were based. On Sunday afternoons soldiers met loved ones for a brief encounter. Special visits to the camps by local groups were also organised. On one occasion, a company of Girl Guides arrived at Clandeboye, bringing pipes and tobacco for the men. Kitbags full of ‘comforts’ were sent by women in local churches to hospitals in England where wounded men were already suffering.

By mid-October, then, Newtownards and its hinterland was mobilising for participation in a global conflict. A local roll of honour had been established, containing the names of all who were serving. The master of the North Down Harriers was entrusted with finding horses for the war amongst farmers, merchants and gentry of the district. By this stage, men who had been in the armed forces when war was declared were becoming casualties—soldiers such as Andrew Russell, who died with the Scottish regiment the Cameron Highlanders and whose picture appeared in the Chronicle. The troops who trained nearby at Clandeboye were safe for now from enemy bullets, but many of these novice infantrymen would perish in 1916 when the 36th Division parti-cipated in the Battle of the Somme, adding a further, blood-red chapter to the British-unionist narrative. Newtownards, like much of unionist Ulster, had made a swift transition from the verge of civil conflict to enthusiastic participation in Britain’s war. The arrival of that war allowed Ulster Protestants to fully reoccupy a comfortable and familiar space on the island of Ireland, not as imperial rebels but as pledged defenders of the realm.

Philip Orr is a writer, researcher and teacher.

Read More: ‘Why not join the Royal North Downs?

Further reading

T. McCavery, Newtown: history of Newtownards (Belfast, 1994).
B. Niblock, Remembering their sacrifice in the Great War: Ards: the war dead of Down and Ards (Newtownards, 2011).
P. Orr, The road to the Somme—men of the Ulster Division tell their story (Belfast, 2008).
P. Simkins, Kitchener’s Army: the raising of the New Armies 1914–1916 (Manchester, 1988).
The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Nigel Henderson.


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