‘Why not join the Royal North Downs?’

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

The 13th Royal Irish Rifles lined up at Clandeboye—the battalion of the 36th Ulster Division that men from Newtownards and district were likely to join. (Somme Centre, Newtownards)

The 13th Royal Irish Rifles lined up at Clandeboye—the battalion of the 36th Ulster Division that men from Newtownards and district were likely to join. (Somme Centre, Newtownards)

On 9 August the Newtownards Chronicle posed this question to the young men of the district. The newspaper was referring to the reserve battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, the British regiment that recruited locally. Many people in Newtownards referred to this unit by an earlier designation, the North Down Militia. The Irish militia tradition had originated in the eighteenth century as a means of recruiting men to defend the country against sedition or invasion. Previously, a companion battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, still known as the South Down Militia, had been sent to Africa during the Boer War. The newspaper told its readers that the North Downs were ‘entrusted with the responsible task’ of guarding the local coastline and surmised that the men would soon be ‘attached to the expeditionary forces’ and sent to France or Belgium.

Within hours of the commencement of hostilities, recruiting officers were in attendance at the military premises in Regent Street at the very heart of the town. A few miles away in Holywood, a wartime HQ had been set up in Palace Barracks, overlooking Belfast Lough. Men who joined or re-joined the North Downs were sent there to train. Another local news-paper, the Down Recorder, reported that as batches of men left Newtownards for Holywood they were accompanied for part of the way by enthusiastic Ulster Volunteers, who walked at the head of the columns.

New recruits had been asked to bring ‘character references’ with them from a recent employer, clergyman or justice of the peace. Ex-soldiers being drafted back into the army were asked to bring ‘discharge papers’. The Chronicle was keen for men who had no current job to ‘join the army’ rather than ‘swell the ranks of the unemployed’.

By the third week in August, recruitment in the northern part of County Down had resulted in over 200 soldiers for the local reserve battalion. Amongst the men from Newtownards were 30 recruits who had been obtained in the town on a single day. They had been passed fit to join the forces by Sergeant Griffith, a retired colour-sergeant, aided by Dr Warwick, medical officer to the regiment. Another 26 men were due for inspection in the following days.

There was a serious attempt to draw men of high social status into the cavalry, along with others from a lower rank who could work as farriers, blacksmiths and grooms. Advertisements for the North Irish Horse appeared in the district, stressing that ‘none but good horsemen need apply’. When war came, this unit had been at its summer camp. By 17 August, ‘A’ squadron had sailed from Dublin en route to France. New recruits were required for a unit that, in the view of the Down Recorder, had been dominated of late by men with Ulster Volunteer membership.

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