North Antrim Volunteers
Given its status as Ulster’s most Protestant and Unionist County, it would come as no surprise that the campaign and organisation against Home Rule within Antrim’s boundaries was undertaken with much zeal.
During the Home Rule Period, County Antrim boasted the largest number of Ulster Volunteers outside the City of Belfast. The pre- Ulster Covenant rallies in its towns and villages were enthusiastic, culminating with massive numbers placing their signature to the famous document on Ulster Day. However behind the scenes there was much more activity than just these public displays, with the Unionist Clubs and Orange Lodges heavily engaged in military drilling. As early as 30th September 1913, just two days after the first anniversary of Ulster Day, Intelligence notes from the Chief Secretary’s Office, Judicial Division, noted the strength of the UVF in the Ulster Volunteer Force in Ballymena as 1,165 and in Ballymoney as 892.
The County Committee of the UVF for Antrim, tasked with organising the body, read like a who’s who’s from the upper reaches of its business, political and ‘gentlemen’ community. Of the five primary representatives, North Antrim boasted two in the form of J. G. Leslie Ballymoney and George Young of Galgorm Castle. Other representatives from the area within its ranks included Captain West from Portrush; Sydney Lyle, a land agent from Ballycastle; and John Patrick from Broughshane, classified as a land owner.
During this period the County Antrim structure of Volunteers had not been fully finalised, it initially being divided up into four seperate areas, South, East, Mid and North, however it was at an advanced stage. By January 1914 the County Antrim Division of the Ulster Volunteer Force was formalised. It was divided into three seperate Regiments, namely South Antrim, Central Antrim and North Antrim, numbering in excess of 12,000 men. Its official designation letter was ‘A’, with all badges issued to Volunteers prefaced with the letter. The North Antrim Regiment had several commanders during its tenure, with Captain Arthur O’Neill MP its initial commanding officer. Arthur O’Neill has the unfortunate distinction of being the first Member of Parliament killed in World War 1, killed in action in Belgium on the 6th November 1914. Upon leaving for the front in 1914 Captain O’Neill he had been succeeded as Regimental Commander by Colonel Hugh Lyle.
The 1st Battalion of the North Antrim Regiment was centered in and known as the ‘Ballymena’ Battalion, with Officer in Command George Young of Galgorm Castle and acting Adjutant Mr. R. C. Orr. In official UVF returns the Battalion is recorded as having strength at its peak of 2486 men, making it the second largest Battalion in the entire force, only bettered by the 2nd Battalion of the East Belfast Regiment who had 2808 Volunteers. In all ten companies made up the ranks. The A, B and C Coy’s were all centered in and on the fringes of Ballymena itself, with respective commanders R. Baird, R. M. Pryde and G. McFettridge. D Coy was the Braid district, with E Company Cullybackey and Hillmount. Craigywarren was F Coy and had James Wilson as Commander, with G Coy composed of the Galgorm and Ahoghill areas. H Company was Clough under Wilson Graham, I Coy being Kells and also taking in Ross and Glenwherry with local minister Rev O. W. Clarke commander. There does not appear to have been a J Coy for some unknown reason, with the final Company being K covering Newtowncrommelin under James Gillen.
The Regiment’s 2nd Battalion, the ‘Ballymoney’ Battalion, was under the command of Colonel Hugh Lyle DSO (also regimental commander for a period), with the Adjutant Captain C. Boddam. At its peak membership numbered 1206, and covered a very wide geographical area. Centered in Ballymoney itself, it consisted of nine companies, under the designations A through to I. A Coy was the Ballymoney Company. Its Commander was J. B. Hamilton, and was further divided into two half companies and four sections. The right half Company was under W. Lewis Thornleigh, with both sections based in Ballymoney town, while the Left half Company was under R. S. Cramsie and had sections based in Balnamore and Dunaghy. Dirraw was B Coy, with three sections namely The Eden, Drumlee and Moore Lodge. The sections were very scattered and drills appear to have been sparse, with its Commander William Moore MP, former MP for North Antrim and from 1906 MP for North Armagh. He was incredibly well respected in the area, with remarks in a Regimental document noting that his men would ‘follow him anywhere’. C Company was Rasharkin, the smallest in the Battalion with just 36 volunteers, under the leadership of J. R. Moore and had sections in Rasharkin and Culmore. D Company was Portrush under E. F. Carter, while E Company was Bushmills and had three sections within Bushmills and a further one in Aird. Dervock was F Coy under William Curry from Stranocum, with G Coy Ballycastle split into five sections including Ballycastle (3 number), Armoy and Mosside. A Regimental review document also noted the Ballycastle Company as having the largest proportion of Volunteers who did not drill regularly. The Ballintoy Coy, H, had six sections under commander Byrne, with I Coy the Dunloy Company. Its four sections were located in Dunloy itself (2 number), Lavin and Corkey.
Within and working alongside the two main Battalion structures were several other specialised units of the Volunteers. Among these were several squadrons of the Motor Car Corps; the Ulster Nursing and Medical Corps, with almost every company having a Voluntary Aid Detachment; Ambulance Corps; and the Ulster Signaling and Dispatch Riding Corps. The USDRC had been established to provide an alternative to the Post Service, which it was believed, was infiltrated by Military Intelligence, and 48 post houses were established across the Province. Each house had a post mistress, with the North Antrim facilities located in Ballymena’s Protestant Hall under Mrs Henry; Ballymoney’s Protestant Hall under Mrs M. R. Sterling; 2 Salisbury Terrace Portrush under Miss Pottinger; and Ballycastle Manor House under Miss Sewell. The second largest of the UVF’s Cavalry units was notably based in Ballymena, the ‘Ballymena Horse’ having been raised by Regimental Commander Arthur O’Neill MP himself.
From mid-1913 until well after the outbreak of WW1, the activities of the North Antrim Ulster Volunteer Force could be read about weekly in local newspapers, and indeed regularly in many National papers. In common with the rest of the Province, the majority of activity was centered in Church Services and ‘route marches’, however social and fund raising functions also very common. A typical example was an event in Ballymoney Town Hall in May 1914, held to raise monies for the Nursing, signaling and dispatch corps of the local Company. The building was filled to over flowing according to newspaper reports, and the programme included such items as songs from Master F. Barnhill singing ‘I want to be a Soldier’ and Miss Leslie singing ‘Polly Oliver’. Recitations, ‘humourous sketches’ and a signaling display were also part of the evening’s entertainment. The event of course ended with the signing of The National Anthem.
Several camps of instruction were held for the Regiment, including one apparently coincidently held over the period of the April 1914 Gun-running, with other major demonstrations including the presentation of colour’s. In May 1914 the 1st Battalion gathered in Ballymena for a parade, inspection and to receive Battalion Kings and Regimental standards. The flags had been donated by Lady O’Neill and Mr Patrick Young, and over 1000 Volunteers took part. Volunteer Chief of Staff Sir George Richardson was present at the proceedings, considered a high honour, and despite torrential rain large crowds came out to view the proceedings. Lady O’Neill on presenting the Kings Colour said ‘I present thee these colour’s, the King’s Colour’s, knowing that they will be worthily borne, in the true interests of the Empire, by the men of the 1stBattalion North Antrim Regiment, and I feel sure that peace, that we all so long for, will be promoted by your good discipline and good conduct’.
In terms of the capabilities of the UVF, there was an internal debate that had conflicting views on the value of fully arming the various Regiments and Battalions. Notably the Antrim Division was one of the most militant and outspoken in its belief that the Force should be armed. A County Committee meeting on 6th January 1914 expressed great annoyance at the poor number of armaments available, going as far as requesting a meeting with Captain James Craig to discuss the matter. Their pressure undoubtedly contributed to the finalisation of the Larne gun-running project, Operation Lion, which delivered over 25,000 rifles into the hands of the UVF. On the evening of 24th April 1914 thirty cars of the North Antrim Regiment Motor Car Corps left the area, having been ordered to arrive in Larne at 1am to receive cargo. Throughout the Regimental area Volunteers were mobilised to receive them on their return. In Ballymena the Ballymena Horse were central to the proceedings, with surrounding companies lining road’s to ensure that the packages of rifles and ammunition reached their designated drill centres. The Ballymoney Company of Volunteers mobilized at 9pm and remained on duty until early on the morning of the 25th. The patrols carried out by the company were headed by section and squad leaders Hamilton, Jamison, Pollock, Mullholland, Pollock and Taylor.
A Ballymena man had been one of the main financial backers of the gun-running. A former native of Ballymena, Sir Samuel McCaughey, now a multi millionaire based in New South Wales in Australia, was one of the primary financial backers of the Volunteers having contributed the then massive amount of £35,000 to the ‘Carson Defence Fund’.
The tensions in Ulster surrounding Home Rule and the formation and growth of the UVF and its reactionary counterpart the Irish Volunteers, were rapidly rising and by mid 1914 were threatening to bubble over into communal conflict. The outbreak of WW1 in July of the year however was to suddenly change the focus of the Home Rule debate. Many North Antrim Volunteers immediately rushed to the ranks of the British Army, but it was the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, formed as part of the 36th Ulster Divisions, that was to be the ‘home town’ unit for the North of the County. The North Antrim 2nd Battalion Commander Lyle was among those who quickly encouraged Volunteers to join the Rifles, in one address telling potential recruits that ‘The War in Europe offers to young fellows possibilities of useful service to their King and Country, combined with opportunities for personal distinction and adventure’. The cross over between the North Antrim UVF and the 12th Battalion R.I.F. was very strong, with of the 18 surviving officer files, it clear that 14 came directly from UVF units.
The legacy of the North Antrim Volunteers and the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles is the tremendous sacrifice made on the battlefields of the Western Front, particularly the Somme offensive.