A View from Home: From No Man's Land Into History

Dr David Hume traces the actions of the Ulster-Scots in the Somme

Co Antrim historian Dr David Hume examines the Somme story and Ulstermen’s role in the battle 90 years ago.

Willie McConnell was shot in the left shoulder on the afternoon of July 1 1916 and would live to tell the tale. In fact, I heard about it first hand from him when he was 99 years of age. McConnell, a rifleman from Magheramorne in Co Antrim, had been a member of the Ulster Volunteers and, like many of them, joined up when the First World War broke out.

In April 1914 he had helped land and hide rifles from the gun-runner Clyde Valley at Larne Harbour, prepared with his comrades to fight the British Government if need be, to prevent Home Rule for Ireland. Yet within months, he and others like him had joined up to defend the British Empire and many of them, as author John Buchanan put it, 'shed their blood like water for the freedom of the world'.

One afternoon when McConnell was 99, I interviewed him for a newspaper article. It was a fascinating interview, as I listened to a man from another age talk about his memories. For the old Volunteer this was not mere history, this was part of his life.

This year the 90th anniversary of the event that McConnell was fortunate to live through, the Battle of the Somme, will be marked. No doubt there will be thousands who will make the pilgrimage to France to remember the Ulster soldiers who never returned.

The special anniversary will bring the events of 90 years ago sharply into focus.

Maybe some will reflect that there is a certain irony in the date on which the battle started. July 1, on the old Julian calendar was, of course, the date of the Battle of the Boyne. There were many who went over the top at the Somme who were Orangemen; at least one, Sergeant Samuel Kelly of the 9th Inniskillings, wearing his Orange sash, while others wore Orange ribbons.

But July 1 had another significant date for those of Ulster-Scots descent: it was also the date on which the Battle of Gettysburg started during the American Civil War.

Gettysburg was to devastate ranks of those who fought there and certainly helped annihilate a generation from the Confederate side. In towns in Tennessee, the Carolinas and elsewhere entire communities were left to mourn for sons who did not return.

In Ulster, the Somme produced the same scenario. It was recounted by ATQ Stewart that the bicycles of the telegram boys were dreaded in the tightly-knit streets of Belfast, for they brought heartbreak in their wake.

McConnell was one of the many Ulster-Scots who took part in that pivotal historical event 90 years ago.

'You shot or got shot. I was wounded in the left shoulder about three in the afternoon. There were five of us in a line in a sort of fill-in trench. I saw the first man in front of me going over hands and knees,' he told me during that interview.

'I just staggered on and I got it on the other side. I lay there a wee while until I picked myself up to see what way I could go to get home to our trenches. In a mix-up like that it was not easy knowing what road to go - the trenches all looked the same'.

He got back safely to his own lines and received medical attention for his wound.

McConnell was lucky to only be injured in the shoulder. Many others were less fortunate, as Ulster Division soldiers pushed further forward than any other unit and were decimated as a result.

McConnell, from the strongly Ulster-Scots district of Magheramorne, survived the war. But he still recalled at the age of 99 years how others had not.

One woman at home had received a letter telling her that her brother was missing. She wanted to know what missing actually meant, he reflected, and she asked him.

McConnell had seen what could happen when a shell exploded in a trench. Men who had been there an instant before simply disappeared, their bodies blown to pieces. That was what missing meant.

'I knew what it meant, but I could not tell her,' he stated bluntly that day at his home on the Shore Road. The memory was still raw, all those years after the event.

Small wonder that most of the men who came back from the Somme said little about it. They had seen too much, and experienced too much. They were unprepared for what they had to endure. They wanted, one gets the sense, to block it out, to try and forget it.

But the price that was paid could never be forgotten. Nor should it be forgotten in the modern age.

Commemoration is different from celebration. The Ulstermen who fell at the Somme should be commemorated, not neglected. Their sacrifice was typical of a hardy people.

James Webb, in his outstanding contribution to our history, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America tells us that in his view Ulster-Scots were born fighting. 'We face this world on our feet and not on our knees. We were born fighting. And if the cause is right, we will never retreat,' he says.

This thread runs deep through Ulster-Scots history. Scots and Ulster-Scots soldiers forged the British Empire in a very real sense, serving in far-off lands and strange climes.

Ulster-Scots militiamen dissolved links between young America and the Mother country, providing backbone for Washington’s army and, more than most, the stamina for the struggle. Covenanters, many of whom came to Ulster to settle, stood firm in battle for ‘Christ’s Crown and Covenant.’

That fierce spirit has led Ulster-Scot author John Buchanan to remark that they were the people who, in the heat of battle, would bend but never break. Such resilience was displayed inside the walls of Londonderry during the siege, the longest in British military history.

Having slammed the gates shut in the face of James II’s troops, Derry’s defenders were prepared to starve to death or partake of a macabre menu rather than surrender. That blunt, simple, message ‘No Surrender’ sums up their cultural community.

Ironically, and typically, divisions came about after the Relief of the city and the Williamite victory. The Anglican establishment was accused of trying to downgrade the Ulster-Scots Presbyterian contribution during the Siege.

It all rumbled on until the Test Act in 1704 saw Presbyterians being thrown off the city council. In 1718 five ships set sail from Coleraine with Ulster-Scots who would found and settle New Londonderry in New Hampshire.

The antiquarian Francis Joseph Bigger saw a correlation between lessons learned on the hillsides of Ulster and the American Revolution. The first shots in the revolt were, indeed, fired from Ulster-Scots muskets.

Those who took up such a position were often easy to lead, but difficult to command. One account of a muster in an Ulster-Scot heartland in the American colonies tells us that ‘the captain raised his voice and the men went home.’ Having elected their captain, they decided that they did not much care for his aggressive commands.

Recently, at a pageant organised by the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in Ballymena, a re-enactment of the role of locals in the Revolution far-off in the Carolinas was among the attractions.

In one scene, the Mountain men, who had risen in revolt during the Revolution, were commanded to prayer by their minister, the Rev Samuel Doak, whose roots lay in Co Antrim. 

Valour in battlefields, whether at Kings Mountain in South Carolina in 1780, the Boyne on a July day in 1690, or in the Somme valley in 1916, was not alien to Ulstermen. In the latter context, a German observer referred to the ‘gallant Ulster Division’ when he wrote of how the enemy watched its charge.

The Ulster charge that day went down in history and legend. Captain Wilfred Spender famously remarked that although not an Ulsterman, having watched their charge that day he would rather have been an Ulsterman than anything else in the world. And yes, some did shout ‘No Surrender’ that day in France.

But for the ordinary soldiers like McConnell, it was not about glory, nor honour, but about survival. In their blunt, typically forthright Ulster manner, they would have dismissed out of hand any suggestion that they were heroes.

Yet some of them undoubtedly were.

Private Robert Quigg won the Victoria Cross for courage under fire, as he went out time and again into No Man’s Land to rescue wounded men while searching for his Commanding Officer, Sir Harry Macnaghten.

'Seven times he went out to look for him, and seven times he brought in a wounded man, the last dragged on a waterproof sheet from within a few metres of the German wire,' Cyril Falls recounts in his history of the 36th Ulster Division.

Willie McFadzean, a young bombardier who was preparing grenades for action, saw his mistake when a live grenade fell onto a box of ammunition. With only a split second to make up his mind, he jumped onto the munitions, thereby saving the lives of men around him when they exploded.

'Billy’s mutilated remains were placed on a stretcher and as they were being taken away, his fellow soldiers instinctively removed their helmets, despite the ongoing bombardment and the flying shrapnel; many were in tears. For his sacrifice, Billy would receive the Victoria Cross, the first awarded to a soldier in the Somme campaign, Philip Orr tells us in his book The Road to the Somme.

Not all would win such honours. But in many battles, and for many causes, Ulstermen and their descendants stood by the colours and fought for a higher ideal.

Ninety years on from the Somme, Ulstermen and women would do well to remember those who struggled and fell there with pride.

This article first appeared in The Ulster Scot, official publication of the Ulster-Scots Agency.