The Ulstermen set sail from Southampton aboard such ships as the Lapland (one of the vessels to come to the assistance of the Titanic), Onward and the Empress Queen. As they docked at LeHarve, they saw the large hospital ship getting ready to make the journey the other way. Training days were over: now it was the real thing for the entire Ulster Division and many would not return, or if they did it would be aboard such a hospital ship. The journey which the Ulster Volunteers had made from the days of enlistment, a year previously, to this day of disembarkation on French soil was a journey from one kind of warfare to another. They had been involved in a citizen army whose cause was home and family. Theirs had been a cosy, intimate warfare, involving nocturnal gun-smuggling and games of bluff with the British government. It was a war with scarcely a drop of blood shed in its campaigns. Now the Volunteers were caught in a monstrous fight to the death between rival empires, for the domination of not only Europe but the world. This war was futile, savage and for real, and if Carson had hoped that the creation of the Ulster Division would be a weapon in the fight to defeat Home Rule, he had been ignorant of how easily his men would become pawns in a very big and ruthless game, where the individual soldier could do little to alter his destiny and why he had a neither a clear sense of why he was fighting, killing and being killed.
The inside of one of the Hospital ships
the time the Ulster Volunteers crossed the English channel the war had
expanded. Europe was no longer the only theatre of conflict but now the
Middle East, Africa and the Atlantic Ocean were also Theatres of War.
The high seas were one of the most dangerous places for the British war
effort, for here the German U-boats were sinking the ships on which the
British Isles depended for so many of its basic supplies. In the Near
East a campaign was underway to capture the Turkish peninsula of Gallipoli.
In europe the Allied armies forced the Germans along a line that stretched
from the Belgian Coast to the Swiss boarder. For the most of that distance
the rival soldiers confronted each other from the relative safety of fortified
trenches, across an intervening strip of earth known as no-mans-land.
The British held the Northern sector along with the Belgians: the largest
part of the line was held by the French.
The 36th Division were to be drafted into the Somme sector, in the southern area of the British lines, part of the historic French province of Picardy, in which the Cathedral city of Amiens was a central feature. Nearer the front was the town of Albert with its basilica, above which rose the damaged golden statue of the Virgin Mary with child, visible for miles around. It had been and still is, a rich and pleasant countryside. Small woods were dotted across the landscape, and the Somme, and its tributary the Ancre, had wide, marshy valleys that ran through the fields. It was, all in all, a fairly quiet sector and large parts of it were used to a ‘live and let live’ routine, nonetheless, the first few steps onto French soil on a winter morning proved, for many, quite a shock.
After eleven months of training the Ulster Volunteers had arrived on the threshold of the ‘Great War’ at last. When they arrived at Amiens the Ulster Battalions had to make long marches to the villages where they were billeted. As the men marched they could hear the rumble and growl of the big guns at the front drifting in from the East.
The Golden statue of the Virgin drooping from the
ruined church tower at Albert.
When she fell, said the men, the war would be over.
When the Ulstermen had got themselves organised and had a chance to look around: many of them were appaled by the dirtiness of the Picardy villages that they were billeted in.
Over the next couple of weeks there was the routine of training to keep the men occupied: two or three brigade field days and a Divisional field day, but everyone’s mind was on the first brief, statutory visit to the front line, which was about to take place.
The Division arriving in France, ready to march - the heavy packs which the men had to
carry lie at their feet.