People with ancestors who were members of the UVF in east or west Belfast and fought in the First World War are being asked to help share their stories by contributing to a unique history project.
The new online resource – The Geography of Service and Death (GoSD) – records details of around 400 UVF men from the east and west of the city who fought in the Great War. But the men behind the project, Professor Richard Grayson from Goldsmiths, University of London and Belfast historian Jason Burke, say there are thousands more stories to be told.
“This is the coming together of two projects,” Prof Grayson explained. “I wrote a book 10 years ago about west Belfast called ‘Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War’ and then Jason used that methodology to research east Belfast. We were both interested in telling the story of all the people who served in the war from across those parts of the city, but also analysing them academically. The reason for now focussing on the story of just the UVF members is that it is far more complicated than has been handed down in the popular narrative.”
Prof Grayson, whose paternal grandparents were from Lurgan, stressed that not all UVF men served in the 36th (Ulster) Division and fought at the Somme.
“UVF men didn’t only serve in the 36th (Ulster) Division, but also the 10th (Irish) Division, regular battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, some English and Scottish regiments, and even one man in the nationalist 16th (Irish) Division,” he said.
“This is really just an effort to show that even in the well known group of people who served in the war, the former UVF members, their story is far more complex than just joining the Ulster Division and serving at the Somme.”
Echoing that point, Mr Burke, the historian who led the East Belfast and the Great War research project, said: “In east Belfast the UVF were around 9,000 strong at their peak in the summer of 1914; they were one of the strongest UVF regiments in Ulster. Just over 3,000 of these men saw military service in the First World War and from a sample of 240 east Belfast UVF members around one-third did not serve in the Ulster Division.”
Prof Grayson said the project, which includes an interactive map showing where the men lived, could be expanded to other areas if time and resources permitted.
“For the moment we felt that the UVF story is a good place to start because in a way it is the one that gets told in the most simple way, but it is actually more complicated than people imagine,” he said.
Appealing for members of the public to help them with the project by coming forward with information, old letters or photographs, he added: “We are really conscious that there is material shut away in people’s drawers, people’s attics and just in their family history that we could add to the map. It can become something of an archive for those stories that people have.”
The new GoSD online resource can be accessed at http://go.qub.ac.uk/GOSDWW1
Anyone with material they think may be of interest to the project should email R.Grayson@gold.ac.uk