The Somme: ‘Ulster Fry confirmed the offensive was near’

Out of the three boys ' all friends and relatives ' only Robert Montgomery survived. This picture is believed to have been taken around 1919.
Out of the three boys ' all friends and relatives ' only Robert Montgomery survived. This picture is believed to have been taken around 1919.

Fivemiletown man Bob Baird recalls the journey of three relatives whose lives were intertwined, and whose journeys all led them to the carnage of the Somme.

Out of the three, two great-uncles – Thomas Baird and Samuel Montgomery – died, whilst his grandfather – Robert Montgomery, pictured – survived:

During the long, hot summer of 1900, a group of little lads spent the whole of their seasonal holiday playing together out in the fields around Limavady.

The Baird and the Montgomery children were neighbours, and their mothers were cousins.

They remained great pals until the day when Bob Montgomery Senior uprooted his entire family and took them over to live in Everton, Liverpool, where he had set up a house painting business.

The two Montgomery sons, Robert and Samuel, quickly settled down to their new life in the busy city, which came as quite a shock after the rural lifestyle they had previously enjoyed in Limavady with pals Thomas and Jamie Baird.

In the succeeding years the youngsters grew into adults; the Baird lads starting life on the farm, while the Montgomery boys followed their father into his painting business.

Both families kept up with each other largely via the children’s mothers.

But at an international level, a disaster was looming which would change their lives forever.

Lord Kitchener started a direct appeal for more men to enlist in what the Kaiser had described as Britain’s “contemptible little army”.

Across the length and breadth of Great Britain many cities formed “Pals” battalions, formed solely for the duration of the war and attached to the British Army’s established regular regiments.

In Northern Ireland, Sir Edward Carson was building up his UVF private army in response to parliamentary plans for Home Rule.

On the September 7, 1914, Sir Edward called on all members of the UVF to enlist in the newly-formed Ulster Division of the British Army.

Soldiers from this group formed the bulk and core of the regular 10th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, otherwise known as The Derrys.

At Christmas of 1914, and against his father’s wishes, young Robert Montgomery talked Samuel into travelling from Liverpool to their home town of Limavady to join their local regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

They signed up and were sent to Finner Camp in Donegal where they ran into their childhood friend Thomas, who had enlisted a few weeks earlier.

Robert, Sam and Thomas were all detailed to join ‘C’ Company of the battalion (Jamie did not enlist because he was too young).

This company was mainly made up of Limavady and Coleraine men.

For the next four months they underwent a period of training which at the start bordered on the farcical, until later in the spring the Company started to take shape with standard uniforms, weaponry and long periods of drill under their belt.

By the end of the training young Robert had been promoted to Lance Sergeant with Thomas promoted to Lance Corporal, so both of them outranked Sam – the eldest of the trio, who remained a private.

May 8 saw the battalion march out of Finner Camp through the towns and villages of Donegal, reaching Strabane on May 10.

The following day they set off early and marched proudly through Londonderry. Four days later, after some local leave, they marched through Limavady, bidding farewell to their families.

More training followed, and in July they were moved to Seaford near Brighton, where the daily activity became a lot more intense – particularly in the use of weaponry.

Training concentrated on the value of the bayonet, something which was more in keeping with the era of Wellington than the reality of trench warfare.

This was already well known to the Staff Officers who were supposedly directing the war, but very little experience was fed back to the training camps.

On October 5, the regiment embarked at Folkestone en route for Boulogne where they landed the following day at 1 am after a particularly bad crossing.

They went into action on October 27, split into platoons and mixed with more experienced soldiers from the Dorset Regiment.

The Non-Commissioned Officers who were now in charge were at last giving the new boys some realistic training at the hands of sergeants and corporals who had seen considerable service on the front line.

For the next four months the Derrys were in and out of the front line doing regular stints with other more experienced battalions and quickly earned the nickname the “lucky 10th”, because during those first few months in action they suffered no casualties at all.

This was to change, on February 20, 1916, when one of the privates was killed by a shell.

The following month the battalion was moved to Thiepval Wood where they suffered some heavy shelling.

On March 10, the battalion found itself face to face with the famous Prussian Guards. During the following two days of extremely fierce fighting, they were able to hold the line (with their actions being mentioned in dispatches by Sir Douglas Haig).

On May 7, the Ulster Division took take part in a raid on the German lines and the 10th Battalion were part of this.

The raid was a failure mainly because of poor timing. It took place too late in the day and by coincidence the Germans had decided to initiate their own raid on the same day.

On May 8 the battalion was moved into a reserve position. They were to spend the next few months practicing for what was being called “the big push”.

The three young lads – Robert Montgomery, Sam Montgomery and Thomas Baird – now joined the ranks of battle-hardened troops who would take part in the push, and they had been assured there would be little or no opposition on the day.

During the last days of June they were joined by many of the other battalions in the Ulster Division at the village of Lealvillers. The date for the push was set for the morning of July 1.

During the last half of May and early June they formed part of the 109th brigade of the Ulster Division.

On June 14, the ‘Derrys’ marched out of Lealvillers heading for the trenches at Thiepval Wood.

They began to feel the push would be imminent.

This was confirmed on the last evening of June when the men were given a surprise. It was an Ulster Fry – the first they had had since landing in France.

The following day they flew into action in the Battle of the Somme.

Out of 22 officers and 743 other ranks in the 10th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who went over the top, only 10 officers and 336 other ranks would be present at the roll call the following day.

It was July 8 before the casualty lists appeared in the Londonderry papers.

Of the three friends, only Lance Sergeant Robert Montgomery survived.

His brother Samuel Montgomery’s body was never found, and he is commemorated on a plinth of the Thiepval Memorial, Service Number 19125.

Lance Corporal Thomas Baird, Service Number 23628, was also posted missing presumed dead, but his body was discovered by the War Graves Commission in 1934 and re-interred at the Connaught Military Cemetary in Thiepval.

. Bob Baird is a Rotarian, a Paul Harris Fellow, and a Director of the Westville Family Resource Centre in Enniskillen.