Thursday 21 May 2015

The 'Genuine Relics' of the Volunteer Training Corps

Trumpington Volunteer Training Corps, November 1915. Percy Robinson collection.

Behind the roaring cannon, behind the flashing steel
The defenders of the Inner Line steady and constant kneel;
Some bent, or grey, some crippled, some three score years and ten.
Just praying, always praying for the Front Line fighting men.
These cannot lead a sortie, nor breast the ocean's foam,
But their fervent prayers as incense rise, from church and cottage home,
The poor man and the wealthy, all form the Inner Line
Learning how common sorrow forms a brotherhood Divine.
You can hear old voices quaver, you can see the slow tears fall,
Yet the Inner Line keeps steady; England and Honour call!
They pray, and who can measure such prayer's resistless might?
They trust the Lord of Battles; He will defend the right.
J. F. F.       

Volunteer movements raised for the defence of the country from potential invasion have been part of the history of these islands for generations. In Ireland the Volunteer movement goes back as far as 1715... to the Volunteers of the 1780s raised against French invasion... to the most well known of them all – the Home Guard of the Second World War made famous by Captain Mainwaring and the boys of Dad's Army.

But while the Home Guard is widely recognised, it is often forgotten that there was a similar service in the First World War.

Formed soon after the start of the war, usually by former army officers, volunteer units sprang up around the United Kingdom. They gave those who were too old or otherwise to join the regular army an outlet for their desire to serve and also to counter the perceived threat of German invasion. When first formed however, these units, which became known as the Volunteer Training Corps (VTC), were not formerly recognised.

A Central Committee of Volunteer Training Corps was set up and formally recognised in November 1914, but their remit only extended to Great Britain and an Irish Association was formed and recognised. The Central Committee drew up a set of rules for the Units and, as the Volunteers where allowed to wear a uniform but not khaki, agreed a uniform of Lovat green. All members also had to wear a red arm band bearing the letters "GR" for Georgius Rex and service was only open to those who had a genuine reason for not enlisting in the regular army.

In November 1915 the Australian newspaper, Geraldton Guardian, reported on a newspaper cutting received from home by one of their readers:
"The Irish Association of Volunteer Training Corps has been sanctioned by the Government for the purpose of encouraging and assisting those men who are not able to join the Regular Army for various reasons, to train themselves in military duties to assist the military when occasion requires – Corps and rifle clubs have already been started which have become affiliated to the Irish Association of Volunteer Training Corps, and agreed to accept their conditions, and are entitled to wear the uniform of the corps..."
As with the Home Guard in WW2, the VTC was often the butt of jokes such as the reference to the "GR" on their armbands standing for "George's Wrecks", "Grandpa's Regiment", "Genuine Relics" or "Government Rejects".

In 1915 all Volunteer Units which affiliated to the Central Committee were granted officially recognition however, the Committee was advised by the War Office that "any man below the age of forty years who joins a Volunteer Training Corps on or after the 1st June, 1915, will be required to sign an undertaking that he will enlist into the Army if specially called upon to do so." This was, allegedly, in response to a speech by Mr. Harold Tennant, Under-Secretary of State for War, that "in cases where good and sufficient reasons are not shown, a man ought not to be allowed to take the lesser obligation when he ought to fulfil the greater obligation of serving with the colours."

Grumblings soon emerged throughout the Volunteer movement in relation to the governments failure to make full use of the Volunteers' services.

In Ireland the secretary of the Association, Robert Anderson, wrote to Sir Matthew Nathan, G.C.M.G., Under Secretary for Ireland:
"I am directed by the Executive Committee of this Association to transmit herewith for the information of His Majesty's Government in Ireland copies of five resolutions which have been unanimously adopted by the undermentioned affiliated Volunteer Training Corps and forwarded to the Association, accompanied, in each case, by an urgent letter requesting that prompt action in the direction indicated should be taken. The Corps referred to are:–
(1) Belfast Volunteer Defence Corps. (2) City of Cork Volunteer Training Corps. (3) Irish Rugby Football Union Volunteer Corps. (4) Queen's University (Belfast) 'Veterans' Volunteer Corps. (5) Rathmines Volunteer Training Corps.
"While the resolutions of a similar character have not, so far, been received from the other affiliated Corps the Committee are aware that the accompanying resolutions reflect accurately and without exception the views of the entire body of affiliated Corps. As a matter of fact one Corps – The Howth & Sutton Volunteer Training Corps, quite an excellent and efficient unit raised shortly after the outbreak of the War – has actually disbanded in consequence of the failure to obtain any duty for its members. The Committee are apprehensive that other Corps, finding themselves in a similar position and being unable to hold their members together, may also disband."
Letter from Robert Anderson to Sir Matthew Nathan, 15 April 1916 (NAI)
In 1916 the VTC became part of the County Infantry Regiment system as Volunteer Battalions of their local regiment. The introduction of conscription in 1916 gave Military Service Tribunals the power to order men to join the VTC and the Volunteer Act 1916 meant that members had to remain in the Corps until the end of the war. It has been estimated that by February 1918, there were 285,000 Volunteers, 101,000 of whom had been directed to the Corps by the Tribunals.

During 1917, the VTC began to be issued with Enfield Rifles and battalions were tasked with roles such as line of communication defence and forming the garrison of major towns in case of a German invasion. They also undertook other tasks including guarding vulnerable points, handling munitions, assisting with harvesting, fire fighting and transport for wounded soldiers.

City of Cork VTC
Cap Badge
Cap Badge
Although the VTC were employed in a purely defensive auxiliary role they were engaged in actual combat on one occasion – the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916.

Four companies of the 1st (Dublin) Battalion, Associated Volunteer Training Corps composed of the Irish Rugby Union Football Corps, the St. Andrew's Corps, the Dublin Veterans Corps, the Glasnevin Corps, as well as City and Railway Corps and some motor-cyclists, were returning from field exercises when the news of the uprising reached them. The commanding officer, Major Harris, decided to march to Beggars Bush Barracks were they found it besieged. While they carried rifles they had no ammunition they did not even carry bayonets. They were fired on by a party of Irish Volunteers from a railway bridge. Part of the VTC force entered the barracks by the front gate, others made their way to the rear and scaled the wall. About 40 men at the rear of the column were pinned down by fire from surrounding houses and four were killed, including the cricketer, Francis Browning, who had been second-in-command. The VTC then assisted the small garrison of regular soldiers to hold the barracks for eight days. In total, five members of the battalion were killed and seven wounded.
"The V.T.C. in Dublin were the first to have the honour of shedding their blood in their country's cause. Those who were killed and wounded fell, it is true, under Sinn Fein and not under German bullets, but their military achievements ensured the progress of British arms just as much, even if indirectly, as though they had been fighting in France. We have read reports of the loyalty and bravery of the Nationalist Volunteers in Ireland, and we would say no word to detract from the honour properly due to any man who scorned to fight on the side of Germany and risked his life to show his true allegiance. But we want here only to tell the story of what was done by the 'G.R.' Volunteers when they were taken at a complete disadvantage and displayed a steadiness, enthusiasm, resource, and endurance which would have done credit to a corps of old soldiers." (Spectator, 20th May 1916)
I leave the final words to R. A. Anderson who wrote in the Spectator on 26th May 1916:
SIR, – The Executive Committee of the Irish Association of Volunteer Training Corps feel that they owe you a deep debt of gratitude for your generous appreciation of their services during the recent outbreak in Ireland, and they wish me to convey to you their best thanks for having given the public, through your columns, the facts relating to our Volunteer Training Corps movement in Ireland. It may be of interest to your readers to know that the Irish Corps now number seventy-seven officers and two thousand and ninety-seven men. They are located in Dublin and surrounding district, in Belfast, in Cork, and in Dundalk . . . They are governed by the same conditions and the same age restrictions as the English Association of Volunteer Training Corps. They are allowed to wear the uniform prescribed for Great Britain, and they are authorized to carry arms and to parade for drill purposes. They have been permitted to use military barracks as parade grounds and as headquarters, and they have further been lent a considerable number of drill-purpose rifles. The Irish Corps, like kindred bodies in Great Britain, wear the "G.R." brassard, issued by the War Office, and, like theirs, the Association is non-political in the same sense that the Army is non-political. Three hundred and forty-five members of the corps in Dublin were sworn in as special constables for service in the Dublin Metropolitan Police area on May 2nd and following days, and they remained on duty until May 11th. A large number of the outlying corps did similar duty either under the military or constabulary authorities, and rendered most valuable service.
The one thing that the corps affiliated to the Association lack is a military status, and, although this has been repeatedly asked for the Government has not found it possible to grant the request. There is a legal difficulty because the Volunteer Acts do not apply to Ireland, and there are, obviously, political difficulties. If these difficulties could be surmounted the strength of the corps might be quadrupled, and there would be ready for use in any emergency a trained and disciplined body of responsible citizens whose sole desire is to render such service as they can to their country and the State. The question of recognition raises other very serious problems. In the recent rebellion five of our members were killed and seven were wounded. In five cases dependants have been left unprovided for. Failing such recognition, it is generally believed that these corps, which proved their utility in exceptionally trying circumstances, will have to be disbanded, as the Executive Committee cannot see their way to advising men to expose themselves to grave peril and their families to the risk of ruin unless they enjoy the same degree of protection as is extended to military bodies. — I am, Sir, &c.,
R. A. ANDERSON, Hon. Secretary.    
18 South Frederick Street, Dublin.
[If the military authorities do not accord to the families of the men killed and to the men wounded, all as truly on active service as the men now in the trenches, the treatment due to combatants, they and the nation will stand disgraced. The notion of some petty legal punctilio being allowed to prevent these true soldiers of the British people from obtaining their due is simply unendurable, and we, at any rate, do not mean to endure it without protest. We cannot, however, believe that any such official outrage is really contemplated. We believe, instead, that the words of praise given by the General and the presence of the Prime Minister at the inspection of the corps are proofs that the debt of gratitude owed by the nation to the Dublin V.T. Corps will be paid by the recognition of the killed and wounded men as soldiers and combatants. — Ed. Spectator.]

The Volunteer Training Corps was suspended in December 1918, and officially disbanded in January 1920.

Edward Connolly, 21 May 2015

Our Volunteer Corps.

By a Villager.

Our fine old warrior, Major Chrustie, of Tiffin Lodge, raised it, and is its commandant. He is patriotic in heart, soul and cellar, and to hear him denounce the Huns saves fuel in cold weather. He found an able secretary and recruiter in Green, our auctioneer, who, being an expert in pinching and appraising cattle, is just the man for gauging human physique. He soon roped in the early spring and late autumn of Larkfield manhood, a big platoon strong. He even got me, though my game leg won't go far sideways, and I can never hope to form fours properly (on which I understand victory in the field so much depends).

We have had a hard training, including a special sermon from our Vicar, and are already widely known as the Larkfield Dare-Devils.

Now our contemptible neighbour, Sloshley, has a Volunteer Corps too, but it is nothing to ours. We have tunics – they haven't; we march smartly – they flop about anyhow; we have been promoted to aim at the running perambulator drawn by a long rope – they are still in the haystack stage. I intrude this trivial subject of Sloshley only because we went out to fight them last Saturday afternoon. The Major of course led us, and a brave show we made when we "debauched" (I believe that is the correct military term) on to the road to Wild Heath, where the battle was to take place under the eye of a real Colonel of Territorials. His fife and bugle band kindly played us part of the way; after that, those of us who could whistle whistled, and to this stirring accompaniment we completed the four-mile journey to the Heath like so many Alpine Chasseurs, all of us having, by advice, soaped our socks and horaxed our toes for three days beforehand.

At the Heath we were met by the Colonel.

"This your infantry?" he inquired of our Major.

"Yes, Sir."

"Where are your machine guns?"

"On this piece of paper, Sir."

"Very good; post them in what you think is the most strategic position, and your troops too."

So the Major fastened the guns to a strategic gatepost with a safety-pin. Then he spread us out along an adjacent hedge and ditch, and ordered us to lie down and try to look as if we weren't there.

There we lay for what seemed a week, rifles firmly grasped, straining at the leash. No word was uttered, except when the nettles became intolerable, and then only one. All this time Sloshley never came near, the poltroons! At the long last, however, the Colonel galloped back and shook our Major heartily by the hand.

"I congratulate you on your victory," he said.

"What victory Sir?" exclaimed the puzzled Major, "we have never stirred or seen a soul."

"Oh, that's all right," was the reply, "the battle was won by the superior disposition of your machine-guns. Your opponents had placed theirs where they could only fire on themselves!"

So, exulting, we turned our faces and marched back towards Larkfield, home and beauty. Only one man fell out (into a passing cart), having used the wrong soap for his socks.

'Our Volunteer Corps', Punch, 14th July 1915

Poem: 'The Inner Line', Church of Ireland Gazette, 11th September 1914.

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