Dissected by the M22 motorway at Randalstown, an army camp capable of housing more than 5,000 British and Irish soldiers in preparation for the trenches of France once sat, with little trace remaining today.
With 65 million untrained men called up to fight in WW1, a problem arose in how to take swathes of civilian men and turn them into an effective army; and where? The problem was tackled locally, with newly created Brigades and Divisions recruiting from their own towns and Counties, it made sense to address the issue of training at this level, but hundreds of vast new camps would be required. The largest of these camps, such as at Cannock Chase, could accommodate up to 40,000 men in as many as 2,000 temporary billets and tents. Smaller more permanent alternatives were sought in large industrial buildings, but the example at Randalstown was a greenfield site offering open land for building of barrack blocks and siting of tents, a local fresh water supply, access to rail and road links, as well as a large estate for training. Eighty acres of land of the Dunmore Estate was given over by Lord O’Neill so that construction could commence in October 1914, and two months later the camp had been completed (source).
Images from this era are difficult to find, and those of army camps are even scarcer. The photographer William Green (aka: W.A. Green, W.A.G.) printed a series of five postcards showing general views of the camp as part of the WAGTAIL series. A stationer in the nearby Randalstown also later published a series of ten postcards from this series. I believe that most of the images below are from this collection.
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Located almost centrally in what is now Northern Ireland, Randalstown is a small rural town with light industry and good transport links; both road and rail. The site comprising around 50 acres was gifted by Lord O’Neill to the War Department, and was the fifth such camp to be constructed in Ulster (Antrim, Ballykinlar, Finner and Clandeboye being the other four). The land was relatively flat, having being sports pitches pre-war, it was a relatively secluded location and was served by the River Main to the east for fresh water, and by the railway to the west.
From plans available in the National Archive, the camp was primarily an Infantry Camp split into four named camps; Mount Camp No. 1, Dunmore Camp No. 2, Ridge Camp No. 3 and Hollow Camp No. 4. Combined, the camp is known as Randalstown Camp, or Shanes Park Camp. The total capacity of the four camps at Randalstown was Officers 128, Other Ranks 4,524, horses 220. To put this into perspective, the current (2001 census) population of Randalstown is just over 5,000.
Splitting a barracks of this size into smaller, more manageable camps eased the burden on ablution and messing facilities. Each ‘camp’ at Randalstown followed the same layout – wooden barrack blocks surrounding a central ablution (toilets and showers) block, with a cookhouse being located on the edge of the camp. Senior NCO (Non-Commissioned) and Commissioned Officer blocks tended to be single rooms, and they were also on the edge of the camp incorporating their own messing and ablution facilities. The barrack blocks at Randalstown were equipped with electric lighting.
According to the Randalstown Sons of Ulster Flute Band website “the camp was mostly made up of wooden huts for shelter and it was estimated 4,000 men aided in erecting them under the supervision of foreman carpenter Mr Robert Smith (formerly of Messrs Gault Bros, Ballymena), with the whole project over seen by two officials from the war office.” Unless soldiers were used for the construction, it is highly unlikely that this volume of men would have been available to assist in the camp construction. It is rumoured that by the time the first troops arrived, (4,000 of them!) having marched seven days from Finner Camp in Donegal, the camp was only prepared to accommodate for 950 troops. Perhaps the surplus troops assisted in finishing off the construction of the camp!
Comparisons can be made with the articles on this site covering the accommodation blocks of Dunree Fort in Donegal and with the Baxter Block which previously sat in Ballykinlar Camp and is now available to visit at the Somme Musuem, Conlig.
Life within the barracks
Unofficial photography was illegal for troops during WW1, and cameras were uncommon for the ordinary working man, so images from inside the camps are difficult to trace. However, one Belfast man who was called for duty was George Hackney. He had the fortune of being able to covertly document his time during the war. The images are now held by the Ulster Museum, and have been published online. One of the images taken by Hackney in 1915 was inside one of the barrack blocks at Randalstown, and this image gives a unique insight into what life would have been like not only in Randalstown but in these temporary camps across the UK and Ireland.
Inside the blocks is a scene which many soldiers who served anywhere from the Victoria era right through until recent years would be familiar with. The rudimentary barrack block was lined with beds, each soldier having a shared shelf for their few permitted personal belongings, possibly an under-bed box for uniform items, a tin plate, cutlery, mug for messing, and little else. A table sat in the centre of the room with benches along side. Communal relaxing space for soldiers tended to be in the block until the arrival of welfare organisations such as Sandes who provided a space for troops to relax. Officers and NCOs had different provision and were better catered for.
After stumbling online upon an interesting article in the spring edition of “The Revealer” written by Jim Rankin, a further three photographs came to light from the camp. Referred to as both Shanes Park Camp and Randalstown Camp some further details also emerged. In particular details were given about the construction of the camp; “The huts had a wooden frame construction covered by corrugated iron sheeting, suspended wooden floors, and electric lighting generated by the Old Bleach Linen Co. in Randalstown. A temporary platform was constructed on the railway line adjacent to the camp.” This confirmed that the construction of the camps was identical to that at other camps such as Ballykinlar and across Great Britain at the time; they were cheap, quick and easy to construct. The proximity of the site to a railway line with access to the port at Belfast must have contributed to the suitability. After the first troops had marched from Donegal, the prospect of onward railway transport must have been a great relief. Below are the photographs from this article:
The main purpose of these camps was to train and prepare soldiers for fighting in the trenches of the front line. To do this, they would need to be equipped to train in two main areas; trench warfare, and shooting. Having the benefit of a large real estate, Randalstown was equipped for both. A mini-range in camp would have enabled troops to develop their basic rifle craft before moving on to a set of three ranges, providing a total of 56 lanes, located to the south of the main camp enabled soldiers to train in fullbore marksmanship.
Also required, where practice trenches. While these have not been recorded on the contemporary plans, there is evidence in the form of earthworks still visible from the air today. Two sets of small practice trenches are visible; one which appears to have a series of shell holes to the front, and the second offering a different design of trench.
Military Convalescent Hospital
I am yet to come across a history of the camp at Randalstown, but a presumption would be that it was used to barrack soldiers undergoing training from late 1914. It is fair to assume that when the Brigade deployed to France via England, the temporary camps sat empty. The use of the camp changed early in 1916 when a series of Command Depots were established for the training of convalescing soldiers who would be typically too well for a typical convalescent camp, but wouldn’t have been fit enough to return to their units. These Command Depots were designed to ease the burden on beds in UK hospitals. Randalstown was one of these depots, and was repurposed from an existing camp capable of catering for 40 Officers and up to 3,800 soldiers; broken down as such – Irish Command 1300; ASC 1500; RAMC 1000 (source). The reduction in bed numbers suggest that either the overall barracks was downsized, perhaps with one of the four camps being decommissioned, or one may have continued to be used for infantry training while three were used for convalescence.
- 18 December 1914 troops from 3 Brigade Ulster Division arrive from Finner Camp in County Donegal (a march of 90 miles!)
- Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers moved to Randalstown in January 1915 and departed in July
- Royal Irish Rifles 14th (Service) Battalion (Young Citizens) arrived in January 1915
- Command Depot / Military Convalescent Hospital, first casualties arrived February 1916
- 18 June 1919 all troops demobilised
- In use as a convalescent hospital until December 1919