«There are many Masonic links with the 36th Ulster Division in the form of individual members, Masonic Lodges and other instances where members took ...»
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There are many Masonic links with the 36th Ulster Division in
the form of individual members, Masonic Lodges and other
instances where members took up the call to arms.
This is an account of some Masonic brethren who’s Battalion,
the 16th Battalion; Royal Irish Rifles (Pioneers Ulster Division)
formed their own Lodge, Pioneer Masonic Lodge No 240, whilst
undergoing training prior to embarkation to Somme.
When formed, the Lodge went to war and worked at labour under very unique circumstances.
It is worth remembering brethren that the 36th Division suffered 63,000 casualties on the first day alone.
Page 3 of 13 The 36th Ulster Division was comprised of the following Regiments and Corps Royal Artillery:
- 153, 154, 172, & 173 Brigades, Royal Field Artillery.
- 121, 122, & 150 Field Company’s.
- 8th 9th 10th & 15th Battalions Royal Irish Rifles, East, West, South and North Belfast Volunteers.
108 Infantry Brigade:
- 11th 12th & 13th Battalions, Royal Irish Rifles, South and Central Antrim Volunteers and 1st Co. Down Volunteers, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, Armagh, Monaghan & Cavan Volunteers.
109 Infantry Brigade :- 9th 10th 11th & 14th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 9th Co. Tyrone Volunteers, 10th Derry Volunteers (not Londonderry) 11th Donegal and Fermanagh Volunteers and 14th Battalion Young Citizen Volunteers of Belfast.
Pioneer Battalion, 16th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, 2nd County Down Volunteers.
Divisional troops :- Service Squadron, Royal Inniskilling Dragoons, 36th Division Signal Company, Divisional Cyclists Company, Royal Army Medical Corps, 108, 109 & 110 Field Ambulance, 76 Sanitary, Divisional Train Royal Army Service Corps and 48th Mobile Veterinary Section.
Page 4 of 13 The 16th Battalion the Pioneers unique story starts in the early months of the year 1915, while the 16th Battalion was undergoing training at Brownlow House, Lurgan, Co. Armagh;
several Masonic brethren conceived the idea of forming a Regimental Lodge and decided to apply for a travelling Warrant, having the requisite number of Master Masons among the Officers.
Application was made to the Grand Lodge of Ireland through the Armagh Provincial Grand Lodge. The Warrant was in due course granted. Every possible assistance was offered by the Lurgan brethren, and to show their fraternal interest, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Armagh forwarded a cheque for £60.00 to the Pioneers for the purchase of comforts etc.
It is not known exactly what these comforts were. As regards the travelling Warrant, these were and still are rare Warrants, and the Irish Constitution is the only order of Freemasonry that today still has such Warrants.
There are two such Warrants:-
1. Lodge 295 St Patricks, issued to the 4th/7th Royal Dragoons, a Cavalry Regiment.
2. Lodge 322 Glittering Star, issued to The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment.
Both of these Regiments have served here in Ulster during the recent unrest.
On the 8th June 1915, in Lurgan Masonic Hall, Pioneers Lodge No. 420 was duly constituted and solemnly dedicated by the Right Worshipful Brother Major Richardson, Deputy Grand Master of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Armagh in the presence of a large attendance of Provincial Officers and brethren representing the Lurgan Lodges.
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The first Officers installed were:-
Bro. Major R.Gardiner, Wor.Master Bro. Captain W.J.Allen, Senior Warden Bro. Captain W.Collins, Junior Warden Bro. Captain W.Knox, Senior Deacon Bro. Lieutenant A.Forsythe, Junior Deacon Bro. Lieutenant J.H.Simpson, Inner Guard Bro. Lieutenant, T.C.Brown, Treasurer/Secretary The following candidates were proposed for initiation :Col. John Leader, 16th Royal Irish Rifles Captain H.F.Sheppard, 16th Royal Irish Rifles Captain J.Platt, 16th Royal Irish Rifles Captain W.E.Jewell, 16th Royal Irish Rifles Captain T.Coulson, 16th Royal Irish Rifles It is noteworthy that it was commissioned Officers who were installed as Lodge Officers and the first initiates, probably because they could easily afford the fees.
After the inaugural proceedings, the members of the new Lodge entertained the Provincial Grand Lodge Officers and visitors to supper and a very pleasant evening was spent by all, apparently!
Page 6 of 13 Along with the other Regiments of the Ulster Division, the Pioneers left Lurgan on the 1st July 1915 for Seaford, Sussex, where the brethren of the English Constitution gave facilities for the Pioneers Lodge to carry on its Masonic work, by kindly granting them the use of their hall, regalia, etc.
Today the ritual and regalia between the two constitutions differ but at that time in 1915, the ritual and regalia were the same.
While the Division was at Seaford three communications of the Lodge were held, and the following degrees conferred: st and 2nd degrees on Messrs, Leader, Shepperd, Platt, Jewell and Coulson. During this period the Lodge was deeply indebted to Bro. Captain J.G.Johnson, RAMC, Ulster Division and of Lodge No. 178 Lisburn for conferring the degrees. Bro. Captain Johnson continued to give his assistance in this capacity in France, and the Lodge in token of its appreciation of his services elected him an honorary member. Bros, Brown, Forsythe and H.McKee also rendered valuable service to the Lodge in conferring degrees.
Before leaving Seaford Bro. Maj. Gardiner W.M. on behalf of the Lodge expressed the sincere thanks and gratitude of the members to the brethren of the Seaford Lodge for the hearty support accorded them during their stay in that town. The English brethren attended in full strength at almost all the meeting held.
The Division moved to Borden in early September 1915 and the Aldershot brethren on being approached kindly granted the use of their hall, but owing to the strenuous work which had to be done in connection with performance of military duties, a meeting was out of the question at that time.
On the 30th September the Battalion left Borden for France, landing at Havre, before leaving England, the necessary regalia was procured and the brethren took it with them to the theatre of war Page 7 of 13 From Havre, the Battalion went to Villers, Bocage, but the stay was short, and a further move towards the line was ordered.
Raincheval Somme, in Picardy was the house of the Warrant for a lengthened period, and several opportunities occurred for holding communications. For some time the Battalion was engaged in making a defensive line a few miles beyond the village. Then when the Somme push was contemplated, the Battalion having when in training in Lurgan specialised to some extent in railway work, was selected to make a line from Candas, from the mainline Amiens Doullens to Acheux. The line carried all the supplies for the Somme fight, 19½ miles of line, with 6½ miles of siding were opened for traffic in about 10 weeks. The railway is a lasting tribute to the zeal and ability of the men of the Ulster Division, for, along with the 16thBattalion, many other Battalions of the Division were employed on the work of construction.
Being situated about the centre of their work, Raincheval was made the Battalion Headquarters, and four communications of the Lodge were held. Though a few miles behind the front line, there was always to be heard the fierce booming of big guns, and rarely a day passed without an aeroplane flight overhead.
Degrees were conferred here under unique conditions, for the roar of the guns never ceased, but the brethren were not perturbed by strangeness or the danger of their surroundings, and the meetings were conducted with a dignity and decorum worthy of the best traditions of the Masonic Order.
Headquarters were located in a dilapidated chateau, and two rooms were earmarked for a Lodge room and anteroom respectively. Difficulties were experienced regarding Lodge furniture, but with the aid of a very handy workman, warden’s pedestals, alter steps, etc, were soon made.
Brothers, Leader, Shepperd, Platt and Jewell received their third degree here, each as already stated had been proposed in Ireland, their 1st and 2nd degrees conferred in England, and by Page 8 of 13 way of rounding off a very interesting record, they were all raised to the degree of Master Mason in France.
Later on Headquarters moved to a large Chateau, Bro.Major Gardiner was allotted a bedroom and it was decided that this should be the new Lodgeroom, with a small adjoining boudoir as an anteroom. A very fine Lodge room the apartment made, and with the Lodge furniture improved, painted and laid out for the meeting, the necessary labour was conducted in something approaching orthodox Masonic surroundings. The furniture was made to screw down into a special box whilst another box was made to hold the regalia and working tools etc.
Bros. J.Maxwell, O.H.McCready, C.H.Slater and G.Barton here received their 1st and 2nd degrees under memorable circumstances.
On the 11th May, the work on the railway was finished and the Battalion proceeded to Aveluy Wood. From there the troops went to work in the front line in Thiepval Wood, in preparation for the great push on the 1st July. The Battalion was in bivouac in Aveluy Wood and there were no facilities for holding Lodge communications just then. Along with a quantity of Battalion stores the Masonic boxes were placed in a dump in Aveluy Wood, and one evening during the bombardment which preceded the advance on July 1st, the Germans subjected this portion of the wood to a very severe artillery bombardment.
For 2½ hours shells were exploding all around and unfortunately one of them struck the box containing the Masonic furniture and smashed it into atoms. The more important of the two boxes escaped damage.
On the 8th July, what was left of the Division moved from Somme into Belgium, and eventually reached Ploegeteert, to work on the front line defences. At this point the Ulstermen were less than 3,000 yards from the German front line, quite within easy reach of the enemy’s guns.
Page 9 of 13 Arrangements had been made for the holding of a stated communication in a large marquee, with sentries consisting of Masonic brethren posted around it, but this idea was subsequently abandoned. In the course of a search round, a large two storied brick farmhouse was discovered. The building had received a heavy shelling some time before, and part of the structure had been wrecked. While not a single pane of glass remained intact it was quite a lively place at all times.
Two suitable rooms upstairs were soon cleared out and cleaned up, however the windows were screened with canvas and new Lodge furniture was hurriedly made to replace that destroyed in Aveluy Wood. The rooms thus transformed and equipped served their purpose admirably. In them two impressive and unforgettable communications were held. Commencing at 3pm and continuing with a short interval until about 10pm. The brethren were called from labour to refreshment about 6pm, and labour was resumed at 7pm. The brethren who received their degrees here will not readily forget the extraordinary circumstances under which they were conferred. During the ceremony the Germans kept up a merciless cannonade, and the British gunners retaliated with interest. The enemy’s anti aircraft guns were also pounding away at our aeroplanes, some of which were operating directly over the Lodge room. The din was so deafening that at times the words of the ritual were rendered inaudible to the Brethren.
Those receiving degrees on this historic occasion were Bros. Lieuts. J.Maxwell, O.H.McCready and C.H.Slater, 3 rd degree.
Bro. Col. F.O.Bowen and Lieut.H.L.Dickson, 2nd Degree Bros. 2nd Lieut, H.M.Baille, RSM J.W.Gordon and Sgt W.McCall, 1st degree.
The brethren attended these communications fully armed and each having a gas helmet. It was deemed necessary to have helmets in readiness as there was a grave risk of our being exposed to the peril of a gas attack at any moment.
Many visiting brethren obtained leave to come down from the Page 10 of 13 front line to attend these lodge communications, some came for the first part of the proceedings and then returned to the trenches to relieve other Brethren who wished to join in the labour. In the early days of September 1916, the Battalion moved north to Dranoutre, just opposite Messines.
Three meetings were held at this place, and the following brethren had the 3rd degree conferred:
- Bros. Bowen, Dickson, Gordon and McCall. Whilst the ceremony was taking place the adjoining village was heavily shelled.
A further move North was made into the Ypres Salient during January 1917, and a summons subsequently came to hand for a meeting on March 3rd at Downshire Camp Ypres Salient to install the Officers for 1917, and to ballot for two candidates.
This meeting was held in a large marquee suitably guarded.
Three side drums, with a bass drum on top, covered with a blanket, were utilised in the construction of a temporary alter, and packing cases served as seats. The Officers installed on this occasion were: Bro. J.H.Simpson S.W Bro. H.F Sheppard J.W.
Bro. J.Maxwell Sec & Treas Bro. O.H.McCready S.D Bro. J.Maxwell I.G.
The illness of the S.W.Bro. S.W.Knox prevented his attendance for installation as W.M. It was intimated that the sanction of grand Lodge had been obtained for Bro.Maxwell to hold the office of Secretary though not a Past Master.
A communication was read regarding a donation of £60.00 from the P.G.L.of Armagh (given from the Lodges of that Province) to be devoted towards providing comforts etc, in such a manner as might seem best to those brethren of Pioneers Lodge who were on active service with the Ulster Division in France, and a cordial vote of thanks was passed to Armagh P.G.L. and the Lodges associated therewith for their great generosity.
Page 11 of 13 The question of how the gift should be utilised, so as most fittingly to comply with the wishes of the donors, was left over for consideration to a subsequent meeting. Bro.Glass was accorded a hearty vote of thanks for his kindness in getting the place of meeting ready, especially as the materials as the material at his disposal were so limited.