Tom’s copy of the Ulster Covenant lies in the top drawer of the desk – though brittle and very fragile, the print of the “Solemn League and Covenant” stands out boldly. He travelled to Enniskillen to sign it on Ulster Day, 28th September 1912. In 1914, Tom’s army battalion, the South Belfast Volunteers, was one of those formed from those who had been members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force prior to the outbreak of the war. Edward Carson had urged them to enlist, and they did so in their thousands.
Four years of war showed another side of Tom. At Christmas and New Year he would send to his wife Nora embroidered greetings cards of the type that seemed common along the Western Front. The delicate cards had flimsy paper inners upon which greetings were printed and sometimes a word or two from the sender.
“Xmas 1917”, Tom wrote inside a card; the embroidery of which acknowledges that the war had lasted far longer than anyone had anticipated
A card bearing the date 1917 was to follow, the digits embroidered in the national flags of the allied powers.
“Une autre souvenir from Tommy”, he wrote in his best Franglais, adding underneath, “BEF 31/12/17”. Was the term “British Expeditionary Force” still being used at the end of 1917? Perhaps it doesn’t matter; Tom still regarded himself as a member of the Expeditionary Force that had believed in 1914 that the war would be over by Christmas.
Tom seems to have sent no less than four cards over Christmas 1917 and New Year 1918. “For the past , remembrance; For the present, good wishes; For the future, bright hopes”, reads the printed greeting inside a card dated 1/1/18.
There must have been considerable confidence in the postal service, for the final card is constructed simply as a postcard; embroidery on one side and the usual division on the other side, correspondence to the left and the stamp and address to the right.
The final card is embroidered simply “Souvenir from France”.
It seems an almost surreal to think of sending “souvenirs” from a time that had brought the soldiers little other than carnage and unprecedented suffering.
At the end of the war, David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, promised that the returning soldiers would come home to a very different country; “homes fit for heroes” was one slogan.
The promises were hollow, the world hadn’t changed for the better. In Ireland, things continued where they had left off.
Tom and Nora’s post-war Christmas card left none of their friends in any doubt about their political allegiance. How many Ulster mantlepieces had political greetings that year?
The inside of the card had not the slightest trace of anything Christian. Perhaps Nativity scenes were considered not to be Protestant, but there is not even a verse of Scripture to give one the sense that something religious was being celebrated.
Tom seems to have gone through the experience of the Great War and emerged unchanged at the other end; tenderness in personal greetings would not be matched by tenderness in public attitudes – it would be eighty years before we moved on.
What would Tom make of the Northern Ireland government today?
I love those WW1 cards. Jack’s Aunt had about 20 of them. The personal messages were short and simple. I would have loved them but she had two daughters and I only hope they came down the line to the grand-daughter with an eye for a needle and an interest in history.
One wonders if an insight into the future events would have made any difference to their attitudes. Probably not. I find the post war Christmas card far more depressing than the ones sent during the war. There seems no hope or compromise in the sentiments there.
I found it depressing that someone should go through such experiences and revert to type at the end of it all. Maybe we would all do if we were faced with the grimness of the post-war situation, the Big Flu and all.