Oliver Nugent, the son of Major General St George Nugent and Emily, daughter of the Right Honourable Edward Litton, a senior Irish judge and Westminster MP, was born in 1860. He was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, joining the Royal Munster Fusiliers in July 1882, transferring in April 1883 to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He served on the North West Frontier of India in the Hazara, Chitral and Miranzai expeditions, was twice ‘mentioned in dispatches’ and awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).
Nugent later served in the Second Boer War where he was wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Talana Hill. Doctors were unable to remove a bullet lodged close to his spine which caused him pain for the rest of his life. After subsequent postings in Ireland and England, he was promoted to the rank of Colonel and served as ADC to King Edward VI and King George V.
Germans had been bombarded incessantly by British artillery who were also familiar with laying down the ‘creeping barrage’ by firing over heads of their infantry and re-calibrating as the advance moved ahead. Nugent’s kinsman Gardiner Humphreys, was in command of one thousand guns allocated to IX Corps, that included
the 36th (Ulster) Division and 16th Irish Division. Detonation by Germany of the
Spanbroekmolen mine is said to have caused tea-cups to rattle in London and was largest man-made explosion until atomic bombs arrived.
This key First World War battle was commemorated in 2017, exactly a hundred years after its start, when the Duke of Cambridge and the Irish Taoiseach with politicians from both sides of the Irish border met at the ‘Island of Ireland Peace Park’ in Flanders. It is reckoned that a total of 32,000 men of the Ulster Division were killed,, wounded or went missing during the war.
Gardiner Humphreys, the son of a prosperous London solicitor with Anglo-Welsh roots, had married Emily, daughter of the 10th Earl of Westmeath, the senior figure in the Nugent family. As a young Captain in the Royal Horse Artillery in the Second Boer War, Humphreys was involved in a short but epic encounter with the Boers outside Bloemfontein which led to the extremely rare gallantry award of a collective Victoria Cross. Humphreys was also awarded the DSO. Humphreys was promoted to Brigadier-General in command of one of three corps recruited from different parts of Ireland responsible for the attack at Messines, under the overall command of General Sir Herbert Plumer.
Given the volatile state of Irish politics in 1917, Oliver Nugent’s command was rich with political overtones, The 36th (Ulster) Division had recruited from the nascent Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). This politicisation of Irish civic-military relations was resented by Oliver Nugent, leading to vituperative exchanges between him and factions of the UVF as well as with politicians in Belfast City Hall. It is not clear whether it was Oliver Nugent or General Plumer who suggested that the two Irish divisions should line up beside one another, but there was a clear attempt to make a statement against the partisan politics over the question of Home Rule for Ireland, while there is no record of discord between the two divisions.
One who took against Oliver Nugent was Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces on the Western Front, with the result that Oliver Nugent did not receive the expected knighthood by the end of the war for his efforts. This was rectified in 1922 by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, then Chief of Imperial General Staff and another Ulsterman, who had appreciated Oliver Nugent’s wartime efforts. Later that year Wilson was assassinated by IRA gunmen on his own doorstep.
After the First World War, Oliver Nugent farmed at Farren Connell with his wife Kitty while also working tirelessly for the welfare of ex-soldiers and being much involved in the building of the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval, France. On his death and burial at Mount Nugent, a service was held in Belfast’s St Anne’s Cathedral which hundreds of 36th (Ulster) veterans attended. It was shunned by senior politicians. However, Oliver Nugent had the ‘final say’ over those curmudgeonly politicians. Today his portrait hangs in Belfast City Hall while his medals are on display. Among them, a silver medal was given by Pope Benedict 15th during the First World War as thanks to Oliver Nugent for punishing soldiers who had ransacked several churches in France.
Jasper Humphreys, descendant of Gardiner Humphreys
(Other sources include: History Ireland: the map quote is taken from Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22 ; www.buildingsofireland.ie ; the portrait of Sir Oliver Nugent and picture of the Ulster Division in action at the Battle of the Somme are in the possession of Belfast City Hall.)