On 1st September 1939, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles received orders to mobilise. Over the next 3 days, 208 reservists from Co. Armagh joined the unit at Parkhurst Barracks, Isle of Wight.
During the next 6 months, they became part of 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. There, as part of the British Expeditionary Force, they came under the command of Major General Bernard Montgomery. On 3rd September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany and 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles departed Parkhurst.
They next arrived at a concentration area to partake in divisional exercises at near Maiden-Newton, Dorset. Training and drills took place until 3rd October 1939, when the unit boarded a train at Sherborne, Dorset. From there, they journeyed to Southampton, Hampshire and 717 men boarded a vessel for France. ‘Mona’s Queen’ was an old, cramped Isle of Man steamer. Riflemen overcrowded the decks and there was no provision for a hot meal on the cold, wet, and rough journey to Cherbourg. Seasickness amongst the men was common.
Rifles in France
On arriving in Cherbourg, the Battalion boarded another train and travelled through the night. On disembarking at Sillé-le-Guillaume, the unit then faced a 5 mile march to their billets at Parennes. At Parennes, Major General Bernard Montgomery visited to inspect the troops. Within a few days, the Battalion once again embarked on a cross country train. The destination was Templemars, which they reached on 12th October 1939. Again, the unit would remain here for only a number of days. On 14th October 1939, they departed for Lezennes near Lille. This would be home to 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles until 10th May 1940.
Digging in at Lezennes
On 14th October 1939, 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles arrived at Lezennes on the outskirts of Lille. They would remain in the old medieval village until the German attack of 10th May 1940. Beneath the village lay a maze of ancient underground passages. Stories suggested they may extend all the way into Belgium. For a while, officers considered making use of these old tunnels and reconnaissances took place. Before long, the Rifles decided the danger and risk outweighed any positives. In fact, in the case of enemy action, the tunnels would become a deathtrap. Near the village stood a medieval fort, now a green mound. On the top of this fill stood 2nd Battalion’s regimental flag and the site acquired the name Ulster Fort. The name Ulster, however, could not be used when speaking to war correspondents. This is the extent of wartime security even in 1939.
The job of 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles at Lezennes was to dig. The entire Battalion would dig into the east of the village in anticipation of a German attack. Digging was a formidable and unpleasant job in the cold and wet weather of the winter of 1939. That winter, the Battalion received a visit from General Viscount Gort VC, the Duke of Windsor, and the Duke of Gloucester. They inspected the troops and the digging began again.