Wednesday, February 25, 2015

World War 1 and Irish Independence

by Arthur Russell

The First World War began in early August 1914. By the time it ended in November 1918, the map of Europe was dramatically changed. Over four years of bitter war and the subsequent settlement at the post war Conference at Versailles, four Empires, three of which had existed for centuries, had been dismembered to form many nation states based on ethnic nationalities and groupings. Three dynasties, the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns and the Romanovs along with the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire were no more. Thus it was for the big losers in the conflict.

For the victorious Allied powers there were some serious domestic problems, unfinished business of both an economic and political nature they had to apply themselves to after the guns fell silent and the soldiers returned home. For them too, the world of 1919 was very different to the world they could remember before the fighting began in August 1914. For all concerned, there would be no going back to the certainties of pre-conflict days.

The “Irish Question”

For the British Empire, the “Irish question” that had rumbled interminably for centuries, re-emerged as an urgent cause for concern in 1919. It now had a new dimension arising from a separatist rebellion in Dublin, which had occurred two and a half years earlier, in April 1916, which though easily defeated at the time, had transformed Irish opinion so dramatically that independence was now the preferred choice of the majority of the Irish electorate. This was clearly expressed in the General Election of 1918 which saw an overwhelming victory for the separatist Sinn Féin (Ourselves Alone) Party all over the island, who immediately proceeded to form a new parliament (The Dáil) in Dublin, refusing to take their seats in the London Parliament.

Before the assassination of ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 dramatically took the attention of the world away from all other issues, the British House of Commons had been on the point of applying Home Rule to Ireland, a measure that would have devolved a significant measure of self-rule to a Dublin based parliament. At that time that was the full extent of Irish aspirations. The Home Rule Act had been passed after more than three decades of Parliamentary debate and struggle, including several narrow defeats; which had strained relationships between rival communities in Ireland as well as between the two islands that formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

 On the eve of its implementation, after having been approved by the House of Commons and signed into law by the King in September 1914; the measure was shelved for the duration of the war that had been declared just a few weeks before. There was a belief that the fighting would run its course by the end of that year; that everybody would be “home for Christmas” and the Act brought into force after a short (successful) military campaign. How presumptuous those hopes were !!

In reality, the deferral gave huge immediate relief to the Imperial Government, as due to the strong opposition of the Unionist population concentrated in Ulster, there was a real possibility that the Irish situation would descend into all out civil war once implementation of the Home Rule Act began. As the Summer of 1914 changed into Autumn, all sides engaged in the debate and controversies surrounding Home Rule were focused on the more immediate and urgent challenge of fighting Germany and her allies. The vexed Irish question, under the circumstances that now prevailed in Europe; had suddenly become a mere side show and a relatively less important and localised debate. 

Each player now had its own perspective of what its role should be in the European conflict that was about to unfold in the months ahead, and their expectations when the war was over.


For Unionists concentrated in the north eastern corner of Ireland, who were dead set against Irish Home Rule and who had mobilized and armed, (with arms imported from Germany!); a formidable force of volunteers to resist its application to Ulster; the call to fight against the Central European powers was a Heaven-sent opportunity for them to prove their loyalty to the British Empire and the Union flag; loyalty that had been put into serious question by their own very recently declared total opposition to any measure that would see them entering an all Ireland assembly that was likely to be dominated by Nationalist minded Catholics.

They had since 1912 and before made it clear they were fully prepared to fight the Imperial parliament and its army, to show their loyalty to the King who had just signed an Act they were determined to resist. The 90,000 Ulster Volunteers who answered the call to fight in Europe were mobilized into the 36th or Ulster Battalion.
They were going to war in Europe to fight for King, Flag and Empire.

A typical recruitment poster 
For the Parliamentary Irish Party, who had campaigned in the Imperial Parliament so long and hard for a limited form of national self determination, whilst staying under the umbrella of the Empire; the call to arms was a test of how strongly they believed in that Imperial attachment. Like the Unionists, Irish Nationalists had during 1913, also formed a Volunteer force, which had attracted 200,000 members to join its ranks. (These too had managed to import German guns during the Summer of 1914).

The leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond (Prime Minister in waiting of the hoped for Irish Parliament), was successful in persuading over 90% of the Volunteers to enlist and join the newly formed 10th and 16th Irish Battalions to ready themselves to take part in the European war. Further, on 3rd August 1914, he declared in the House of Commons that the government could withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland and rely that the coast of Ireland would be defended, for the duration of the war, from foreign invasion by her armed sons. Redmond’s 'Home Defence' initiative was widely acclaimed on all sides.

The Irish Volunteers were on their way not only to to fight the enemy in Europe, but to support, defend and confirm their claim to long promised Home Rule for Ireland.

Oglaigh na hÉireann (Soldiers of Ireland)

A small rump of the Irish Volunteers (10-14,000 men) refused to respond to the call to fight in Europe and broke away to form Oglaigh na hÉireann (Soldiers of Ireland). As far as this group were concerned, their “fight for small nations” (e.g Belgium which had been invaded by Germany in the early days of the war); would be on behalf of their own small nation.

In the words of a ballad written in the aftermath of the World War and the subsequent Irish War of Independence,
“Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud El Bar”

Nor was there any shortage of enlistments from men who had nothing to do with either Volunteer group. Even in Ulster with its highly sectarian bias, as many Catholics joined their Protestant neighbours in the Ulster Battalion to fight what they considered the common enemy.

Elsewhere in the country, men responded to the recruitment campaign that visited every town and village. Every recruit had his own reason to join the coming fight.

Other Groups 

Besides the two Volunteer groups drawn from both sides of the Catholic/Protestant (= Nationalist/Unionist) divide, there were 2 other armed military groupings on the island.

- The British regular army garrisons stationed all over the island who had so far largely stayed out of local conflicts. Earlier in 1914, these had indicated refusal to march on Ulster to confiscate the recently imported rifles in the possession of the Ulster Volunteers. Some officers had even indicated outright support for the Unionists should the Government attempt to implement the Home Rule Bill in what was known as the Curragh Mutiny. There were tense days while this unprecedented act of mutiny played out. The Government did nothing about the affair and allowed fast flowing events elsewhere to distract and simply forget. In line with Redmond’s Home Defence declaration of Aug 3rd, the mutiny minded officers and soldiers now had a very different enemy to fight.

- The Irish Citizen Army 

ICA outside Liberty Hall in Dublin in 1915
This militia had been formed arising from the Great Strike of 1913 in Dublin. While the strike was largely unsuccessful in achieving its immediate objectives, it succeeded in focusing unwelcome (from employers’ point of view) attention on the living conditions and rights of a vast underbelly of mostly urban workers. During the bitter days of the strike, the ICA was formed to provide protection to Trade Union members. It was planned that ICA would be a useful force whenever the Union’s struggle would be resumed in the fullness of time.

The numbers in the ICA were small, no more than 300 men. After the split in the Irish Volunteers in August 1914, they joined the Volunteer group refusing to join the British army, seeing their struggle for social and labour reform as something that could be better served by linking with nationalist aspirations. Their motto was “We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland”.

The net result of all the enlistments that took place during the early months of the war was that most communities across the island had husbands, fathers, brothers and sons serving on the warfront. Alongside them was a supporting group of nurses and religious chaplains.

As the long months of fighting progressed, there was a steady stream of dead to be mourned and injured to be supported by these communities. In 1914 alone, there were 3,224 dead. This rose to 9,878 in 1915. During 1916 the number of dead in the war peaked at 13,523. In 1917 the number killed was 11,823. In 1918 the number was 10,654. In the years immediately after hostilities ended, a further 208 died from wounds sustained.

1916 - A pivotal year: 
1916 was the year of the Battle of the Somme, where it was reported that over 2,000 soldiers of the Ulster Battalion were killed on the first day, July 1st, along with hundreds more Irish casualties in different theatres of the war front.

A Terrible Beauty is Born 

The destruction in the centre of Dublin in Easter 1916
matched anything that could be seen in the European war.
1916 was also the year of the Easter Rising in Dublin when the Irish Volunteers (Oglaigh na hÉireann) and ICA took over the centre of Dublin and declared a Republic. The rising was crushed after a week of fighting which destroyed much of the city. During the following weeks, fourteen of the leaders were executed and many Sinn Féin activists from all over the country were rounded up and incarcerated in a prison camp in Frongogh in North Wales.

In the perspective of subsequent history, and because of the twin events of Easter in Dublin, and the carnage at the Somme, 1916 came to represent to many on the Nationalist and Unionists sides, as their year of “Blood Sacrifice” for their respective causes.

From being a fringe minority movement before the rebellion, Irish nationalism derived new life from the bloodletting during and after the ill-fated rebellion. The villains, as they were perceived even by their own countrymen, in the immediate aftermath of their defeat and surrender, quickly became martyrs, arising from the impact on Irish public opinion caused by the summary military justice imposed by wartime British authorities.

Too late, Prime Minister Lloyd George came to understand how Irish sentiment had been so suddenly changed and energised. The rebel prisoners who had left Dublin in May 1916, with imprecations and insults in their ears; were released and returned from Frongogh to their homes as heroes, a mere nine months later. 

The apolitical poet and writer William Butler Yeats caught the mood of those watershed days in his poem Easter 1916.
 I write it out in a verse - 
MacDonagh and MacBride 
And Connolly and Pearse 
Now and in time to be, 
Wherever green is worn, 
Are changed, changed utterly: 
A terrible beauty is born. 

This dramatic change in sentiment was reflected among many soldiers serving with the Southern Irish Battalions in the trenches. The poet soldier Francis Ledwidge, on hearing of the execution of his friend and rebel leader Thomas MacDonagh, while he was home on leave from the front in May 1916 wrote:

"I joined (in 1914) the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions. If someone were to tell me now (1916) that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!"

While Ledwidge was subjected to disciplinary measures for his seeming mutinous outburst, he continued to provide further service, making the ultimate sacrifice when he was killed before the third battle of Ypres in 1917.

His reaction was symptomatic of what was to happen in most of Ireland during subsequent years of the war. There was a significant falling off in enlistment to fill the gaps at the warfront, which was coupled with a determined and successful resistance to the application of military conscription to Ireland in 1917’18.

 One of the saddest outcomes of this change of sentiment in Nationalist Ireland was the way it impacted on Irish fighting men at the front. The brave Irish soldiers who had left their homes to fight Ireland’s cause in Europe found that the cause they thought they were fighting for (Home Rule) was no longer relevant. The political dynamic was now running towards independence. Their horrific casualties at Ypres, at Verdun, at Gallipoli and many other battles of the terrible war, were somehow devalued by the fact that they were wearing the uniform of the British army. Thousands of soldiers coming home to Ireland after the fighting in Europe was done, found they had to adapt to a much changed political climate.

Twas Britannia bade our Wild Geese go that small nations might be free 
 But their lonely graves are by Sulva's waves or the shore of the Great North Sea 
Oh, had they died by Pearse's side or fought with Cathal Brugha 
 Their names we will keep where the Fenians sleep 'neath the shroud of the foggy dew

A terrible beauty had been born.

Honouring the War Dead 

HM Queen Elizabeth with President Mary McAleese
in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin
A century after these events, there is thankfully now a lot more understanding being applied to how the events of the war, the rebellion and the subsequent War of Independence is viewed by all sides. The next few years sees significant centenaries and celebrations which will hopefully reflect that understanding and yes, acknowledgement and appreciation for the sacrifices made by brave people on all sides during those bitter years a century ago.

There already have been joint British-Irish ceremonies to honour all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the War. More are planned. The recent visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland, the first by a British monarch to Britain's closest neighbour in a century; where she visited the Garden of Remembrance to honour those who died for Irish independence over the centuries, was a significant and ground breaking event.

The Royal visit was reciprocated by a first state visit of Ireland’s President to London during 2014. These heads of state visits give the lead to all in these islands who want to pay due respect to all, from whatever side, who took part in the traumatic events of 1914-22, that changed so many nations, not least their own.

A Voice from beyond the grave

Words written by Tom Kettle, Irish Party MP for Tyrone, who joined the army and died in the seemingly endless Battle of the Somme in September 1916; may well be at last coming to fruition for Ireland and Britain.

“Used with the wisdom which is sown in tears and blood, this tragedy of Europe may be and must be the prologue to the two reconciliations of which all statesmen have dreamed, the reconciliation of Protestant Ulster with Ireland, and the reconciliation of Ireland with Great Britain.

In a personal poem written to his young daughter days before his own death, Kettle wrote about his Irish soldier comrades who had been killed at the front.

"They died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor 
But for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed 
And for the secret Scripture of the poor". 

All parties bowed in sorrow over his grave, for in the last analysis they were all Irish, and they knew that in losing him, whether he was friend or enemy, they had lost a true son of Ireland. 

"A son of Ireland? He was more. He was Ireland! He had fought for all the aspirations of his race, for Independence, for Home Rule, for the Celtic Renaissance, for a United Ireland, for the eternal Cause of Humanity” . . .. 
He died, a hero in the uniform of a British soldier, because he knew that the faults of a period or of a man should not prevail against the cause of right or liberty” (extracts from tributes to Tom Kettle written in the French journal L’Opinion at the time of his death).

Reconciliation has since to a great extent happened in Europe, a Continent that has shed so much tears and blood during the last tumultuous century. Kettle’s brave generous and perceptive words have resonance for ongoing old and new conflicts where tears and blood continue to be shed all over the world. 


Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. ‘Morgallion’ was awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form. More information available on the website.

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