Sunday, 6 July 2014
Recalling World War I and
the greatest deployment of
armed forces in Irish history
Later this month, commemorations begin to mark the centenary of World War I, which started on 28 July 1914. Over four years, more than nine million combatants were killed in the ‘Great War,’ making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
The commemorations are never likely to descend into a glorification of war. Instead, they are likely to focus on the horrors of war, its impact on the lives of many millions of people, and a legacy that includes major changes that reshaped the political map of Europe.
The war is often been seen as a conflict between the jealous crowned heads of Europe and it brought about the downfall of many royal houses. But its impact on the lives of ordinary people must never be forgotten: more than 70 million people were mobilised in a period that lasted long after the war ended.
The immediate trigger for the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the throne of Austria, who was murdered in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb nationalist. The murder set off a diplomatic crisis when Austria delivered the “July Ultimatum” to Serbia. On 28 July 1914, Austria invaded Serbia, and Germany declared war on Tsarist Russia on 1 August, invaded France on 2 August, and neutral Belgium on 3 August. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany. In November, the Ottoman Empire joined the war; Italy and Bulgaria went to war in 1915, Romania in 1916, and the US in 1917. The last country to enter the war was Romania – albeit for the second time – on 10 November 1918, one day before the war ended.
War and the Home Rule crisis
Ireland was involved throughout the war as part of the United Kingdom. The war began as Ireland was embroiled in a major political crisis over Home Rule, but the crisis was temporarily defused when nationalist and unionist leaders alike initially supported Britain’s war efforts.
The Unionist leader, Edward Carson, offered his immediate support. On 3 August 1914, the Wexford-born leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond (1856-1918), then MP for Waterford City, declared in the Commons that the government could withdraw every soldier from Ireland and yet be assured that the coast of Ireland would be defended by Ireland’s armed sons.
The first British engagement in Europe involved the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards when they met a German patrol near Mons on 22 August 1914, and Corporal Edward Thomas had the distinction of firing the first British shot in Europe in the War.
The first major battle was the Battle of Mons. On 27 August, the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers formed the rearguard to cover the retreat of British forces and made an epic stand. The Irish Guards also suffered heavily at Mons, and the experience of the Munsters and the Irish Guards was typical of the first campaigns in France and Belgium.
Home Rule passed into law on 17 September, and in a speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, on 20 September, John Redmond called on the Irish Volunteers to enlist in Irish regiments. He believed Imperial Germany threatened the freedom of Europe and that it was Ireland’s duty, having achieved future self-government, “to the best of her ability to go where ever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and of religion in this war. It would be a disgrace forever to our country otherwise.”
Redmond’s son, William Redmond, then MP for East Tyrone, enlisted, as did his brother, Major Willie Redmond, then MP for Clare East and a former MP for Wexford Borough. Four other Irish MPs enlisted: Sir John Esmonde, MP for North Tipperary; Stephen Gwynn, MP for Galway and son of the Revd John Gwynn, Regius Professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin; and Daniel Desmond Sheehan, MP for mid-Cork. In addition, Tom Kettle, former MP for East Tyrone, enlisted, and Redmond’s call was supported by many parliamentary leaders, including William O’Brien, Thomas O’Donnell and Joseph Devlin.
A large majority of the Irish Volunteers followed Redmond’s call. In all, 206,000 Irishmen fought in the British forces during World War I. Of these, 58,000 had already enlisted in the army or navy before the war broke out. Half of the Irishmen who enlisted in the first year were from what is now the Republic of Ireland; the other half from what is now Northern Ireland. It was the greatest deployment of armed manpower in Irish military history.
Some of Redmond’s Volunteers enlisted in regiments in the 10th and 16th Divisions, while many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force joined regiments in the 36th (Ulster) Division. However, most Irish recruits lacked military training to become officers, and with the exception of Major-General Sir William Bernard Hickie, from Terryglass, Co Tipperary, the 16th was led by English officers.
The 10th Division was the first Irish Division to take part in the war, under the command of General Sir Bryan Mahon, from Belleville, Co Galway. This division was sent to Gallipoli and took part on 7 August 1915 in the disastrous landing at Cape Helles and the August offensive. Irish battalions suffered extremely heavy losses among the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. From Suvla, the division was moved in September to Thessaloniki, where it remained for two years.
In September 1917, the 10th moved to Egypt and fought in the Third Battle of Gaza, which broke Turkish resistance in southern Palestine. In 1918, the division was split between the Middle East and the Western Front.
The 16th Division spent most of World War I on the Western Front. At the 2nd Battle of Ypres in May 1915, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were nearly wiped out as a result of a German-initiated poison gas attack. Until March 1916, the 16th was commanded by Henry Wilson, who had called them “Johnnie Redmond’s pets.” Hickie, who replaced Wilson, called them as “riff-raff Redmondites,” but was more diplomatic and tactful and later spoke with pride of his command.
In July 1916, the 16th suffered heavy casualties at the Somme. The battle began early on 1 July 1916 and the day ended with a total of 60,000 allied casualties, of whom 20,000 were killed in action. The 36th (Ulster) Division suffered 5,500 casualties and 2,000 of these were killed in action. The 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought next to the 36th and counted 147 casualties – 22 killed and 64 missing in action. The 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers lost 14 of their 23 officers, and 311 out 480 in other ranks.
The battle continued until the following November. The former MP Tom Kettle, a barrister and Professor of Economics at UCD, was among those killed at the Somme. Irish soldiers also fought at the Somme in the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, and four battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.
In 1917, the 16th fought at the Battle of Messines alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division, and at Passchendaele and Ypres. Messines saw the largest-ever concentration of Irish soldiers on a battlefield. Among those killed in the advance was John Redmond’s 56-year-old brother, Major Willie Redmond. By mid-August, the 16th counted over 4,200 casualties and the 36th had almost 3,600 casualties, or more than 50 per cent of its numbers. The losses were so heavy that when the 16th was reconstituted in England the only original battalion left was the 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers.
The 36th included three existing Irish regiments: the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The division fought on the Western Front throughout the war, and included men from all nine counties of Ulster. Apart from the Somme, the division’s other battles included Cambrai, Messines and two at Ypres (1917), Ypres (1918).
Irish regiments and VCs
Irish regiments in the British army also included the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Munster Fusiliers. In addition, there were Irish regiments based outside Ireland, including the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, the King’s Royal Irish Hussars, the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, the Irish Guards, the Liverpool Irish, the London Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Artillery, the Royal Irish Lancers, the Royal Irish Rangers, the Tyneside Irish Brigade, the Royal Irish Regiment and the London Irish.
In all, there were 37 Irish VCs in World War I. Lieutenant Maurice Dease from Coole, Co Westmeath, was the first British soldier to be awarded the VC on 23 August 1914, the first day of engagement by the British army. He was killed as he continued to operate a machine gun despite being shot four times at the Battle of Mons.
One of the last Irish VCs was Sergeant-Major Martin Doyle from New Ross, Co Wexford. He was awarded a VC in September 1918, but later he fought in the War of Independence.
By the end of the war, the attitude at home towards Irish soldiers in the British army had changed completely in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916. The poet Francis Ledwidge, who died at Ypres in 1917, wrote after the Easter Rising: “If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”
The Armistice on 11 November 1918 brought an end to World War I. But the war also brought about the fall of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the map of Europe was redrawn.
When the Irish divisions were demobilised, about 100,000 veterans returned to Ireland. But another 70,000-80,000 never returned home. There was high unemployment in Ireland, and the rising militant nationalism was hostile to the men who had served in the British forces.
Counting the dead
The number of Irish deaths is officially recorded as 27,405. However, the numbers may be higher, and the National War Memorial at Islandbridge in Dublin is dedicated “to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”
In 1927, the Irish government donated £50,000 in 1927 towards a Great War Memorial. But it was located in Islandbridge, outside the city centre, rather than in Merrion Square. It was not until 2006, on the 90th anniversary of the Somme, that the Irish state held an official commemoration for the Irish dead of World War I.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essays and these photographs were first published in July 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).