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Ireland and First World War

by Rob Fairmichael

Last time in this slot we gave some basic facts and figures about the cost, in lives and money, of the First World War, in a piece by Dave Knight.

This time, in the short piece here, I will make a few comments and give some links to online material about Ireland and the First World War. Apart from learning about history and the machinations of nations, it is important to understand this part of our history so we can judge commemorations and events related to the war, and plan any of our own, from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Despite the anti-conscription campaign emanating from the nationalist movement, and others, did you know that an estimated 60% of the at least 200,000 men who volunteered to fight for the British were Catholic? Tell that to people the next time you are walking past loyalist iconographic murals of the First World War in Northern Ireland!

But there is a terrible side to it all. Who that has not lost a son, brother, or father in war can imagine what it was like to hear the news of the death of a loved one? My paternal ancestors and/or their siblings, Protestants in the 26 counties, fought in whatever wars the British were fighting for a couple of hundred years. Two brothers of my grandfather's generation were killed in the First World War, one in Mesopotamia (Iraq, plus ca change...). In that and previous generations, as unionists, they were probably 'proud to go and do their patriotic chore'; but as a bourgeois family without a big family business, it presumably also fitted their own personal agenda for sons to join the British military. My two great-uncles who died in the First World War were unlucky to live at that time of mass slaughter.

While the anti-conscription campaign in Ireland was successful, presumably on the basis that the British government decided that imposing conscription in Ireland would create more problems than it was worth (and it would), the volunteering of 200,000 men on an island of 4.3 million is a significant number when you take into account gender and age; it is upwards of 5% of the total population or presumably nearer 20% of men who would have been of military age – statisticians may come up with a more accurate figure. Some estimates put the total number of Irish who fought in that war in all armies at 350,000. The extent to which men joined up for a job, or adventure, as opposed to making a political gesture of support for Britain, is hard to estimate but presumably there were some – particularly in the euphoria of the early days of the war, before the slaughter really kicked in.

It was highly ironic that both loyalists, as in the UVF, and Redmondite nationalists saw an advantage in fighting for Britain, to prove their worth and reliability in England's 'time of need' with the expectation of subsequent reward. The British government could not reward both since they stood for totally different things, no Home Rule and Home Rule respectively. However the 'Curragh Mutiny' of early 1914 had already indicated which way the British would likely turn. A further irony is that after partition Northern Ireland got its very own 'Home Rule', and Britain opted out of much direct involvement in Northern Irish affairs until the Troubles began around 1969.

In producing a poster about the number of Irish people killed in the First World War, I discovered that it is difficult to be precise on this. Not all those in 'Irish' regiments were Irish, and some born on the island of Ireland enlisted in non-Irish regiments. The number of Irish who died was at least 30,000 and probably somewhat higher, but less than 50,000. The official figure listed is 49,000 which is generally considered an overestimate. The figure remains uncertain and it might take a lot of research to be more accurate.

It is now accepted and recognised that former soldiers in the British forces who continued to live in what became the Irish Free State, i.e. the 26 counties, generally had to keep their heads somewhat low. However Protestant communities and churches generally did mark the war and those who suffered and died, and, for example, there would have been British Legion activity within the 26 Counties for ex-soldiers of Britain and their families.

However there is a danger that in the new era of rapprochement between Ireland and Britain, and remembering Irish involvement in the First World War – and that is certainly appropriate as this article might indicate – that we take an uncritical approach to the war and to fighting for Britain, an imperial country whose activities were an essential ingredient in the war. Plus it was not a 'war to end wars' but the cause of another one within a generation. Britain might not have been the immediate cause of war but it was a key ingredient. It is impossible to understand the war without understanding Britain's military might and subjugation of other areas around the world (in the British Empire, and indeed, in the 'United Kingdom'). Britain was doing to other countries far worse than what it accused Germany of doing to Belgium.

It is good we remember those who suffered and died, and why they died, in the First World War. But we need to always put a big question mark under any activity which might glorify or extol war or militarism, not just that war in particular, or which might indicate that the First World War was in any way 'necessary' or indeed inevitable. However increased military spending by European powers certainly contributed to it happening, as did the European powers' 'race for empire' which Germany, only united in 1871, was too late to join. It was a monumental failure of European 'civilisation'. It was a tragedy of epic proportions. It was a humanitarian disaster. It was a waste. Ireland escaped relatively lightly, compared to many other European countries, but it was still devastating for many, and, in other ways, for the whole country.

Online references:

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