Irish History Live

Ireland and the First World War:

the Historical Context

Professor Keith Jeffery

I. Introduction – the numbers involved
II. Why did these men join up?
III. Where did they serve?
IV. The war, nationalism, and remembrance
V. The war, unionism, and remembrance

I. Introduction – the numbers involved BACK TO TOP

Between August 1914 and November 1918 considerably over 200,000 Irish served in armed forces engaged in the First World War. They fall into three main categories. In the first place a fair number were serving soldiers at the start of the conflict. For example in August 1914, in the British army there were 28,000 Irish-born regular soldiers and 30,000 reservists who were immediately called up back to the colours. Secondly there were what were known as ‘Kitchener’s men’, people who responded to the urgent call for volunteers made by Lord Kitchener, appointed Secretary of State for War in August 1914, and most dramatically represented in the world-famous ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster. Between August 1914 and February 1916 (more or less when conscription was introduced in Great Britain, and just before the Easter Rising in Ireland) about 95,000 men joined up. Thirdly, there were those who joined up during the rest of the war, after the initial recruiting ‘surge’, up to November 1918. These men total about 45,000, including nearly 10,000 recruits in the last three and a half months of the war alone.

These figures do not include all the Irish people who joined up. They do not include officers, nor do they include all of the Irishmen in the Royal Navy, and they do not take into account Irishmen serving in formations raised outside the United Kingdom—in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, for example—or in foreign armies (most notably that of the USA), nor even those in non-military services like the Merchant Marine, which participated and suffered in the Great War. I have four great-uncles from Ireland who served in the First World War. Each one of them emigrated to Canada before 1914, and each of them served with the Canadian forces (two perished), thus they do not appear in the statistics already quoted. This is surely not unique, and there must be many similar cases among families in our emigrant Irish society.

We can break down the statistics by location and religion, though not quite for the whole war. The figures for recruitment by religion and province from August 1914 to January 1918 (which is the period for which we have more-or-less reliable figures) are as follows:

Ulster 17,092 45,798 62,890
Leinster 25,357 4,989 30,346
Connacht 4,316 410 4,726
Munster 17,842 1,168 19,010
Totals 64,607 52,365 116,972

What these figures show, overall, is that more Catholics than Protestants (and hence we can assume more nationalists than unionists) joined up in Ireland during the First World War. Only in Ulster (nine counties) does the number of Protestants exceed the number of Catholics. But these figures are largely meaningless without some idea of the proportionality of enlistment, and the following table shows the recruiting response as a proportion of the religious group, again by province and again over the period from the start of the war to January 1918 (% of population first; % of recruits in brackets):

Ulster 44 (27) 56 (73)
Leinster 85 (89) 15 (11)
Connacht 96 (92) 4 (8)
Munster 94 (93) 6 (7)
Ireland 74 (55) 26 (45)

What these figures show us is, as we might expect, that, overall, a higher percentage of Protestants joined up than Catholics. In Ulster, for example, where the population was just over half Protestant, nearly three-quarters of all the recruits came from that section of the population. But in the other provinces the figure was by no means so clear-cut. While in Munster, the proportions of population and religion were more or less equal, in Leinster, which includes Dublin and which we have seen from the previous table supplied more recruits than any other province except Ulster, Catholics were slightly more likely to join up than Protestants.  Thus, we cannot easily come to any simplistic conclusions about which group was more likely to join up than the other.

To put the numbers into some sort of context, we can relate the 200,000-odd to the total number of young men living in Ireland at the time. According to the 1911 census there were just over 700,000 men between the ages of 15 and 35 in Ireland. The great majority of the recruits fell between those ages. We can say, therefore, that between a quarter and a third of the available young men in Ireland—a very strikingly high proportion—joined up to serve in the First World War.

And of those who enlisted, many did not return. The casualty statistics are as imprecise as those for recruiting, but one careful calculation of the dead has come up with a figure of 29,779 ‘born in Ireland’. Even this, apparently very precise, figure is only a start, and the compiler has suggested that we add ‘approximately 5,000’ more to allow for Irishmen in British imperial armies and that of the USA.

II. Why did these men join up? BACK TO TOP

Why did these men join up? This is one of the most tantalising questions we can pose about the First World War. We know—with the benefit of hindsight, to be sure—how terrible it was on the Western Front, and how futile and hazardous it seemed to be. And yet many thousands of young Irishmen continued throughout the whole war to join up. The popular view we have of enlistment in the war is that of huge crowds of men surging to the recruiting offices in August 1914, like lambs to the slaughter, or lemmings heading for a precipice. But we also know that recruitment continued throughout the war, even after it had certainly become clear to those back home that the war was no simple adventure. No-one in Ulster, or any other part of Ireland, could have been misled about the risks of joining up after the terrible casualties of the Somme in July 1916, and yet many, many more  young men continued to join up after then. And we must remember that throughout the war, unlike in England, Scotland and Wales, all the Irish recruits were volunteers, they did not have to go, and yet many decided so to do. What we have to try to do is recover the rationality of recruiting: individual men made individual decisions to join up, and although they may have been swayed by the kind of patriotic fervour we no longer experience, they nevertheless evidently had good reason for doing what they did. Any theory (or theories) which we come up with for enlistment must not only explain the thousands who joined up ain August and September 1914 (the ‘easy bit’), but also the thousands who joined up in 1918 (which may not be quite so straightforward).

The standard, public reason for joining up was the moral purpose of the war. At the time it was widely seen as a kind of crusade against ‘Prussian militarism’. Tom Kettle, an Irish nationalist who had actually been in Belgium buying guns for the nationalist paramilitary Irish Volunteers, argued that men went because the cause was a just one. It was, said Kettle, the cause of small nations threatened by large ones, of Belgium and Serbia, which Germany and Austria had outraged, and Britain and her allies had taken up. This made it right for Ireland to fight on England’s side, especially since England had (at last) granted Home Rule for Ireland. Kettle himself joined up and died on the Somme in September 1916.

Home Rule had been the aspiration of Irish nationalists for fifty years and, finally, in 1914 it appeared that the deed was done. On 18 September 1914 the third Irish Home Rule Bill became law, although its operation was suspended for the duration of the war. No-one (at least on the nationalist side) thought that this would be for very long, but the passage of the legislation was crucial for John Redmond, the leader of the Irish nationalist movement. On 20 September he made a celebrated speech at Woodenbridge, county Wicklow, in which he said that ‘the interests of Ireland, of the whole of Ireland, are at stake in this war’. He drew out the high moral purpose of the struggle against the Germans and Prussian militarism: ‘This war is undertaken in defence of the highest interests of religion and morality and right, and it would be a disgrace for ever to our country, a reproach to her manhood, and a denial of the lessons of her history if young Ireland [note the allusion here to 1848 and the traditions of Irish nationalism] confined their efforts to remaining at home to defend the shores of Ireland from an unlikely invasion, and shrinking from the duty of proving on the field of battle that gallantry and courage which have distinguished their race all through its history’. Stirring words indeed, and words which clearly found a response among many young Irishmen.

But high patriotic duty was not the only possible reason why men might join up. Another factor was a simply desire for adventure. For many at home the war offered excitement and the chance of glorious opportunity. Tom Barry, later to become a leader of the IRA in Cork, enlisted in June 1915. Seventeen years old, he said he ‘had decided to see what this Great War was like … I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man’. This was nearly a year after the war had started, and provides some evidence that the recruiting rush of the early days does not tell the whole story.

And if Irish nationalists were responding to their ‘patriotic duty’ as articulated by John Redmond, so Irish unionists, too, in Ulster and elsewhere, also joined up for patriotic reasons. Having pledged their loyalty to the Crown and the link with Great Britain, they could hardly stand back when the ‘Mother Country’ was in its hour of need. ‘We do not seek to purchase terms by selling our patriotism’, said Carson. ‘England’s difficulty is our difficulty.’

There were also economic motives for joining up, as there always had been. Service in the army, after all, was a steady job, and one with a pension at the end. Even in wartime, with the heightened risks of military service, many men were undoubtedly attracted by the rates of pay which the military offered (and the family allowances which accompanied them). The August 1914 rush to the colours was also boosted by the fact that across Ulster many factories laid men off, or put them on short time, when war broke out because of uncertainties in the economic situation. Irish linen mills specialised in the quality end of the market—fine table and bed-linen, high quality shirting and so on—just the sort of products which people might stop buying (as they did) because there ‘was a war on’. Export markets in continental Europe and the USA were disrupted. Thus, just at the moment when there was a stirring and insistent call for troops, many workers were put out of a job, evidently making enlistment more attractive than might otherwise have been the case.

Nor were these the only possible motives for joining up. Some men enlisted through family tradition, for others it was merely a kind of emigration, though one which was not necessarily so permanent as going to America. Looking especially at big urban centres like Belfast, it is also evident that many men joined up in groups, with ‘peer pressure’ carrying them into the army with friends and work mates. By one account, Francis Ledwidge, the poet from Slane (and a socialist and nationalist), enlisted ‘on the rebound’ from being rejected by a sweetheart. Whether true or not, it adds another possibility to the wide range of motivations to joining up.

Looking at the recruiting figures, and taking into account the many possible reasons behind enlistment, it is impossible facilely or glibly to generalise about these fellows, about who they were or why they joined up. No single or simple explanation will do, and in many cases it must have been a combination of factors. Patriotic feeling might have been significant but not in itself sufficient to impel a man to enlist. Yet combine it with uncertain prospects at work and the urging of a next-door neighbour—‘Come on, John, it’ll be great crack’—and the lure might be irresistible. What, in any case, we can say about these men—who were both ‘ordinary’ and extraordinary at the same time— is that they became victims of circumstances well beyond their control.

III. Where did they serve?BACK TO TOP

Irishmen served in all theatres of the First World War, and in all branches of the army and navy, not to mention the air force by the end of the war. But if we concentrate on the volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s army’, we find the Irish serving in three main divisions: the 10th (Irish) Division, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division. The 10th Division was the first to see action. In August 1915 it landed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in Turkey, as part of the unsuccessful effort to open a way from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and force the Turks out of the war. By the end of 1915 the division had been moved to Macedonia, and in 1917 to Egypt and Palestine. In November 1917 they fought in the battle of Gaza and participated in the capture of Jerusalem in December that year. In March 1918 they were fighting near Nablus, now in the occupied territories of the West Bank.

The other two divisions fought on the Western Front, in places more familiar to us. The most famous engagement they were involved in was, of course, the Ulster Division at the battle of the Somme, where they suffered appalling casualties on the first day, 1 July 1916. This was the first major battle they were involved in. The 16th Division had, in fact, gone into action before the 36th. In April 1916, during the same week as the Easter Rising in Dublin, they had suffered a bad gas attack at Hulluch, north of the Somme. The 16th Division also took part in the Somme battle itself, though not until September 1916. Both divisions fought together, sometimes alongside each other, at the battle of Messines in June 1917 and at Langemarck, part of the battle of Passchendaele, in August 1917. The following spring both divisions fought against the great German offensive in March 1918, which proved to be the last big German attack of the war.

This very sketchy outline of where the Irish New Amy divisions fought cannot do justice to the Irish service in the First World War, nor does it in any way do justice to the extraordinarily wide range of experience on land, sea and in the air seen by volunteers from all parts of Ireland. We should not forget that women as well as men served. In St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast is a memorial to eighteen nurses who died while serving with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. In the same church, incidentally, there is also a huge memorial to the printing tradesmen, Protestants and Catholics, who served and died in the war. Across Ireland are local war memorials with their own stories to tell of individual service and sacrifice, and including both women and men. The names of two nurses, for example, will be found on the war memorial in Dungannon, county Tyrone.

IV. The war, nationalism, and remembrance BACK TO TOP

Perhaps the most difficult process was that faced by those nationalist volunteers in the British army who had set off, fired by John Redmond’s claim that ‘Ireland’s highest interests’ lay ‘in the speedy and overwhelming victory of England and the Allies’. Having helped raise what he described as ‘a distinctively Irish army, composed of Irishmen, led by Irishmen and trained at home in Ireland’, Redmond asserted in the middle of the war that ‘the achievements of that Irish army have covered Ireland with glory before the world, and thrilled our hearts with pride. North and South’, he added, ‘have vied with each other in springing to arms, and, please God, the sacrifices they have made side by side on the field of battle will form the surest bond of a united Irish nation in the future’. But by the time the survivors of the war returned home, words like these had turned into peculiarly empty rhetoric. In a more definitively nationalist Ireland, where many hearts had been thrilled by the valour of the men of 1916, there was no triumphant welcome home. It was as Tom Kettle, a former nationalist MP who was killed on the Somme serving with the 16th Division, had predicted. ‘These men’ (the 1916 leaders), he wrote, ‘will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down—if I go down at all—as a bloody British officer’.

So it was to be. Many veterans returning to nationalist areas met grudging acceptance, hostility, or even physical violence. For all of them the high public honour and celebration with which they had departed contrasted sharply with the changed circumstances of their return. The disillusionment which, across the world, many returning soldiers felt with the outcome of the war, that the prodigious costs had not been matched by commensurate benefits, was felt especially sharply in nationalist Ireland. In July 1919 4,000 people attended a fete organised in Celtic Park, Belfast, ‘in honour of the Belfastmen of the 16th Irish Division’. It was, reported the press, ‘a notable demonstration of the part played by Belfast nationalists’ in the war. Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast and one of the few Redmondite nationalists to have been returned in 1918, declared that their fallen comrades had ‘died not as cowards died, but as soldiers of freedom, with their faces toward the fire, and in the belief that their life-blood was poured out in defence of liberty for the world. Unfortunately’, he continued, ‘the close of the war brought to Ireland no peace and freedom, but strife and repression’.

In parts of independent Ireland, ex-soldiers yet strove to link their service with the achievement of Irish freedom, such as it was. In Cork, a war memorial unveiled on St Patrick’s Day (17 March) 1925, was explicitly dedicated to the memory of ‘comrades who fell … fighting for the freedom of small nations’. Northern nationalists, faced with triumphalist unionist commemorations of the war, did not even have the opportunity to do likewise. In November 1927, reflecting on the legacy of the war and the proposed abolition of proportional representation for Northern Ireland parliamentary elections, the nationalist Derry Journal dramatically complained that ‘nine years after the victory, professedly fought for, and won, to end intolerance and injustice … the very men who commemorate the victory are in these Northern counties engaged in framing an Act that will reduce 400,000 of their fellow-citizens, because they are Catholic and Nationalist, to a condition bordering on penal slavery’. But disappointment with the outcome of the war was not confined to nationalists. Speaking at the dedication of a war memorial in Cookstown, County Tyrone (in Northern Ireland), Mr Thomas Gibson, JP, chairman of the War Memorial Committee, observed that ‘the after-war period has been one long process of disillusionment, for both soldiers and civilians… The world’, he added, ‘is not yet a very fit place for heroes to live in’.

Some veterans at remembrance ceremonies sought to recover the reconciling power of common war service, which Redmond had so ardently desired. Two examples from 1925 illustrate this point, the first at the eighth anniversary service in memory of Major William Redmond, John Redmond’s brother and also a nationalist MP, who was killed in June 1917 during the battle of Messines. Both at the time and since, much was made of the fact that the nationalist 16th Division in which Redmond was serving fought here alongside the unionist 36th Division. Delivering the oration at Ennis, in the East Clare constituency Redmond had represented, Thomas O’Donnell, another former MP, made the most of the fact the Redmond had died in a 36th Division casualty clearing station:

Side by side with his Orange fellow-countrymen he fought in France—and, strange irony of fate, or perhaps the guiding hand of Providence, when a German shell laid that noble spirit low he was brought by Orange stretcher-bearers back to the Orange camp and there tended with all the solicitude and anxious care that could be given to their dearest comrade. There in that stricken camp was buried for ever the prejudice of ages…

While O’Donnell might have been a shade over-optimistic in his conclusion, the celebration of common service between ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ was frequently invoked at remembrance ceremonies. At the dedication in November 1925 of the war memorial at Portadown, County Armagh, Mr R. M. Cullen, a Catholic ex-N. C. O. of the Connaught Rangers, said that joint participation was ‘emblematic of the brotherhood that was born in the gullies of Gallipoli and cemented on the firing-steps of Flanders (Applause.)’.
    In independent Ireland, however, unlike some other places, Great War veterans played almost no party political role whatsoever. Indeed, when commemorating their fallen comrades, they were at pains to stress the inclusive nature of the ceremonies. In September 1926 General Sir William Hickie, president of the British Legion (Southern Ireland Area) complained about people who were trying to ‘turn the 11th of November into the 12th of July.

V. The war, unionism, and remembranceBACK TO TOP

But remembrance ceremonies in Northern Ireland demonstrated the extent to which the commemoration of the Great War in became associated with the unionist political cause and confirms Neil Jarman’s observation that ‘after 1918, the World War, condensed into the single event of ‘the Somme’, was introduced into Orange mytho-history as a contemporary equivalent to 1690’. From the early 1920s annual 1 July parades were staged to mark the Somme anniversary. There were Ulster Division memorial services, and after the Lurgan war memorial was completed in 1928, wreaths were laid at it on 1 July as well as 11 November. Orange banners quickly emerged with illustrations showing the ‘First day of the Battle of the Somme’ as well as King William III and the Battle of the Boyne. ‘The elevation of the Somme’, wrote Jarman, ‘into the iconography of the Orange Order confirmed its near-sacred status in popular memory’.

In the 1920s, war commemorations were also often explicitly tied in with the establishment and preservation of the new Northern Ireland state and the loyalty of Ulster to the British crown. Although the inscriptions on many Northern Ireland war memorials were quite reticent about the reasons for men (as they mostly were) having served, some, like those at Ballywalter, Comber and Newtownards (all County Down), explicitly stated ‘King and Country’. At the unveiling of the Coleraine, County Londonderry, memorial on 11 November 1922, Sir James Craig, the first prime minister of Northern Ireland, told the assembled crowd that ‘those who passed away have left behind a great message to all of them to stand firm, and to give away none of Ulster’s soil’. In October 1925, at a meeting called to organise the erection of a war memorial in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Captain Creighton, organising secretary of the British Legion in Belfast, remarked on the sacrifices of the ‘men from Northern Ireland [which, of course, did not exist before 1921] who went voluntarily to meet the foe’. They had volunteered, moreover, ‘not only for their own land, but for a far greater, the British Empire. (Applause.). Dedicating the war memorial in Derry City in June 1927, Major-General Felix Ready, GOC Northern Ireland District, remarked that the city’s history ‘was an example to the whole Empire for its loyalty and devotion to the Crown’.

In Northern Ireland the commemoration of the Great War and the political legacy of 1916 became on the whole an exclusively Protestant and unionist affair. Partly this was because nationalists, uneasy and unwelcome in the new polity, for the most part absented themselves from the public rituals of the province. In terms of war remembrance, far from demobilising in any way, Ulster unionists remained rather on a war footing, dwelling as they did in ‘a state under siege’. The struggle to remain within the United Kingdom ‘was the Siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne all over again, it was the Great War continued’. Unionists’ selective memory of the war, which erased the Catholic and nationalist participation, was cast in materials arguably more enduring than bronze, for it was firmly incorporated into the Unionist/Orange mind-set. The Somme was conflated with the Boyne, and annual ceremonies on 1 July and 11 November, which embodied explicitly Protestant rituals, were used to recall Ulster’s ungrudging sacrifice in the war and confirm its continuing loyalty to the United Kingdom and (while it existed) the British Empire.

At the dedications of war memorials—an all-to-frequent occurrence in the 1920s—some sentiments were expressed which we would do well to recall today. Among the most striking is the speech made by General Sir Oliver Nugent (who had commanded the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Somme) at the dedication of the war memorial in Virginia, County Cavan, in August 1923. ‘The day’, he said, ‘is not, I hope, far distant when the memory of all those of our country who gave their lives for civilisation as we interpret it and in obedience to what they believed to be their duty will be honoured and perpetuated in every town and village in Ireland’ (emphasis added). These are signally tolerant and inclusive remarks, especially for their time. But the call to remember all the fallen resonates with us still today. Perhaps, after over eighty years, we can rise to Sir Oliver Nugent’s challenge.

(A fuller discussion of Ireland and the First World War and references for the information contained above can be found in Keith Jeffery, Ireland and the Great War, Cambridge University Press, 2000.)


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