Whether for the “shilling”, John Redmond, “little Catholic Belgium” or adventure 140,000 Irish men joined the British army in Ireland. Thousands more Irish men were already serving, or were recruited or conscripted in Britain, Australia, the USA and Canada.
Half the Irish recruits joined within the first six months of the declaration of war. Many worried that it would be all over before they could get to the front. They need not have concerned themselves.
Boredom, hunger, cold, disease, punctuated with occasional bouts of sheer terror and undignified death are some the memories recalled here by veterans.
The conditions soldiers endured in the trenches were truly awful. Rats, lice, duckboards, incoming shells, raids, snipers, the fear of entombment, the smell of death from no mans land and the occasional seven day furlough.
Numbers too vast to imagine. Wounds too ghastly to contemplate. Death as close as the next cigarette. Images too seared on the brain to erase. In their own words veterans recall the horrors they witnessed.
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million. There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
When word of a rebellion in Dublin spread amongst the Irish fighting abroad the reactions were varied. Some railed against “this stab in the back”. Some tried to desert and get back to Dublin to join in. Most shrugged their shoulders and got on with it.
Relief and elation followed by battle fatigue, alienation, occasional victimisation and silence. Memory became the province of Ulster. In the face of such enormous loss and horror, claims of victory or defeat seem irrelevant, almost sacrilegious. When the fighting finally drew to a close many combatants were too tired to feel much to cheer about.
In the Republic of Ireland public recognition for those who fought in the First World War would be slow to come.