The radicalisation of Irish politics & the wartime experiences of front line troops, 1916-1918
By Dr Emmanuel Destenay
During the First World War, two political upheavals significantly worsened the wartime experiences of front line Irish troops: the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1917-1918 anti-conscription crisis. Whereas the short-lived insurrection undeniably impacted on the morale of front line units and added a considerable amount of concerns to their wartime experiences, the mass-mobilisation against conscription greatly contributed to oppress the Irish. By 1918, not only had the mass mobilisation against conscription (which had found its political outcome in the successive 1917 by-elections won by Sinn Féin candidates) considerably affected the wartime experiences of front line Irish units but it equally considerably influenced the views of the Irish held by British soldiers. Even though Easter Week 1916 remains anchored in the collective memory of the Irish as a watershed moment, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the long anti-conscription crisis created an unbearable atmosphere of suspicion, which morally weakened the troops.
On 24 April 1916, a group of rebels rose against the British authorities in Ireland. Even though the insurrection lasted less than a week, the news of a rebellion in Dublin immediately reached the Irish units fighting in France and heavily impacted on the morale of the combatants. Regular Irish soldiers and recruits of the newly raised divisions morally suffered at the inability to undertake any action against a political blunder, which occurred in such a decisive wartime moment. Although military unsuccessful, the 1916 Easter Rising brought war in Ireland, stroke a blow at the constitutional movement and morally weakened front line battalions. Most importantly, the insurrection and its aftermath tested the loyalty of front line Irish battalions towards Great Britain and unveiled the kaleidoscopic motivations and expectations of their enlistment in the British Army. Other British combatants heard of the rebellion in Ireland and reacted violently. Beyond the obvious reactions of soldiers and officers alike, the question remains to determine what the rebellion changed for front line Irish combatants and their British comrades-in-arms.
When they heard of an insurrection in Dublin, nothing saddened more the regular army soldiers of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. Stationed in France during the rebellion, the men deplored the tragedy. Powerless and outraged, regular soldiers of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers regarded the rising as a disgrace for their country. Almost unanimously, they condemned the rebellion and voiced out their scorn for the rebels. Irish soldiers and officers of the British Expeditionary Corps worried at the consequences of a political upheaval in Ireland which could alter the course of the war. Nearly two years after the outbreak of the conflict, the dreadful vision of a handful of rebels overthrowing British rule in Ireland maddened the men. What if a revolution broke out in the whole country? What if the rebels brought down British rule? Haunted by helpless thoughts, men desperately wandered at the rear and enraged at their inability to slaughter the rebels. The lack of reassuring news from their families added a considerable amount of stress to their wartime experience. Men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers worried for their families who lived close to the districts where fighting occurred. ‘I think of some poor fellows out here fighting for their country and of those murdering cowards who, I suppose, have killed some of their mothers and fathers or their wives and children as the case may be’ wrote Christopher Fox, a private, to his godmother in Dublin. Despair gripped the men. But once again, nothing could be done. Stuck on a foreign land, surrounded by landscapes of devastation and misery, the Irish frenetically looked down at the papers and contemplated the pictures of their capital burning. ‘Shoot the lot of them straight off’, begged one private. ‘Exterminate the blighters’ cried another one. Beyond the inner conviction to be betrayed, wasn’t there also the deep feeling that the uprising trampled the memory of dead brothers-in-arms, that it humiliated their sacrifice and cynically taunted the decomposing bodies of Irishmen lying on the Somme and in the Dardanelles? If not a political reaction, wasn’t there the unspeakable awareness that Easter Week might annihilate the ultimate sacrifice of Irish combatants from the collective Irish memory?
Naturally enough, the 36th (Ulster) Division resented the events in Dublin and pledged their unconditional support to the British Crown. Even though the insurrection broke out in Dublin, and did not gangrene the loyalist quarters of Ulster, its uncertain outcome obsessed the men. The 1911 Parliament Act and the 1913 Home Rule Bill had somehow isolated the loyalist who had gradually witnessed a determinant political rise of the nationalists. The 1912 Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, then followed by the raising of the Irish Volunteer Force paramilitary organisation in 1913, illustrated the armed reaction to an issue which could not possibly be won politically. Even though the imperial government intelligently assured the loyalist community that their sacrifice would be taken into account after the conflict, the fervent unionists perfectly knew they could not play down the expectations of the nationalists. A certain relief gripped the Ulstermen though. An insurrection could easily be smashed whereas a political movement backed by democratic elections could not easily be countered. Only the thought of the rebels being executed quietened the sons of Ulster. ‘They will hang all the ring-leaders. It’s what the traitors deserve’, rejoiced Lieutenant Hemphill. How did these men dare to weaken the motherland at such a decisive moment? Carson’s army oath of allegiance towards Great Britain remained stronger than ever and echoed the reactions of the unionist community in the aftermath of the rebellion.
As for the 16th (Irish) Division, the men ‘felt they had been stabbed in the back’ and understood the political impact of such a manoeuvre in Ireland. The brother of the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, William Redmond, collapsed on hearing of the uprising and sobbed like a child. That the rebellion weakened and threatened the British Empire was undeniable; but the military plan equally struck a blow to the constitutional movement. Fervent followers of Home Rule hoped that their involvement in the conflict alongside Great Britain would lead to the implementation of an autonomous status once the war would be over. The Easter Rising symbolically targeted the constitutional nationalists who had, by September 1914, publicly pledged their allegiance to Britain. Chaplains with the 16th (Irish) Division witnessed the heavy blow left by the rebellion in the mind of their flock. But once again, nothing could be done.
A variety of personal primary sources and official governmental reports clearly support the belief according to which the uprising heavily impacted on the morale of Irish units. Nonetheless, the 1916 insurrection did not only impact on the morale of front-line Irish units: English, Scottish and Wales battalions reacted to the rising. Even though the testimonies remain scarce and cannot account for the wartime experiences of the majority of British units, the news of an insurrection in Ireland distressed other combatants. A Captain in the 4th King’s Liverpool Regiment prayed for the rebels to be shot while a Second-lieutenant with the 8th York Regiment awaited the government to ‘squash the rebels once and for all’. Whereas the Empire fought against the Germans, British soldiers enraged at the rebels. If the court-martials of the rebels relieved loyalist Irish troops and British units, the post-insurrection executions proved to be a turning point as to the loyalty of nationalist recruits.
General Maxwell’s unwavering decision to execute the ringleaders of the uprising enacted a psychological partition among Irish units. Overnight, some troops who had vehemently condemned the rebellion as a ‘stab in the back’ experienced a cold fury at the British government. ‘I would see the whole British Empire damned sooner than hear of an Irishman being killed in his own country by any intruding stranger’ wrote a Sergeant of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. ‘I did not in the least sympathise with the sentence passed on the rebels’ confessed another regular soldier. Some even questioned their involvement in the conflict alongside the British: ‘It was a rude awakening, guns being fired at the people of my own race by soldiers of the same army with which I was serving.’ These men reacted with dismay and condemned the executions of the ringleaders in a clear and unequivocal way. Though they disagreed with the insurrection, these men did not agree with the executions passed on the rebels. The allegiance towards Great Britain had reached its limits; Irishmen accepted to fight in the British Army, agreed to the appalling conditions in which they had trained in Ireland before leaving for the continent, understood their participation in the conflict did not silence malicious cultural criticisms against them; but the executions broke the pact of allegiance towards Great Britain. What remains even more surprising, and somehow paradoxical, is the fact that politically speaking, nationalist recruits disagreed with the uprising and that Britain was perfectly legitimate to execute the rebels.
Yet, as the historian Thomas Hennessey rightly pointed out, ‘when the British authorities responded with coercive measures, these could more easily be associated with older and stronger nationalist myths of British oppression.’
While the Rising certainly heightened despair among front line Irish troops, and appalled other British combatants, front line English, Scottish and Welsh soldiers appeared not to have harassed Irish troops. Criticism initially targeted only the architects of the 1916 rebellion. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, the brotherhood between Irish and other combatants of the British Army remained unchanged. Irish officers and men did not mention any criticism or derogatory comments from non-Irish units in the aftermath of the rebellion. Easter Week 1916 cannot then be regarded as a transformative watershed when it comes to the comradeship within the British Army.
Nonetheless, from 1917 onwards, a series of political upheavals in Ireland exposed Irish battalions to resentment. The mass mobilisation against conscription, which found its political outcome in the successive by-elections won by Sinn Féin candidates, affected the views of the Irish held by British soldiers. From 1917 onwards, the threat of conscription resulted in the singling out of Irish front line battalions for criticism. As early as June 1917, Harry Loughlin and the men of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers realised the mass mobilisation against conscription in Ireland heavily impacted on the views of British soldiers. Overnight, ‘regiments who up to the affair would not say anything to them’ started taunting the Irish and openly voiced out their resentment. In July 1917, an English officer derided the presence of Irishmen in his unit. The reserve officer complained ‘he, at any rate, had no hope of returning alive from France, because he felt (…) some southern Irishman might shoot him down surreptitiously in battle’. These remarks suggest that the threat of conscription, months before the 1918 conscription crisis, significantly exposed front line Irish men. By the end of 1916, the British government had implemented conscription to Great Britain; the British had spared Ireland from the military service bill. When the whole island rose against conscription, the ‘selfishness of the Irish’ appalled the British. ‘The spoilt child of the family kicks at England as a kid in a temper kicks his nurse’ thought an English front line soldier. Second-lieutenant Parr of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers proclaimed he would ‘sooner shoot an Irishman than a Hun!’ A gunner with the 69th Brigade of the Royal Garrison Artillery described Ireland as ‘a constant source of trouble’ and looked forward to seeing the island ‘submerged for about five minutes’. ‘Ninety per cent of the country are traitors and the other ten per cent are not on our side’ ironically explained another English gunner.
In May 1918, Father Gill sadly acknowledged that ‘the affairs in Ireland did not make things easier for the men’ on the front. Without lingering on the comments, the Irish chaplain could only face the immediate repercussions of the refusal of the Irish people to accept conscription. The political turmoil in the island overwhelmed so much the minds of some British units that Major Nightingale, an English officer commanding the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, violently intervened to defend its unit from the continual harassment they faced. ‘That’s the hardest part of the whole show; to feel we’ve been through a rotten battle and wherever we go it’s always –‘There go the Sinn Féiners’’. Once again, even though such remarks do not account for the wartime experiences of all front line Irish battalions, it is clear the opposition to conscription in Ireland, which started from 1917 and culminated in 1918 with the conscription crisis, singled out Irish units and left the men open to display of mistrust and resentment.
Nowadays, Easter Rising 1916 is still regarded as a watershed moment and as a transformative event for the history of 20th century Ireland. It undeniably impacted on the morale of front line units and added a considerable amount of concerns to their wartime experiences. Nonetheless, another political upheaval – and how important that event proved to be – considerably hardened and complicated the wartime experiences of the Irish. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the mass mobilisation in Ireland against conscription created an atmosphere of suspicion which morally weakened Irish battalions. Easter Rising 1916, although important for 20th century Ireland, appears to have been less oppressing for front line Irish units than the repercussions of the mass anti-conscription mobilisation in Ireland.
Dr Emmanuel Destenay is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin