The Irish and World War I

Battle of Somme

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2014

One hundred years ago this summer, the story goes, a Daily Mail war correspondent named George Curnock followed British Expedition-ary Forces as they made their way across the English Channel to aid the French in what most believed would be a brief skirmish with the Germans. In mid-August 1914, Curnock heard the Connaught Rangers singing a raucous tune as they marched through the northern French town of Boulogne. The tune, fittingly, tells of “Paddy” in England, pining for his home in Ireland. Soon after Curnock filed his column, it became impossible to avoid the song the Irish-based soldiers were singing – “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” – especially after legendary Irish tenor John McCormack recorded a wildly popular version of the song later that year.

Though it was written before the outbreak of hostilities, the last century has seen the Irish tune popularly associated with World War I. And to judge from some of the history books recently published to mark the 100th anniversary of “the war to end all wars,” the song is the only Irish contribution to the First World War.

Nothing could be less true.

Home Rule on the Brink of War

Several highly praised books published just in time for the World War I centenary – such as The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark and Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings – barely mention Ireland or the Irish at all. Another, July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin, does spend some time outlining how, right before the war, British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was so “preoccupied with Ireland” it was hard for him to also pay close attention to events on the continent.

When Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, an energetic movement for Irish independence was already under way and a “Home Rule” bill that would have led to some form of Irish autonomy was expected to be introduced later that year. But the forces unleashed by the assassination of Ferdinand would plunge Europe into four years of catastrophic warfare, and Irish independence would be one of the countless casualties.

Once the war began, there was tension in Ireland between those who wanted to  contribute to the British war effort and those who hoped to use it to further the cause of Irish independence.

“Many Irish men were willing to fight for the British because it was a paying job,” says Laois-born writer Tom Phelan.

Though there was no draft and Irish soldiers were volunteers, Easter Rising leader James Connolly said the Irish faced “economic conscription.”  Labor conflict in 1914 had wracked Dublin, leading to grueling unionization efforts, lockouts by wealthy industrialists and high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Irishmen joined the war effort to provide a source of financial assistance to those they left behind, and also, according to Phelan, because it offered an opportunity to see the world.

Tom Barry, later an IRA commander, once said he enlisted in the British military in June 1915 “to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel like a grown man.”

Irish soldiers from Ulster (largely Protestants) were, of course, strongly motivated to enlist by their ties to Britain. The war was an opportunity to strengthen the bond between the North and Britain, at a time when even British leaders were talking openly about some kind of independence for Ireland.

At the same time, Catholic Irish soldiers were motivated to defend their co-religionists, after Germany invaded the small predominantly Catholic nation of Belgium, a gesture still appreciated in Brussels. In December of 2013 Irish Ambassador to Belgium, Eamonn Mac Aodha, hosted a reception commemorating the Irish contribution to the war effort, at which Irish actor Gavin Drea read poignant letters written by Irish solders based in Belgium.

Tipperary-born soldier Edward Thomas, a corporal serving with the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards in France, was one of those who volunteered. Just a week or so after the Connaught Rangers were overhead singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” he and his fellow guards were waiting to ambush advancing German troops. When he pulled his trigger in the early morning of August 22, 1914 in an engagement outside Mons, Thomas fired what are believed to be the first shots of the Allied forces.

Later promoted to Sergeant, Thomas was mentioned in dispatches for bravery. After British shelling of the enemy lines, he crawled forward to the German trench to find all the soldiers killed. Noting the quality of the German boots, he removed them from several soldiers, tied them together and crawled back to his own lines, where he distributed the boots amongst his comrades.

The Rising & The Aftermath

As the war in Europe raged, there were still those in Ireland who refused to give up on the dream of independence from Britain.

“The Fenian leadership of men such as Tom Clarke and Sean Mac Diarmada, and to a lesser extent Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, viewed the Great War as an opportunity to strike against Britain. You’ll often hear the phrase, ‘Britain’s difficulties are Ireland’s opportunity,’” says historian Dermot McEvoy.

The masterminds of the Easter Rising were even counting on German military support and, according to McEvoy, were hoping the British were too preoccupied with the European war effort to properly fight back. The effect, however, was that many Irish-born soldiers ended up fighting two wars: one against the Central Powers on the continent, and another in their own backyard, against their own people.

Two stories illustrate just how complex World War I was for the Irish.

Lieutenant Gerald Aloysius Nielan, a Dubliner, had already been around the world, from China to Malta, as a member of the British Army, when the war broke out. He was assigned to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in April of 1916, when rebels declared an Irish Republic during the Easter Rising, and he and the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were sent to do battle with nationalists who’d occupied a number of buildings along the Liffey. While crossing the river on April 24, Nielan was killed by a sniper’s bullet. Meanwhile, among the rebels fighting in the nearby Four Courts building was Neilan’s own brother, Anthony.

This dichotomy is explored in Liam Flaherty’s tragic short story “The Sniper” (1923), in which an Irish soldier unknowingly kills his own brother, and in Sebastian Barry’s celebrated novel A Long Long Way, which offers an insightful look at the trials and tribulations of an Irish soldier who serves on the Western Front as well as in Ireland during the Rising.

Barry’s protagonist Willie Dunne also fights for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, first stationed in Belgium, but later in Ireland during the Rising. Willie, like many Dubliners, is so confused by the outbreak of gunfire he actually believes Germans have invaded, when it was a band of roughly 1,500 rebels based in the General Post Office fighting for an Irish Republic.

The Rising, of course, was swiftly put down and sixteen of its leaders quickly executed by firing squad.

“The more the British were bogged down in France the more they forgot about ‘backwater Ireland’ and were left naked when the rebellion started,” McEvoy says. “That they were caught by such a surprise…in part explains the British reaction to the Easter Rising. They wanted only revenge. Within days they had shot the leadership.”

Thus did the British make a monumental blunder. Initial Irish reaction to the Rising ranged from tepid to outright hostility. But once the Irish witnessed Britain’s harsh treatment of the Irish revolutionaries, the tide of opinion turned.

In A Long Long Way, Willie Dunne himself must cope with a changed, post-Rising Ireland, where he is viewed with a hostility not evident in the war’s early days. On Dublin’s Marlborough Street, Willie sees a group of boys, one of whom seems to be stooping to pick up a rock.

Willie is “surprised and affronted when the stone hit him in the arm.”

One of the boys eventually yells: “Fucking Tommies… go home!”

Dunne can only yell back: “I am at home.”

The end of World War I was just the beginning of the bloodshed for the Irish.

The War, the Rising, the executions – all had a profound effect on an entire Irish generation. True, within a decade there would be an Irish Free State, but one which emerged from a treaty with the British that split north and south and ultimately led to the wrenching Irish civil war of the early 1920s.

A New Kind of Warfare

The 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers included rugby-playing professional men, as well as a professor from Dublin University who died battling the Ottomans at Suvla,  Keith Jeffrey noted in his book Ireland and the Great War.

Whether they fought on the Western Front, at the Somme, or elsewhere, Irish soldiers in World War I faced a new kind of mechanized warfare, in which the scale of death was unlike anything ever seen. Airplanes, trench warfare, gas attacks and advances in artillery technology changed the way war was waged.

“It was on the night breaking into the New Year that we had…our baptism of fire,” Dublin native Bernard Reid wrote to his family from the trenches on January 20, 1916. “Our artillery had just broken its hell upon the night. Presently we shall pay for this, we were all thinking, they’ll surely answer in a few moments and they did. The first crashes came as we waited huddled against a wall. The bursting shells threw up earth that descended in showers, shrapnel and other shells came roaring along….We dare not move. The men were quiet, not a move out of them, except for the whispering of one to the other. One chap I heard saying ‘It is awful being here, and you may be killed without being able to strike a blow for yourself.’”

All in all, it is believed that around 200,000 Irish-born soldiers served in World War I, with as many as 49,000 paying the ultimate price.

Even those who didn’t die suffered terrible injuries. Estimates suggest that around 50 percent of the 800 members of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered gas casualties or other wounds.

The Irish played a particularly large role during the Battle of the Somme in France in July 1916, with former Nationalist Member of Parliament from east Tyrone Tom Kettle among the thousands killed.

“Irish Swept Ginchy Like a Whirl-wind,” a headline in The New York Times later read, adding: “Munsters and Dublins, New Men and Old, Did Deeds to Make Their Brigadier Weep.”

WWI Irish Remembered

Despite such heroism, Irish involvement in World War I was ultimately marked by deep ambivalence. The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats captured this in his 1918 poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” which includes the contemplative lines: “Those that I fight I do not hate / Those that I guard I do not love.”

The role Irish soldiers played in World War I has remained ambiguous, though that might finally be changing.

Earlier this year, a host of Irish dignitaries gathered at Google’s Dublin headquarters to launch an online archive (http://imr.inflandersfields.be/search.html) documenting all of the Irish soldiers who died in The Great War.

“While the digitization and online access to this record will be a rich resource for genealogy, most significant is its value in facilitating the simple and important act of remembering the individuals, Irish men and women, who lost their lives in the First World War,” said Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Eamon Gilmore.

Patriotism & Espionage

If the Connaught Rangers marched off to war in 1914 singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” it makes perfect sense that New York’s 77th Division, dubbed the “Melting Pot Division,” had their own tune. The lyrics (by Irish American John Mullin) celebrated “the democratic army” and the brave “Jews and Wops and dirty Irish cops” who were headed off to war.

Among the thousands of Irish Americans to enlist was Butte, Montana’s Peter Thompson, one of 12 children born in Antrim. Thompson (as noted in David Laskin’s excellent book The Long Way Home) left Ireland in 1914, just in time for the war to start, which dried up work in Butte’s copper mines. As war talk in the U.S. heated up, Thompson heard Irish relatives say they hoped the Kaiser and Germany would prevail over the hated Brits.

But Thompson decided to join the U.S. Army in 1917, serving with Company E, 362nd Infantry, 91st Wild West Division, rising to the rank of sergeant.Two of Thompson’s brothers, in Ire-land, also fought on the side of the British.

The arguments in the Thompson family reflect the split in Irish America once the U.S. entered the war in 1917. Despite the family fissures, thousands of Irish Americans dutifully served in the war effort (and others, like Cork-born NYPD detective Tom Tunney cracked spy rings closer to home). From Congressional Medal of Honor winner “Wild Bill” Donovan to Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the heavily-Irish “Fighting 69th,” Irish America produced many heroes during World War I. But the ancient wars of the old country heavily influenced many Irish Americans as well.

As Howard Blum notes in his new book Dark Invasion, about German espionage in America during World War I, a German spy working the New York waterfront “noted that many of the stevedores were Irish, and when he heard them openly snarling about having to load a ship flying the Union Jack” the spy believed this “was a visceral hatred he would exploit.”

During the war years, some Irish American figures openly agitated against Britain; Irish nationalist John Devoy even helped organize a massive Irish/German rally at Madison Square Garden on June 24, 1915.

“For the revolutionaries of Irish America, the war in Europe in 1914 posed none of the moral imperatives that the Second World War would impose,” Terry Golway writes in Irish Rebel, a biography of John Devoy, adding that many Irish nationalists in the U.S. believed “Ireland’s liberty…would best be served by a German victory.”

Once the U.S. entered the war in 1917, authorities very much began questioning the loyalties of Irish Americans. Irish publications were censored, banned or shut down while key Irish nationalists were indicted on charges of conspiracy or espionage after the Annie Larsen affair in 1917. This was an effort by an alliance involving India’s Ghadar Party, the Irish Republican  Brotherhood and the German Foreign Office to ship American weapons (on the schooner Annie Larsen)  to India for a revolt against the British Raj.

President Woodrow Wilson and others launched a series of attacks questioning the loyalty of anyone who did not seem “100 percent American.” Such charges would haunt the Irish for at least another decade, as evidenced by the post-war rise of the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, culminating in the hateful attacks on Irish Catholic Al Smith in 1928, during the New York governor’s doomed race to become America’s first Catholic president.

Meanwhile, a civil war of sorts broke out amongst the Irish in America, after the Great War ended. Devoy and his allies feuded with Irish leader Eamon de Valera over the future of the Irish independence movement and whether or not to accept the Free State proposal in 1922.

In short, whether fighting on the Western Front, or agitating for Irish Freedom in New York, World War I was a tense, complicated experience for the Irish.

Which makes it easy to forget the quiet sacrifices of soldiers like Antrim’s Peter Thompson, who, upon returning from the war to Butte, Montana, was told by an Irish aunt: “You sound like an American!”

Thompson replied: “I am an American – I’ve my papers to prove it.” ♦

3 Responses to “The Irish and World War I”

  1. brian says:

    Enjoyed reading your piece. However it gives the impression that the GPO was occupied by 1500 men. Clearly not the case.

  2. Sean Curtain says:

    The war of 1914e-1918 war for long known as the Great War, and the war of 1861-186y5 here in the States is called the Civil War. The terms “Great War” and “Civil War” seem contradictory because there is nothing “great” or “civil” about the carnage and destruction of any war.

  3. Gail says:

    Very balanced article.

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