The First World War saw an estimated 200,000 Irishmen serve in the British Army. Those that survived returned to a changed Ireland, their sacrifices unappreciated in the new political landscape. This exhibition examines the Irish experience of the War through the collections of the Library of Trinity College Dublin.
At the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, over 58,000 Irishmen were either serving in the British Army or on the reserve list. All reservists were recalled to their regiments. Despite general optimism that the War would be short, Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, persuaded the British Cabinet to plan for a three year fight and called for recruits for new armies. The 10th (Irish) and 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions were formed in August and September. In all, 75,342 Irishmen joined up during the first year of the War, over 50,000 of them in the first six months.
Enlistment was encouraged by extensive advertising. Some early posters lacked specific Irish context but very soon appeals were being made to a sense of sportsmanship, to Roman Catholic sympathies, or to chivalry and a sense of honour. Others took advantage of specific events, such as the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. Despite these appeals, the level of recruiting declined from early 1916 at a rate very similar to the fall-off in Great Britain.
The level of enlistment in Ireland fell quite rapidly from early 1916 until August 1918 but then picked up quite sharply in the last three months of the War. The declining rates of enlistment in Great Britain were solved by the imposition of conscription in February 1916 for, as Edward Carson remarked, ‘the necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all costs’.
In Ireland, political considerations prevailed and conscription, although threatened, was not introduced. The success of recruiting towards the end of the War was a response to an energetic publicity campaign. This emphasised the financial benefits and the opportunities in non-combatant posts as well as appealing to a sense of adventure in calls to join the Royal Air Force, despite the short life expectancy of pilots.
‘A Parliament freely elected by, and directly answerable to, the people of Ireland has alone the right to conscript Irish men’.
Eamon de Valera
There was a vocal anti-War minority from the start of the conflict. Besides the small group of pacifists this included those members of the Irish Volunteers who disagreed with the Redmondite position which felt it was Ireland's duty 'to the best of her ability to go where ever the firing line extends, in defence of right, of freedom and of religion in this war'. As early as 9 September 1914 some revolutionary leaders met in Dublin to consider the organisation of an insurrection. A great deal of anti-recruitment propaganda was produced to the dismay of the government which suppressed several periodicals including Sinn Féin and Irish Worker.
‘We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland’ banner installed by the Irish Citizen Army outside Liberty Hall, Dublin, 1916.
In January 1916 the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided upon an insurrection. Arrangements were made with Germany for the import of arms; the attempt to achieve this failed when the Aud (a German ship disguised as a Norwegian merchant ship transporting 20,000 rifles to the IRB) was arrested by a British naval patrol on 20 April. Despite this the Rising went ahead on Easter Monday 24 April 1916 and fighting, largely confined to Dublin, continued until 29 April. There were about 3000 casualties, of whom some 450 died. Initial feeling was hostile to the revolutionaries but the series of executions of leaders, fifteen in all, had a profound effect on public attitudes.
Following the Easter Rising, some hundreds of the insurgents were interned in Frongoch in Wales and not released until the end of 1916. During the course of the following year there was a noticeable shift of opinion to sympathy with the Sinn Féin position in the meetings of county councils and other local government bodies. In 1917 Sinn Féin recorded its first by-election victories in North Roscommon and South Longford. The final lot of prisoners convicted in the aftermath of the Rising were released in June 1917. Anti-War propaganda increased greatly in response to the Military Service (No. 2) Act in April 1918 which provided for the possible extension of conscription to Ireland. Sinn Féin, the Irish Parliamentary Party, the All-for-Ireland League and the Irish Labour Party representatives met to form a united front against it. In the general election held in December 1918 Sinn Féin gained 73 seats, other Nationalists 6 and Unionists 26.
The Experience of War
An estimated 200,000 Irishmen served in the British Army during the First World War. Many other Irish-born men fought and died with the American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand armies. Many Irish regiments - the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment and the South Irish Horse, were disbanded following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Irish soldiers fought in all the theatres of war from France to Egypt and suffered particularly heavy losses at the Somme and Gallipoli. Letters and diaries held in the Library of Trinity College detail individual experiences in the trenches and in the deserts; as officers and as prisoners of war; as medical staff, and as patients.
The British Expeditionary Force, including Irish Infantry and Cavalry regiments, entered France in August 1914 and marched to stop the German advance through Belgium and Northern France. The first shot fired by the British Army in the War was discharged by Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards just north of Mons on August 22nd. On the following day, Lt Maurice Dease from Mullingar, who was serving with the Royal Fusiliers, attempted to stop the German advance into the city with his machine gun unit. He died fighting and was posthumously awarded the first Victoria Cross of the War.
‘Acres & acres & acres of utter desolation without even a blade of grass as far as the eye can reach … and all through it scattered about the little wooden crosses ...’ Charles Wyndham Wynne, France, 1917.
The experience of mud and trench warfare is the commonly remembered one, but other soldiers found themselves fighting in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Iraq (Mesopotamia). At the beginning of November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, the world's greatest independent Islamic power, abandoned its neutrality and became involved in the conflict, with the Sultan declaring a military jihad against France, Russia and Great Britain. In a pre-emptive strike, an Anglo-Indian force was sent to Basra, near the estuary of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. This was done to protect the Anglo-Persian oil pipeline, which was vital to the Royal Navy, and to secure the strategically-important area in the Persian Gulf.
'The camp is studded with palm trees amongst which our tents are scattered with less attempt at military regularity than endeavour to obtain all available shade'. Major Richard WG Hingston, Nasiriyah, Iraq, 1916.
‘Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor’.
Thomas Kettle, 'To my Daughter Betty, the Gift of God'.
The casualty lists grew inexorably. The War Office lists were reprinted in the newspapers and relatives informed of the deaths by official telegrams. In the absence of bodies to bury, the expression of grief was a private matter, but even before the War ended some memorial windows and tablets were dedicated in churches.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them’.
Laurence Binyon, 'For the Fallen'
With the return of peace, a wide range of commemorative works was undertaken. Monuments were raised overseas to the dead of the Irish divisions at Thiepval, Guinchy, Wytschaete and Salonika. At home they were erected in several cities and towns including Portadown, Longford, Bray, Cahir and Cork. In Dublin, the National War Memorial was built between 1931 and 1938 at Islandbridge to a design by Sir Edward Lutyens. In Trinity College a Hall of Honour was built in 1928 to the west of the Old Library to serve eventually as the entrance to a new Reading Room opened in 1937. The latest monument, the Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin Cemetery, erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in partnership with the Glasnevin Trust and unveiled on 31 July 2014, is the first CWGC monument in the Republic of Ireland.
After 1919 the principal day for public commemoration became Armistice Day, 11 November, and the annual parades were well attended. In Northern Ireland the parades tended to become an assertion of Britishness but this was much less the case in the (then) Irish Free State. Under Ireland’s policy of neutrality during World War II, remembrance parades were banned in Dublin for the duration of the War. Commemoration became largely confined to Protestant church services.
A revival of interest in Ireland’s contribution to and relationship with the War began in the 1960s with the publication of H. Harris, 'The Irish Regiments in the First World War' (Cork, 1969). The focus of research moved to the universities with distinguished work being produced by scholars in the University of Ulster, Queen’s University and Trinity College. The current high level of public engagement with events and commemorations marks a retrieval of a neglected part of the history of Ireland.
'And while it is hard for us to recover imaginatively what life in the trenches was really like, again it is perhaps through reading the writings of the soldiers themselves that we can gain a better sense of the experience of those who fought and lived on the battlefields'.
President Michael D Higgins at the unveiling of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin 31 July 2014.
Text — Charles Benson and Estelle Gittins
Curation — Estelle Gittins
Images — Gillian Whelan
Technical Support — Greg Sheaf
Role — This online exhibition draws on a 2008 physical exhibition curated by Dr Charles Benson, Keeper of Early Printed Books, The Library of Trinity College Dublin. It is dedicated to his memory.