Irish soldiers in the first World War: who, where and how many?

Researchers are seeking the truth about the Irish who fought – and died

The full poster reads: For the Glory of Ireland ‘Will you go or must I?’ Photograph: Buyenlarge/Getty

The full poster reads: For the Glory of Ireland ‘Will you go or must I?’ Photograph: Buyenlarge/Getty

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

How many Irish soldiers served in the first World War?

There are no simple answers. Prof Keith Jeffery, author of Ireland and the Great War, says it is impossible to say for certain, although at least 200,000 served.

We know that 28,000 Irish-born regular soldiers and 30,000 reservists were in the British army at the start of the war and were called up immediately. A further 148,000 signed up during the war, making a total of 206,000.

But as Jeffrey and others have pointed out, this does not include officers, men who joined the British navy or air force or men who served in the forces of Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

Neither does it include Irish emigrants in Britain who enlisted there and are not categorised as Irish.

Australia lists 4,731 of its first World War soldiers as having been born in Ireland, and more than 19,000 Irish-born soldiers served in the Canadian Corps.

How many Irish died in the war?

The figure of 49,435 war dead is the one inscribed on the Irish National War Memorial, at Islandbridge, based on the Irish Memorial Rolls drawn up after the war. Unfortunately, the rolls are full of inconsistencies. They list all those who died in Irish regiments, but many of those soldiers were not Irish, and many Irish who died in non-Irish regiments are not listed.

The rolls do list 30,986 soldiers who were born in Ireland. Prof John Horne of Trinity College Dublin says a figure of between 30,000 and 35,000 Irish war dead is a “conservative estimate, and one likely to rise”.

Others believe the figure may be much higher. A Thurles historian and author, Tom Burnell, has spent seven years “correcting the memorial records”, as he puts it. He believes the records account for only 50-60 per cent of Irish soldiers killed in the war. So far he has researched 16 counties, trawling newspapers and databases for named casualties. The Irish Memorial Roll lists 4,918 dead from Dublin, but Burnell says the true figure is 8,479. Similarly, the official figure for Cork is 2,244, but he puts it at 4,338.

Brian Scanlon has spent 15 years researching the war dead of Co Sligo. The roll lists 395 dead from the county, but he says he has found at least 554 who were killed. The spike in the figure is mostly accounted for by emigrants from the county who enlisted in England or Scotland and are therefore not included as either Sligo or Irish war dead.

Where did the Irish fight?

The Irish who were part of the British Expeditionary Force, as the field army sent to France was known, at the outbreak of war were involved in a number of notable actions. The Royal Irish Regiment at Mons was involved in a notable rearguard action, as were the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers at Etreux, in northern France, where the battalion was almost wiped out by a German force six times their number on August 27th, 1914.

By the end of 1914 the Irish regiments had lost more than 2,000 men, but 1915 was even worse. The Royal Munster Fusiliers and Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffered hundreds of dead on April 25th, 1915, during the invasion of Gallipoli. Another battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers sustained heavy losses during a gas attack at Ypres in May 1915.

The 10th (Irish) Division was the first of the raised Irish divisions to see action. It landed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli in August 1915 and suffered terribly both there and throughout the campaign, which ended in its evacuation. It spent the rest of the war in the forgotten campaign of Thessaloníki and, later, in the Middle East.

The 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division both spent the war on the Western Front, sustaining horrendous casualties. The 16th Irish Division was subject to a terrible gas attack in Easter Week 1916 that killed 550 mostly Irish soldiers at Hulluch, in northern France.

The 36th (Ulster) Division is best remembered for its casualties on the first day of the Somme offensive, the worst day in the history of the British army. The division sustained about 5,500 casualties on that day, July 1st, 1916.

The 16th Irish Division and 36th Ulster Division were involved in the successful Battle of Messines, at Ypres, in May 1917; their actions are marked by the Island of Ireland Peace Park, at Messines, which was opened by President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth in 1998. Both divisions suffered terrible casualties at Passchendaele in August 1917 and during the German spring offensive in 1918.