What will the British do?

Very few writers have given the Irish home rule crisis sufficient attention as one of the factors that enabled the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, and yet there can be little doubt about it

Wed, May 14, 2014, 01:00

‘The influence of the Irish crisis on German policy has generally been underestimated,” Northern Ireland historian ATQ Stewart wrote in his thriller-like The Ulster Crisis in 1967.

More than 25,000 books and articles have seen the light on the origins of the first World War, but very few have paid attention to the Home Rule crisis as a factor that led to the outbreak of war in the fateful summer of 1914. And yet there can be no doubt that the Home Rule crisis played its part.

The turn of the century saw some major changes in the European alliance systems. The result was that the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, were encircled by the Triple Entente of France, Russia and the United Kingdom.

Strategically, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians were at a distinct disadvantage as a war would require them to fight on two fronts although the German General Staff was confident it could beat both the French and the Russians. A quick knock-out blow of the French in the west would enable the Germans quickly to transfer the might of their army to deal with the advancing Russians in the east, who, until then, would have been kept busy by some of their divisions and the bulk of the Austro-Hungarian army. It was the Schlieffen Plan, which would badly backfire on the Marne in 1914 and lead to trench warfare.

But what would the British do? This was a preoccupying question for Berlin as they had a powerful navy, a vast empire and huge financial resources. And it was not at all clear if London would decide to intervene on the continent in case of a generalised war. The British army and navy’s strategic commitment to the French and Russians remained ill-defined.

But Berlin was well aware that the British government was experiencing increasing difficulties in Ireland where nationalists and unionists were at daggers drawn over Home Rule. Initially the Irish question remained confined to the constitutional arena. But, could the Irish crisis not prevent the British from entering a continental war, or at least delay them crucially?

In 1901 and 1904, the maverick politician Frank Hugh O’Donnell, nicknamed “Crank Hugh” within the Nationalist Party, contacted the Germans with an offer of an alliance to oppose British imperial policy. On a second attempt he so impressed Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow that the latter offered him 60,000 marks if successful. But the plan was quickly abandoned as the Germans worried they would be compromised if it became publicly known.

The more radical fringe of Irish nationalists were looking for new allies as France, Ireland’s historical ally, had signed the Entente Cordiale with Britain in 1904. It was not a military alliance as such, but it was clear that the French and the British would co-operate.

Until that year, some in France had been seriously exploring the possibility of launching an attack on Britain, through Ireland, during the Boer War. The military archives in Vincennes contain boxes of reports written by French military intelligence which reveal that the French had identified four landing places in Cork: Ballycotton Bay, Courtmacsherry Bay, Kinsale Harbour and Oysterhaven. Topography, quality of the roads, coastal defences, morale of the local troops, had all been assessed and there had also been contacts with local nationalists. Unfortunately the reports are silent on both who their spies were and who they contacted.

Strikingly, once the Entente Cordiale was signed, French military intelligence lost interest in Ireland almost overnight as a sudden lack of Irish material in Vincennes makes clear. Its interest was revived again in about 1913 when the home rule crisis threatened the stability of France’s British ally.

In Berlin, Emperor Wilhelm II, aka the Kaiser, became more and more frustrated with Britain’s attitude to Germany and more and more aggressive in his comments on Ireland. He was regularly informed on the evolving Irish question by historian Dr Theodor Schiemann who secretly corresponded with George Freeman, a journalist specialised in foreign affairs and working for the Gaelic American in New York, the newspaper owned by Clan na Gael leader John Devoy. Their correspondence reveals information on Ireland, and occasional work of a cloak-and-dagger nature like trying to ascertain how many Irishmen were in the Royal Navy, and contacts with Middle-Eastern anti-British nationalists.

The German embassy in London also informed the Kaiser on the Home Rule crisis. In September 1912, the embassy wrote that “the worst cruelties” would happen in Ireland if the Conservatives managed to get rid of the Home Rule Bill. The Kaiser wrote in the margin : “No disaster” – his marginalia have attracted the attention of historians who have interpreted them differently, some seeing them were merely as the product of an excitable mind. But his comments on Ireland were perfectly consistent. He had grasped that the Irish crisis was a Störkunktion, a disruptive function, in the formulation of British foreign policy and lucidly commented on the failure to establish a solid Irish-American/German-American co-operation in order to prevent any alliance between Washington and London.

There was also some interaction between Berlin and Vienna about Ireland. In November 1908, Frank Hugh O’Donnell met the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in London again to propose a plan of alliance. Although he found Crank Hugh’s “views a little exaggerated and eccentric”, the ambassador was sufficiently impressed to send a full report to Vienna and although marked “secret”, the latter passed it on the Germans, knowing that Berlin had an interest in Irish affairs. The matter was entrusted to Schiemann who contacted Freeman in New York. Freeman emphatically warned against having anything to do with O’Donnell, an “an impostor and a dangerous one”. A taste of the divisions among Irish nationalists.

On December 8th 1912, after receiving news from London that Britain would not tolerate the crushing of France by Germany, the Kaiser ordered his top generals and admirals, including Helmuth von Moltke and Alfred von Tirpitz, to a meeting which went down in history as the War Council. Moltke argued in favour of war, “the sooner the better” as Germany’s potential enemies were increasing in strength. Tirpitz countered by saying that “the navy would prefer to see the postponement of the great fight for one and a half years”.

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