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 significance of the War Council has divided historians, some arguing that it was only one of the Kaiser’s theatrical swashbuckling decisions. But war did break out one and a half years later, a most striking coincidence, and the same people were still in power .

Three weeks after the War Council, the German military attaché in London wrote that British intervention on the continent would be dependent on Ireland and India being at peace.

In Ireland, the home rule crisis was no longer confined to the constitutional arena as the UVF and the Irish Volunteers were established in 1913 and home rule was due to become operational in 1914. It looked as if a civil war, with the British army squeezed between the two paramilitary forces, was a serious possibility.

In October, the German military attaché in Britain sent a report, now sadly missing, on the readiness of the UVF. It was transmitted to the Ministry of War in Berlin and then to the General Staff, the Military Cabinet and the Kaiser. In November, the German embassy in London wrote that “so long as Ireland is in the foreground of internal policy, England’s parties will be compelled to manage their foreign policy cautiously and with discretion”.

That was soon made very clear. When a German military mission arrived in Constantinople the following month, the Russians got worried as it had been their long- term ambition to control the Turkish Straits in order to enable their Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea to cross into the eastern Mediterranean. However, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey explained to the Russian chargé d’affaires that the British would not intervene in this issue because of the difficult internal situation and the Irish crisis.

In March 1914, the so-called Curragh Incident occurred when British officers declared they would rather resign that fight against the UVF. Although the crisis was quickly settled, the French and the Russians had doubts about the reliability of the British army. In Vienna and Budapest, newspapers spoke of a crisis in British democracy and a future civil war in Ulster. The same month, the German consulate in Sydney reported that the Irish Home Rule crisis was dividing Australia.

In April, the Larne gun-running took place, when the UVF smuggled in 20,000 rifles from Austria-Hungary by way of Hamburg. Research in national and local archives could not establish whether Berlin and Vienna had a hand in it. King George V told the ambassadors of Austria-Hungary, Germany and France that he feared a civil war was on the cards in Ireland.

On June 28th, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. Events now gathered momentum. The so-called July Crisis developed when governments wondered who was going to do what. On July 15th, the German embassy reported that civil war in Ireland was a distinct possibility. The Kaiser wrote in the margin: “War of Thirty Years!” and his Under-Secretary of State, Arthur Zimmermann, declared that the British government did not want a full-scale war on the continent because of the Irish crisis.

On July 21st, George V opened the Buckingham Palace conference, a last ditch attempt to find an acceptable Home Rule solution for both nationalists and unionists. It ended in a miserable failure three days later. In Vienna, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of Staff, noted in his diary that the conference had failed and that civil war was threatening.

On July 25th, Serbia rejected Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum, demanding humiliating terms after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The next day, a British regiment killed four people and wounded 40 others in Dublin after a gun-running for the Irish Volunteers. So soon after the failure of the Buckingham Palace Conference, the Bachelors’ Walk massacre seemed to mark the beginning of the long-expected civil war in Ireland. The Austrian press spoke about “alarming news from Ulster” and “Belfast rebel divisions” taking up position in the city. In Luxembourg, the press announced the beginning of the civil war. This perception was wrong.

On July 26th, the Belgian minister in Berlin reported that the Germans could now wage war in “extremely favourable circumstances” and quoted the reasons: the Russian army was not yet fully reorganised, the French had problems with their artillery and “England (…) is paralysed by her internal dissensions and her Irish quarrels”.

On July 28th, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Now, the alliance mechanism came into play and one great power after the other became involved. But what would the United Kingdom do?

In London, Herbert Asquith was passionately in love with a young woman about 40 years younger than him. In his detailed and politically indiscrete correspondence with her the Liberal Prime Minister makes clear his preoccupation with the Irish crisis and current financial problems.

His letter of the 30th of July has however not received sufficient attention in the analysis of the July Crisis. That day, he secretly met Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law and Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. His political opponents persuaded him that it was now an urgent priority to focus on the events on the Balkans rather than on Home Rule. According to Asquith: “I agreed and read to them the latest telegrams from Berlin which, in my judgement, assume that the German Government are calculating upon internal weaknesses to affect our foreign policy”. Asquith was keenly aware of a correlation between the Irish and Serbian crises but he failed to act decisively. His problem was not only the Irish and financial problems but also his cabinet where a majority of ministers were opposed to an intervention on the continent. And how would Nationalist leader John Redmond react?

On August 1st, Grey told a dismayed Russian ambassador that the sending of a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was presently not possible, “a force which the government could use for possible inner troubles in the kingdom”. In the evening, Germany declared war on Russia which had mobilised to assist Serbia against Austria-Hungary. Later, German units entered Luxembourg. They were on their way to Belgium.

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