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


‘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”.

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.

On August 2nd, Grey told an equally dismayed French ambassador that the sending of the BEF was not possible right now. But later in the day, the British cabinet at last decided that if Germany violated Belgium, then the United Kingdom would declare war.

On August 3rd, Grey addressed a packed and tense House of Commons. He explained that the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and the crushing of France would not be tolerated. He then suddenly said: “One thing I would say: the one bright spot in the very dreadful situation is Ireland. The position in Ireland –-and this I should like to be clearly understood abroad – is not a consideration among the things we have to take into account now.” This confirmed that the British government believed, or knew, that Berlin was relying on the paralysing Irish factor hobbling the United Kingdom’s foreign policy.

In Vienna, General Conrad wrote in his diary on the same day: “England’s attitude proves to be unfriendly and doubtful. To [our] Military Attaché [in London], it seems, however, that there is no desire for war for the time being, taking into account the Ulster crisis and the civil war.” To point out that there was no civil war in Ireland is to miss the point. What is important here is the interpretation. Surely, the British could not enter the war. It was a wrong assessment.

That there was no civil war was largely due to John Redmond’s speech, just after Grey’s. Before speaking, Redmond told his colleagues that he would suggest that the Irish Volunteers and the UVF should together defend the country against a foreign, ie German, invasion. One of his MPs agreed, another demurred, deeming that the Bachelors’ Walk massacre was too fresh in people’s minds. Moreover, only a few days beforehand Redmond had received a letter from the inspector-general of the Irish Volunteers who argued that Irish reservists ought to be instructed not to join the army unless Home Rule was immediately implemented.

Redmond chose to go ahead with his speech. The House was stunned and then erupted into a tremendous ovation. At 7pm, Germany declared war on France.

On August 4th at 8am, the German army invaded Belgium. At 11 pm, after an ultimatum had expired, a united United Kingdom declared war on Germany. On August 5th, the decision was taken to send the BEF to France. On August 12th, the British were at war with Austria-Hungary.

ATQ Stewart’s remark on German policy and the Irish crisis was vindicated. It is that crisis – and also the divisions inside Asquith’s cabinet – that explains why it took the British so long to commit themselves to support the French and the Russians. If Asquith had been at the head of a united United Kingdom from the start of the July Crisis, would he have been in a position to make a strong statement that might have impressed Berlin and Vienna and persuade them to adopt another policy? There will never be a definitive answer to this question of course.

In another counterfactual scenario, if Redmond had instead insisted on the immediate implementation of Home Rule for the whole of Ireland and fighting had been the result, would the miracle of the Marne, stopping the Germans near Paris, have happened?

General Alexander von Kluck claimed that his 1st army failed to take the French capital because of the stubborn resistance of the BEF. What if the BEF had been in Ireland, fighting against the Irish Volunteers and the UVF? After all General Sir Henry Wilson had threatened Asquith that this might well happen.

British historians have generally described Grey’s speech as brilliant. It might well have been brilliant, but the most momentous, and ultimately the most important speech was Redmond’s. How could Grey possibly speak of Ireland as a “one bright spot” after the Bachelors’ Walk Massacre? That no fighting erupted was nothing short of a miracle. Redmond’s selfless intervention had a soothing effect.

In the words of the famed British historian George Dangerfield: “Ireland’s leader, the successor of Parnell, had just rendered an enormous service to the British Empire and ruined his own career.” The nationalist leader had also rendered an enormous service to the Triple Entente.

The Irish crisis does not help in answering the question if the first World War was the product of a long process of deterioration, or if Germany was responsible for the war. Surviving archives do not reveal that German and Austro-Hungarian subversive actions took place in Ireland although it was clear that Berlin had reached the conclusion that the Irish factor was able to hamper British foreign policy. It may also have been a serious case of wishful-thinking in Berlin and Vienna.

And yet what can definitively be stated is that the Home Rule crisis played an important part in the chain of events that began in Sarajevo and led to the outbreak of war.

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