Neither Unionist nor Nationalist: the 10th (Irish) Division in the Great War

Military manoeuvre: horses are unloaded from a British ship during the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. Photograph: Getty Images

Military manoeuvre: horses are unloaded from a British ship during the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. Photograph: Getty Images

Mon, Feb 9, 2015, 15:33


Book Title:
Neither Unionist nor Nationalist: the 10th (Irish) Division in the Great War


Stephen Sandford

Irish Academic Press

Guideline Price:

It is a case of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. The 10th (Irish) Division was the original volunteer unit recruited in this country as a consequence of General Kitchener’s appeal in August 1914 for 100,000 men to enlist, train and go to the aid of the tiny British Expeditionary Force then suffering catastrophic losses in France and Belgium. It was also the first Irish unit involved in a major military offensive when it was landed at a chaotic Suvla Bay, in Gallipoli, in August 1915 with rudimentary instructions about what to do when it got there.

But its more illustrious fellow Irish units, the nationalist 16th (Irish) and loyalist 36th (Ulster) divisions, found their chroniclers many years before the 10th could claim parity. In 1922 Cyril Falls, a Dubliner and a former officer in the 36th, told a version of the story of the covenanting Ulstermen. In 1992 a more dispassionate chronicler, Terence Denman, became one of the pioneers of southern Irish remembrance of the Great War when he took up the story of the largely Redmondite 16th (Irish) Division.

The 10th division had to be content with an engaged but imperfect narrative, Maj Bryan Cooper’s The Tenth (Irish) Division in Gallipoli. This account ends with the evacuation of the remnants of the division from that debacle in September 1915.

Now, at last, the 10th has a worthy chronicler in Stephen Sandford, who takes the division from recruitment, through training, on to the Dardanelles, thence to Salonica and, finally, the Middle East. Sandford, understandably, devotes most of the space to the travails of the 10th on the Gallipoli peninsula, but his account of this often shadowy and neglected Irish unit is fuller and more intellectually rigorous than that of the quintessential “military type” Maj Cooper.

Early difficulties

Not Particularly Irish, Either Neither Unionist nor Nationalist

It was raised along with five other divisions as part of Kitchener’s so-called K1: the first 100,000 volunteer recruits. But by the time the 13th (Western) Division had persuaded almost 28,000 English men to abandon their homes and jobs for what Wilfred Owen later called “the old lie” of military service and sacrifice, the recruiters of the 10th had managed to cajole only 5,000 Irish men into making the same decision. This was by early September 1914, a fortnight before John Redmond’s pivotal speech at Woodenbridge in which he encouraged Irish men to enlist and to go “to where the firing line extends”. So, of course, there was an instant surge into the ranks of the 10th after Redmond’s ill-fated démarche.

Actually, there wasn’t. In fact, as Sandford points out, recruitment levels fell in the wake of Redmond’s intervention. Whether the reluctance to join the 10th was related to personal decisions to await the formation of more politicised units, the unwillingness of farmers’ sons to abandon their increasingly lucrative occupations or the initial rejection of hundreds of working-class men on health grounds, the fact is that the 10th had to be brought up to its full complement by the drafting of many British recruits into its ranks. Most of these were surprised, and some were aggrieved, at finding themselves in an Irish division when they had sought to join their local regiments in Wiltshire, Cornwall or Wales.

Sandford largely eschews narrative in favour of a detailed and informative analysis of, for example, the social, geographical or religious composition of the division, as well as its disciplinary record, training experience and leadership. He also makes a feature of comparisons between the 10th and another unit raised at the same time, the entirely English 13th (Western) Division. Though initially recruited to support the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, they were the only two K1 divisions not to serve on the Western Front. Because it is a meticulous study of a military unit rather than a detailed recounting of its war experience the volume can sometimes read like a rewritten PhD thesis, fascinating and valuable for the well informed but a little alienating for the more casual reader.

But regularly a nugget emerges from this dusty landscape to satisfy those with a preference for anecdote. A case in point is the cautionary tale of the Australian-born officer HG Montagu who served with the 7th Royal Munster Fusiliers. He must have proved useful in Gallipoli, as much of his military experience had been with the Turkish army. But he almost didn’t make it to the Dardanelles, as it was discovered that he deserted the British army in 1911 to join the Turks, and he was almost cashiered for bouncing cheques while the division trained in England. But the chronic shortage of experienced officers meant the army overlooked his peccadilloes.

Later it emerged that he was also suspected of murder. He was recalled from Gallipoli to answer this charge after his usefulness ended when he was wounded. While in hospital in England he was reported for morphine addiction and finally forced to resign his commission. He then re-enlisted as a private in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was killed on November 23rd, 1916, but was later reportedly seen by a friend in Bournemouth, accompanying a woman who was not his wife. A military-police investigation failed to substantiate the friend’s report, and we hear no more of the disreputable Montagu.

Challenges specialists

Cooper’s claims are subjected to rigorous analysis. The problem is that many of Cooper’s more sweeping contentions clearly do not bear much scrutiny. His casual assertion that most of the recruits into the 10th coming from England were Irish born is challenged and dispatched by Sandford, exposed as special pleading.

Sandford is right to be sceptical about the avowals of a narrator who was too much in love with his narrative. Cooper was a highly engaged curator rather than an objective scribe. After a while Sanford’s forensic analysis of Cooper’s work begins to feel like shooting fish in a barrel. But his scrutiny is a perfectly valid and rigorous form of revisionism. Sandford certainly doesn’t share Cooper’s “Stockholm syndrome” in his final assessment of the 10th as “solid if unspectacular”.

In the final paragraph of his work, published in 1918, Cooper demonstrated his ignorance of the zeitgeist when he wrote that “Ireland will not easily forget the deeds of the 10th division”. In fact Ireland, south of the Border, all too easily forgot this hybrid unit. In his unsentimental account of the war record of the 10th (Irish) Division Stephen Sandford has, at last, done justice to what Keith Jeffrey describes as “the exotic experience” of the first Kitchener formation to be raised in Ireland.

Myles Dungan presents The History Show on RTÉ Radio 1