Counting the Irish dead

There is little consensus on the actual number of Irishmen who were killed in the Great War. It is unlikely we will ever get a definitive reckoning

La Bascule - This year’s remembrance, at site outside Mons, of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and a battle when Irishman Maurice Dease became the first of the War’s winners of the Victoria Cross

La Bascule - This year’s remembrance, at site outside Mons, of the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and a battle when Irishman Maurice Dease became the first of the War’s winners of the Victoria Cross

 

It is now generally accepted that the number of Irishmen who left this country as members of the army, navy, as reservists or as volunteers between 1914 and 1918, was roughly 210,000. This does not include the many Irish-born soldiers who enlisted (or were conscripted) in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere.

There is far less consensus on how many members of that cohort died. The Irish National War Memorial Records (INWMR), compiled in the early 1920s, lists 49,647 Irish fatalities, North and South. However, included in this register are the names of more than 11,000 men born outside Ireland. Most of these are British soldiers who served in Irish units like the Dublin Fusiliers, the Munsters, the Inniskillings or the Connaught Rangers.

According to www.findmypast.ie, only 30,986 of the names recorded in the INWMR are of men born in Ireland. A third category lists the names of 7,405 men who are of unknown origin. These include, to cite but two of the most egregious examples, the former Irish Party MP Tom Kettle (from Dublin) and the first Victoria Cross winner of the war Maurice Dease (born in Westmeath).

Of those whose birthplaces are recorded (just over 42,000), Irish-born soldiers make up about three-quarters of the total. Extrapolating from that ratio and applying it to the 7,405 of unknown origin – perhaps a dubious piece of methodology – we would arrive at a total figure for Irish dead of about 36,500.

However, more than 75 per cent of those in that third category may well be Irish. Of the mysterious 7,405 names, almost 1,000 are those of men who died in the service of non-UK armies (Australia, US, etc). Why would they have been included in the INWMR unless they had been born in this country, albeit their connection with Ireland was not revealed in final documents.

Morbidity ratio

But what was the Irish ‘death rate’ in the Great War? The overall morbidity ratio for the United Kingdom as a whole in WW1 – total dead (720,000) as against total enlistments (5, 700,000) – was 1:8. To arrive at a comparable Irish ratio we must subtract from that putative total of 36,500 those Irishmen who died while serving in British regiments. A close study of the INWMR by this writer reveals about 8,500 such names – 6,000 of those in English units.

That would mean that about 28,000 of the 210,000 Irishmen who left this island between 1914-18 to fight in the Great War, died or were listed as “missing presumed dead”. This makes sense, as it is close to the figure of 27,405 recorded in the 1926 Census report as being the number of Irish deaths (excluding officers) that took place on active service outside the UK between 1914-18. That would mean a morbidity ratio of 1:7 for Ireland. The comparable figure for England is 1:9, for Wales 1:7 and for Scotland a chilling 1:4 (has Alex Salmond been alerted to this statistic?)

There are, however, numerous caveats with all these calculations. As with the Irish recruitment figures, they do not include the Irishmen who died in armies other than that of Britain. Australian academic Jeff Kildea has made a close study of the war records of his country. He is able to verify the presence of 6,000 Irish-born recruits in the Australian Imperial Force, of whom 900 died. Anecdotal evidence suggests a figure of about 1,200 dead for the Irish who fought in the army of the USA.

If, as assumed, there were almost 20,000 Irish-born recruits and conscripts in the 620,000-strong Canadian force (which suffered 67,000 deaths) the Irish fatality total would be even greater.

The picture is further complicated when even a cursory study is made of a cross-section of the 2,600 men buried in Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC]graves in 681 cemeteries in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Some, a very small percentage, are not Irish. But, after some rudimentary research it is clear that many of those Irishmen have not found their way into the Irish National War Memorial Records.

In addition, a number of local historians (Brian Scanlon in Sligo, Margaret Connolly in Leitrim, Mark Scott in Fermanagh, Michael Feeney in Mayo and Tom Burnell in Tipperary) have uncovered further discrepancies in the INWMR records. For example, in the case of Sligo, 395 names are recorded in the INWMR. To date, Scanlon has identified and verified 548 deceased veterans. Some 694 men from Mayo are listed in the INWMR. The poignantly beautiful Great War Memorial wall in the Peace Park in Castlebar has more than 1,100 names.

While some of these can easily be accounted for as men who came from counties with a high emigration rate and who died in the service of the USA or the ‘Colonial’ armies, much more work will have to be done before we can get closer to an accurate Irish morbidity figure.

The final total of all Irish-born soldiers who died in the Great War is likely to come to about 40,000. A definitive reckoning, given the extent to which the ‘fog of war’ pervades first World War fatality statistics, is too much to hope for.