Hostility to Roger Casement from Irish prisoners of war revealed in new files

Casement’s attempt to raise German-Irish brigade an abysmal failure

Roger Casement was attacked and had to be rescued by German soldiers from a first World War prisoner-of-war camp when he tried to recruit Irish detainees to fight Britain, according to files newly released by the UK National Archives.

As part of the centenary commemorations for the year, the archives have released MI5 files in relation to people regarded as spies or traitors at that time.

Along with Casement, they include the notorious spy Mata Hari and the nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed by the Germans. Casement was regarded as a particularly dangerous threat to Britain and a £5,000 reward was offered for his capture during the war.

Several hundred pages of new correspondence have been released relating to Casement’s wartime activities. They detail the lengths to which Casement and the Germans went to try to raise a German-Irish brigade to fight against Britain. The files include detailed interviews with Irish prisoners of war who were released as part of a prisoner exchange during the conflict. These reveal the extent of the hostility faced by Casement when he visited them in a German prison camp.

In late 1914 the Germans moved all the Irish prisoners from other camps to one at Limburg in southern Germany with a view to raising a brigade to fight against the British. They enlisted Casement's help, having promised to support an Irish brigade with a German auxiliary corps which would be sent to Ireland to fight against the British once Germany secured naval supremacy.

Casement visited the prison camps in early 1915 claiming to be the "right-hand man of the Kaiser". According to an account by Private John Cronin from Co Cork, the men were furious when Casement denounced John Redmond as a "traitor" and the Home Rule Bill as a "pretence". "As soon as the men realised who he was and what was his aim, they set upon him, and he was only saved by the German sentries from serious injury." As a result of their behaviour, rations were stopped for the Irish prisoners of war for three days.

Private Daniel O’Brien from Co Laois told interrogators that the prisoners got “fed up with him [Casement], hissed him and booed him and told him to go about his business”. The men gave one corporal a “terrible hiding” when he signed up for the brigade.

On arrival at Limburg the Irish prisoners were promised better treatment than their English equivalents, but the Germans quickly reneged once it became clear the brigade was not going to happen.

“They cut our food short for about two months and tried to starve us out and worked the prisoners very hard,” one private said. Another said the dinner got worse and “the cabbage soup got thinner”. Men were forced to work in mines and quarries; most believed it was an attempt to put pressure on them into joining the brigade.

The Germans increased the pressure by allowing those who signed up to appear in front of cold and hungry prisoners wearing smart German-made uniforms. "They [the Germans] had them sitting there smoking cigars, and with wine, in good German uniforms, with food before them and enjoying themselves properly," recalled one sergeant. Private James Wilson from Dublin said some of the recruits came into the camp wearing civilian clothes to show how well they had been treated by the Germans. "We cursed and swore at them and called them all sorts of names, and said we would have them shot if we saw them in England. I said I would strangle them if I got a chance."

Pte Wilson recalled another private telling Casement: “If you are waiting for any of us to join and you are going to shoot us or ill treat us if we don’t, you’d better start now” to which others replied “hear! hear!” Pte Wilson concluded that none of the men would sign up because the “Irishmen despise the Germans and would cut their throats if they had the chance”.

The Germans told the men they would get special treatment if Germany won the war and free passage to the United States and £10 if they lost.

Casement's plans to raise an Irish brigade failed. Just 56 out of 2,200 prisoners joined. Most of these were recruited by an Irish-American priest, Fr John Nicholson, who entered the camp in 1915.

The National Archives also released substantial files relating to Casement’s trial for high treason. During interrogation, Casement defended his actions saying it was an “absolute lie” that he had tried to “seduce” men to join the German army. “I never tried to seduce them from their duty. I told him [sic] if he was an Irishman, there was a chance of fighting for Ireland on terms honourable to any Irishman.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times