The Irish who marched to certain death

Irish volunteers went to war at the urging of John Redmond, but no one expected the huge numbers of casualties


If the dead could speak they would point their skeletal fingers at the rather corpulent figure who sent them to their doom.

The Sinn Féin propaganda leaflet which showed the Irish dead of the first World War pointing up at John Redmond remains one of the most powerful Irish images of the war. Redmond extolled the Irishmen of military age in a propaganda poster in widespread circulation. “Your first duty is to play your part in ending the war. Join an Irish Regiment today”. The corpses, pointing up at him, show the consequences.

On August 3rd, 1914, a day before Britain declared war on Germany, Redmond pledged in the House of Commons that nationalist Ireland would defend the shores of Ireland so the British could release their troops garrisoned in the country for frontline duties.

On September 20th of that year, two days after the Home Rule Bill had been given royal assent and was on the statute books, Redmond made his fateful speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, in which he went further than he had done in the House of Commons.

“The interests of the whole of Ireland are at stake in this war,” he told a gathering of Irish Volunteers. “Irishmen should go wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, of freedom and religion in this war.”

There are many who hold that this was a major blunder by Redmond, but this is largely a post facto analysis and ignores the context of the time.

Redmond had little choice, but to support the war. He understood that Ireland had to keep faith with Britain if Britain was to keep faith with Home Rule.

It was agreed to suspend the operation of the act for a year or until the war ended. Redmond’s mistake was to accept the received wisdom that this would be a short war.

It must also be stressed that Irish public opinion was strongly in favour of the war at the beginning. The German invasion of neutral Belgium and the atrocities carried out by German soldiers on Belgian civilians outraged Irish opinion. Would it be any different if such an admittedly unthinkable scenario was to happen today?

The former nationalist MP Tom Kettle was in Belgium at the time the war broke out attempting to purchase guns for the Irish Volunteers. What he saw convinced him that the Irish had a stake in the fight.

“The outbreak of war caught me in Belgium, where I was running arms for the National Volunteers, and on the 6th of August 1914, I wrote from Brussels in the Daily News that it was a war of ‘civilisation against barbarians’. I assisted for many weeks in the agony of the valiant Belgian nation,” he wrote.

When war broke out, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had effective control of the Irish Volunteers. Irish support for the war was so widespread that even among these nationalists who were prepared to fight for Ireland, some 92 per cent of them, or 175,000, sided with Redmond and joined what became the National Volunteers.

The rest, some 13,500 men who retained the name the Irish Volunteers, split from Redmond on the principle of not supporting the British war effort.

In an angry missive written just four days after Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech, Eoin McNeill wrote to the remaining Irish Volunteers.

“Mr Redmond has declared it to be the duty of the Irish Volunteers to take foreign service under a government which is not Irish. He has made this announcement without consulting the provincial committee, the volunteers themselves or the people of Ireland to whose service alone they are devoted.”

Deeply felt as it was, MacNeill’s view was the minority one. Redmond had powerful supporters, most notably the Catholic Church, which supported the war effort, and the mainstream media.

In August 1914, some 20,000 Irishmen were in the regular army and another 30,000 in the reserve. They were all called up. Some 7,000 of those reservists were also in the Irish Volunteers, depriving the newly formed National Volunteers of a cadre of officer material to train and drill.

It was quickly apparent that this would be a war beyond the scale of anything experienced in world history. The casualties sustained by the British at the Battle of Mons in August 1914, the first encounter with the Germans, profoundly shocked British people.

Yet the toll of about 600 dead among 1,600 casualties turned out to be a mere skirmish in the context of a war which would cost Britain and its Commonwealth dominions some 1.1 million lives, an unimaginable figure.

The Royal Irish Regiment, drawn mostly from the south-east, suffered some 300 casualties at the Battle of Mons.

The autumn of 1914 saw Irish regiments sustaining heavy casualties in multiple encounters with their more numerical German enemy.

On August 27th, the Royal Munster Fusiliers made a heroic stand at Etreux in the Aisne region, but it cost the battalion almost 200 dead and hundreds of prisoners. At the same time the Connaught Rangers were surrounded at Le Grand Fayt and 250 were taken prisoner.

The Royal Irish Regiment was again decimated at Le Pilly in October 1914. The Connaught Rangers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Irish Guards suffered terribly at the first major battle of the war from a British perspective, the first Battle of Ypres in October and November 1914.

The war would not be over by Christmas, and 1915 proved to be even more dreadful. The British regular army was spent, its territorials had suffered very badly, and now the volunteers who had signed up in the patriotic fervour of early 1914 were about to suffer as Lord Kitchener’s new army entered the fray.

The year of 1915 was one of serial failures for the British army starting with the catastrophe at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915. The 1st battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the 1st battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were slaughtered when they tried to come ashore at V Beach during the first day of the Gallipoli landings.

Hundreds were killed as they attempted to exit SS River Clyde, a converted collier and latter-day Trojan Horse, which was run aground but beached too far out. The men who came out of the sally ports at the side of the ship were cut down.

Out of the first 200 men down the gangway, 149 were killed outright and 30 were wounded.

Worse was to follow on the other side of V Beach where three companies of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers attempted to come ashore in rowing boats towed in towards the shore on lighters.

The rowing boats drifted broadside on to the Turkish machine guns and the men were slaughtered, some 600 killed or injured in 15 mad minutes.

In August a further calamity befell the 10th (Irish) Division in Gallipoli. These volunteer recruits, both Catholic and Protestant, were killed in their thousands on the rocky inclines around Suvla Bay. These included a large cadre of middle-class Irish volunteers, both Catholic and Protestant, who were attached to the 7th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

The failure of the Suvla Bay landings was to have a profound effect on Irish thinking about the war.

As one newspaper editorial put it: “Every one of us knows some Irish mother or wife bereaved, some Irish household darkened as the cost of the landing at Suvla Bay.”

The novelist Katharine Tynan observed: “Dublin was full of mourning, and in the faces one met there was a hard brightness of pain as though the people’s hearts burnt in the fire and were not consumed.”

At the same time the Dubs’ sister battalion, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was subject to the gas attack during the Second Battle of Ypres and suffered some 500 casualties. Worse was to follow a month later at a place called Mouse Trap Farm which exists to this day.

On the morning of May 24th, 1915, the Germans drenched the Allied lines with chlorine gas along a 12km front.

Three Irish battalions held the line around Mouse Trap Farm. The RDF bore the brunt of the German assault on the trenches surrounding the farm. At the end of the day all that was left was one officer and 21 other ranks out of a total of 658 officers and men.

The catastrophes at Aubers Ridge for the Royal Munster Fusiliers in May 1915 and the slaughter at the Battle of Loos, the last major action of the bleak year of 1915, added to the melancholy roll of the dead.

Irish attitudes to the war were compounded by the tin ear exhibited by many British top brass to nationalist sensitivities. Incredibly, the dispatch sent by Vice Admiral John de Roebuck about the landings at V Beach made no mention of the casualties suffered by the Dublin and Munster Fusiliers though he was an Irishman himself.

The hapless General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, had to amend a dispatch at the request of Redmond after he failed to give due recognition to the Irish Division’s efforts during the Suvla Bay landings.

The Gallipoli failure emboldened Irish critics of the war. For James Connolly, the “Gallipoli fiasco” was the inevitable result of Irish nationalism putting their trust in the British ruling classes.

“In India, in Egypt, in Flanders, in Gallipoli, the green flag is used by our rulers to encourage Irish soldiers of England to give up their lives for the power that denies their country the right of nationhood. Green flags wave over recruiting offices in Ireland and England as a bait to lure on poor fools to dishonourable deaths in England’s uniform.”

Six days before Christmas, the 16th (Irish) Division left for the front. This was Redmond’s Irish army in waiting, the one that he hoped would defend Home Rule when the war ended. The division had a difficult time.

Recruitment in rural Ireland was slow and it was not helped by its General William Parsons’s refusal to accept “slum birds”, Irish emigrants living in British cities or second-generation Irish in Britain to fill up the ranks.In the months leading to the Easter Rising, the 16th (Irish) Division had a relatively quiet time though it still suffered hundreds of casualties.

Its battalions were attached to those already in the front line to “blood” them better for the trials that were to come.The first time that the 16th (Irish) Division was really tested was, of all occasions, Easter week 1916.

The Germans launched a gas attack on the 48th and 49th brigades of the 16th (Irish) Division. The 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers and 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers along with the 8th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers bore the brunt of the German attacks.

Some 520 Irishmen died in the Hulluch gas attacks between April 27th and 29th, more than all the fatalities of the Easter Rising.

A few days after the Rising, the Germans hung out a placard in front of the 8th Royal Munster Fusiliers. This battalion, raised mostly in Limerick, was so Catholic that the nuns of the Good Shepherd Convent in the city made a religious banner depicting the Sacred Heart, subscribed for by public donation of not more than one shilling per person. It was sent to the battalion.

The German sign read: “Heavy uproar in Ireland. English guns are firing on your wives and children, 1st May 1916.”

For men like Private Michael Ridge, this was the first they heard about the Rising in Dublin.

The sign was shot up and then, on May 10th, the Munster Fusiliers sent out a raiding party who captured it and brought it back to their lines.

The story goes that they sang “God Save the King” on its return and presented it to King George V. It is now in the Imperial War Museumin London.

The men of the 16th (Irish) Division would endure the horrors of the Somme, Passchendaele and the German Spring offensive of 1918 only to return to Ireland to find themselves marginalised and written out of history.

The first book written about the division, appropriately titled Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, by Terence Denman wasn’t published until the 1990s.

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