Irish/British engagement in the first World War was morally right

German invasion of Belgium ‘completely unjustifiable’

You may have heard George Bernard Shaw say on that promo currently running on RTÉ Radio 1: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." He might have been talking about Eamonn Maloney TD.

In a letter in this newspaper last Thursday he asserted "the first World War was fought to further the expansion and power of the British Empire – and for nothing else. Ireland never forgot the dead of the first World War – that would have been a physical impossibility." Neither is true.

He quoted James Connolly, from the Irish Worker, August 29th, 1914, as saying: "The British capitalist class have planned this colossal crime in order to ensure its uninterrupted domination of the commerce of the world. To achieve that end it is prepared to bathe a continent in blood, to kill off the flower of the manhood of the three most civilised great nations of Europe. Yes, this war is the war of a pirate upon the German nation." That wasn't true either.

The immediate reason why Britain, and Ireland, went to war was because the neutrality of Belgium had been violated. This was guaranteed by all European powers in the 1839 Treaty of London, also signed by Prussia (forerunner of the united Germany).


On August 4th, 1914 then German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg dismissed the 1839 treaty as a “scrap of paper”. He told the Reichstag: “Necessity knows no law. Anyone who, like ourselves, is struggling for a supreme aim, must think only of how he can hack his way through,” he said.

And Germany did.


Its army was responsible for many atrocities in Belgium. In an invasion with a distinctly anti-Catholic flavour an estimated 6,000 Belgians were slaughtered, 25,000 homes in 837 communities were destroyed, 1.5 million Belgians fled and an additional 500,000 to 1.5 million went on the run in their own country. Echoes of the Islamic State in


today and


in Gaza.

The destruction of one city had particular resonance in Catholic Ireland. The Irish College in Leuven was founded in 1607 by Irish Franciscans as a seminary for Irish Catholic priests, then executed on sight in Ireland. On August 25th, 1914, the Germans ravaged Leuven. They killed 248, expelled the entire population of 10,000, and burned the city’s university library, destroying 300,000 medieval books and manuscripts. In the Belgian province of Brabant nuns were ordered by the Germans to strip naked under the pretext that they were spies. Looting, murder, and rape was widespread.

Imagine the effect in Catholic Ireland and the gift it was to recruiting officers in persuading Catholic-nationalist Irishmen to fight for “Little Catholic Belgium” and the “Freedom of Small Nations”.


In the context Germany was unequivocally barbaric and the aggressor. This is the view in Germany itself.

Its President Joachim Gauck said on August 6th at commemorations in Liege: "This war began in western Europe with Germany's completely unjustifiable invasion of neutral Belgium. The invasion only followed military logic, and it thus became apparent on the very first day of the war that treaties were worthless and that the standards of civilisation had been rendered null and void."

He continued: “Outside Germany, people were horrified by the conduct of the German troops, particularly by their treatment of civilians and their attacks on cultural heritage. The destruction of the world famous library in Leuven became a symbol that spread fear, shock and rage far and wide.”

Mr Maloney’s assertion that “Ireland never forgot the dead of the first World War”, is just astounding. For instance the first inkling I had that anyone from my home town Ballaghaderreen died in the first World War was in 2005. A local woman organised a Mass for her brother-in-law who died at Gallipoli 90 years previously. I then discovered that 37 (now 42) men from the parish died in the first World War, and 310 from Co Roscommon. I never heard of them growing up.

Ireland’s forgetting of the 35,000 plus men who died in has to rank as one of the great feats of ideologically-driven collective amnesia in history. But we remember them now.

I recommend Mr Maloney read three books: German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2001), by John Horne and Alan Kramer; Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914 (Leuven University Press, 2007) by Jeff Lipkes; and The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I (New York University Press 2004) by Larry Zuckerman.

Hopefully he’ll learn something.

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent