Last Call, Gentlemen – GK Chesterton and the recruitment drive of autumn 1918

Frank McNally – An Irishman’s Diary

GK Chesterton: rallied to his country’s side

GK Chesterton: rallied to his country’s side


Reading contemporary reports of the RMS Leinster disaster, which happened 100 years ago last Wednesday, it’s striking how the outcome of the first World War was not quite a foregone conclusion even then. We now know it had only a month to run. And yes, the Germans were already in retreat and seeking talks.

But the optimism of earlier years had long evaporated. This time, people didn’t expect it to be over by Christmas.  

Recruiting drives continued throughout Ireland. At one meeting, in late September, a speaker said that “every man available” would be required to ensure victory “in the early spring”.

In an angry editorial the day after the Leinster went down, October 11th, this newspaper declared that Germany’s overtures about peace had been followed by “one of her foulest crimes against humanity”. The deaths of so many civilians should end all debate about recruitment, it suggested: “We shall be filled with burning shame if this cowardly blow at Irish womanhood and childhood does not send at least forty thousand young Irishmen into the British Army by the end of the present month.”

That figure was not chosen at random. After the conscription crisis of early 1918, Britain’s viceroy in Ireland had called for 50,000 volunteers. September 30th was the deadline, but with numbers still only in four digits by then, this was extended to mid-October. If that didn’t work, at least officially, conscription remained a threat.

Pro-recruitment campaigners deployed some big guns in support of the effort. Few were bigger – in every sense – than the writer GK Chesterton. He arrived in Dublin in late September, staying firstly at the Shelbourne Hotel, on a mission to “explain the sincerity of England’s position”.

Chesterton was well chosen. Unusually for an Englishman then, he was very sympathetic to Ireland’s cause. His fictional detective Father Brown had been inspired by a real-life Irish priest, John O’Connor, whose influence eventually led him to convert to Catholicism in 1922.

“A man of colossal genius”, as George Bernard Shaw called him, and Chesterton was certainly colossal, weighing more than 20 stone (130kg).

Shaw being famously skinny, they performed a sort of comic double-act. But they were “friendly enemies” and their many disagreements included the war. From the start, Chesterton had rallied to his country’s side. By contrast, with the “detachment of a foreigner”, Shaw’s early pronouncements on the conflict included a suggestion that the soldiers on both sides should “shoot their officers and go home”.

Later he chided the Kerry-born Lord Kitchener for complaining that Irishmen were not rallying to the defence of “their country”. As Shaw explained: “They do not regard it as their country yet. He should have asked them to come forward as usual and help poor old England through a stiff fight. Then it would have been all right.”

That was the gist of Chesterton’s appeal too. If the Irish understandably lacked enthusiasm for aiding their old oppressors, he thought, they could have no reluctance about helping the French, their traditional allies, and in the process showing up the English, whose ruling classes had until recently been admirers of all things Teutonic.

But there was an irony in Chesterton’s deployment as a recruiting agent here. Like many writers, his work has been reduced in public memory to a few words. In his case, they’re the ones about the “Great Gaels of Ireland” being the men that God made mad, “for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.”

That certainly wasn’t true by 1918. War-wise, Ireland had no shortage of sanity then. So the recruiting campaign petered out, as did the war, although the last month was a dangerous one, especially for Irish shipping. Four days after the Leinster, 100 years ago tomorrow, the SS Dundalk was also sunk, with a loss of 20 lives.

Chesterton’s visit at least produced a book, Irish Impressions (1919): an affectionate portrait of a country heading for independence. In its closing passages, he describes returning from Donegal to Dublin to hear of the Leinster’s fate and seeing its effects at the hotel in the “empty seats of men and women with whom I had talked so idly a few days before”.

By contrast, he wrote, there was positive news of the war in general: “[W]ith all the emotions of an exile, however temporary, I knew that my own land was secure. Somehow, the bad and good news together turned my mind more and more towards England and all the inner humour and insular geniality which even the Irish may some day be allowed to understand.”

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