Ireland and the First World War Keith Jeffery The First World War was the single most significant all-Ireland experience of the twentieth century. But the years 1914–18 showed Ireland both at its most united, and at its most divided. At the start of the war, to a degree not matched again by any political objective until the North and South referendums on the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Irish public opinion, both nationalist and Unionist, was united behind the British and Allied war effort. Tom Kettle, former Nationalist MP for East Tyrone, who had actually been in Belgium buying guns for the Irish Volunteers, argued that men went because the cause was a just one. It was, said Kettle, the cause of small nations threatened by large ones, of Belgium and Serbia, which Germany and Austria had outraged, and Britain and her allies had taken up. This made it right for Ireland to fight on England’s side, especially since England had (at last) granted Home Rule for Ireland (though the implementation of the statute was fatally postponed for the duration of the conflict). For their part, Unionists, who so valued the link with Great Britain, naturally rallied to the call. Irishmen of all political persuasions (and undoubtedly also including men of no particular politics) joined up in huge numbers. Something over 200,000 Irishmen served during the war, a clear majority of whom were Catholics. And women, too, enlisted in nursing and other services, as well as engaging in war work at home. This unity was not to last. Although recruiting in Ireland continued to the end of the war (nearly 10,000 men joined up over the last three months, the three so-called ‘New Army’ Divisions—the 10th and 16th (Irish) Divisions and the 36th (Ulster) Division—formed principally by the men who joined up after the start of the war, found it increasingly difficult to keep up their strength with Irish recruits. But the demand for troops was constant and kept increasing, and other British units suffered a similar experience with the result that conscription was introduced in Great Britain in 1916. It was not applied in Ireland for sound political reasons, as demonstrated in 1918 when just the threat of conscription in Ireland provoked a storm of opposition among nationalists and the Catholic church, which among other things greatly boosted support for Sinn Fein. The 1916 Easter Rising (whose timing was determined by the fact of Britain being at war) and the fierce response of the government (who thought the Rising was backed by Germany) was followed by a progressive (though by no means complete) alienation of Irish nationalist opinion from the government and the Redmondite leadership of constitutional nationalism. This development was paralleled by a similar hardening of opinion among unionists, especially in Ulster. The losses suffered by the Ulster Division on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, effectively provided a equal and opposite ‘blood sacrifice’ to that of the 1916 rebels, and helped extinguish the unity of 1914, even though the 16th (Irish) Division—a predominantly nationalist formation sometimes known as ‘Redmond’s pets’—also fought on the Somme (in September) and also suffered heavy casualties. Perhaps 30,000 Irishmen in all died during the First World War—and perhaps more, for no final total has satisfactorily been calculated. However many it was, it represented the worst Irish death toll from one cause since the Famine. But the common tragic fate of nationalists and unionists (as well as those of no particular political stripe) in the Great War has unexpectedly had a positive outcome, and has contributed over recent years to a growing understanding of a common heritage across our sometimes bitterly divided communities. Many of those volunteer soldiers in 1914 went off to war believing that they were fighting for Ireland (and Ulster, too) and for the ‘freedom of small nations’. There hopes were hardly met in the violent and divided Ireland which emerged in the wake of the First World War. The least we can do in their honour is to recognise their common endeavour, and common sacrifice, and let it inform our efforts to establish lasting peaceful community relations in Ireland.
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