THIS article will be in four parts, and even that isn’t enough for a comprehensive review of ‘The Great War’. I will highlight the more important issues that relate to Ireland, and in my final part I will tell the story of a Co Carlow man, who was involved in the action. I will try to sequence the home and abroad story as it happens.
“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation, and I would not have her say that she defended us, while we did nothing but pass resolutions.” Those words were written by the famous Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, the eighth of nine children born to the poverty-stricken family of Patrick and Anne (née Lynch) in Slane, Co Meath on 19 August 1887.
Besides being a poet, Ledwidge was also a member of the Irish Volunteers, founding the Slane branch with his brother Joseph. But he failed in his attempt to form a branch of the Gaelic League because of opposition from local councillors. As a young poet, he had been mentored by Lord Dunsany, and when war broke out he joined Dunsany’s regiment, the 5th Battalion Royal Enniskilling Fusiliers, 10th (Irish) Division.
He saw action in Suvla Bay as the British made their last attempt to break the long-running stalemate in the Dardanelles (Gallipoli). He was involved in the landing, which began on the night of 6 August 1915. And while this was an excellent opportunity to break the Turkish defence, bad leadership meant failure, so the stalemate continued. Later, their commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Fredrick Stopford, was dismissed for what was described as the worst and most incompetent leadership of WWI.
Ledwidge was on leave in Dublin when the 1916 leaders were executed, prompting him to proclaim: “If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I would not lift a finger to stop them – they could come!”
Ledwidge lost his life at the age of 29 on 31 July 1917 at the battle of Passchendaele (Ypres). As he and five companions were sitting in their mud hole drinking tea, a shell exploded beside them, killing all six. Fr Davis, a chaplain who knew him, arrived shortly afterwards and noted: “Ledwidge killed; blown to bits.”
I use this piece because I believe it gives a true and strong indicator of the confused feelings of many Irish who enlisted in different armies to fight this war, whether they lived or died. The British Army recruiting poster, which proclaimed ‘Is your home worth fighting for? It will be too late when the enemy is at your door. Join now!’, may have been appropriate in Belfast, where there was a boom at the outbreak of the war due to the shipyard and factories backed by the British government, while the south was ignored. I don’t believe too many from the slums that littered Dublin would have been worried about who took their homes, albeit it was all that most of them had, with no money, no jobs and little to look forward to in the future.
Perhaps they considered the army a lifeline, where they would be fed and where a private could earn eight shillings and two pence (on average) a week, with a proficiency allowance of as much as four pence a day (1914 pay rates). At the time, this could feed a small family – even a lieutenant colonel was paid only a guinea (21 shillings) a day. War pay of one penny a day for each complete year the soldier had served was introduced on 29 September 1917. Conscription was suggested for Ireland and then dismissed, to be replaced by a volunteer ethos. The response was probably beyond what Britain had expected. We have to remember that there were already 58,000 Irishmen serving in the British Army prior to the outbreak of the war, and this would swell to 206,000. Some 24,000 of these were Catholic Irish Volunteers, 26,000 from the Ulster Volunteer Force, and 80,000 had no military experience whatsoever.
It would have been clear before 1914 that war on a European level was almost inevitable. The source from whence it came, and the scale it would reach, were far beyond any reasonable person’s imagination. For a number of years, the Balkans had been a simmering cauldron of imperialist and nationalist tension. During 1912 and 1913, a combination of Russia, Austro-Hungary, Britain, France and Germany had managed to keep a lid on the situation, but in 1914, despite their best efforts, the inevitable war began.
Prior to this, over several decades there had been many territorial and economic disputes between the main European powers. The immediate origins of the war began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (aged 50) of Austria and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina (then a province of the Austro-Hungarian empire) by an ethnic Serb, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, at 10.45am on Sunday 28 June 1914.
Princip was a member of the organisation known as Young Bosnia, a revolutionary group made up of students whose aim was to unite Slav regions into Yugoslavia. The group was armed by the Black Hand, a secret society formed from diehard members of the Serbian Army. Their motto was ‘Unite or Die’.
Earlier that morning, the archduke, who was in the city to attend Austrian army manoeuvres, escaped another assassination attempt when a hand grenade was thrown at his car by another member of Young Bosnia, Nedelijko Cabrinovic. It was Ferdinand’s insistence on going to the hospital to see those injured in the car behind him when the grenade exploded that presented Princip with his opportunity to carry out the assassination. The archduke’s car was held up by the volume of traffic in a narrow street, where Princip was having coffee in a small café. He ran out and fired two shots, hitting both of his targets. The first bullet hit Sophie in the abdomen, then Ferdinand in the neck. The archduke leaned across his wife and his last words were “Don’t die, darling, live for our children”. But Sophie also died on the way to hospital.
Both assassins were immediately arrested. Twenty-five others were also arrested and went on trial. Nine were acquitted, while Serbia’s role in the attack quickly became apparent. This then led to what became known as the ‘July Crisis’ – a ten-point ultimatum that was issued to Serbia on 14 July by the Austro-Hungarian empire with the backing of Germany. It requested a response by 5pm on Saturday 25 July. This was rebuffed.
At 11am on 28 July 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia. Later that day, Austrian monitors (heavily-armed riverine warships) bombarded Belgrade. These were the first shots fired in what would become WWI or ‘The Great War’. It is hard to believe this incident would lead to the most horrible four years of war in the history of mankind.
We must remind ourselves that at the time we were part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland, which was also a member of the ‘Triple Entente’ along with the Russian Empire and France. This alliance was supplemented by Japan and Portugal, giving this group much the same power as the combined forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, known as the ‘Central Powers’.
One of the early turning points of this war was perhaps put in place as early as 1908 when Germany replaced England as the leading financier of the almost-destitute Ottoman Empire. But little did Britain know then the nightmare that would happen in the Dardanelle’s seven years later, when an attempt to land there and march on Constantinople (Istanbul) would lead to an eight-month battle and the loss of more than a quarter-of-a-million Commonwealth and French soldiers, including many Irish.
While the third Home Rule Act was placed on the statute books on 18 September 1914, it would be parked until the war ended. Prior to this, John Redmond, who was born in Ballytrent House, Kilrane, near Rosslare Harbour in Co Wexford, on 1 September 1856, was an MP in the House of Commons for Waterford city from 1900 until his death on 6 March 1918. He had also been an MP for New Ross from 1881 to 1885, and North Wexford from 1885 to 1891. He had one brother, William, which was also his father’s name. His mother was Mary Hoey of Dunganstown Castle in Wicklow.
Redmond was educated at Clongowes Wood College, Clane, Co Kildare and Trinity College and was a barrister. He had married twice, first to Johanna Dalton. The couple had one son, William (born in 1886), who himself would quietly create his own piece of history by joining the Irish Volunteers. He enlisted in the British Army on the western front, reaching the rank of captain and winning the DSO. He would later succeed his father as an MP at Westminster before becoming one of the few to serve in that establishment and also become a TD when he was elected to the fourth Dáil as a Nationalist Independent for the constituency of Waterford. Following Johanna’s death in 1889, John Redmond married Ada Beesley.
The third day of August 1914 was a busy one across Europe. In the House of Commons, Redmond declared that Britain could withdraw every single soldier from Ireland and that the coast of Ireland would be defended from invasion by her armed sons. And while Redmond’s ‘home defence’ was well received, not all of the Irish Volunteers agreed with it. On the same day, Edward Carson, another barrister, only this time on the Loyalist side (he was educated in Portarlington, Old Wesley and Trinity College), urged members of the Ulster Volunteers to enlist in their new 36th Ulster Division, which was in the early stages of being approved and assembled. All this would be completed by September, with the regiment comprised of 13 battalions from the Ulster Volunteers, the Enniskillen and Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Rifles.
Also that day, Luxemburg was invaded by Germany, which had issued an ultimatum to Belgium (which had declared its neutrality) on 1 August, demanding clear passage for its forces through the country. This was refused by the Belgian government, which had received a guarantee of military support by Britain. On the following day, Germany declared war on Belgium and German troops crossed the border, attacking the city of Liege.
On that day, too, Britain declared war on Germany.
Part two continues next week.