Wednesday, February 25, 2015

BRITISH prime minister Herbert Asquith’s ultimatum to Germany was to get out of Belgium before midnight. This was ignored. At 11pm British time (midnight in Germany), the ultimatum expired. And on the hour, at the first chime of Big Ben, the telegram which simply said ‘Commence hostilities against Germany’ was dispatched to all ships and establishments all over the world.

Winston Churchill, in his position as first lord of the admiralty, crossed Horse Guards Parade and entered the cabinet room, where the PM and other ministers were waiting, and he informed them that the deed was done.

The British public were well aware that Britain could not stand by because of the 1839 treaty with Belgium. However, the Germans were not so sure that the British would enter the war, though they were well warned in advance that if they invaded Belgium, then Britain would respond. On 28 November 1912, Germany’s foreign secretary told the Reichstag that if Austria was forced to fight, whatever the reason for its position as a great power, then Germany must stand by her.

This resulted in his British counterpart, Sir Edward Grey, warning the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, that if Germany was offering Austria a ‘blank cheque’ for war in the Balkans, then “the consequences would be incalculable”. Reinforcing this point, RB Haldane, then lord chancellor, met the ambassador to offer an explicit warning that if Germany were to attack France, Britain would intervene in France’s favour.

Kaiser Wilhelm II summoned an informal meeting of his military commanders, where he described Britain’s balance-of-power principles as “idiocy”; however, he said Haldane’s statement was a “desirable clarification” of British policy.

The German opinion was that Austria should attack Serbia the following month (December), their army chief of staff, Helmuth Von Moltke, stating that war was inevitable and the sooner the better. Wilhelm backed this stance. But the naval secretary Alfred Von Tirpitz made it clear that the German navy was not ready for a major war, which included Britain as an opponent. He pointed out that the construction of the U-boat base at Heliogoland and the widening of the Kiel Canal were a prerequisite for war. He requested an 18-month stay, which would allow the completion of these sites. Von Moltke had little option but to reluctantly agree to the postponement.

Had war started in 1912, what would have been the effects on Irish history? These questions will never be answered, but would the 1913 Lockout have taken place? If it had, would the employers have behaved in the same manner or would parliament have intervened? Would the Irish Volunteers have been formed with Eoin McNeill as their leader? And, if so, would there have been a different response to British Army recruitment? Would the 1916 Rising have taken place? Or would it have been necessary had the proposed Home Rule Bill 1912 – given Royal assent on 18 September 1914 – been implemented, rather than being suspended for the duration of the war. Remember, at the beginning, most commentators suggested that this war would be over within four months, a prediction which encouraged most volunteers to sign up. Alas, this was a false prediction, which misled many to their deaths.

The taking of Belgium was part of the Schlieffen Plan, which was drafted in 1905 for the eventuality of a major conflict. The focus of the plan was to invade France at the first opportunity so as to keep French forces from the German border. Part of this action was to take Luxemburg and Belgium and attack the French through these countries as well as taking the Dutch province of Limburg. As you can see, planning for this war began long before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

The Belgian government realised on 17 August 1914 that it was not capable of defending Brussels and so abandoned the city and moved to Antwerp. The Germans occupied Brussels two days later. Next day they laid siege to the fortified city of Namur. It was defended by the Belgian 4th Division, which was not equipped to deal with the firepower of the Germans. The last of the defenders surrendered on 25 August after most of the 4th had escaped to the south. During the siege, the French 5th Army had linked up with the Belgium Army in Antwerp.

The battle of Charleroi, a city close to the French border but situated in Belgium, was the first confrontation between French and German forces, with the latter being successful, albeit suffering 11,000 casualties. But this was still much less than the 30,000 taken by the French.

Back in the British parliament, Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond came under pressure to do more than talk. On 20 September, he called on members of the Irish Volunteers to enlist in Irish regiments of the British Army. He also now believed that German military expansion threatened the freedom of Europe. Germany’s rapid advance through Belgium alarmed Redmond, who felt the freedom of Europe was at stake. He was backed by other Irish MPs. But the Irish Volunteers were split on the idea, with the majority supporting Redmond. Some 25,000 would join, renaming themselves the National Volunteers. They would go on to join Irish regiments of the British Army during the war.

One of the first to enlist was Redmond’s brother Willie, also an MP, and if any of today’s republicans wish to know what the word means, they should read Willie Redmond’s history. He was a true and dedicated republican, who served Ireland well. He reckoned that joining the British Army was against everything for which he stood, yet that is exactly what he did. He saw it as a step to attaining Home Rule. He campaigned for other Irish Volunteers to join, and his last and most remembered speech was made from a window of the Metropole Hotel in Cork. Here is an extract from that speech made in November 1914.

“I speak as a man with all the poor ability at his command who has fought the battle for self-government for Ireland since the time – now 32 years ago – when I lay in Kilmainham prison with Parnell. No man can doubt the single desire of myself and men like me to do the right thing for Ireland. And when it comes to the question – as it may come – to go abroad and fight this battle, when I am personally convinced the battle of Ireland is to be fought, where many Irishmen now are in Flanders and in France – as old as I am, and as grey as my hair is, I will say, don’t go, but come with me.”

Redmond was 50 years’ old, out of condition and overweight at this time. He would die in battle, but we will come back to that.

John Esmonde was another MP to go to war. He would survive, and although a Tipperary-born native, would be elected to the Dáil as a TD for Wexford in 1937, 1938 and 1943, losing his seat in 1944 and regaining it in 1948 until 1951, when he retired from politics. His 19-year-old brother, Lt Geoffrey Esmonde, was killed in action in 1916, while a half-brother Eugene was awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously in 1942 during WWII.

Other Irish politicians who supported John Redmond’s call included Stephen Gwynn, MP for Galway city from 1906 to 1918. The 50-year-old enlisted in the 7th Leinster Regiment, 16th (Irish) Division, and was commissioned as a captain in the Connaught Rangers. He saw action on the Western Front at Messines, the Somme and many other battles.

DD Sheehan was 41 and an MP for Mid-Cork (1901 to 1918) when he enlisted in the British Army. Based in Buttevant Barracks as a lieutenant, he practically enlisted all the men of the 9th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, a part of the 16th Irish Division. Promoted to the rank of captain, he became a company commander. He served on the Western Front and took part in the Battle of Loos, Champagne and Artois in 1915. Deafened by shellfire, he was withdrawn from active service in 1916. Sheehan’s family was decimated in the war. Three of his sons were involved. The youngest was only 16 years’ old. He was also the youngest commissioned officer in the British Army. He survived the war but his other two sons died while serving in the RAF. His daughter, a nurse, was disabled in a bombing raid, as was his brother, who served with the Irish Guards.

Ex-MP for Tyrone Tom Kettle, a native of Artane in Dublin, also enlisted. He was born on 9 February 1880. Prior to this, unlike his wealthy contemporaries, he was a staunch supporter of the strikers involved in the 1913 Lockout, publishing articles describing the squalor endured by Dublin’s poor. He was involved in the formation of a committee, which worked for a solution to the strike. He was in Belgium buying arms for the Irish Volunteers and witnessed the beginning of the war. Ill health denied him an immediate commission or a trip to the front lines, but eventually an officer in the 16th Division commissioned him into the 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was killed on 9 September 1916 leading his company in Ginchy during the battle of the Somme. He had stated he would prefer to die for Ireland out there with his Dubliners. His final resting place is unknown.

In 1911, an agreement had been made with France that in the event of a German invasion six British expeditionary force divisions would operate in the Maubeuge area of France, just 22 miles from the Belgian border.

As I have dealt with Gallipoli in a previous article, next week I will briefly cover some of the battles at Flanders and France in general, plus extracts from the story of a Co Carlow man who survived.

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By Frank White
Contact Newsdesk: +353 59 9170100

More Times Past

Ireland home and away in WWI (part 4)

Ireland home and away in WWI (part 3)