Great War

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Great War

War came to the United Kingdom on 3 August 1914. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, heard the cheers in the House of Commons that greeted the announcement of war, and responded by pledging the Irish Volunteers to defend Ireland. This, he hoped, would allow the British to remove their troops from the island. But from the start Redmond wanted more for his Irish Volunteers than an active part in home defense. On 11 September, when the British minister of war, Lord Kitchener, authorized the creation of an Irish division for his second New Army, Redmond saw his chance. He wanted to get War Office approval for turning the Sixteenth Division into an "Irish Brigade," a nostalgic misnomer that confused British officialdom. This was to be an Irish Catholic fighting unit officered by veterans of Redmond's Volunteers—in effect, it was to be led by supporters of the Irish Parliamentary Party. On 20 September at Woodenbridge, Co. Wexford, Redmond committed the Volunteers to service abroad. In the ranks of the Volunteers reaction was swift. On 24 September 1914 advanced nationalists, who wished for more independence than Home Rule offered, met in Dublin under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill and broke with Redmond, splitting the Volunteers. The vast majority of the 180,000 Irish Volunteers stayed with John Redmond and reorganized under the name the "National Volunteers." For MacNeill and his ilk, the idea of fighting offensively for the British oppressor was too much to bear. The 6,000 or so Irish Volunteers who left with MacNeill, however, were men of considerable influence within the movement. In Dublin alone 2,000 joined MacNeill, including virtually all of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.


The creation of the Sixteenth (Irish) Division completed the triumvirate of volunteer divisions that recruited in Ireland during the First World War. The other two divisions were the Tenth and the Thirty-sixth. The Tenth was part of Kitchener's first New Army created in August 1914, and it consisted of reorganized regular army divisions. The Thirty-sixth (Ulster) Division was created for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in September 1914 and was manned almost exclusively by members of the UVF until July 1916.

Recruiting in Ireland matched patterns seen in the rest of the United Kingdom. An initial rush sent more than 44,000 Irishmen into the armed forces by December 1914. After this first period, recruiting declined dramatically. Exceptions to this decline were in April and May 1915, when recruiting rose, probably in response to the allied landings at Gallipoli; and then in October 1915, when the viceroy, Lord Wimborne, led a campaign to send "personal" recruiting letters to all eligible Irishmen. After April 1916 recruiting was virtually moribund in Ireland, although historians disagree on whether or not the Easter Rising was directly responsible for this phenomenon; indeed, recruiting rose in the month following the Rising.

Recruiters enjoyed the advantages of large publicity budgets and produced massive runs of colorful posters that exhorted people to take up arms for the allied cause. The major propaganda arguments for joining the British army focused (for southern Catholics) on defending the Catholic nation of Belgium and on Britain's pledge of Home Rule following the war. In the North the argument was a simpler one that revolved around the idea of loyalty to the British empire and the Crown. No single argument seems to have made much difference to people enlisting—men joined the army for nebulous reasons of patriotism, loyalty to friends (units were often organized around local sports teams or neighborhood associations), or in order to have an adventure. The traditional recruiting hotbeds of urban poverty continued to provide a disproportionate number of recruits throughout the war. Statistically, unskilled laborers were the most likely men to volunteer, and skilled clerks and farmers' sons were the least likely. There was no great variance in recruiting patterns around Ireland, though, predictably, the more urban provinces, such as Ulster, sent more men than the rural ones, such as Connacht.

On the Front Lines

The Irish divisions to which Irish recruits went—the Tenth, Sixteenth, and Thirty-sixth—all kept their distinctively "Irish" character until they were decimated in action. The Tenth was the first to be destroyed, at Gallipoli in the summer of 1915. The Thirty-sixth was the next to go: embarking for France with a more coherent unit identity than most other divisions, it faced its destiny at the Somme on 1 July 1916. Elements of the Thirty-sixth Division were among the only British army troops to reach their original objectives on that morning; however, unsupported by their fellow soldiers, regiments of the Thirty-sixth lost close to 80 percent of their strength. That the Somme battle coincided with the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 was not lost on Protestant propagandists in Ulster. For the first time, the Orange marches in July 1916 memorialized the men of the Thirty-sixth Division, and even today, Orange Lodges carry banners with pictures of the Somme on them during their July marches.

The Sixteenth Irish Division, set up as the nationalist and Catholic counterpart to the Thirty-sixth, embarked for France in the February of 1916. During the war Tom Kettle, ex–Home Rule MP and professor of economics at University College Dublin, and Willie Redmond (younger brother of John) both served as officers in the Sixteenth, and both lost their lives wearing the khaki of the British army. Kettle, who had volunteered for active service after the Easter Rising, died on the Somme in September 1916. The Sixteenth Division retained its "Irish" character the longest; despite suffering intensive casualties both at the Somme and in the Third Battle of Ypres, it remained a predominantly Irish division until it was destroyed during the German offensive of March and April 1918.

At Home

Although the 1916 Easter Rising marked a turning point in Irish domestic politics, the enduring focus of wartime worry between 1914 and 1918 was the possibility of conscription. Conscription had been applied in the rest of the United Kingdom in January 1916, and the vast majority of the Irish, opposed to its imposition in Ireland, were fearful that they too would soon be forced to join up. And indeed, after the German army successfully drove within 30 miles of Paris in March 1918, the British government decided to bring the military draft to Ireland. This was resisted by nearly all of the Irish nationalist organizations. Because Sinn Féin had maintained a consistent antiwar stance since August 1914, its leaders, especially Eamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith, gained significant national support when conscription was successfully resisted; in contrast, the Irish Parliamentary Party, a newcomer to the cause, was shown to be a band of hypocrites.

While urban civilians formed a large percentage of the recruits for the army, the war also brought increased prosperity to those city dwellers who stayed behind. The urban poor found work in munitions factories, frequently abroad, and as in the rest of the world, many women worked in factories for the first time during the war. In the countryside farmers benefited from higher prices owing to wartime shortages. Sinn Féin combatted the appeal of these economic advantages of war by pointing out the moral dangers of young people leaving Ireland for Britain's factories, and by raising the specter of famine as food controls hit people's larders in 1917 and 1918.


The Great War marked a watershed in Irish life. In 1914 the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated the political landscape. In December 1918, one month after the war ended, Sinn Féin took power in the south in a democratic general election. One of the keys to Sinn Féin's electoral success was its propagandists' harnessing of antiwar sentiment in Ireland. Even as many Irish supported the war, there was growing frustration as Irish casualty rates grew, and a cleverly managed publicity campaign by Sinn Féin tarred the Irish Parliamentary Party as a group of murderers who were happy to see Irish men killed for a British cause. Although Sinn Féin's victory can be seen as a revolution, in fact, the election of a nationalist antiwar party following the devastation of the First World War was more of a natural evolution in Irish public opinion.

SEE ALSO Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Griffith, Arthur; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Redmond, John; Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921


Bartlett, Thomas, and Jeffery Keith, eds. Military History of Ireland. 1996.

Denman, Terence. Ireland's Unknown Soldiers: The 16th (Irish) Division in the Great War, 1914–1918. 1992.

Dooley, Thomas. Irishmen or English Soldiers? 1995.

Fitzpatrick, David. Politics and Irish Life, 1913–1921: Provincial Experience of War and Revolution. 1977.

Fitzpatrick, David, ed. Ireland and the First World War. 1988.

Gregory, Adrian, and Senia Paseta, eds. Ireland during the First World War. 2002.

Jeffery, Keith. Ireland and the Great War. 2001.

Novick, Ben. Conceiving Revolution: Irish Nationalist Propaganda during the First World War. 2001.

Ben Novick