A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall By Neil Richardson

Richardson writes a comprehensive account of the Irish contribution to the First World War, focusing his narrative on the individual stories that he has discovered, especially those that are less well known in the popular consciousness.

It is a very good collection of individual stories, some truly fascinating tales. Some of them will be known to those who have studied the subject in detail: those of Willie Redmond and Father Willie Doyle are included for example. But of far more interest will be those that are little known and their inclusion bears testament to the research that Richardson has carried out. The Rooney brothers, two Catholics in a decidedly Protestant regiment for example, or VC winner Robert Marrow, who won the cross in the process of dying on the battlefield. The book serves as a basic biography of all these men’s lives, a catalogue of their war time service, with notable incidents, motivations and actions examined to the full.

Richardson certainly has a passion for the subject which shines throughout. This however goes into the negative on occasion, as his words tend to drift alarmingly into the territory of hero worship at times, which is not helpful. The study of the First World War has been frequently marred by overly-sympathetic and biased accounts dealing with individual soldiers and Richardson is as guilty as anyone else.

Perhaps this is made up for by the lack of a real point in the book, beyond its introductory chapters. It really is just an anthology of lives, and it is only in the opening pages – which are quite good – that Richardson offers any real commentary on proceedings worth noting. Even then, his main topic is the reaction Irish soldiers got when they returned home after the war, and his discussion of the way does tend to weigh against objectivity. His comparison with the Vietnam War has some points in its favour, but ultimately fails to pass muster: while returning veterans of both wars were treated with disdain by their fellow countrymen, it was for far more different reasons. Vietnam never held America.

Richardson includes an amazing and wide collection of photographs and illustrations, which provide key support to his narrative. In fact, a huge proportion of the pages are taken up by these, so potential readers don’t have to be put off by size: the actual text makes up far less of the books content then it may appear from the outside. In that, A Coward If I Return… may suffer from being classed as what a historian I know would call “military history porn”: books that are of little academic value which contain too many pictures.

Of all the things that Richardson talks about in the opening pages, by far the most interesting is that of Irish reactions to service, specifically the excuses that he came to hear. That is, the myriad of different codswallop that was offered to him, to explain why distant family ancestors went off to fight for the British. Richardson offers convincing counter-arguments to the traditional response – poverty, and seeking support for Home Rule – which were certainly factors for many, but do not explain the full Irish commitment to what was, for this island, a volunteer war. Some genuinely bought the reason for war, especially to protect nations like Belgium, others wanted what so many have wanted when they join up for military service: adventure and excitement, beyond the comparatively pale and drab life at home.

The bizarre rationale some offer – including a memorable insistence Richardson heard from some that their ancestors fought for the Irish Army in World War One (because they did not understand that British regiments could contain the words “Irish” or “Munster” in their names without being independently Irish) – is mixed in with pity tales: that young men were forced into it through poverty (inflicted by the British of course), were conscripted (which is untrue), or that they “didn’t know any better”.

All of this reeks of a national culture that does not want to contemplate the reality of some motivations in 1914 when they signed up for service. The subsequent political change in Ireland brought an awful silence and denial over the whole affair, leading to what I can only describe as astonishing ignorance of such matters today. The lack of knowledge regards such basic things as the non existence of Irish independence in World War One is startling, and Richardson is to be commended for bringing it to attention.

Richardson is probably capable of writing a whole book on these kind of topics, and it is one that I would certainly read.

A Coward If I Return… is a decent read on the subject matter, but has little academic properties and fails to make good of its pretty captivating opening pages. For those seeking individual stories of the Great War it will be a godsend. Other than that, I can’t really say it would be especially notable within the field of study.

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