The origins of the First World War have been long-debated, and bare little going into, bar the basic particulars. In the summer of 1914, a generations worth of international and intranational tensions – the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, the resentment between France and Germany since the Franco-Prussian War, Russian-Ottoman rivalry in the Caucuses, Austria-Hungary’s territorial ambitions in the Balkans, the colonial scramble in Africa, the Arab independence movement, the Japanese aim for an Empire, the conflict between American isolationism and expansionism, Italian desires for Austrian territory – finally boiled over, having avoided doing so in several crises in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, gradually set-off a chain reaction guided by established alliance blocks and diplomatic wrangling. Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia soon had Russian mobilizing to defend its ally, which in turn had Germany declaring war to do the same. France quickly supported its ally Russia, and in its haste to attack France, Germany marched through neutral Belgium, thus drawing in Britain, who had previously made guarantees about Belgian sovereignty. A simplistic explanation, that does not do justice to the complicated nature of national rivalry, jingoistic sentiment and lack of comprehension over state goals tied to military action, but it suffices. In time, the war would draw in the Ottoman Empire and other powers on the German and Austrian side, with Japan, Italy and the United States throwing their lot in with the Allies.
Ireland, as part of Great Britain, of course entered the war at the same time. The “July Crisis”, that came before the start of the war, was taking place all throughout the last stages of the Home Rule Crisis, and gradually came to eclipse it as the dominant issue of the day, until the declaration of war on the 4th of August.
The war brought the Home Rule debate to a close, the law formally introduced then suspended for the duration of the conflict. As it would turn out, Home Rule would never be instituted in the way that Redmond and the IPP envisioned, not on the whole island and not with the north excluded, but that would have more to do with internal developments to take place within a few years. For now, the nominal leaders of both the Nationalists and Unionist factions were forced to deal with the reality that a larger conflict had superseded their own quarrel.
The leaders of the Ulster Volunteers of course issued rallying cries that the members of the UVF should enrol en masse into the British military, as proof of their own loyalty and commitment to the United Kingdom. But they did not do so with immediate gusto. Carson needed some persuading to become public with the call, arguably bought with the agreement that a separate “Ulster” division would be created, and in the end less than half of the actual UVF would volunteer for that specific division.
It was not quite so certain that the leaders of the Irish Volunteers would have the same attitude, not least because they included so many members of the IRB, for whom the war became, famously, “Ireland’s opportunity”. Redmond initially suggested that the Irish Volunteers could be used as home guard, freeing up the existing Irish regiments for service overseas. But he and his followers in the IPP, under pressure due to the more open support for recruitment from Carson, eventually took a very different tack, exemplified by a speech he would give at Woodenbridge, Wicklow on the 20th of September, in which he encouraged all able-bodied Irishmen to join the British Army and go “wherever the fighting line extends”, an unequivocal endorsement of the cause Britain claimed to be fighting for.
Much like Carson and the other Unionists leaders, Redmond believed that nationalists seeking Home Rule’s safe implementation once fighting was finished – which, remember, few people thought would be over four years away – had a duty to sign up and prove their own worth to Britain. That, and with the right training in arms, they could be an even more effective opposition to the Ulster Volunteers in the future. But, in so doing, the split in the Volunteers that had been so narrowly avoided a few years prior now became manifest, as the more hardline elements, that included those higher-ups in the IRB, became their own rump entity of maybe 10’000-12’000, still the “Irish Volunteers”, opposed by the majority “National Volunteers”.
It is important to note that, even with the split, the majority of Redmond’s National Volunteers would not enlist in the British Army, partially by British military choice, the leaders of the army preferring to trust in the UVF as a recruiting ground, rather than Irish nationalists. British efforts to increase recruitment in Ireland generally tended to focus on Ireland’s legacy of soldiery, appeals to solidarity between all of the provinces and comparisons between Ireland and “gallant little Belgium”, a small Catholic country being ruthlessly oppressed in a German occupation that had seen countless stories of atrocity – some real, some imagined – fed to the rest of the world. That, in line with all of the usual reasons men would sign up – money, the lure of adventure, etc – helped to insure that Ireland maintained a relatively healthy recruiting ratio in comparison with the rest of Great Britain. By the end of the war, roughly 206’000 Irishmen would have served in some capacity, many of them scattered across a wide variety of units from throughout Great Britain.
Alongside the existing regiments, new units needed to be created in order to house all of these new recruits. The Irish regiments would all see numerous new battalions pop up during the course of the war, in an endless dance of raising up, amalgamation and disbandment that would continue to 1918 and beyond, something that, for the sake of sheer expediency, I will not be delving too much into. The scale of the First World War made the division the primary unit on the battlefield, and three new divisions, housing multiple regiments from throughout the country, were formed out of the scramble of recruitment in the latter stages of the 1914, that became Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s “New Service Army”.
The 10th (Irish) Division would be formed mainly from recruits from the Irish Volunteers, and was commanded by Galway born General Bryan Mahon, a veteran of the Boer campaigns. Its symbol was a simple green bar. Formed first from the rush of initial recruits, it was somewhat more representative of Irish demographics than has been popularly remembered, though it was still mostly Catholic in its ranks.
The 16th (Irish) Division was to follow towards the latter end of 1914 once the 10th began to get filled out, and it too was formed around a core of National Volunteer recruits, though one of its three battalions had a distinctive Ulster character in the form of two Inniskilling battalions. It was initially commanded by Tipperary General William Bernard Hickie, a future Irish Senator and Boer War veteran. Its symbol was the Shamrock.
Both the 10th and 16th would have issues getting Irish officers to fill their leadership positions, partially due to the distrust emanating from higher command, partly due to the lack of qualified men coming from the National Volunteers. Hopes that the National Volunteers would be a new “Irish Brigade” were largely dashed by an authority that was hesitant to create what Redmond may well have hoped would be a Home Rule Irish Army in waiting.
The 36th (Ulster) Division was, as the name would indicate, meant as the primary destination for Ulster natives of a Protestant persuasion. Alongside several pre-existing battalions, this unit would eventually host a large amount of the 60’000 Ulster-born soldiers who served in British uniform during the war, commanded for the most part by English-born General C.H Powell. Its symbol was the Red Hand of Ulster.
Numerous other Irish regiments and battalions would serve in other divisions of the British Army, meaning that the scope of Irish involvement in the war, in terms of named units, cannot be condensed to the divisions. Separate battalions of the pre-existing Royal Munster Fusiliers for example, would start their World War One experience in the 1st and 29th United Kingdom Divisions while their “New Army” counterparts were scattered around the 10th and 16th Irish divisions. The existing Irish regiments would eventually come to serve in 12 different infantry divisions, their ranks swelled by returning reservists. My great-grandfather, Patrick Costelloe, would have been one of those reporting to the RMF at Fermoy over a decade after his service had originally ended, and rapidly deployed. We must also not forget the four Irish cavalry regiments that would fight in the war, nor the units that would come out of predominantly Irish communities in London, Newcastle and Liverpool.
To adequately cover every single named Irish unit, be they division, brigade, battalion or regiment, is a task that is beyond me, unless I wanted to still be writing about the First World War five years from now. Instead, I will dedicate myself to providing a concise picture of the Irish experience, working on a loose chronological basis, and focusing particularly on some of the more well-known actions that they were involved in.
And those actions would begin very quickly. Some Irish units were disembarking on French soil little more than a week after the British declaration of war. On the 22nd of August, the first time that a British unit would come into contact with a German one would be when a cavalry squadron ambushed an enemy patrol while on the Mons-Charlois road. The Germans fled; a Corporal Edward Thomas shot an enemy cavalryman as they retreated, the first British shot of the war in Europe, while Captain Charles Beck Hornby, using a cavalry sabre, achieved the first confirmed kill. Both men were English by birth, but the unit was the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons.
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