Having spent thirty entries on the First World War, offering an outline of the Irish experience of the conflict and a basic look at the course of the war in general, at least on the western, Salonika and Middle-Eastern fronts, it’s appropriate to take one last entry to sum things up.
What is the popular understanding of the First World War? I think it’s fair to say its one of futile conflict and senseless bloodshed, of a “lost generation” losing their lives in the mud of Flanders and elsewhere, all dying in vain. The First World War is almost universally regarded as a fight that wasn’t worth fighting, where the expense of lives and effort was in in no way proportionate to what started or drove the war, and where those in command lacked the understanding of what war had become to prevent it from becoming the inhuman grind that it became. People use the phrase “the war to end all wars” as a bitter irony.
There is some truth and there is some lazy convenience in that. Undoubtedly, the First World War was one where the ratio of tangible achievement to casualties was extreme and there may well have been, at numerous levels, examples of the infamous “lions led by donkeys” thinking. It took a while for the understanding of what industrial warfare, operating close to what we would understand as “total” today, to sink in with some. But we shouldn’t go too far. The very nature of static trench warfare was a response to the killing aptitude of machine guns and artillery, and actually reduced the death toll, and parts of the war that were more manoeuvre focused, like the early days, the late days, and other fronts, are relegated in memory.
As for the larger picture, only a precious few really thought it was a war to end wars (the phrase was coined by H.G Wells of all people), but the tangible outcomes, in political terms, are undeniable, and are a stark refutation that the First World War was a pointless affair, or that it achieved nothing, or that the men and women who died in it died for nothing.
The Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Romanov dynasties came crashing down; Germany began a turbulent experiment with democracy; Austria-Hungary broke apart into numerous new nation-states; Poland came into being again; Yugoslavia became the new answer to the Balkan question; Belgian independence was secured, and France was defended from invasion; the British secured their place as the masters of the waves and the colonial world, even as Australia, New Zealand and Canada took firmer steps than ever as nations of their own; the independence movements of numerous would-be states were boosted, as far apart as Ireland and Vietnam; American isolationism was dealt a reeling blow it would never be able to adequately overcome; the effects and outcomes go on and on, and those are just political: I won’t go into the drastic cultural, societal and technological changes that the First World War brought.
It was a terrible war, but it was not pointless or, if we are to be truly honest with ourselves, entirely without merit. But it was not a war to end wars, and the botched nature of the post-war settlements were tailor made to produce numerous future conflicts, as the last great spasms of colonial land-grabbing and great power revanchist sentiment took place.
But what of the Irish experience of the First World War? In many ways, the manner of the war for the Irish divisions and the Irish regiments did not differ all that much from other units in the British Army, albeit some of them had much more experience on the front than could be considered normal, like the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and much of the 36th (Ulster) Division. They fought on nearly every major front that Britain was engaged on, bar Africa, and with the serious exception of how things were perceived with the Spring Offensive, regards the 16th (Irish), the general appraisal of the Irish units was almost uniformly positive, regardless of pre-war status or ethos.
But Irish soldiers conducting themselves with professionalism and courage on foreign fields is nothing new and is nothing shocking. But the aftermath of the war, and how the Irish’s experience there was regarded, is surprising to an extent. The popular perception is that Ireland’s participation in the conflict was one that the country, at least the southern part, was mostly happy to forget for a large portion of the intervening period. And this is largely true. During the First World War, the most violent portion of the Irish revolutionary period truly began: within a few years of its conclusion, it wasn’t politically popular to acknowledge that thousands of Irishmen fought and died for the British Empire in the trenches and beyond, even if some of the most famous figures of the IRA were right there, like Tom Barry.
To have fought in British uniform, or to have had an immediate ancestor who did so was not something that was actively talked about: in the foreword to A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall, Neil Richardson talks about the range of myth-making and excuses families came up with for their relatives enlisting, among them that they were forced to (they weren’t) or that they had fought in a fictional “Irish Army”, not the British one. Such attitudes led to a dearth of memorials and political recognition of what had occurred, a situation that has, thankfully, been somewhat rectified more recently, especially as we go through the centenary period, and a normalisation of Irish/British and nationalist/unionist relations after the Troubles.
It is to be regretted that such recognition has taken so long to come. So many of the men who fought and died in the Irish divisions were not dyed in the wool British sons, but people who fully believed they would be coming home to a semi-independent nation when the firing stopped, and who were then figuratively side-lined as violent nationalist republicanism took centre-stage. But we should not kid ourselves either: many of them either identified as British, or were willing to continue the fight at home against those who campaigned for any form of separation from Britain.
And there are stories to tell that are worth telling: of the early stand at Mons, the Great Retreat after and the turn to the trenches; of the Gallipoli adventure and the forgotten army in the Balkans; of that bloody summer of 1916; of the march through the desert to Baghdad; of nationalist and unionist fighting side-by-side at Messines and on into the mud afterward; of the new crusaders advancing into the Holy Land; of the terrible costs of the Spring Offensive; of the Irish-Americans returning to Europe; of the tide turning into the Hundred Days; and of the final end of this conflict.
Whatever their reason for fighting, whatever drove them to take the shilling, whether it was something as idealistic as the independence of small nations or as practical as gaining experience so they could fight a different war in the future or just that simple, eons-old desire for adventure and glory, it is right and proper that we take better care to remember what occurred one hundred years ago, and we would do well also to try and strip away the inaccuracy of convenient narratives. And that is all the more important as we now must contemplate the enormity of the Irish revolutionary period, which will dominate much of the future of this series.
Or, at least, it will at some point. Ireland’s Wars will now take its customary break after the conclusion of a specific conflict or section of history, as I plan out future posts. Before we go back to Ireland in late 1914, I may look back into the further reaches of Irish history to go over topics missed or not fleshed out. More details to follow. For now, I want to once again thank all readers, commenters and subscribers, for sticking with me this long, and I hope you stick around in the future.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.