Ireland’s Wars: Casement’s Irish Legion

Roger Casement and Joseph Plunkett were both in Germany seeking support from Wilhelm II’s government for an uprising in Ireland. But while Plunkett’s main focus would be on gaining material support in the form of guns, a goal eventually that he would partially succeed in attaining, Casement had another, far more ambitious, scheme in mind.

Instead of pleading for guns and German soldiers for the cause, Casement instead became fixated on the idea of recruiting Irish soldiers in British uniform captured in the early days of the war from German POW camps to fight for Irish independence, soldiers who would be organised into a new “Irish Brigade”. This unit would be outfitted and trained by Germany and would then be used at the forefront of any effort to liberate Ireland, like the Wild Geese Brigades of old had often been prepared to do.

It was not an original idea, and in the First World War (and after), several units, like Polish and Czech legions, would be formed in countries by distinct ethnicities seeking to fight for the formation of a political homeland. But they were drawn from much larger recruiting pools and generally fought for nations on or very near the borders of their own lands. The Irish equivalent would be drawn from only a few thousand men and were very far from home.

Casement’s plan got official German support by the end of 1914, and he was directed to Limburg prison camp in December. The diplomat found a group of soldiers in poor physical and mental condition, and not really in much of a mood to volunteer for anything.

The reasons for saying no were obvious: aside from the fact that Irish soldiers in British uniform were liable not to be committed nationalists, those who may have been sympathetic to Casement’s cause would have known that, in the event of capture while serving as part of this “Brigade”, they would face accusations of treason and a likely death penalty. Others may simply have wanted to wait out the war in the relative safety, if not comfort, of a POW camp. There was also the reality of peer pressure, with those Irish not interested in volunteering, and those English held in the same camp, subjecting those who did or were thinking about it to their own kind of internal persuasion (though it also happened the other way around)

Casement found many of the men he was trying to convince to be of little to no education, no nationalist persuasion or badly demoralised by their time in confinement. In an effort to boost volunteerism, Casement arranged for those who would do so to be promised better rations, and eventual passage to the United States if the unit failed to materialise into anything worthwhile, something he hoped would quell fears of what would come after the war.

Regardless, of the 2’500 Irish POW’s canvassed, only 55 of the Limburg contingent volunteered, much to the disgust of the German Army (one general commented they had ordered 100 uniforms and couldn’t even find a use for that limited number). Those who did volunteer for the grossly misnamed “legion” received some training from the German Army, mostly in the form of machine guns, as well as German uniforms with some Irish symbols, like the shamrock, attached to differentiate them. Eventually attached to the 203rd Brandenburg Regiment in two companies, they were organised as machine gun corps, though they apparently did not receive any machine guns outside of training. They ended up being partly bankrolled by Clan na Gael, as German enthusiasm waned.

Casement eventually became as disillusioned as some of the soldiers he was trying to recruit, unhappy with the quality of men he was being tasked with convincing, and with the limited support of the German government, which he came to realise had little genuine sympathy or interest in the cause of Irish independence. In 1916 he decided to leave Germany and head for Ireland, being granted the transportation option of a U-boat: none other than U-20, the ship that had sunk the Lusitania the previous year. His goal was to stop a rising from happening at all, being convinced that the arm shipment the Germans had sent was inadequate, if it even managed to land at all.

Three days before the beginning of the Easter Rising, Casement was put ashore by U-20 at Banna Strand, Co Kerry. Ill from a recurrence of malaria, he did not get far, and was soon after discovered by British authorities, who were tipped off by a local. Arrested, Casement faced charges of high treason, and was unable to do anything to further aid or prevent the Rising.

As for Casement’s Legion, the most exciting duty it ever saw was the guarding of Russian POW’s from the eastern front, with many of its membership forced to get second jobs in German factories nearby where they were billeted in order to survive. Some even married into the local community and had children during the war. Caught in a limbo between being outright prisoners and an army without a purpose, morale within the unit fluctuated, then plummeted as the war dragged on, especially after the news of Casement’s fate (many of the soldiers had become fiercely loyal to him), with accusations of desertion, alcoholism (a common accusation to be thrown at Irish soldiers) and thievery dogging them at every turn. A British intelligence report in later 1916 claimed that several members of the unit had applied to be reinstated as POW’s, and that some were actively sharing their rations with British prisoners.

With the collapse of the German government in late 1918, the Legion ceased to exist as well, its membership scattering to the winds, with the most what was left of Germany authority were able to do for them being the provision of fake passports. Some would choose to stay and make new lives for themselves in Germany, having a variety of fates, from suicide to aiding the new German governments crackdown on revolutionaries. Others would eventually return home. That was a difficult prospect, as repatriated prisoners had been all too eager to name deserters, so British authorities were well aware of who had joined the legion, to the point that in some instance benefits to their families had been halted.

Two would be imprisoned in the Tower of London, tried for treason, found guilty, and sentenced to death, only to be receive the King’s pardon, perhaps partly as a result of what was happening in Ireland post-war, and what had happened after the Easter Rising: the smarter British officials had no desire to create even more nationalist martyrs. Some of the Legion veterans would even join the IRA in the years to come and fight in the War of Independence, though it is doubtful their machine gun training at the hands of the German Army would have been all that useful. Still others would actually work for the other side, informing on nationalists and sometimes being executed for their trouble. For the remainder, they benefitted from the fact that treason was hard to prove for anyone who wasn’t actively involved in recruiting: after all, the rank and file could always claim they had joined the legion to seek better opportunities to escape.

The plan of the legion was fanciful from the start, and it’s very limited success was a predictable outcome. Even for the Irish soldiers of a nationalist persuasion, joining such a unit carried an inherently deadly risk outside of combat, and the Germany Army, progressively short on manpower and resources as the war continued, was simply not all that interested in making something worthwhile out of such a formation. Then there are the aspects of the plan that did not even get to be tested: how to transport such a unit to Ireland, what flag it would serve under once there, etc. For Casement, the eventual outcome was a disappointing one, and led him on a final path that would end with him facing the death penalty.

In Ireland meanwhile, the militant IRB was edging closer and closer to a fateful commitment. But we will actually look back at Casement’s Legion one more time, in 1918, when one of its membership’s return to Ireland precipitated yet another crisis, that sucked in some of the most notable names of the time.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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