Ireland’s Wars: Conscription

As 1918 began, it was clear that something akin to a political earthquake was occurring in Ireland, thanks to the rise in popularity in Sinn Fein, both in terms of general membership and electoral victories. That year, with the Great War entering its final phase and Britain again confronted with solving the enormity of the “Irish Question”, Sinn Fein would be granted their best opportunity to gain notoriety, thanks to the blunder to end all blunders from Westminster.

Before that though, there were attempted counter-responses to Sinn Fein, by the British and by an increasingly disheveled looking Irish Parliamentary Party. Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s “Irish Convention”, mentioned briefly in the last entry, would rumble on without any result until April, ignored by Sinn Fein and treated largely as a talking shop by most of its participants, who could come to no firm agreement on the future of Ireland and Home Rule. From Lloyd George’s side, the Convention was as much an effort to find a solution to the Irish political quagmire as it was to mollify American opinion, though he would apparently not care as much about this within a few weeks.

Sinn Fein were unsuccessful in three by-elections early in the year, which many would have taken as a sign that things were reverting to normal, but this ignored the realities: two of the votes were in IPP heartlands in Ulster where their support was more ingrained but less representative of the national picture, while the third, in Waterford, was taken by a William Redmond on the occasion of his father’s death. John Redmond had been a giant of Irish politics for many years, but the combined shock of the Rising, the fragmentation of the IPP and the death of his other son had sent his health into a tailspin from which it would not recover. The remaining leadership of the IPP failed to realise that it was their faux-resurgence that was the fluke, not Sinn Fein’s previous victories.

On the 21st March, Imperial Germany launched what became to be known as the Spring Offensive, and the possibility of the Entente losing the war suddenly became very real, at least in that moment. As we know, the German attack was a doomed affair, lacking the resources to make lasting gains, but in March all that many would have been able to see was a massive breakthrough and the enemy advancing rapidly towards Paris. Taking heavy casualties on the western front, and dealing with a shortage of manpower after four years of fighting, British leadership inevitably turned their eyes to Ireland, where conscription had not been extended.

With hindsight, the decision to try and introduce conscription to Ireland in 1918 is one of the most catastrophic mistakes in the history of British administration over the island, but we should try and understand the rationale. To an extent there was the issue of military necessity, though as I will discuss further down, this was not a uniformly held opinion among British generals. Lloyd George and others may very well have considered the country and their cause to be in an existential battle with the Central Powers, a battle that they now had to use every available means to fight, political issues or no. But we should also not ignore the other dimensions: a bitterness that the Irish had been excluded from conscription in the first place, a hare-brained attempt to rally Conservative/Unionist feeling behind a common cause and a badly misguided belief that nationalist feeling could be extinguished by a spell in British uniform.

The British military in Ireland itself was divided on the topic. The GOC of Ireland, Bryan Mahon, and the military head of the RIC, both outlined fears that enforcing conscription would be a hazardous and dangerous endevour. In order to do so, the British would have to send more troops into Ireland to deal with unrest and resistance, making the entire affair self-defeating. And questions were raised as to what kind of quality the British government was expecting from the conscripted men, many, if not most, of whom would be opposed to the very idea of serving in uniform. And what would happen when the need for the men was no longer present? Was the British military to train and arm men who were then to go home and swell the ranks of republican groups?

On the other side of things was the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant, Sir John French, once involved with the Curragh Mutiny, once the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, now transferring from his role as GOC of “Home Forces”. French took the role with the understanding, and acquiescence of Lloyd George, that he was to act as a military governor, and he firmly believed that conscription could be a success. He planned to arrest nationalist leaders, censor the press and use air power as a terrorising force against opponents of his new regime.

Four days after the German attack began, Lloyd George’s government began steps to extend conscription to Ireland. The law was pushed through over the objections of the IPP, and even some Unionists MP’s, who recognised that conscription would only inflame nationalist feeling. Lloyd George compounded his error by tying the conscription act in with the setting up of Home Rule, something that outraged both moderate nationalists and avowed republicans. The IPP walked out of Westminster.

Very little could have brought the different strands of nationalist feeling together in Ireland, but conscription was that issue. On the 18th April the “Anti-Conscription Committee” was created after a meeting at Mansion House: its members included de Valera, Arthur Griffith, the new leader of the IPP John Dillon and representatives from the All-For-Ireland League, Labour Party and trade unions. Dillon was especially angry, and would outline in private his own idea that Lloyd George was actively seeking to destroy the IPP, so that a rebellious Ireland would allow for a complete military wipe-out of republican elements.

The same day, a meeting of Catholic bishops at Maynooth resulted in a call for all Catholics to resist conscription. The Church had always had a testy relationship with physical force nationalism, but that was changing, with the Conscription Crisis being just the most recent aspect of a different line of thinking. Younger clergy were increasingly radicalised, and carried huge influence among the population. It was a merging of Catholic with nationalist that would dominate much of Ireland’s politics for some time to come. With even some Unionists opposed, a remarkable, and unique, sense of unity had been created.

The tangible reactions came very quickly. There were repeated mass protests organised by all sides; general strikes were called throughout the country, extending even to munitions factories, causing huge disruptions to daily life; huge anti-conscription rallies were organised, with Sinn Fein and the IPP sharing the stage; hundreds of thousands signed an anti-conscription pledge, and subscribed to a “Defence Fund”; appeals were sent to US President Woodrow Wilson, whose “14 Points” had been published in January. And, of course, for Sinn Fein and a resurgent Irish Volunteers (whose re-organisation will be the subject of a later entry), the entire affair proved to be the most lucrative opportunity for recruitment that they could have imagined.

Despite the fact that the IPP were also opposed to conscription, it was Sinn Fein that were viewed more as the primary opponents. They had always been gung-ho against conscription, while the IPP was still viewed by many as the party that had, through Redmond, encouraged enlistment in the British Army. Lloyd George even encouraged this sentiment, stating in Commons debates on the matter that “Ireland, through its representatives, assented to the war, voted for the war, supported the war”. This statement outraged the IPP, but was believed by a great many. What political capital there was to be gained, was going to be gained by Sinn Fein. Such was the situation, that when a by-election came up in Tullamore in April, the IPP chose not to contest: Sinn Fein’s Patrick McCartan, the commander of the Tyrone Volunteers who refused to mobilise in Easter Week, took the seat. 

The big question was how far they should go in resisting. The Church was careful in its calls for resistance not to advocate for violence, and Sinn Fein’s leadership remained ambiguous enough on the same topic. Certainly, if the British authorities had gone as far as trying to force men into uniform, it is likely that some degree of bloodshed would have occurred, but this does not necessarily equate to another 1916. In the end, such possible eventualities did not have a chance to come to pass.

A strange side-story to the while affair was the co-called “Hay Plan”, formulated by British Army Captain Stuart Hay under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information. The plan called for a courting of the Catholic Church so they could be used to convince the Irish to accept conscription, not to the British Army, but to the French one, first as labour battalions, and then maybe for combat down the line. Some moves in a positive direction were made to make this scheme a reality, before a cynical approach kicked in: political rivalries within government departments and suspicions of French intentions brought Hay’s plan to an end.

Even by May, it was clear that the crisis on the western front had passed. The German advances had been stopped and reversed, and the arrival of American troops now made the final result of the war all the more inevitable. As such, the efforts to introduce conscription into Ireland became even more pointless, and before June was over the plans were unceremoniously dropped. But it was too late. Though some government officials tried to maintain the possibility that conscription could be enforced even as late as October 1918, it was soon seen for what it really had been: an utterly disastrous piece of political maneuvering, that did nothing but harm British interests in Ireland and, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen as only accelerating the process whereby the 26 counties removed themselves London’s domain.

The next entry will discuss an event of this period that deserves some closer consideration. French, Lloyd George and others were not completely content to let Sinn Fein and its leadership march and make speeches as they saw fit. Whether it was in line with the larger war effort or a singular plan to help pacify an increasingly rebellious Ireland, they would attempt to decapitate the leading nationalist group in Ireland, even if they had to make up the motivation for doing so.

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

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