1916 Centenary: Ireland and a world at war - ‘A test to search men’s souls’

Ireland was not included in Britain’s conscription bill of January, 1916, but by then 90,000 Irishmen had volunteered, as many more would before 1918.

ON New Year’s Day, 1916, Ireland was involved in what John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had described as a “test to search men’s souls”. That test was the war being waged to decide the future of Europe.

As the year began, Irishmen serving in the ranks of the British and imperial armed forces were fighting on the battlefields of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. They were also fighting in the skies above those battlefields and on the high seas.

Since Britain had declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, 158,900 British servicemen had died and countless others had been horrendously injured. Thousands of Irish servicemen were among those casualties and every town and parish in the country had lost someone in the war. As 1916 dawned, families were struggling to come to grips with their losses.

In his message to the armed forces on Christmas Day, 1915, King George V said: “Another year is drawing to a close as it began, in toil, bloodshed and suffering and I rejoice to know that the goal to which you are striving draws nearer into sight.” Sadly, he was wrong. As 1916 dawned, the stalemate continued on the Western Front, with no end in sight. At sea, the royal navy was maintaining its economic blockade of Germany. Although the German high seas fleet remained at its bases at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, German U-Boats were waging an effective campaign against British merchant shipping.

Fighting continued, even as people in Ireland were marking New Year’s Day: 158 British servicemen died that day. Among them was Private Timothy Brosnahan, of the 1st Battalion, Irish Guards. He was the son of Michael and Ellen Brosnahan, of Churchtown, Buttevant, Co Cork. Private Patrick Donegan, a native of Dublin and member of the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, also died. Donegan was one of 252,000 Allied servicemen — including 4,000 Irishmen — who died in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, which was drawing to a close that January with victory for the Ottoman Empire.

A British army First World War recruiting meeting at St Patrick’s Street, Cork, on October1, 1915
A British army First World War recruiting meeting at St Patrick’s Street, Cork, on October1, 1915

Having suffered such high casualties and with the number of volunteers diminishing, the British government was forced to ensure that the army would be kept at the required strength. A military service bill was introduced in parliament that January.

This legislation provided for the conscription of single men aged 18 to 41. The inclusion of Ireland in the provisions of the bill was considered, but, after much heated debate, the government decided against it.

When their decision became public on January 4, John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party welcomed it, but Edward Carson and the Ulster Unionists were outraged. They said they considered the exclusion of Ireland to be “an insult and humiliation to the loyal and patriotic population of the country and an abandonment of the principle of equality of sacrifice in time of war on the part of His Majesty’s subjects in the United Kingdom”. Redmond, however, was happy that Ireland was already playing its part in the war. In January, 1916, he said that 90,000 men had already volunteered and he was confident that more would do so.

The motives of Irishmen who enlisted in the British armed forces varied. Some did so out of patriotism, more for economic reasons. Others responded to the appeals made by politicians, or were influenced by the call to fight for the “freedom of small nations”.

Some joined out of a sense of adventure. Among those was an 18-year-old native of Killorglin, Co Kerry, by the name of Thomas Bernadine Barry. After the war, Barry would join the IRA and win fame as the leader of the West Cork Flying Column. In his autobiography, he stated that “I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.”

Artillery of the Irish Division marching past King George V, during an inspection parade, in October, 1915.
Artillery of the Irish Division marching past King George V, during an inspection parade, in October, 1915.

In the weeks following the outbreak of the war, the thousands of Irishmen who enlisted were put in one of three divisions raised in Ireland for the “New Armies” being formed by Lord Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war.

The 10th (Irish) Division was formed in August, 1914, and placed under the command of Lt Gen Bryan Mahon, a native of Co Galway.

Comprised of Irish nationalists, it took part in the landing at Suvla Bay, on the Gallipoli Peninsula, on the night of August 6, 1915. This was the final attempt by British forces to break the deadlock on the peninsula, but it, too, failed.

In September, 1915, the division was moved to Salonika. On December 6 to 12, it took part in the battle of Kosturino, where it was defeated by the Bulgarian Army and it would spend the next few months refitting and preparing for its next battle.

After the Irish Volunteer movement split in September, 1914, over the issue of taking part in war, thousands of John Redmond’s National Volunteers flocked into the ranks of the British Army. These men joined the regiments that formed the 16th (Irish) Division, which had been established in September, 1914.

In December, 1915, the division moved to France, under the command of Major-General William Hickie, and was deployed in the vicinity of Bethune. As the new year dawned, it still hadn’t received its baptism of fire.

In Ulster, 13 battalions of Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force moved straight into the 36th (Ulster) Division, when that unit was formed in September 1914. It deployed to France in October, 1915, under the command of Major-General Oliver Nugent, and in January, 1916 it was undergoing intensive training in Abbeville.

For Irishmen serving in the ranks of the British or Imperial armed forces in January, 1916, the war would continue to be a ‘test to search men’s souls’.

Before the year was out, the men whose soul-searching led them to enlist in the British Army would take part in one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war. Hundreds of Irish sailors serving in the Royal Navy would also find themselves tested in the largest naval battle of the conflict.

However, back home in Ireland, there were those whose soul-searching didn’t lead them to enlist in the British armed forces.

Instead, they took part in an armed rebellion to establish an independent Irish republic.

Whether in the trenches of France, on the North Sea or on the streets of Dublin, the actions taken by these individuals, all Irishmen, all volunteers, would ensure that 100 years later the events of 1916 are still inscribed on the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland.

Gerry White is a military historian, and co-editor, with Brendan O’Shea, of ‘A Great Sacrifice: Cork Servicemen Who Died In The Great War’ (Echo Publications, 2010), and co-author, with Brendan O’Shea, of ‘Baptised in Blood: The Formation of the Cork Brigade Of Irish Volunteers 1913-1916’ (Mercier Press, 2005) and ‘The Burning of Cork’ (Mercier Press, 2006).

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