Book review: 1916: A Global History

THE Easter Rebellion is normally considered a catalyst in changing the course of Irish history, but 1916 was a year of profound change throughout the world. 
Book review: 1916: A Global History

Keith Jeffery

Bloomsbury, £25

The events in Dublin should be viewed in the broader context of the First World War.

“The main theme of this book,” the author states, “is the inescapably global reach of the conflict.”

“My aim,” Professor Keith Jeffery explains, “has been to use emblematic events from each month of 1916 as hooks for a series of reflections through which the astonishing range variety and interconnectedness of the wartime experience can be charted.”

The events of that year ultimately led to the demise of the German Empire, as well as the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman Empires. It also contributed to the subsequent collapse of the French Empire.

The Easter Rebellion actually initiated a chain of events that led to the break-up of the United Kingdom. In comparison with other events, what happened in Dublin during the Easter Rebellion was minor.

The rebellion’s total death toll was 400 people on all sides — 132 soldiers and policemen, 64 insurgents, and 254 civilians.

During the same period, the 16th (Irish) Division lost 570 men killed and 1,400 wounded in the Hulluch area of France.

That was in less than a week. During the remainder of the year the Gallipoli campaign was wound up and the Battles of Verdun and the Somme were initiated.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians launched the Brusilov offensive, which was their most successful venture, but it terminally undermined the empire’s capacity for further sustained involvement in the conflict.

The events of 1916 had a profound impact on a whole range of people.

Winston Churchill, who had been the inspiration of the Gallipoli assault, had to resign in virtual disgrace before the campaign wound up, but he was somewhat redeemed by the escape from the peninsula in early 1916.

His later successor as Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, actually served in Gallipoli.

As a result he was more sanguine than most in 1940.

“I didn’t take so gloomy a view as some about our chances at Dunkirk,” he explained, “having served through the evacuation of Gallipoli.”

The British headquarters staff had predicted that half of the men and two-thirds of the armaments would be lost in a withdrawal, but the evacuation was achieved with minimal losses.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s son was later killed at the Somme, while the future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was shot in the knee and later in the left buttock.

The French had 150,000 men killed at Verdun, where the Germans lost 143,000. For the French, Verdun came to represent the accumulated sufferings of the whole war.

Charles de Gaulle was taken prisoner there and spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.

Fifty years later as President of France, de Gaulle said an important lesson was learned.

After the pain of two world wars, he said France and Germany had to act together to reorganise Europe as “the main centre of civilisation”.

While the Easter Rebellion was a consequence of the First World War, this book is a timely reminder that we should not lose sight of the bigger picture, because Dr Jeffrey ably charts that war’s profound impact on the rest of the world, in sparking not only the Russian Revolution, and the collapse of various empires, but also World War II.

Moreover, it was ultimately a major influencing factor in the advent of the European Union.

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