Book review: Neither Unionist Nor Nationalist: The 10th (Irish) Division in the Great War

Stephen Sandford Irish Academic Press, €24.95 
AMONG the great battles of World War I none was more sorrowful than Gallipoli. 

Even the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele seem pale in comparison with the deaths of some 50,000 troops from Britain, France, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand during a futile battle to win control of the Black Sea Straits.

The Gallipoli peninsular guards the entrance to the Black Sea and at that time blocked communications between Britain and France and their ally, Russia.

The Anglo-French forces wanted to expel the Turks from Gallipoli and to seize control of the fortifications. They hoped, too, that losing Gallipoli would shock the Ottoman Empire into deserting its German and Austro-Hungarian allies and abandoning the war.

Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was the scheme’s architect and its failure cost him his ministerial post and almost ended his political career when he resigned and went to fight on the Western Front.

Churchill had calculated that Turkish resistance would crumble rapidly. Indeed, the initial plan was for British and French battleships to bombard the Turks into submission. When that attack failed to dislodge them from their forts on Gallipoli, Churchill launched a land invasion in April 1915.

The Gallipoli operation was intended to break the impasse that had developed after the Germans failed to complete their 1914 invasion of France. Churchill envisaged a quick and decisive engagement but his forces were instead drawn into a prolonged battle of attrition for which they were ill-prepared.

Indeed, Turkish resistance was ferocious — if costly — generating twice as many casualties as suffered by the western allies. General Kemel Mustafa Ataturk, in command of Turkey’s defenders, famously told his men: “I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.”

By January 1916 the allied expeditionary force had been forced to withdraw from Gallipoli, which transformed Ataturk into a national hero of Turkey. After the First World War it was Ataturk who raised the modern Turkish Republic from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

The people of Australia and New Zealand were also were also gripped by stories of heroism and sacrifice by their troops at Gallipoli. More than 12,000 of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) did not return from Gallipoli.

Australian perceptions of the campaign were shaped by media reporting, especially the damning dispatches sent by journalist Keith Murdoch — father of Rupert Murdoch. Gallipoli became the dawn of an independent Australian national identity, expressing interests separate from those of Great Britain.

ANZAC Day, commemorated annually on April 25, is an important tribute from both New Zealand and Australia to those who died at Gallipoli and in subsequent wars and conflicts.

Unlike the division’s more famous counterparts on the Western Front — the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) — the 10th (Irish) Division, which fought at Gallipoli, was, as Stephen Sandford puts it, neither unionist nor nationalist.

Although the 16th and 36th had in common their experience of service on the Western Front, the Catholic and Protestant soldiers of the 10th fought and often died side by side.

The 10th was dubbed the “Irish” Division because its members were recruited in Ireland as part of the first wave of Kitchener’s New Army. Recruitment was based on the eight Irish line regiments of the British army but was supplemented by volunteers from other parts of the then United Kingdom.

Only about half the division’s officers and men were Irish-born or bred. But, Sandford argues, this does not mean the 10th was any less Irish than the more sectional-based 16th and 36th divisions.

The 10th originated in Ireland, trained in Ireland and adopted a self-consciously Irish ethos and identity. Indeed, the 10th was the first ever Irish division in the history of the British army.

At its core were some famous Irish units with long histories of military service, including the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers.

The 10th was diverted from being sent to the Western Front and was deployed to Gallipoli as part of the second wave of the operation in August 1915. Once there, the division was confronted with battle conditions not unlike those of the trench warfare of the Western Front.

In just two months service on the peninsular the division lost about 75% of its original strength, incurring some 3,000 fatalities.

Many soldiers died not in action but of sickness caused by foul water and the lack of medical supplies.

One of Gallipoli’s most famous casualties did not even make it to the front. In April 1915 the poet Rupert Brooke, a member of the British expeditionary force, died en route to Gallipoli when he was bitten by a mosquito and developed sepsis. Not long before he died Brooke wrote his famous poem ‘The Soldier’ which includes the lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England.

In Brooke’s case the foreign field was the island of Skyros in the Aegean. At the end of September 1915 when Bulgaria entered the war on the side of the central powers, the 10th division was sent to Salonika in Greece and subsequently saw service in Serbia and Palestine.

In 1918, the 10th lost its Irish appellation when Indian units replaced its core battalions, which were sent to the Western Front to join the last great offensive against Germany.

As a mixed division that — apart from Gallipoli — had participated in relatively obscure campaigns not in the public eye, the 10th had no political champion in divided postwar Ireland. Although Bryan Cooper published an account of The Tenth Irish Division in Gallipoli in 1918, the division soon faded from public view.

In Northern Ireland the memory of the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) division was kept alive for sectarian purposes, while the 16th (Irish) division was never completely forgotten in the south because of its association with John Redmond’s nationalist call to arms of the Irish Volunteers in September 1914.

Now, Stephen Sandford’s book presents the first full history of the 10th (Irish) Division. His narrative and analysis ranges far and wide, including detailed data on the social and religious composition of the 10th and comparing its experiences to that of other Kitchener divisions.

He contextualises the military evolution of the division as part of the British army’s steep and costly learning curve during the First World War.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the soldiers of the 10th had a significantly worse disciplinary record than other Kitchener divisions but that does not seem to have had an effect on either their morale or the fighting qualities of the division.

A number of 10th division soldiers were court-martialled and sentenced to death for disobeying orders but only one was executed.

Sandford provides details of the division’s service in the Balkans and the Middle East but at the heart of this fascinating history is his account of Gallipoli from the perspective of the 10th.

The main problem facing the division, Sandford concludes, was a deficient senior leadership, not least that of Sir Ian Hamilton, the Gallipoli operation’s overall commander.

Today the Gallipoli peninsular is the site of many separate and striking war memorials, including one dedicated to the dead of the 10th (Irish) Division.

Yet the most moving remains Ataturk’s 1934 memorial to all the Mehmets and Johnnies from both sides who “shed their blood and lost their lives.” It includes the words:

“You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork.


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