Conscription Crisis of 1918: The triple alliance

In the first of his articles covering the conscription crisis of 1918, Ryle Dwyer explained how heavy-handed British politicians looked towards Ireland to solve their army’s manpower crisis during a vital stage of the war on the Western Front.

Conscription Crisis of 1918: The triple alliance

In the first of his articles covering the conscription crisis of 1918, Ryle Dwyer explained how heavy-handed British politicians looked towards Ireland to solve their army’s manpower crisis during a vital stage of the war on the Western Front.

Today, in part two of the series, he looks at how opposition by the Catholic hierarchy inspired organised labour and trade unions and politicians to join the campaign against the military draft with a national strike, and helped lay the foundations for Irish independence.

The Catholic hierarchy and clergy initially galvanised the Irish people against conscription in 1918. Politicians and labour representatives then built on this initiative.

Some 1,500 delegates met for an All-Ireland Trades Conference in the Mansion House on Saturday, April 20, 1918. William O’Brien, president of the Dublin United Trades Council, presided and proposed a one-day national strike against the introduction of conscription on Tuesday, April 23.

The proposal was passed unanimously. “We shall resist it in every way that seems feasible,” the gathering agreed.

Even the Irish Independent, controlled by William Martin Murphy, supported the national strike. Murphy had been the nemesis of organised labour since the infamous lock-out during the tram strike of 1913.

“Sincerely we hope that Irish Labour will stand solid in this crisis, and follow faithfully the advice and directions of its leaders,” the Irish Independent editorial proclaimed. “Any sign of wavering or half-heartedness would wholly destroy the effect of the ‘demonstration of fealty to the cause of Labour and Ireland’.”

“The Labour movement in Ireland is at a turning point in its existence,” O’Brien confidently told trade union colleagues in Dublin on the eve of the strike.

“We will make history tomorrow. When we see William Martin Murphy in the leading article in the Irish Independent this morning expressing the hope that the workers of Ireland will be loyal to the decision of the leaders on Saturday, we don’t know whether we are standing on our head or on our heels.”

The country came to a virtual standstill on Tuesday. Publication of the Dublin daily newspaper was halted for a day, and there were no trains, or buses, and virtually all traffic ceased. Even the pubs in Cork remained shut.

“In short,” the Cork Examiner reported, “the commercial and industrial life of the city was for one whole day at a standstill.”

“Yesterday no manner of work was done in Dublin or in the rest of Ireland outside North-East Ulster,” the Irish Times remarked in an editorial next day.

The mandate of last Saturday’s Labour Conference was observed strictly and with complete success. Labour was withdrawn from every process of trade and industry.

There were determined efforts in the following days to preserve the political unity. A monster anti-conscription rally was called for Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, on May 5, 1918. It was addressed by Éamon de Valera and James Dillon, the respective leaders of Sinn Féin and the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).

“Probably never in the history of Ireland’s national activities has there been such a dramatically striking demonstration of earnest unity,” the Freeman’s Journal reported.

“The most extreme differences of political view, assembled in the square to demonstrate their enthusiastic loyalty to the unity in leadership represented by Mr. Dillon and Mr. E. de Valera, side by side on the platform.”

The Military Services Act (1918) authorised the British government to introduce conscription in Ireland by a mere order in council. Henry Duke, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, strongly advised against it.

“It will be impossible in the teeth of the opposition of bishops and politicians to enforce conscription,” he warned. Implementing the measure in the face of such opposition would require more men than would be conscripted, he added.

The Attorney General, F.E. Smith, who was closely associated with Edward Carson and the northern Unionists, advocated on April 20 that the Sinn Féin leaders should be arrested and deported from Ireland. But Duke warned that this would only “further inflame the minds of the people”.

Duke’s tenure as Irish secretary was terminated during the first week of May, when the British made a clean sweep of their Irish government. The viceroy, Ivor Churchill Guest, was replaced by Field Marshall John French, while Duke was replaced by Edward Shortt. The commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, Lt General Bryan Mahon, a Galway native, was also moved.

Mahon had also advised against introducing conscription. He warned that they “might as well conscript Germans”. He was replaced by Lt General Frederick Shaw, who, in September 1919, suggested the introduction of the Black and Tans.

The first official act of the French and Shortt was to issue a proclamation on the night of May 16 declaring that “a German plot” had been uncovered involving Irish people.

Crowds of onlookers throng Patrick Street on the day following the burning of Cork city centre by crown forces.
Crowds of onlookers throng Patrick Street on the day following the burning of Cork city centre by crown forces.

This was used to justify the arrest and deportation of more than 70 leading members of Sinn Féin during the following 48 hours.

The round-up began on the night of May 17, 1918. Michael Collins learned of the British plans in advance and notified de Valera and others. But they decided there was more to gain politically by allowing themselves to be arrested.

Irish newspapers promptly demanded that evidence of this German plot be produced. The Irish Times took for granted that this would be done.

“The Government has acted on information which convinces it that a ‘dangerous German intrigue’ exists in Ireland,” the newspaper explained. “It knows that it must justify everything that it has done.”

The Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, and Cork Examiner were all wary of the British motives in the midst of the conscription crisis. It looked suspiciously like the British Government was just trying to smear Sinn Féin in order to prepare the way for the Order in Council to introduce conscription.

“It is remarkable coincidence that the official statement relative to the existence of a German plot should have been made after Parliament had risen for the Whitsuntide Recess, and that the arrests should have rapidly followed,” the Cork Examiner noted.

“As Parliament is not now sitting, no questions can be asked, and no information obtained either as to the

alleged German plot itself or as to the persons supposed to be implicated in it. In these circumstances there will be a universal demand in this country that the fullest light shall immediately be thrown upon the allegations contained in the Viceregal Proclamation.”

This proved to be another blow to the IPP, as its representatives had no more influence in the matter than the elected Sinn Féin representatives who had refused to take their seats at Westminster.

All four Sinn Féin representatives elected to parliament in 1917 were arrested, and promptly transported to Britain. de Valera was jailed in Lincoln, George N Plunkett in Birmingham, Joe McGuinness in Gloucester, and WT Cosgrave in Reading.

More than 70 party colleagues were held in eight different jails in England and Wales for over nine months, without ever being charged, or brought before any court. This exposed British justice as a perversion of any true sense of justice.

Was it just a coincidence that the Attorney General had advocated the round-up and deportation of Sinn Féin leaders almost four weeks before the arrests? The British never produced any credible evidence of the supposed German plot.

It has often been suggested that the executions following Easter Rebellion drove the Irish people into the arms of Sinn Féin. During 1917, disparate republican elements won four parliamentary by-elections before they united under the Sinn Féin banner and the leadership of de Valera in October 1917.

The party then lost the next three by-elections to the IPP in early 1918. Sinn Féin’s star seemed to be on the wane, until April 20, at the height of the conscription controversy, when Patrick McCartan was elected to Westminster in uncontested by-election in North King’s County (Offaly). At the time, McCartan was actually in the US.

The round-up, deportation, and jailing of so many Sinn Féin activists provided the party with an enormous boost and utterly undermined the IPP. Arthur Griffith comfortably won the East Cavan by-election from Gloucester prison on June 20, 1918.

That same day, Guest, who had been viceroy to Ireland until just before the arrests, raised many eyebrows when he complained in parliament about the Government having “alleged the existence of a German plot in Ireland.”

He obviously did not believe there was any substance to the allegation.

“It is somewhat strange,” he told the House of Lords, “that neither I, nor, as far as I am aware, any other member of the late Irish Executive, was aware of the existence of this plot until it was discovered by the British government.”

It was generally assumed throughout Ireland that the British were simply retaliating against Sinn Féin over the anti-conscription campaign. As a result the party got the bulk of the credit for averting conscription, even though

the Church hierarchy and clergy had probably played a more influential role.

The British government’s handling of the whole affair had been a catalogue of errors from start to finish. Their

conduct in the aftermath of the crisis was probably as historically significant as the crisis itself, because it led to Sinn Féin eclipsing the IPP.

If Sinn Féin had been involved in a plot with the Germans, the British could easily have charged those involved after the war ended in November. This would not have compromised any intelligence operations at that point.

British prime minister David Lloyd George. Pic: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
British prime minister David Lloyd George. Pic: Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The British should, at least, have charged, or released those people being held at the end of the war, but they

persisted in holding them in prison without charge, greatly offending the Irish sense of justice.

The situation was further compounded when Dick Coleman of Swords, Co Dublin, died in Usk on December 9, of the deadly Spanish influenza epidemic. Five days later, the Irish people went to the polls.

Campaigning on a pledge to establish an independent parliament in Dublin, Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 Irish seats. This result amounted to an electoral endorsement of Irish independence.

A majority of the victorious Sinn Féin candidates were in jail at the time. Twenty-four of those seats were won by people who were imprisoned in England or Wales without charge.

Sinn Féin received a psychological boost when seven imprisoned members escaped from Usk and Lincoln prisons in late January and early February, 1919. Those included Éamon de Valera.

Michael Collins had personally helped to spring him in the hope that de Valera would lead a war of independence against the British.

Two days after de Valera’s escape, the British cabinet considered releasing the other Sinn Féiners, but Winston Churchill, the secretary for war, argued against the move.

“It would be a disastrous sign of weakness to let out the Sinn Fein prisoners,” he insisted, thereby exhibiting his blind contempt for the rule of law, truth, justice, and democracy in Ireland.

Although the bishops had played a leading role during the conscription crisis, they faded into the background afterwards. But some bishops did lash out in their Lenten pastorals on March 2, 1919.

“We are not ruled by the ordinary law, but subjected to a drastic military code,” said Michael Cardinal Logue.

“Wherever we turn our eyes, instead of freedom and justice,” the Bishop of Derry, Charles McHugh, noted, “we are confronted by a militarism of the most up-to-date Prussian type.”

The Bishop of Clogher, Patrick McKenna, complained about the deportation and imprisoning of those being held without any charge against them.

“The continued incarceration of these men is a monstrous injustice and a disgrace to any people calling itself civilised,” he said.

Pierce McCan, who had been elected to Parliament in East Tipperary in December, died in Gloucester Jail of influenza on March 6. The British then decided to release all of those being held over the supposed German Plot.

De Valera was acutely aware that the Catholic hierarchy had played the vital role in staving off conscription, which was accomplished without firing a shot.

Maybe this explains why he rebuffed the efforts of Collins to lead a war of independence against the British. Instead, de Valera decided to go to the US to enlist international support for Irish independence.

The hierarchy’s influence during the conscription crisis may explain why de Valera was always so accommodating with them afterwards. Indeed, when push came to shove, few politicians dared to stand up to, or defy, the hierarchy in the following decades.

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