Look Back in Anger

Brian Hanley on the politics of the First World War and its commemoration.

The British establishment seem intent on using the centenary of the First World War to glorify militarism and rehabilitate imperialism.  From demands by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that the war be presented to children “as plainly a just war” to broadcaster Jeremy Paxman’s BBC series which contended that the conflict was one that pitted a democratic Britain against a dictatorial Germany, commemoration of the conflict is being presented in jingoistic terms.

This skewed view of the First World War is one that the Irish political class has seemed eager to ape. This, for all but the neo-unionist fringe, is not due to any nostalgia for Empire but a wish to present commemoration of a conflict which cost more Irish lives than any other in the 20th century as symbolising reconciliation between nationalist and unionist. There are those who also want to use the centenary to rehabilitate the memory of Home Rule leader John Redmond and romanticise Irish service in the British military.

It is right that the conflict be remembered. The First World War was the key event that shaped modern Europe. At least 35,000 people from Ireland were among the war’s 16 million dead. Another 200,000 Irish men and women took an active part in the conflict. The Easter Rising, the conscription crisis, the December 1918 General Election and the granting of limited independence in 1922 to the Irish Free State were all, to varying degrees, a result of the war. But the conflict was primarily fought by imperial powers, for imperial interests. ‘Plucky little Belgium’ invaded by Germany in 1914, was one of the most brutal colonial powers in Africa. The Russian Empire, one of the major Allied powers, was a far more oppressive regime than that of Imperial Germany.

In Germany, every adult man had the vote, there were mass democratic trade unions and the Social Democratic Party was the largest grouping in parliament. Germany’s rulers certainly wanted to expand their power, but found the way blocked by two far larger and more powerful empires, Britain and France. The idea that either of these states was defending democracy would have surprised the inhabitants of their colonies. Hundreds of thousands of colonial soldiers fought in the war, but there was never any question of them having a choice in the matter.

This is relevant to Ireland, which in 1914 went to war as part of the United Kingdom. There was no Irish parliament to rubberstamp ‘our’ participation. Both the leaders of Unionism and Nationalism made conflicting promises to their supporters in order to convince them to support the war. The Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers, on the brink of going to war against each other in the summer of 1914, were now expected to play their part in the British armed forces.

The Dublin-born Unionist leader Edward Carson hoped that UVF participation would guarantee that unionists escaped Home Rule; while his Nationalist counterpart, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, gambled that a display of Irish nationalist loyalty would guarantee its implementation.

In appealing to unionist loyalty to Britain, Carson had the more straightforward task. UVF recruits formed the basis of the 36th (Ulster) division. Redmond in contrast was forced to appeal to alleged Irish ties to France, Belgium and Poland, and assert that while the British Empire was “engaged in the most serious war in its history. It is a just war, provoked by the intolerable military despotism of Germany. It is a war for the defence of the sacred rights and liberties of small nations.”

Redmond’s suggestion that Irish and Ulster Volunteers be tasked with the defence of Ireland itself was dismissed by the British government and in September 1914 Redmond asked Irish nationalists to go wherever the “firing line extends.” The war hysteria that occurred across Europe was replicated in Ireland. There was extensive publicity in nationalist Ireland given to stories of Belgian nuns being massacred by German Protestants. German-owned butcher and grocery shops were attacked by mobs in Dublin. Jewish peddlers were arrested in provincial towns on suspicion of being German spies. Recruitment posters in nationalist areas stressed “fighting for Ireland.”

Some of our best comrades are leaving the North Wall to fight for the glory of England – the Irish Worker

Thousands of Irish men did volunteer in the winter of 1914. There was already of course a strong tradition of British soldiering in Ireland. Prior to the war the typical Irish recruit was either an unskilled man from a city or town, or a member of the Protestant landed gentry. As a result the Irish were over-represented in both the lower ranks and the highest echelons of the British army. When war began, reservists were called up. These included over 1,000 members of the ITGWU. The union’s newspaper the Irish Worker lamented that “some of our best comrades are leaving the North Wall to fight for the glory of England.” Among the men were members of the Irish Citizen Army. Many urban workers joined the British Army, in the main to assist their families financially. Following their period of service some signed up as reservists, and received annual payments, on the basis that they would be called back for service when necessary. Another thousand Transport Union men were in British uniform by 1915, with one battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers even nicknamed ‘the Larkinites.’

After the outbreak of war the makeup of recruits became much more diverse. Republican writer Ernie O’Malley observed that “before the war, scapegoats, those in debt or in trouble over a girl joined the ranks: now all trades, professions and classes were found there.” Thousands of middle and upper class men enlisted in 1914; many were killed or wounded. But class still mattered. British enlistment officers complained that in Ireland “a much larger number of recruits could be obtained from the (farming and commercial classes) if it were not for their reluctance to enter upon their training with recruits from the labouring classes. This class prejudice is probably much more pronounced in Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.” One Dublin Fusiliers officer explained that the ‘ranks’ was “not a very pleasant place for men of education and refinement to be huddled together with men who had probably not washed for a couple of months.” He came to the conclusion; “that there was a large number of men who did not join because they did not care to be mixed up with the corner boys.” This class disdain extended to soldiers’ wives (so-called ‘Separation women’) and their families, who often lived in the poorest areas of Irish towns and were commonly referred to as ‘rabble.’

So many of those sent to fight in 1914 were former British soldiers, who had joined the army because of economic circumstances. Others were swayed by appeals from John Redmond or Edward Carson. As in Europe, many Irish people accepted that Imperial Germany represented a special threat. Meath labour activist and poet Francis Ledwidge asserted that he “joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.” Ledwidge would die at the front in 1917, though not before reassessing his support for the war.

Despite the propaganda, most Irish Volunteers did not join up and, neither, interestingly, did most Ulster Volunteers. But thousands of ordinary men did, encouraged by the glorification of militarism and motivated by a sense of adventure. Tom Barry, the future IRA leader, was honest enough to admit that when he enlisted at 17 years of age it was not “on the advice of John Redmond or any other politician, that if we fought for the British we would secure Home Rule for Ireland, nor can I say I understood what Home Rule meant. I was not influenced by the lurid appeal to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to war for no other reason than to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.”

But the losses suffered on the beaches of Gallipoli and elsewhere during 1915 helped dampen what enthusiasm had existed for the war. The Irish rural economy boomed during the war years and recruits from the countryside were few. Enlistment declined in every year of the war, leading the British to gamble on introducing conscription in 1918.

By then the conflict had played a key role in radicalising those who rejected British rule. James Connolly and Jim Larkin opposed the war from the beginning. Connolly had declared in August 1914 that “conscription or no conscription they will never get me or mine.” He, like most socialists, expected that the European labour movement would prevent workers killing each other, especially as socialism had never seemed as strong as it was in 1914.

In 1907, the Socialist International had declared that “should war break out…it is the workers’ duty to intervene in order to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their strength to make use of the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest strata of the people and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination.”

In early August 1914, 100,000 people heard British Labour MP, Keir Hardie, denounce the coming war in London. A similar peace rally saw 150,000 take to the streets in the German city of Leipzig. Thousands marched in Paris, Berlin and Brussels, while the socialist press called for general strikes. In Brussels the French socialist leader Jean Jaurés embraced the German SPD MP Hugo Haase (on his return to France, Jaurés was shot dead by a right-winger). But soon the various socialist parties collapsed into support for their countries’ war efforts, all arguing that their nations were engaged in ‘defensive’ wars.

A minority in every country held fast to the anti-war line. In Britain several socialists refused to be conscripted and were imprisoned. Leftwing conscientious objectors such as John McLean and Bob Stewart played a crucial role popularising the socialist cause in Scotland. Such men were clear that political rather pacifist sentiment prevented them from becoming involved in what was not their “quarrel.”

Connolly was deeply affected by what he saw as the sell-out by the most of the international socialist movement. He lamented that “war is upon us…and we are helpless! What then becomes of all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully-built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury, signifying nothing?” Instead Connolly hoped that if “the working class of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and financiers, (should) proceed tomorrow to erect barricades all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example and contributing our aid to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world… Starting thus, Ireland may yet set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shriveled on the funeral pyre of the last war lord.”

But Connolly was not just isolated within the socialist movement. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Lockout he was in a weak position in Ireland as well. Nevertheless the Irish Worker, before it was banned, and the paper Connolly then set up – The Workers’ Republic – denounced the carnage of the war consistently.

Connolly allied himself with the various separatists, republican and pacifist groups that opposed the war. But he became convinced that a blow had to be struck militarily against the British Empire. This involved an alliance with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and tacitly with Germany as well.

After the Easter Rising opposition to the war became more pronounced. The decision of the British government to try to introduce conscription in the spring of 1918 spectacularly backfired. A key element in the fight against it was the general strike of 23rd April, 1918. Following the strike the Irish Times asserted that “it was the voice of Labour, not the voice of religion or politics, which yesterday stopped the wheels of industry…We think that April 23rd will be chiefly remembered, not as the day when Nationalist Ireland proclaimed her spiritual and moral isolation, but as the day when Labour found itself.”

Honour the Dead: Fight for the Living

In Russia the backlash against war helped propel the Bolsheviks to power under the slogan “Peace, Bread, and Land.” In Dublin during February 1918, 10,000 people attended a rally in support of the Russian Revolution. By then disillusion with war was being expressed in strikes, mutinies and riots, from Glasgow and Milan to Berlin and Hamburg. The withdrawal of Russia from the fighting was seen as proof that a new world was emerging, in which imperialist wars would be consigned to history.

There is no doubt that the dead of 1914-18 should be remembered, but the most fitting manner might be with rage against the system that sent them to the slaughter. Principally we should celebrate those who resisted the war and who fought so that the world that would never see such carnage again, and confront attempts to rehabilitate historical figures who sought political advantage in the bloodshed.

Such a proud tradition in November 1934 and 1935 saw former British servicemen take part in demonstrations organised by the Republican Congress in Dublin. Veterans joined republicans in alternative Armistice Day events, marching under the banner ‘Honour the Dead by Fighting for the Living.’

Illustration by Luke Fallon.

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