The Fighting Irish - whose side were they on?

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1. The Irish involvement

Over 200,000 Irishmen fought on behalf of Britain in World War One and over 140,000 of those were volunteers. Nationalists wanted to protect Home Rule, an agreement with Britain who had promised to devolve some parliamentary powers to Dublin. German advances were viewed as a threat to Home Rule.

Unionists based in the north of Ireland were loyal to Great Britain and wanted to protect the British Empire. There were also more practical reasons for Irish involvement. Employment opportunities were so scant in Ireland that joining the fight against the Germans was an economic necessity for many Irishmen, while many more volunteered merely out of a sense of adventure.

2. The famous fighting Irish of World War One

United Irishmen

While Nationalists and Unionists fought together, there were some outstanding battalions whose contribution to the World War One effort will be remembered. The 36th Ulster Division and the Connaught Rangers are just two examples. The 36th Ulster Division were comprised mainly of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a militia that had been formed prior to the outbreak of the war to to protest against the prospect of Home Rule. Their endeavours during the Battle of the Somme became legendary as thousands met a bloody end in the early days of the offensive.

The Devil's Own

The Connaught Rangers, who were also known as ‘The Devil’s Own’, were a celebrated regiment who popularised the song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary – the song they sang while marching through Boulogne in 1914. The Royal Irish Fusiliers were awarded 44 honours during the conflict but these came at a considerable cost. Over 3,000 of the regiment were killed in the field.

3. Letters from the front line

The realities of war soon began to resonate with those stationed on the front lines. As standard practice men were required to write wills before going into battle. In 2012 the National Archives of Ireland published digital copies of 9,000 wills of men who perished during the conflict. While scores of those wills were merely marked with an ‘x’, others were more detailed and give an insight into what life was like for men preparing for battle. Correspondence from Michael Egan (1st Bat Irish Guards), James Purvis (6th Bat Royal Irish Fusiliers) and Jack Madden (2nd Bat Royal Irish Rifles) show fear, uncertainity and a yearning for home were prevalent themes for Irish soldiers during WW1.

Michael Egan first page letter

"This might be my last letter for all that I know." Private Michael Egan, 1st Battalion, Irish Guards.

National Archives of Ireland

Michael Egan letter Page 2

"Don’t forget to pray for me every day til you hear of death for I am going to the front." Private Michael Egan, 1st Battalion Irish Guards.

Private Michael Egan

Purvis letter page 2

"...there is a place for making your will so I am making mine out for to leave to you so you can divide it the way you think fit if anything happens to me." Private James Purvis, 6th Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.

Jack Madden long part of letter

"Dear Biddy, I do miss you fighting with me now. No Matter, we will fight again please God." Private Jack Madden, 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles.

Jack Madden death notice

The will of Jack Madden who died in action on 27th October 1914.

National Archives of Ireland

4. Sons of the Somme

The ultimate blood sacrifice

The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest of World War One. The 36th Ulster Division were deployed on the first day of battle, charged with taking a German fortification called the Schwaben Redoubt. Despite coming under intense fire, the Ulstermen managed to reach their target but a lack of reinforcements meant they were forced to retreat.

Victoria Crosses

Three of the nine Victoria Crosses awarded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme went to members of the 36th Ulster Division but the losses were staggering. In the first two days of battle over 5,500 men had been killed in action. The bravery displayed by the Irishmen was such that it became known as the ultimate ‘blood sacrifice’.

Epic and tragic

Historian Turtle Bunbury explains: "What happened to the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme was epic and tragic, with five and a half thousand men going over the top being killed or disabled. For Ulster Unionists it was the ultimate blood sacrifice. So for the British government to have basically sold out Ulster at that point would have been an act of gigantic betrayal. But they were never going to sell Ulster out really. You still had a whole division of Ulstermen on the western front. You had Edward Carson, the most influential unionist now sitting on the war time cabinet. So the British government was going to do what it could for Ulster and ultimately the best it could do was partition."

5. Conflict at Home

The 1916 Easter Rising

While thousands of Irishmen died fighting on behalf of Britain on the continent, discontent began to grow domestically as enforced conscription became more likely. An alliance of volunteers comprised of nationalists and militant labour as well as members of the women’s movement set about planning to stage an insurrection against the British in Dublin.

The Occupation

On Easter Monday of 1916 the Volunteers began the occupation of key buildings in Dublin City centre without much resistance from British forces.

The General Post Office

The General Post Office on Sackville Street served as the headquarters for the rebels. Patrick Pearse, one of the ringleaders of the insurrection, read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the General Post Office. This declared Ireland’s independence from Britain. Reaction from Britain was initially slow but by the end of the week almost 20,000 British troops had been dispatched to quash the 1,600 rebels. After heavy gunfire resulting in the destruction of the city centre and 450 deaths, the insurgents eventually surrendered unconditionally.

The legacy of the Rising

While many Irish people initially viewed the Rising with scepticism the response from the British forces saw a swelling of nationalist sentiment across the country. Martial law had been introduced by the British and when 15 of the ringleaders were executed sympathy for the rebels and their cause began to grow in Ireland and recruitment to the British army began to dwindle.

6. Forgotten heroes

A muted homecoming

The Easter Rising and the rise in anti-British sentiment that it brought meant that the Irish involvement in World War One had, for years, been wilfully neglected. Men who had been lauded for going to fight in the Great War returned home to a muted reception. In fact, in Nationalist areas many were shunned, greeted with hostility and in some cases physically attacked.

Shunned in the streets

The memories of World War One were further side-lined by Irish partition in May 1921 which separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the island. The ensuing Irish Civil War between 1922 and 1923 shifted the focus further away from the endeavours of Irishmen during World War One. In the northern province of Ulster, Unionsts celebrated the return of their troops but the sacrifice made by nationalists based in Ulster was all but forgotten. Indeed the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising was celebrated in Ireland with much pomp and pageantry but the sacrifice made by Irish soldiers during World War One had largely been side-lined.

Pride of the past

In more recent years, the heroic role of Irishmen who participated in World War One has been re-visited. In 1998 on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November 1918 Queen Elizabeth and the then Irish President Mary McAleese dedicated a memorial at Messines to all of the Irish who had fallen during the Great War. The Island of Ireland Peace Tower was built as a permanent reminder of the sacrifice made by Irishmen during World War One.

7. Did WW1 lead to more bloodshed in Ireland?

Within five years of the end of WW1, the war of independence and civil war happened in Ireland. Did World War lead to more blood being shed in Ireland?

Blood on the streets

The war of independence and the Irish Civil War took place in Ireland within five years of the end of World War One

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More strife

Joe Devlin, MP for West Belfast Falls, 1918

"The close of the war brought Ireland no peace and freedom, but strife and repression."

Fewer fatalities

The outbreak of WW1 postponed imminent hostilities in Ireland in 1914

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Less bloodshed

Turtle Bunbury, historian

"The numbers killed were, relatively speaking, quite small, certainly in comparison to what would've happened if the bloodletting had begun in 1914."