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The First World War And Ireland

August 4, 2004 is the ninetieth anniversary of the First World War, however we in Ireland will most likely will leave this important episode pass us by. However this was not always the case. In this article I hope to show the reader that Ireland as a nation contributed much more than the thousands of soldiers, who fought in the many theatres of war from that period. We as a people also contributed from a civilian level something that I hope this article will show.

The study of Ireland and the First World War, until very recently suffered from what the English historian George Boyce has called ‘a symbol of the battle between Unionism and Nationalism’. However, since the 1980s a change in Irish historiography has helped to redress this imbalance, much of this redress is due to the works of David Fitzpatrick, Patrick Callan, Martin Staunton, Terence Denman and Thomas Dooley. To understand this change of scholarly focus it is important to emphasize the Ireland that existed between August 1914 and January 1919 when Dail Eireann met for the first time. Thomas Hennessey has argued that the ‘the enthusiasm which gripped Ireland at the beginning of World War 1 obscured the nuances which divided Nationalist and Unionist perspectives on the importance of the conflict.’ So what are the reasons behind the ‘politicised’ memory of Ireland’s contribution to the First World War. For some historians the number of men who enlisted is more important than the fact that different sectors of Irish society enlisted. Moreover the numbers of those who enlisted between 4 August 1914 and February 1915 are dramatically different from the figures of August 1918 and 11 November 1918. The figures for the early months of the war August to February stood at 50,107 compared to the 9,845 who enlisted between August and November 1918, the final three months of the war. However these figures do not say if there were greater numbers of Catholics or Protestants, or to use a different argument were those who enlisted Unionists or Nationalists? Indeed for some, the most important fact was, that Ireland supported England in her time of need. Peter Karsten is one historian who suggests that many of ‘the Irish recruits in 1914 were admittedly a mixed lot.’ But this had changed over the opening months of the war due to what Karsten calls the British recruiters who were ‘largely insensitive’ to Redmond’s call ‘for a distinctively Irish division.’ However not everyone was caught up in this fervour. One of these was Tom Barry (who later became Chief of Staff of the IRA in the late 1930s) who wrote.

In June 1915, in my seventeenth year, I had decided to see what this Great War was like. I cannot plead I went 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 fight to save Belgium or small nations. I knew nothing about nations, large or small. I went to the war for no other reason than that I wanted to see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.

This idea was not new. Myles Dungan a journalist who has written on World War 1 as argued that ‘in a society where military service was an integral part of the cultural landscape and where wars of one kind or another had been fought in each generation, the rush to ‘join up’ after the declaration of hostilities in 1914 was understandable.’ Indeed enlisting was seen as ‘proving ground’ for many men who wanted to test their ‘maleness’. For others the war meant something very different. The Cork diarist and radical nationalist, who later became a member of Dail Eireann, Liam de Roiste, believed the hopes of many nationalists like him would be realised. Writing in November 1914, de Roiste stated: ‘but this is a wonderful year; a remarkable, an exciting, a disturbing year. There are hopes; hopes high as the stars for those who love Ireland.’ For the majority of people in Cork and Ireland in general, the war would be seen very different the longer it progressed. The Cork historian Dermot Lucey writes:

For the great mass of Cork people, their support for the allies, along with some other factors, coloured their interpretation of the major war happenings, the cause of, and the blame for, the alleged treatment of Belgium and its people, the progress of ally and enemy, which in turn, to some extent, affected opinion on the duration.

While for the many of Cork’s business community and the wider public the general belief was the war would be over by Christmas. A point made by another Cork historian Thomas Linehan who wrote:

In 1914 no one foresaw the difficulties that were to come and Cork Businessmen, like businessmen everywhere assumed that the war would be a short one. In general the war effort was supported with due patriotic fervour.

This patriotic fervour would lead to a total of 7,230 men in Cork enlisting between 2 August 1914 and 8 January 1916. What is especially striking is during this period recruiting was controlled by civilian agencies whose campaigns for greater recruitment were for the mostly ineffective. Indeed from the beginning of the war in August until April 1915 the recruitment campaign was at the very best ‘on an ad hoc basis.’ However ad hoc these campaigns were, those run by the Central Council for the Organisation of Recruiting in Ireland what became known as the (CCORI) were especially ineffective dropping from 6,000 in March 1915 to 2,000 by the following September. Likewise as the CCORI replaced one recruitment campaign it too was replaced in October 1915 this time by the Department of Recruiting for Ireland (DRI) headed by Lord Wimborne Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant. One of the first campaigns that the DRI used was a postal campaign. Commenting on the postal campaign in November 1915 Liam de Roiste states that some of what he calls the ‘circulars’ (recruitment letters) were sent to wrong houses and addresses. But these were not the only mistakes. Others included a house that received 6 of these circulars where 2 boys lived, while other houses received none. But what is particularly interesting some these houses had men of military age residing in them. But these were not the only concerns of those who ran many of the recruitment campaigns. Another which had as much impact was the greater number of wounded soldiers whose initial high spirits, what David Fitzpatrick calls the ‘lusting for sport against Turk or Hun’ was followed with ‘monotony and homesickness, pierced occasionally by sudden recognition of a long-lost friend struggling through the smoke.’ Richard Doherty’s ‘The Sons of Ulster’ records some of the experiences of those who enlisted in the 36th Ulster Division. One of these was seventeen-year-old Thomas Gibson who recorded his first experience of front line warfare. ‘At first it was fairly quiet in the line: ‘It was rare to see anybody wounded even for the first fortnight, but that soon changed’. When one of Gibson’s friend’s was heard to say (when a one of his comrades was seriously wounded).’What’s my poor mother going to say about this?’ Furthermore it could not have been missed by the greater majority of the growing levels of men who returned wounded following the disastrous military campaigns in Gallipoli in 1915 or the Somme in July 1916.   A concern of the Irish Labour leader James Connolly who as early as November 1914 wrote:

“The hospitals of every city in the three kingdoms are crammed with the mangled, twisted, and maimed bodies crammed with the mangled, twisted, and maimed bodies of the wounded; more than half-a-million soldiers we are told by eminent authorities lie groaning in the hospitals of France, and lying the sod of France and Belgium or under billows of the oceans are many thousands whose names are still appearing in the lists of missing, and whose relatives still hopefully believe they are alive and safe as prisoners of war.

Irish Industry & Farming

However for some the war brought major improvements. One of these was Irish industries the other was the farming sector. In a report from May 1915, the radical newspaper New Ireland stated that:

….despite the unprecedented condition of affairs that has prevailed throughout Europe since last August (date of the outbreak of war) Irish industries, with certain exceptions, have not been adversely affected. Instead, many of our staple industries have experienced a period of increased activity; they have employed more than the normal number of hands; the average number of hours, per week, worked by hands has exceeded that of pre-war times, and the amount of money circulating in Ireland, in consequence, risen considerably.[

Indeed industries both north and south had benefited from the war. Keith Jeffery as argued that, because of the Great War some industries especially those on the north-east had it particularly good. These included the Belfast shipbuilders Harland and Wolff who employed over 20,000 workers and completed 201, 070 gross tons of merchant vessels alone in 1918. But this was not the only contribution that Harland and Wolff made, another was the high numbers of heavy bombers that were build in its new aircraft works. However not all industries were as lucky. One of these was the linen industry that employed 50,000 female workers out of a total of 80,000 employees. What’s more following the recession in the linen industry in 1914 and the halting of flax supplies from Belgium and Russia this only added to the industry’s suffering, however by war’s end it too returned to profit. One of the reasons was the demand for aeroplane cloth that had grown dramatically during the war, which was also helped by contracts that were valued at £11,000,000 from the Ministry of Munitions who required some 50,000 miles of cloth. Others who benefited from the war were farmers and farm labourers whose incomes rose between 60 and 70 per cent. But for some the gains were out weighted by the losses. One of these was the fishing industry that suffered the loss of two Howth fishing boats and five fishermen in April 1918, while the fishing fleet in County Down suffered the loss of twelve boats the following month thankfully without the loss of any lives.

Hospitals, Nursing, & Relief Organisations

While some professions gained from the war others took a different view. Most of these were made up voluntary, religious or other organistions who in their own way contributed to the war effort. Examples of these separate organisations included the Society of Friends (Quakers), the Order of St John and the Red Cross.(However the Irish Red Cross organisation did not exist prior to the Second World War). Indeed much of the work done by the Red Cross in Ireland at this time was controlled by the British Red Cross Society, who were responsible for the unloading of hospitals ships and transferring the patients to hospitals or hospital trains. Between October 1914 and February 1919, a total of 46 hospital ships arrived in Dublin carrying an estimated 19,255 patients. But this was not the only organisation to help in a purely voluntary capacity. Another was the Irish Volunteer Aid Association who had been established by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction at the beginning of the war. The aims of the association was to establish ‘a Volunteer Military Medical Corps, with proper medical and nursing staffs and adequate hospital and ambulance equipment. But this was not the only aim of the association it also established classes in ‘first aid, home nursing, hygiene, military sanitation, and child care. The courses were so popular the Vice-President of the Board of Agriculture, Ireland Mr. T.W. Russell in reply to a question by the Irish MP Mr. Boland stated that the number of classes that had been established until then (18 February 1915) stood at 390. Most of these were based on first aid of which there were 304 with the remaining 86 teaching ‘hygiene and emergency nursing’ and ‘ambulance work.’ The number of those who had enrolled stood at a staggering 10,000 however the need for more classes was not considered urgent. However classes continued for the duration of the war.

While most voluntary ambulance services worked in Ireland one exception of was the Friends (Quakers) Ambulance Unit that had been established during the Crimean and Franco-Prussian war of 1870. But this was not the only relief organisation that the Quakers had established another was the War Victims Committee. But differences existed between these two relief organisations the reason was the number of men who outnumbered women in the ambulance unit, which stood at 18 to 1. During the Yearly Meeting that was held in Dublin in 1916, the Munster Quarterly Meeting reported that ‘one of our members’ had been engaged in work with the Friends Ambulance Unit. However as the report does not give the gender one can only suspect the member is male. But this is not to say that Quaker women did not help in relief work as this would be untrue, two of these who were singled out for their work was Bonville Fox and A. Ruth Fry. Fox was one of the rare Quaker women who worked with the Friends Ambulance Unit in France where the unit established a convoy between the French and other armies, as well as hospital ships and trains. But these were not the only work that the Unit had established it also helped in two hospitals in England. As well as these reports from the Ambulance Unit, the meeting also received reports from the War Victims Relief Committee that was headed by A. Ruth Fry.

Fry had established a relief committee in Russia (in 1916) where conditions were extremely harsh, which restricted what work the relief committee could engage in. However this did not stop Fry or her companions from offering what help they could which was mostly ‘the promotion of industries and other constructive work’ that the committee believed would help the local peasantry. The committee also had to deal with the extreme cold, and the constant fear of typhoid and other epidemics, which were exasperated by the poor living conditions of the peasant population in which Fry and her companions worked with. Again the problems did not end here. Another was the lack of qualified doctors or for that matter any other qualified medical staff, this left the feldscher (the local medical auxiliary who had some medical training) to help to alleviate the constant threat of epidemics. However many of these were serving in the Russian army. As well as these concerns, another problem was lack of communication between the between the committee and the local peasantry to those refugees who could speak some German. By the end of the following year, (1917) much of the work that had been established by the War Victims Relief Committee had come to an end mostly due to the political upheaval that occurred following the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

While many of the voluntary organisations concerned themselves with the wounded and dying, others believed in helping the living. One of these was the contribution of University College Corks’ War Work Guild, which was established in November 1915. The Guild president was Lady Windle (the university’s president’s wife) with a Mrs. Alexander  as the Guild’s Honorary Secretary. The aim of the guild was to help in the organising wives of staff members and women students in supplying sand bags, hospital bags, socks, mittens as well as other items of assorted nature which were sent to troops in the Irish Regiments at the front, or to sailors who were stationed in Berehaven Co. Cork. By the war’s end the guild had receipts in money totalling £483 10 2, with a further 3,894 articles that had been collected or despatched. As well as these the guild had also prepared 2,790 Sphagnum dressings. But this was not the only work of the guild. It also raised a further £231 0 5 for books and newspapers for the soldiers as well as supplying regular food parcels to 22 prisoners of war who had been held in Germany during the war. But the women students and staff of University College Cork were not the only ones to help in this way. Another University whose women students and graduates contributed to helping with the war was Dublin University who as early as 1914 established a voluntary hospital at 19, Mountjoy Square and a Belgian Refugee Hospital, run by a Miss Ethel Hannan, at Beresford Place. During the course of the war the hospital that had been established by the women students in Dublin received 461 patients. Moreover the hospital had a volunteer staff that numbered almost 2,000 people. But this was not the only hospital that had a purely volunteer staff, Dublin city had a further 12 with another 8 outside Dublin. These included hospitals in Westmeath, Cork, Kildare and Louth.[53]. But one point remains, how unfortunate it is that historians remember  Ireland’s contribution and not the Irish public.

Author: Dave Hennessy and the Waterford Museum


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