North Wales Western Front Association

A brief overview of the historical context

 Ireland(s) then and now

  • The border did not exist

In 1916, Ireland was not divided and was all part of the United Kingdom.  Partition appeared as a pragmatic “solution” in 1922.

  • All Ireland recruitment for the British army in WWI

There were 200,000 volunteer troops in Irish regiments in WWI, plus an unknown number of Irish troops in English, Scottish and Welsh regiments, and in the Canadian, Australian, South African and American armies, and the odd officer in the Indian army.

  • Lots of army buildings in Ireland today date from before independence

There is an immense amount of British military heritage in the island of Ireland, including army barracks.  For example, the barracks in Cork were used by the British in the American War of Independence to marshal troops from England before sending them to fight the American “colonists”.

  • Ireland infantry HQ was at Islandbridge (Dublin)

This is where the notification of Trevor’s grandfather’s death on the Somme came from to his grandmother in Belfast.

  • The 26 counties were 10% Protestant

The territory of today’s Irish Republic, ie the 26 counties, was about 10% Protestant.  As a result of the turmoil of those times, and economic depression, a lot of Protestants left and today they comprise less than 2% of the population.

  • Dublin was 20% Protestant and largely pro-Union

This indicates that the Dublin population as a whole was unsympathetic to the Rising and the destruction of their city centre was blamed on the rebels.

 Historical background to 1916

Without wishing to regurgitate centuries of Irish history, the salient points to understand the 1916 situation are as follows.

  • The background to Irish nationalism

      1798 rebellion

the 1798 came about partly because British troops had been stripped out of Ireland to fight elsewhere; the rebellion caused panic in the corridors of power as it was seen as an adjunct to the American revolution in 1776 and to the French revolution of 1789; a significant proportion of the rebels in the 1798 rebellion were Protestant.

      end of the Irish parliament 1801

perhaps the key consequence of the 1798 rebellion was to deprive Ireland of its own parliament which had existed since 1782 and which the London government now dissolved.

      Ireland then ruled direct from London, ie Irish MPs would sit in the Westminster parliament

      19th  century - agrarian discontent and reform

for much of the 19th century, a key problem was absentee landlords whose Irish lands were badly managed; evictions of tenants generated support for the nationalist cause; land reform toward the end of the century sought to deal with these grievances

      votes for Catholics and dissenters – 1829/1828

Catholics in the UK, including Ireland, did not get the vote until 1829; however, Presbyterians and other non-conformists only got the vote in 1828, which is often forgotten; Jews did not get the vote until 1858 and atheists in 1888

  • Rise of Irish Nationalism – art & literature

The late 19th century saw an increased awareness of Celtic art, folklore, language and literature, and indeed an increasing awareness of nationality, in common with the rest of Europe.  The poets, artists, actors and dreamers of this movement were central to the rise of the independence movement.

  • Home rule bills – late C.19th & early C.20th

There were various well-meaning attempts by London governments to produce a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.  However, a major problem was that the Protestants, especially, were very wary of being dominated by a Catholic majority parliament in Dublin

  • Irish MPs held balance of power at Westminster

In many ways, the political crisis of 1910 onwards was a result of horse-trading by the governments of the day to secure the parliamentary support of the Irish MPs.

  • Parliamentary crises – 3rd Home Rule Bill  1912

The Liberal government needed to suppress the power of the House of Lords which could block legislation and which was largely Conservative in outlook.  In order to have the necessary majority in the House of Commons, the Liberal government did a deal with the Irish Nationalist MPs.  In effect, this was that when the Irish Nationalist MPs had helped to pass the Parliament Act 1911, the government would come up with a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

  • Formation of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)

Numerous Protestant Orange Order lodges and Unionist clubs were practising military drilling from 1911 in a show of opposition to Home Rule.  They were formed into the UVF in January 1913.

  • Reaction – the rise of Irish Volunteers

The Irish Volunteers were a reaction to the formation of the UVF and sought to promote the concept of Home Rule.

  • Ulster gun-running to resist Home Rule

From early 1913, gun-running into the north of Ireland was organised by the UVF, culminating in a major operation in April 1914 of 20,000 rifles, 5 machine guns and millions of rounds of ammunition.

  • Irish Volunteers gun-running in response

The gun-running by the UVF engendered a reaction from the Irish Volunteers who sought to arm themselves in response.

  • German involvement on both “sides”!

The Kaiser’s government at least connived in the sale of the weapons to both sides.

  • Role of the English upper class – on both “sides”

Much of the gun-running by the UVF was aided by upper class English, and indeed financed by some of them, eg Kipling and Jackie Fisher; the Irish Volunteers gun-running used a yacht owned and operated by Erskine Childers, an upper-class Englishman.

 What was Home Rule?

The key parts of the proposed Home Rule for Ireland were as follows.

  • Purely Irish matters to be dealt with in Ireland
  • But Irish MPs would still sit in London
  • Irish parliament would have no control over:

      the Crown

      army or navy (or police for first six years)

      foreign affairs

      customs duties

You can see from the above that, in effect, Home Rule was little different from the devolution which we have today in the UK in regard to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  The danger of devolution from the viewpoint of those enamoured of central control is that there is a drift away from the centre over time.

 Popular political resistance to Home Rule

Various mass signings of declarations opposed to Home Rule were organised.  The Ulster Covenant is probably the best known but this could only be signed by men.  There was an equivalent declaration which women could sign.  People signed these documents not only in the northern part of Ireland but also in the South and in Great Britain.  Perhaps even less well-known was 1914 British covenant which 2 million people in Great Britain signed.  The figures are:

  • 1912 Ulster covenant – 218,206 men signed
  • The declaration – 228,991 women signed
  • Britain and Southern Ireland:

      19,162 signed the covenant

      5,055 signed the declaration

  • Total 471,414
  • 1914 British covenant – 2 million signed it

 Trade unionism - Labour unrest in Dublin in 1913

In the years leading up to WWI, there was an upsurge in trade union activity in response to poor working and living conditions throughout the UK.  In Dublin in 1913, there was a wave of strikes and lockouts, starting with the tramway company.

  • Jim Larkin and James Connolly were union leaders and were key figures in the 1913 labour disputes;  Larkin was from Liverpool and Connolly had been born and brought up in Edinburgh
  • Connolly and Larkin founded Irish Labour Party in 1912
  • Larkin founded Irish Transport and General Workers Union in Belfast in 1907

Image00026Connolly (photo right) had also worked in Belfast in this period, and his assistant and ultimately scribe in the GPO in the Rising was a Belfast lady called Winifred Carney.

  • 1913 strikes to improve pay and conditions

Ultimately the strike failed as the workers were locked out and starved back to work.

There was civil unrest and 3 workers beaten to death by police in the street battles.

  • The Irish Citizen Army set up to protect strikers in such situations

Larkin was arrested in the 1913 unrest and left Ireland to go to the United States.  It is said that if he had remained in Ireland he would not have allowed Connolly to use the Irish Citizen Army to take part in the Rising.  At the end of the day, Connolly and Larkin were socialist trade union leaders.  (Larkin was expelled from the United States in 1923 in a pre-McCarthy era witch hunt of the dreaded “socialists”.)

 Gun-running

This was an era when ownership of firearms was much less strictly controlled than it would be today.  Nonetheless both sides, that is the UVF and the Irish Volunteers, felt that they needed to bring in large quantities of guns, and this they did.

  • Ulster gun-running – from 1913
  • August 1913 – 3m rounds of .303 ammo and 500 rifles sent from Manchester to Belfast

This emphasises the English connection both in supply and finance.

  • Larne largescale gun-running Easter 1914

UVF gun-running had started in 1913 although there may well have been earlier efforts.  The British government was clamping down with more success on gun-running.  So, in order to acquire enough weapons it was decided to go for one big shipment.  The April 1914 gun-running into Larne and Donaghadee was the biggest and most successful of all the gun-running attempts (and was, of course, from Germany).  This was due to the organiser, Fred Crawford, being an ex-artillery regular officer.  The hiding of the guns was well organised, some coming to light only in December 2015!

  • Germany supplied the weapons for everyone!

Never accuse the Kaiser’s government of sectarianism!

  • Irish Volunteers – 26th July, 4th August 1914

Image00002a
Guns were run on Erskine Childers’ yacht Asgard from a meeting off the Scheldt estuary into Howth, outside Dublin, but in broad daylight and with no attempt to disguise their transport into Dublin.  It was on a smaller scale than the UVF Larne gun-running and more amateurishly organised, as indicated by the vessel being a yacht, not a coal boat as was used by the UVF.  On the way into Dublin city from Howth a confrontation with the army resulted in the deaths of three members of the public at Bachelor's Walk. A smaller episode of gun-running took place on 1st August 1914 at Kilcoole in County Wicklow using the Kelpie, a yacht owned by the cousin of the Asgard gunrunner, Hon Mary Ellen Spring-Rice.

Photo right above: the classic photo of the Asgard gun-running; Molly Childers on the left and the Hon Mary Ellen Spring-Rice on the right; note the rifles and the German-labelled ammunition boxes; this is a 1914 "selfie" which the gun-runners took of themselves whilst engaged in a major crime, which supports the notion of them being a bunch of romantics and dreamers.   

The Asgard was kept by Erskine Childers in Conwy harbour in North Wales.  After the gun-running to Howth, it returned to Dickie’s boatyard in Bangor, which still exists today, where it lay until sold by the Childers’ family in the 1920s.  

With the UVF gun-running, in one episode of the April 1914 gun-running Fred Crawford was picked up off Llandudno seafront and later in the adventure was picked up off the Holyhead breakwater.  These connections seem totally forgotten in Wales today.

 The Army Context

What was the involvement of the British army and indeed of its individual members in all of this?

  • Regular army officers training the UVF

Officers on leave of absence or between appointments were heavily involved in training the UVF.  This is another aspect of the British establishment supporting the UVF for its resistance of Home Rule which was seen by them as the beginning of the end of the Empire, which in many ways it was.  These officers were recalled to the army on the outbreak of WWI in August 1914.  But, do not forget that they were involved in training a military force to resist the democratic will of the British parliament.

  • Three Irish Divisions in the British army  

The 10th divn was raised as a Kitchener division and had none of the political overtones of the two later divisions; the 16th (Irish) was largely John Redmond’s National Volunteers, and the 36th (Ulster) had a large contingent from the UVF but also northern Catholics, English artillery and a Dublin ambulance unit.

  • 1915 – Gallipoli, Salonika

Both the 10th and 16th divisions were in Gallipoli, before 10th division was withdrawn and sent to Salonika to bolster the Serbs.

  • 1916 – the Somme; gas attack at Hulluch

In the week of the Easter Rising, the 16th divn were on the receiving end of the gas attacks at Hulluch; in July, the 36th divn were in the middle of the battle of the Somme.

  • Reaction of Irish troops to the Rising

The universal reaction of the Irish troops seems to have been that they had been stabbed in the back by those involved in the Rising.

  • 1917 – 16th and 36th at Messines Ridge

In June 1917, the 16th and 36th divns were involved side by side in the successful attack on Messines Ridge.

  • Aftermath – guerrilla War of Independence

The army was involved in countering the War of Independence which ran from 1919 to July 1921.  The army was short of men following the mass return to civilian life of the wartime soldiers and commitments in the Empire.  This shortage lead to the use of temporary forces, that is the Black and Tans, and the Auxiliaries which in themselves caused such a level of chaos that by mid-1921 army numbers in Ireland were being increased to take over the situation (as Sir Henry Wilson the CIGS had feared in 1920).

 Curragh Mutiny – March 1914

The Curragh Mutiny was the worst piece of army indiscipline since the “long parliament” and Oliver Cromwell.  Technically, there are those who argue it was not a mutiny but it is in effect the most major episode of insubordination in 400 years.  Remember that this is five months before the battle of Mons, the first engagement of the British in WWI.  What would have happened if such a mutiny had occurred then? 

This series of events started with, as is so often the case, a British politician making appalling decisions about Ireland.  In this case, it was Lloyd George.  He wanted a show of force to face down UVF in Ulster.  The Ulster crisis was perhaps the major problem facing the government in early 1914 and one that arguably took their eye off the ball as regards events in continental Europe.

  • General Paget was ordered to send troops from Southern Ireland to Ulster to “secure stores of arms and ammunition” but also government buildings.  This was something of an excuse for the movement of the troops
  • The idea, in fact, was to supress the UVF, at least, and to arrest the political leaders of the unionists and to seize key points.  Churchill ordered the navy to Belfast so that he could have the “city ablaze in 24 hours”.  Thankfully, Asquith found out and ordered Churchill to recall the ships.
  • A number of officers in the Curragh camp refused to go north.  (The Curragh is, and was, the biggest army base in Ireland).  The feeling was that they were being ordered to act against people with whom they were in sympathy politically (and some of them had houses or estates in Ulster).
  • The officers were led by Brigadier Hubert Gough, so there were senior officers involved. In all, at least 57 other officers refused orders.
  • A concession was offered by General Paget for officers actually living in Ulster but this was not enough!
  • Gough then attempted to use his friendship with Sir John French to get concessions.  There followed a War Office meeting with Hubert Gough, Sir John French (head of the army) and Colonel John Seeley, the Secretary of State for War.  Johnnie Gough and Sir Henry Wilson also showed up to support Hubert Gough.
  • Gough wanted written guarantees from the government.  The Cabinet approved a written guarantee but Hubert Gough said that it did not go far enough.  So, French and Seeley amended the wording to Hubert Gough’s satisfaction but did not go back to the Cabinet for approval of their amendments.  Asquith disavowed the revised version verbally but did nothing more about it.  Hubert Gough put the guarantee into his solicitor’s hands for safe keeping.  In the ensuing political consequences, Seely, French and Ewart, the adjutant general, all resigned.  So, the politicians fell and Hubert Gough did not get shot, or in any way disciplined, for his role in the affair.  What happened in WWI to mere private soldiers who were guilty of alleged indiscipline? They were likely to be punished severely, even by the death sentence.

German Involvement

  • Used by the leaders of the Rising to engender support – “the Germans will invade”

The insincere promise made by some leaders of the Irish Volunteers to their men that Germany would be sending troops to Ireland to “rescue” the rebels in the Rising was ridiculous.  In 1914, Casement had discussed with the German army leadership whether they would send troops to Ireland and they ruled it out very quickly as being impractical.

  • Government presumed it was much greater than it actually was  - WWI paranoia

But in Margot Asquith’s diaries, she recounts that Asquith had said, in April 1916, that they had “so far” already captured about 20 Germans from the gun-running ship, the Aud.

  • Casement’s German legion – a failure

Sir Roger Casement had attempted to recruit an anti-British legion from amongst Irish prisoners in Germany, with virtually no success.  Again, this illustrates the unpopularity of the Irish Volunteers cause amongst the Irish troops.

  • German naval attacks on East Anglia 24/25th April

The German High Seas fleet was sent to attack Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth in support of the Rising, though in the event the Great Yarmouth attack was aborted.  The attack on Lowestoft destroyed 200 houses but not a large number of casualties.

  • German weapons and ammunition

Most of the weapons and ammunition used in the Rising were supplied by Germany.  A favourite weapon both in 1916 and in the War of Independence was the Mauser automatic pistol.


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