Northern Ireland

World War One and Ireland - 100 years on

A wreath marking the sacrifice of troops from Ireland north and south during World War One
Image caption In pre-partition Ireland, soldiers from both parts of the island volunteered to fight for the British Army during World War One, but they signed up for very different reasons

It may seem incredible at the distance of 100 years but until the grave tones of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, in the House of Commons on 3 August 1914 the people of British-governed Ireland, whether nationalist or unionist, were more concerned with the seemingly immediate prospect of civil war in Ireland than the prospect of a Great War in Europe. Ireland was on the brink.

Since the introduction of the 3rd Home rule Bill for all-Ireland in 1912, Ireland, and indeed Britain, had been inching towards irreconcilable conflict. The Liberals were dependent on the votes of John Redmond's Irish Nationalists. The removal of the Lords' veto guaranteed an Irish Parliament by 1914.

In the north of Ireland, the unionists had found a strong, charismatic leader in the Dublin barrister, Sir Edward Carson. By 1913 Carson had launched the 90,000-strong Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to oppose Home Rule by force if necessary.

Tensions escalated

Irish nationalists, incensed at any attempt to "mutilate the nation", formed the much larger Irish National Volunteers (INV). By the spring of 1914 the failure of Carson and Redmond to reach a compromise over Ulster saw the whole island begin a lurch into anarchy - a process completed by the Larne gun-running of that April.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Edward Carson had signed the Solemn Oath of the Covenant in Belfast in 1912, and pledged to oppose Home Rule by force if necessary

In a last-ditch attempt to avert civil war, King George V convened the Buckingham Palace Conference in late July 1914. The talks, in Churchill's phrase, "became bogged down in the muddy byways of Fermanagh and Tyrone" and collapsed on 24 July. Tensions escalated in the north of Ireland, where a chance encounter between rival volunteers might spark the long-awaited conflagration.

Yet events had been moving rapidly in Europe in the 30 days since the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in far-off Sarajevo on 28 June. Suddenly the myriad of forces threatening the peace of Europe since 1890 - the rival Alliance systems, Slav nationalism and the Anglo-German naval race - came into play. As Europe mobilised, Britain hesitated, finally declaring war on 4 August in defence of Belgian neutrality.

Different aspirations

The breathtaking speed of events took Irish political leaders by surprise. As the government issued its ultimatum to Germany on 4 August, Redmond sprang to his feet in the Commons, pledging the joint services of the INV and UVF to defend Irish shores from invasion. Carson and Redmond symbolically shook hands. Within hours the United Kingdom was at war. And on 18 September 1914, the King gave the Royal Assent to Home Rule, though its operation was suspended for the duration of the war. Prime Minister Asquith reassured unionists with a promise of special treatment.

Image copyright PA/Somme Heritage Centre
Image caption Carson's UVF was transformed in the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army during WW1

Almost at once a truce was declared by all sides in the Irish Question. Following talks with the War Office, the UVF was transformed into the 36th Ulster Division of the British Army. Redmond urged nationalists "to go wherever the firing line extends" and Irishmen joined the 10th and 16th Irish divisions.

Airbrushed out of history

It is estimated that more than 200,000 Irishmen of both traditions enlisted in the Great War. Some 40,000 Irishmen were killed on active service. There is no doubt that they joined with different aspirations. Nationalists from west Belfast joined the Connaught Rangers for Home Rule. Unionists fought for "Ulster the Empire" and "No Home Rule".

Beyond lay the horrors of the Western Front and the Dardanelles. The 10th (Irish) Division suffered massive casualties at Gallipoli in 1915. The 36th Ulster Division sustained 5,500 casualties in the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st 1916 - the worst day in the history of the British Army.

When the war finally ended in November 1918, the soldiers from north and south returned to an island transformed by the impact of another conflict - the 1916 Easter Rising. Nationalist veterans would find themselves marginalised and airbrushed out of history after the War of Independence in the south of Ireland, while unionists, mindful of the sacrifice of the Somme, would renew their struggle against nationalism. Ireland was once more on the brink.

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