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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Open Plaques/Brian O'Connor via Flickr/Creative Commons

Column Remember those who fought in WWI – they were as diverse, and Irish, as any of us

The 140,000 Irishmen who enlisted during WWI marched under a British flag, but their reasons for enlisting to fight against Germany were varied and many.

EVERY VILLAGE, town and city is Ireland has one, be it a small grave marked with military insignias or a monumental stone affair carved with hundreds of names of young men. World War I memorials have largely been forgotten in the annals of Irish history, outshadowed by their more politically dramatic cousins, the cenotaphs of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War, but they are a physical and poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by 140,000 enlisted Irishmen during a conflict that has shaped the world we live in and how we perceive ourselves as Irish men and women in it.

As the Irish Nation we tend to think of the World Wars as being foreign affairs, foreign history, but although we live on an island we are aware that great world events, and disasters, are interconnected to us through our indelible historic links to the British Empire and to Europe as a whole.

The First World War was an international cataclysm; its mass slaughter had an effect on human social and political thinking that cannot be practically expressed in a short article such as this. In historical terms we can divide our modern history into before and after 1914-1918. Social movements in workers’ unions, women’s right (the suffragettes) and welfare entitlements became invigorated by the events of the War and moved at-pace to sweep away Victorian ideals and outdated institutions that stifled equality and lower class prosperity.

A misconception about men who volunteered

The political effects of the War were felt as much in Ireland as they were across the rest of the world. Social revolutions were followed by political ones, old monarchs and orders were swept aside, and it was with great difficultly that mainland Britain kept control of her democratic-monarchy during the social turbulence that followed the fighting.

There is a misconception that the 140,000 men who volunteered to serve on the Western Front were all Protestant, Unionist, Irish men with anti-nationalist and anti-home-rule loyalties to King and Country, but statistics and documentation from the soldiers themselves prove that is not the case. Irish regulars and volunteers came from all backgrounds, both religions and every corner of the country. Their reasons for enlisting to fight against Germany were varied and many.

Some fought out of a sense of duty, some believed that the Union between Britain and Ireland would be strengthened by their actions against a common foe, while others, conversely, believed that by helping to defeat the Kaiser’s armies that Ireland would be rewarded with Home Rule, a long sought after goal. Many of those who marched off to France and Belgium in 1914 were simply fooled, like the millions of other soldiers on all sides, into believing that war was a romantic, heroic and dutiful thing. They would find out to their great cost that warfare had become ‘Total’ and there was nothing romantic about it. Those who returned home to their respective nations in 1918 would not just be returning to a different political landscape, they themselves had changed beyond all recognition.

Disillusioned with the political processes in Ireland

In the trenches of the Western Front, Easter 1916, life was a bleak, daily dice with death; news from home was always welcomed as a small comfort to soldiers numbed by the mass slaughter around them. But letters describing the events in Dublin Easter 1916 would have left many of those men shocked, angry and more disillusioned with the political processes in Ireland. They had fought the Germans in a realistic hope of Irish Home Rule, many perhaps believing that this would be a step toward full independence, but now that hope seemed to lie in pieces around them.

A series of executions helped to swing Nationalist support away from the Parliamentary Party and behind the more radical Sinn Fein Party. Irish Nationalist soldiers, in the King’s uniform, at the front, found themselves in an impossible quandary. They would return home not as heroes and Irishmen, but as British soldiers, an enemy in their own land.

Many found themselves ostracised from their own communities

The personal aftermath for many returning Irish servicemen depended on their geographical position and their religion. The election in December 1918 was a clear endorsement of Sinn Fein outside of the traditional Unionist areas. The efforts made in the war were sidelined in the southern Nationalist provinces, whereas the sacrifices at the Somme and Messines Ridge became part of the social heritage of the new Unionist Northern Ireland.

As positions became polarised throughout the country many of the forgotten volunteers of WWI drifted into one camp or another, taking arms in the War of Independence, taking sides in the Civil War or answering the rallying call to defend Unionism in the north. But not all veterans chose to fight on in Ireland’s darkest days. Many found themselves ostracised from their own political communities, former Nationalist friends turned their backs on them and their actions in the Great War, foolish or brave, became marginalised in Irish collective memory and official history; a harrowing portend of the same social and political ostracising that tens of thousands of Irishmen would suffer when they joined Britain’s armed forced in the Second World War, for economic rather than ideological reasons.

This year we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. It is perhaps the defining event of our leap from the ages of Enlightenment to what we call Modern. Although there will be few official tributes to the 35,000 Irish men who gave their lives in WWI, I think if we pass a forgotten roadside memorial to those men, in whatever town or city we’re in, we should take a moment to remember that they were as diverse and Irish as any of us are today.

Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, historian and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve is the author of The Botolf Chronicles, WarWorld and several collections of poetry including Urbania and the Pagan Field.

Read: Blood, swords and Iceland: A new way of looking at the Battle of Clontarf

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