First World War: When Enemies United

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By Richard S. Grayson | Published in History Today Volume: 60 Issue: 7

Before the First World War, Irish Unionists and Nationalists were poised to fight each other over the imposition of Home Rule by the British. Then, remarkably, they fought and died side by side, writes Richard S. Grayson.

In the summer of 1914 war threatened to engulf Ireland. Sure enough, it came in early August. But it was not the war that anybody had expected. For much of 1912-14 Ireland verged not on a Great War but on civil war.Yet remarkably, when Europe erupted into flames, Ireland’s two rival paramilitary groups both marched to join the British army to fight against a common foe. 

At the root of divisions in Belfast was the campaign for Home Rule, a form of devolution not independence. Home Rule consistently secured the support of the vast majority of Irish voters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, it was different in the north-east of Ireland (the greater part of the province of Ulster). There, unlike in the rest of the island, Protestants were in the majority. They feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule by a Catholic-dominated Dublin Parliament. They also had a fiercely British identity and believed that Home Rule would undermine the Union between Great Britain and Ireland.

While the House of Lords had powers to block any legislation from the Commons indefinitely, there was no question of Home Rule becoming law as the Conservatives (who opposed Home Rule) dominated the Lords. However, that changed with the 1911 Parliament Act which pared back the Lords’ powers. Suddenly, it became clear that a combination of the votes of Liberal MPs and the Irish Parliamentary Party (the ‘Nationalist’ party led by John Redmond which represented most of Ireland) would inevitably lead to Home Rule.

When the Home Rule Bill of 1912 was introduced to Parliament, Unionists in Ulster resolved to resist in every way they could. Despite their staunch loyalty to the Crown, they believed that it was justified to resist Parliament, ultimately through force. The Unionist leader in Ireland, Edward Carson, led mass public opposition to Home Rule, primarily in Ulster. On ‘Ulster Day’, September 28th, 1912, 237,368 men and 234,046 women publicly declared their opposition by signing the Ulster Covenant, which declared that they would use ‘all means which may be found necessary’ to defeat Home Rule.

Many gave practical form to their opposition by joining a paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), which was ready to seize control of strategic locations to support a provisional government and ultimately to fight the British military and police. By the end of February 1914 the UVF had recruited around 90,000 men, one third of them in Belfast. There are questions about the true strength of this force, but the UVF became threatening enough when in April 1914 it landed 20,000 rifles it had purchased in Hamburg. Meanwhile, many members were uniformed and units steadily acquired the trappings of a regular army such as regimental colours.

Irish nationalism did not stand idly by while the UVF was established. In November 1913, led by Eoin MacNeill, a professor at University College, Dublin, the Irish Volunteers (IV) were established as a counterbalance to the UVF. Across Ireland their support soon topped that of the UVF, with as many as 40,000 in Ulster. Overtly, the Irish Volunteers used conciliatory language, aided by the fact that, if Home Rule were passed, they would be upholding the will of the British Parliament.

By the summer of 1914, the Home Rule Bill had passed through the Commons and was about to become law. One day in June the rival volunteer groups drilled in West Belfast. Carson told the UVF: ‘Now, men, that you have got your arms, no matter what happens, I rely upon every man to fight for those arms to the end.’ Although Redmond had initially been alarmed by the radical potential of the Irish Volunteers, his party had steadily gained influence over them and the Nationalist MP for West Belfast, Joseph Devlin, attended their parade.

So, by the summer of 1914, there were two paramilitary forces in West Belfast, implacably opposed and ready to fight for or against the imposition of Home Rule by the London government. Within six months, many of the men were indeed fighting and losing their lives, but they were doing so in the same army and against a common enemy as the UK went to war against Germany. How on earth did these men lay down their arms and become allies?

There was one very practical reason in the early days of war. The British army was set up so that in the event of war it could rapidly expand through calling up members of the Army Reserve or Special Reserve. Reservists were either ex-soldiers or had undergone military training and agreed that in the event of war they would enlist. Overnight, regular battalions of the British army such as the 1st and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles could increase their numbers from a peacetime strength of around 500 to a wartime strength of 1,000. Many of the reservists in Belfast were men who had played an important role in the UVF or the IVs because they knew how to march and use firearms. When war broke out, they were called up to their battalions and could easily find themselves with men from the rival group of volunteers.

For those in the UVF there was another reason for joining up immediately. Although willing to resist Parliament, these men were passionately loyal to the British Crown. Alongside them could be Nationalist volunteers, who only wanted devolution and had no problem with membership of the British Empire. Right from the start of the war they were also inspired by the call to defend Catholic Belgium.

Following close behind individual decisions to enlist was formal political encouragement to do so. When war was declared Redmond offered the IVs to the British government for the defence of Ireland so that British troops could leave Ireland for the front, a move which Carson had already made in the days leading up to the war. Soon both men went further. Lord Kitchener was keen to secure the ready-made armies on each side for the war effort. Carson got a pledge from the War Office that, if enough men were recruited from the UVF, then they could be part of at least one Ulster Division of around 16,000 men. Recruiting for that began in early September 1914. The men of the West Belfast UVF formed the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, with men from other parts of the city forming their own battalions of the same regiment.

While UVF members were enlisting, there were significant developments in Nationalist ranks. The politics of the Ulster Division made it Unionist and Protestant. It was almost impossible to find Catholics in its ranks in the early days. So where could Catholic Nationalist volunteers go? In September 1914 Redmond announced that he wanted Irish soldiers kept together in an ‘Irish Brigade’, a phrase which was redolent of previous Irish service in war. This caused a split among the Volunteers but the vast majority were pro-Redmond and joined the renamed Irish National Volunteers (INV). Kitchener agreed not only to form the 16th (Irish) Division from men recruited in Ireland, but to clear space in a Brigade (47th Brigade was eventually agreed) to enable men from the INV to serve together.

Following this, Devlin became one of the most active recruiters for the British army in West Belfast, securing hundreds of recruits for both the 6th Connaught Rangers and the 7th Leinsters. Among them were men like brothers Robert and Michael Brennan, both staunch Nationalists.

By the end of 1914 the existence of two rival paramilitary groups had led to the formation of two divisions within the British army. These divisions spent much of late 1914 and 1915 training, arriving in France in late 1915. They soon found themselves in the Somme area, but were not initially fighting side by side. The 36th Division took part in the first two days of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, losing around 5,500 total casualties, of whom around 2,000 were killed. The 16th Division joined the battle in September, when it served with distinction in the operations at Guillemont and Ginchy in the later, more successful phase of the Somme.

Side-by-side service by the two divisions came in June 1917 at Messines. Thousands of men from different sides of Ireland’s divide served at Messines and the 36th and 16th divisions fought beside each other. The battle symbolises the two communities’ shared sacrifice and today is commemorated by the Island of Ireland Peace Park near Messines Ridge, which was opened in 1998 by the British, Irish and Belgian heads of state.

Yet another story of side-by-side service has been relatively overlooked until recently. New research has opened up a wealth of formerly hidden stories. We now know of as many as 8,484 men from across West Belfast who served in 1914-18, of whom at least 1,990 were killed. The levels of service among Protestants and Catholics probably roughly matched their share of the population.

An important part of this new narrative is the story of service in battalions which were not recruited by political leaders. As a result of the calling up of reservists and early enlistment by men from across the divide there were battalions in which men from both the UVF and INV served together. In West Belfast, this was especially the case with the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. One former INV member was Michael McGivern of Merrion Street in the Falls. Serving as a corporal, he was killed at Kemmel on December 17th, 1914. In the same battalion had been William Shearer, a sergeant, from Seventh Street in the Falls and a former UVF member. He was killed on September 25th, 1915, at Hooge.

Such unity and Nationalist enthusiasm for the British army did not survive the war. Although Home Rule had been imminent when war broke out, its implementation was suspended for the war’s duration. That angered Nationalists who felt that they had been loyal to the British Empire by enlisting. After the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, Nationalist opinion steadily moved from the Irish Parliamentary Party to Sinn Fein.

Many Catholic Nationalist former British soldiers became radicalised. Robert Brennan, once a staunch Nationalist, became a Republican and headed a unit of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in West Belfast, as did other former British soldiers. On the other side, Protestant Unionist veterans joined the police and their own paramilitary groups.

As Northern Ireland plunged into the Troubles of the early 1920s and then again into turmoil in the late 1960s, any sense of a common history was lost. Nationalists and Republicans became ashamed of service in the British Army, while Unionists simply did not know how many Catholics had served. But, as politics changed from the mid-1990s, people began to rediscover this joint aspect of their past. This has not been easy for many, as Unionists have learned that they once shared much with Nationalists and Republicans have had to confront the uneasy truth that their forebears once served in the British army. Yet out of these difficult truths, a history that once divided people in Northern Ireland offers prospect of understanding how multi-layered and complex Belfast’s history really is.

Richard S. Grayson is Head of Politics and Senior Lecturer in British and Irish Politics, Goldsmiths, University of London and the author of Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists Fought and Died Together in the First World War (Continuum, 2009).

First World War: When Enemies United | History Today

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