Sunday 25 September 2016

Reason lost in fog of war

The so-called Great War 
was not fought for democracy and justice as the statesmen of the day insisted it was, writes Anthony Cronin

Anthony Cronin

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

British soldiers in Belgium in 1916. Photo by Fr Browne, from ‘Father Browne’s First World War’.
British soldiers in Belgium in 1916. Photo by Fr Browne, from ‘Father Browne’s First World War’.

Some time, I think, in the late 1930s, the British Legion put up a hut for its members in my native town, Enniscorthy. It had barely room for a billiard table and a bench alongside it for spectators to sit on. It was in the worst part of town where sociability was concerned, down by the river near the gasworks, a place deserted after dark by all except for occasional obnoxious urchins throwing stones at lamp-posts. Thus were rewarded the survivors of the more than two hundred men from the town who had enlisted to take part in the Great War, or the World War I, which began, as far as Britain and Ireland were concerned, one hundred years ago tomorrow, and which was a disaster from which humanity has still to recover - from which indeed it may never recover, morally at least.

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There is still a vague impression, fostered by various presidents and other politicians who have joined with their British contemporaries in ceremonial remembrances, that the war was actually fought for democracy and the rights of small nations as was proclaimed at the time, and that these were somehow in jeopardy and had to be defended. It is perhaps worth noting that no politician has ever stood at a memorial to those who died in any conflict and said, "the war in which these men perished was a blunder of gigantic proportions. And furthermore it was not fought for the reasons the statesmen of the day said were just and necessary. It was fought for quite other reasons which were never disclosed."

Britain's participation was decided after a lengthy cabinet meeting at which David Lloyd George, who had been expected to take the opposite stance and could have prevented Britain's voluntary subjection to calamity by doing so, eventually came down in favour of war. Ireland's wholehearted support for the war policy was urged by John Redmond in what appears to have been an impromptu speech at Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, and in a more considered oration in the House of Commons. Redmond had cards in his hand. The most charitable thing to say about him is that he either didn't play them at all or he played them with astonishing ineptitude.

The principal reason for Britain's participation - and therefore Ireland's - was said to be the violation of Belgian neutrality. The fact that Belgium was a small Catholic country was much emphasised in Ireland. No mention was made of the fact that Belgium through its Royal family had been, unlike Ireland which did not even control its own destiny, the master of over 20 million people in Central Africa whom it had treated with a barbarity and cruelty almost unparalleled even in the history of colonisation. But according to Niall Ferguson, the weightiest and most perceptive of recent historians of the war and its causes, if the Germans had not violated Belgian neutrality the British would almost certainly have done so.

Ferguson also demonstrates that Germany, in spite of its posturing Kaiser, was in fact a more democratic country than Britain was. In a letter to his mistress Venetia Stanley, Herbert Asquith listed six reasons for British participation. Belgian neutrality was the last and apparently least important of the six.

The countries involved, of course, fought because they misinterpreted the motives of their opponents. Telegrams flew. Telephone calls were made. There had never been such communication. There was never less. Most wound up fighting defensively for mere survival. Russia and Austria-Hungary fought in the interests of their dynasties. Neither dynasty survived.

Many Russian soldiers were never given any reason whatsoever for fighting. Britain was fighting to prevent the establishment of German supremacy, military, mercantile, industrial and naval, in Europe; to prevent the Lowlands and Channel ports from falling into German hands; and, on a rather more sinister level, in accordance with a secret agreement with the French negotiated by Sir Henry Wilson and never disclosed to the majority of the cabinet or to the House of Commons. Whether the Irish who died would have voluntarily fought for these objectives is a question we cannot answer.

Some of them may have thought they were dying for Home Rule and democracy, the dreams which Thomas Kettle's famous poem said were born in herdsmen's sheds, etc. But there was another factor in the situation which is commonly ignored, especially at war memorials. Ireland did not become a recruiting-ground for the British army because John Redmond made a speech at Woodenbridge, nor did it become such because Home Rule was in balance. It had been a recruiting-ground for over two hundred years. The British army that landed in South Africa to fight against the Boers was two- thirds Irish and Scots.

All too little research has been done on the social background and motives of those who joined up. We all have a picture of idealistic young clerks who had the purest of motives. I am therefore deeply grateful for a piece concerning my native county contributed by Pauline Codd to a Trinity Workshop publication on Ireland and World War I , edited by David Fitzpatrick. In this, she says that recruiting in Wexford followed pre-war recruiting patterns. "Examination of the list of veterans compiled for the British Legion for Enniscorthy and district in 1932 showed that 86pc of ex-soldiers were occupied as 'labourers'."

One veteran whom she interviewed said, "It was mainly the poor people from the towns, who had nothing much to lose anyway. The labouring people were awful poor in those days . I think most of them went for the excitement of it all. It was better than staying here."

This does not mean that the present writer thinks any the less of these recruits than he would if they had thought they were fighting for Home Rule and the rights of small nations. Far from it. Almost the contrary in fact.

Sometime in the early '40s, I think - and I speak from the uncertain memory of childhood and adolescence - some unspeakable turlaman or collection of turlamans did their pathetic best to burn down the British Legion hut on the quays near the gasworks where a few veterans had found solace playing billiards in very cramped quarters. If I record this piece of paddywhackery now it is only to complete the picture. It is because it is the only act of 'ostracisation' that I know of. If there were others they were on the everyday grounds of class and social position; class loyalties and identifications being always more important in Ireland than any other kind.

Sunday Independent

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