Sunday 27 May 2018

Shedding light on overlooked legacy of WWI

Military: Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front, Ronan McGreevy, The History Press, hdbk, 364 pages, €20.79

A moment of quiet on the Western Front: Members of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Photo: Getty
A moment of quiet on the Western Front: Members of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Photo: Getty
Whatever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

While the heroism of 1916 has been well ­documented, ­Ronan McGreevy provides an absorbing insight into the often ignored sacrifice of Irishmen ­during the Great War.

I once reviewed a book on these pages about World War I and its association with the county of Tipperary and said that such a book could be written about every Irish county, or indeed any part of Britain, Germany and France. Such is the depth of impact by this huge and traumatic world event.

In his enthusiasm and research, Ronan McGreevy may well have given us that book, for this is wonderful interwoven account of the legacy and story of World War I which mixes history, personal stories and contemporary assessment. It is written with the brio and economy of a journalist and is an absorbing account, both moving and at times depressing in terms of the war's sustained and seemingly pointless loss.

The timing is perfect: this is the centenary of the Rising but also of the slaughter of the Somme when the Ulster Volunteers, in particular, suffered losses in a way that left a lasting impact. The 50th anniversary of these events in 1966 stoked up the feelings which partly fuelled the onset of the Northern conflict in 1969.

However, we are now in a period of more mature assessment and commemoration and no longer is the southern Irish experience in both world wars deliberately ignored or covered up, because it doesn't fit with our required national (nationalist) narrative.

We have come a long way from 1994 when, on my last official duty for the department of Foreign Affairs, I helped organise the State's first full National Commemoration Ceremony, which was held in Dublin in the beautiful but too long neglected Islandbridge memorial garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

That was a groundbreaking event, an idea of then Taoiseach John Bruton, which brought together for the first time in any such event, a Unionist and Sinn Féin politician - and was a harbinger of the larger peace process to come. Exhibitions currently under way at the excellent National Museum in Collins Barracks in Dublin give powerful and poignant evidence of these dual traditions, which overlap more often than we think, with many Irish Republicans also serving with the Western allies and many more serving in the hope of finally achieving Home Rule. Ulster volunteers hoped to achieve the very opposite, of course, as a reward.

In one room in Collins Barracks, a screen lists the casualties of the Easter Rising - next to the very many more Irishmen killed during those very days on the Western Front. It was a serious carnage of young deaths and the contrast with Dublin is stunning.

But this was only the beginning. The real carnage came months later in 1916, with the slaughter of the Somme. The first day was the worst in the history of the British army, with 57,000 casualties, of whom 19,240 died. It was worse even than the two months of battles in Normandy which turned World War II.

It was also the worst day in Irish military history, with more than 2,000 from the 36th Ulster Division killed, with more to come. At least 2,500 Irishmen were killed on the first day, with about 469 of them from the South. This is a tremendous loss to affect any community, but doubly so in a nationalist State that felt unable to fully acknowledge it - until very recently, in fact.

McGreevy documents the gradual evolution of this recognition, with official events, speeches and honours. He has himself extensively visited the old combat area of Western Front - now so eerily calm - and vividly recreates the battles and movements, but also the torpor and frustration as stalemate sets in. Amidst the noise, mud and the endless tension, we are introduced to the personal experiences of specific Irish soldiers and officers and their 'back stories'. There is a particular focus obviously on the Irish regiments.

One chapter deals with John Kipling, the only son of the writer and arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling. His son is unable to get into the navy, on account of poor eyesight, so Kipling helps to get him into the Irish Guards. But John goes missing presumed dead at the Battle of Loos and his father is devastated. He spends almost the rest of his life looking unsuccessfully for his son's grave: his alleged remains were only eventually found in 1992. It is all a heartbreaking story and summarises, in one personal narrative, all the sadness but also the delusion of this cruel conflict.

All war is tragic but World War I seemed especially senseless and this would surely have influenced the popular support for Ireland's neutrality in subsequent decades, a fact that should be acknowledged and explored more by historians.

However, when the war broke out, the millions who signed up or cheered on those who signed up, could not have known this. Gas, tanks, machine guns and an almost suicidal, dated approach to combat - all of this awaited the flower of Europe's youth.

In Ireland, many of those who fought and died were nationalists who thought they were bringing political independence to their land - or they were Ulster Protestants making the sacrifice for king and Empire. Or they were ordinary humans looking for adventure but also for a greater cause, and repelling a hostile force.

For too long, the Irish world war legacy was overlooked by our almost obsessive interest in the Easter Rising and War of Independence. But respecting the romance of 1916 doesn't preclude a respect for the sacrifice of World War I, as McGreevy will testify, having written a previous book on the 1916 Rising. Here, he has written an utterly absorbing book which brings alive the heroism, drama and struggle of the wider conflagration in Europe - and Ireland's part of it.

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