Wednesday 25 April 2018

Catastrophe for Irish troops as Germans mount Spring Offensive

Thousands of Irishmen perished as Germany made a last-ditch attempt to win World War I in March 1918. And then there was uproar in Ireland when the British tried to introduce conscription

Trenches of blood: A protest in 1918 held at Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon to protest against plans to extend World War I conscription to Ireland. Photo: George Rinhart
Trenches of blood: A protest in 1918 held at Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon to protest against plans to extend World War I conscription to Ireland. Photo: George Rinhart
A poster used to persuade Irish farmers to join the war effort
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

March 1918 was a catastrophic month for thousands of Irishmen serving on the Western Front in World War I.

Vast numbers of Irish volunteer soldiers from the 32 counties of Ireland were gunned down in their prime on the battlefields of France, as the Germans mounted their Spring Offensive near Saint-Quentin.

Much of the ground fought over during this period of the war was the wilderness that had been left behind by the Battle of the Somme a year-and-a-half previously.

The Spring Offensive was a last-ditch effort by Germany to break though the Allied lines, and Irish troops suffered enormous casualties.

A poster used to persuade Irish farmers to join the war effort
A poster used to persuade Irish farmers to join the war effort

On the morning of Saturday, March 23, readers of the Irish Independent were given detailed bulletins about the sudden escalation of fighting at the Western Front.

The paper reported: "The attack launched by the enemy against the British troops between Arras and St Quentin is generally admitted to have been on a formidable scale, with a vast amount of artillery and masses of men."

A sad feature of the newspapers of this time were the meagre details of some of the young men killed.

The lists of casualties ran like football league tables.

In the edition of March 23, there is a picture of Second Lieutenant Alan Meyer - "killed, son of Mr Samuel Meyer, 6 Fairfield Park, Rathgar. He was a member of Old Wesley Football Club."

For many decades of the 20th century, the plight of Irish soldiers at the front was largely erased from official memory, as the heavily mythologised Easter Rising and War of Independence took precedence.

But no war has had such a profound impact on Ireland, in terms of the scale of its casualties.

Over 200,000 men fought in the war, and the number of Irish dead has been estimated at 35,000.

Few manoeuvres in the war were as deadly to the island of Ireland as the Spring Offensive.

Dugouts, trenches, and artillery positions of Irish soldiers were obliterated in a hail of dirt and steel, according to one account. The sea of mud, strewn with corpses, was shrouded in clouds of phosgene and mustard gas.

By the time the 16th Division, which was largely composed of Irish soldiers, was relieved in early April, there were over 7,000 killed, injured or missing.

The scale of the Irish casualties was so great that one commander wrote: "The division has ceased to exist, wiped off the map."

Among the casualties was Private Lar Molloy from Rathangan, Co Kildare. According to Neil Richardson's history of Irish soldiers in the war, A Coward if I Return, a Hero if I Fail, Molloy had only just come back from leave at home.

During his visit, his family were shocked at his state of mind and physical appearance - his skin was blackened from dirt, smoke and gunpowder. He tried to escape going back to the front but the authorities caught up with him.

The reluctant soldier pleaded in vain with police who forced him to return: "Please! If I go back I'll die! I'll die! Please, don't send me back, please!"

Molloy, aged 31, was in the frontline for the Royal Munster Fusiliers in France as the Spring Offensive got under way and shells rained down on the trenches.

After the opening of the bombardment, Molloy was never seen or heard of again. His body was never recovered.

In the decades after independence, it was often forgotten that the British war effort had been popular among many Irish nationalists when the war broke out.

It was initially portrayed in many quarters as a just war to defend little Catholic Belgium against German invaders.

John Redmond, leader of Irish Parliamentary Party, urged Irishmen to enlist "in defence of the highest principles of religion and morality and right".

Redmond hoped that Irish service in the war would inevitably lead to Home Rule.

War weariness

Thousands of members of Redmond's National Volunteers were encouraged to join the 16th Division and they did so enthusiastically. Many of these soldiers were to meet their fate in the Spring Offensive.

There was no conscription in Ireland, and Irishmen were inclined to "take the King's shilling" for different motives. Some wanted to fight German "imperial tyranny", others wanted adventure, and for a significant number of recruits it was an opportunity for a steady income for their families.

The poet and MP Tom Kettle explained his own reason for enlisting in a poem to his daughter just days before he died:

"So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,-

But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor."

By the spring of 1918, popular attitudes to the conflict had changed. Idealism and a sense of adventure had given way to war weariness.

As the historian Philip Orr put it, Irish troops arriving home with injuries spread rumours of the horrors at the front.

As well as the enormous loss of life, there were appalling conditions: foul-smelling dugouts; rats that fed on unburied corpses; and the foot rot that left men crippled after hours standing in deep water.

After the heavy losses in the spring of 1918, the British army desperately needed men to replace the dead and wounded.

The British Prime Minister ­David Lloyd George could hardly have thought of a better way of alienating nationalist Ireland than to try to force Irishmen to enlist, as he did in April.

Most of the country was united in uproar at this attempt to enforce conscription, with opposition ranging from the Irish Parliamentary Party to Sinn Féin, to the unions and the Catholic Church.

William Butler Yeats wrote in a letter to the Liberal politician Lord Haldane: "It seems to me a strangely wanton thing that England, for the sake of fifty thousand Irish soldiers, is prepared to hollow another trench between the countries and fill it with blood."

Many Irish troops of nationalist background had joined up voluntarily with the promise of Home Rule.

But now Lloyd George was trying to force Irishmen to put their lives on the line without Home Rule being delivered. Bishop MacRory of Down and Connor summed up the sense of anger when he said: "No power has any moral right to coerce young Irishmen to fight in the alleged interests of freedom until they have been allowed to enjoy freedom for themselves."

In the event, after protests and a general strike, conscription was never actually implemented in Ireland, as the war swung back in Britain's favour.

But a sense of deep bitterness remained. According to the historian Diarmaid Ferriter, many recruits to the republican cause during this period were motivated by anger about conscription.

There was little sense of euphoria as soldiers from the front returned home, sometimes to a hostile reception. Many must have wondered whether their participation had been in vain.

As the soldier and nationalist MP, Stephen Gwynn put it: "When the time came to rejoice over the war's ending, was there anything more tragic than the position of men who had gone out by the thousands to confront the greatest military power ever known in history, who had fought the war, and won the war, and now looked at each other with doubtful eyes?"

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