Wednesday 21 February 2018

Strike left Lloyd George's conscription plan in tatters

The war’s appalling death toll led to a manpower crisis for British army.
The war’s appalling death toll led to a manpower crisis for British army.
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

THE appalling death toll in the trenches of Europe resulted in a manpower crisis for the British Army, and in March 1918 David Lloyd George's government raised the prospect of introducing conscription to raise more men for the war effort.

Tens of thousands of Irish men of military age were expected to join the war effort, but opposition to the Military Service Bill was swift.

Led by trade unions, the Catholic Church and politicians of all backgrounds, there was overwhelming resistance which ultimately resulted in a national strike where hundreds of thousands of workers withdrew their labour.

Opponents included Ireland's Chief Secretary Herbert Duke, Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant, and Sir James Campbell, the Lord Chief Justice.

In his history of the strike, historian Dave Hennessy also notes that General Byrne, the head of the Royal Irish Constabulary, spelt out the difficulties involved.

"Conscription can be enforced, but with the greatest difficulty," he wrote. "It will be bitterly opposed by the united nationalists and the clergy. The present time is the worst for it since I have been in Ireland, because the cry will be: 'England down, Ireland's opportunity.'"

The Lord Chief Justice also argued that if conscription was applied, it would lead to "tremendous bloodshed and the number of men worth getting whom it would yield would be very small".

The Catholic bishops also took up the cause, with messages of support read in masses and particular support from Dublin's Archbishop William J Walsh.

In April, he and his fellow bishops issued a statement condemning conscription, saying: "We feel bound to warn the government against entering upon a policy so disastrous to the public interest and to all order, public or private."

A conference was held on April 18 in the Mansion House, hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Union leaders, the Irish Parliamentary Party and Sinn Fein were all present and agreed a pledge against conscription.

It was stated that the measure would be resisted "by the most effective means at our disposal".

An emergency conference by the Irish Trade Union Congress followed two days later, which was attended by 1,500, with delegates deciding to hold a general strike on April 23.

Hundreds of thousands signed an anti-conscription pledge, and the strike resulted in factories, shops, schools and other workplaces closing.

Faced with overwhelming opposition, the British government backed down and conscription was never introduced before the war ended in November 1918.

Paul Melia



See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.


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