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Fog of amnesia around the Great War is lifting


Royal Dublin Fusileers after Messines Ridge

Royal Dublin Fusileers after Messines Ridge

Royal Dublin Fusileers after Messines Ridge

THE Battle of Verdun began this week 98 years ago. Its start prompted the British to launch the Battle of the Somme. Before that fight had ended, thousands of Irishmen had disappeared in the fields of France.

At that remove the Great War is now wrapped in misleading myths. We can divide them broadly into British myths and Irish myths. Or rather, into one big British myth and three Irish ones.

In Britain, much has been written debunking the myths of the First World War. The likes of Gordon Corrigan and Dan Snow have done excellent work in this regard.

Thanks to them we know the war was not one long infantry charge across no-man's-land. It was four years of fear, boredom and slow attrition punctuated by brief, bloody and terrifying battles.

Soldiers generally spent between three and seven days a month in the trenches. They did not – as per myth – enter on arrival in France and leave only when killed or wounded.

Not everyone was vaporised by a shell or bayoneted to death. Not merely a handful of survivors ever came home to tell the tale. Just under nine out of every 10 British army soldiers actually survived the war.

Nor did the officer class get off relatively lightly. They led from the front as they were supposed to and suffered accordingly. One in five died during the conflict.

Finally, the generals. The myth says they were 'donkeys' who never set foot in the trenches. In truth, they were regularly in the front lines, and 200 were killed, wounded or went missing.

The subjective war of the poets and the private soldiers was not the whole story.

Irish myths about the war fall into three categories. First, myths about the reasons why a man enlisted. Let me start with my own experience of these fictions.

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Six years ago, I appealed for the descendants of Irish veterans of the Great War to contact me. I was writing A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in WWI, and wanted to record the unknown tales of ordinary Irishmen.

Then I received an interesting call. Mrs F's father had fought in the trenches. Not with the British army though. With the Irish Army.

I made a few delicate enquiries. Mrs F's father had served in the Irish Guards. The mistake arose because the regiment's name contained the word 'Irish'. The Irish Army was as yet non-existent during 1914-1918. I carefully explained the truth. Mrs F no longer wished to speak to me.

I was certain this was to be a once-off. Surely a simple misunderstanding by an elderly lady. But it happened twice more during my research.

Similarly, Mr P insisted that his grandfather was 16 when he enlisted. "The poor young lad didn't know any better." Research proved that Private P was 23. He knew exactly what he was doing.

The second Irish myth wrongly claims that many Irish Great War soldiers were conscripted against their will. According to this myth these poor unfortunates were made to join the British army. At the point of a bayonet, they were forced to fight.

Conscription was never introduced on the island of Ireland. The British government tried and failed in 1918. A joint Home Rule-republican campaign stopped its implementation. Bizarrely, an increase in Irish voluntary enlistments followed. Between August 1918 and the end of the war, recruitment paradoxically improved in Ireland to levels not seen since before the Easter Rising.

This leads on to the third Irish myth: the war was not the defining Irish historical event of the 20th Century's second decade. More precisely, it was not really significant at all in the Irish grand scheme of things.

This myth has a lot to answer for. It has resulted in nearly a century of misleading narratives which play down the massive Irish involvement in the First World War in favour of emphasising the relatively minor participation of combatants in Easter 1916.

The numbers mock this myth. At least 200,000 Irishmen from the island of Ireland served with the British forces during the Great War. There were 700,000 men of enlistment age in Ireland when the war began, and so just under 30 per cent of those eligible to join up did so.

Some 35,000 Irishmen never came home. Their bones lie in local Irish cemeteries, in France, Belgium and Turkey. Some are buried as far away as Africa and Iraq.

By contrast, the republican Irish Volunteers had 15,000 members by 1916. At most, 1,400 of them fought in Dublin for five days in April that year.

The timing of the Easter Rising came with a sting for many Dubliners. One year earlier, hundreds of Royal Dublin Fusiliers had died landing at Gallipoli. In April 1916, there were thousands of grieving relatives commemorating first anniversaries.

Meanwhile, during Easter Week 1916, the 16th (Irish) Division was gassed and attacked at Hulluch. Even with Dublin in the grip of rebellion, Irish deaths on the Western Front during the same period exceeded the British, rebel and civilian fatalities of the Rising combined.

Diarmaid Ferriter correctly refers to the Irish Volunteers of Easter Week as "a minority within a minority". But the future belonged to them.

Soon forgotten were the 32,000 members of the Home Rule Irish National Volunteers who enlisted during the war. They were mostly Dubliners and Ulster Catholic nationalists. Their goal: to further the cause of Irish self-government.

Their motives were later buried, replaced with an untruth: every Irishman who joined up was an economic mercenary, either desperate for work or starving and destitute.

Thousands certainly saw the British army as a way of escaping from abject poverty. But Richard Doherty found that – post-1969 in Northern Ireland – many Catholic Second World War veterans suddenly changed their stories. They had now gone to war simply for the wage.

It looks like a similar, retrospectively imposed explanation was also placed on the motives of many Southern Irish veterans of the first global conflagration.

Republicans and unionists were completely opposed and irreconcilable in 1916. But the war had an unusual effect on unionists and Home Rulers.

On August 7, 1914, the Irish National Volunteers and the Ulster Volunteer Force took part in a joint march through Omagh. Both groups had members – British army reservists – being called up for active service. When they paraded in the town, both sides saluted the other.

The following day, there was a similar scene in Strabane. Captain Roderick Gallagher of the INV called for three cheers for the UVF as his men marched past them. Captain William Smyth and the UVF replied in kind.

Later in the war, the predominantly nationalist 16th (Irish) Division and unionist 36th (Ulster) Division won a great victory side by side on Messines Ridge. They were then massacred side by side on Frezenberg Ridge and again during the German Spring Offensive. But all this was subsequently forgotten.

Today, the fog of amnesia is lifting. But it is time we finished off the fictions created in many Irish families to remove a perceived 'blame' from a relative for having joined the British army. Rewriting a relative's motives to suit post-Easter Rising republican myth-making only warps their memory.

My only hope is that the myths and untruths will fall away. During the coming years, we might finally get our facts straight. The dead deserve the truth.

Neil Richardson is author of the award-winning 'A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall: Stories of Irishmen in WWI' and 'Dark Times, Decent Men: Stories of Irishmen in WWII'. His new book, 'According to Their Lights: Irish Soldiers in the British Army during Easter 1916', will be released by Collins Press in 2015

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