Recruiting and Propaganda during the opening months of the First World War; a Four Nations approach to the case in Ireland

Recruiting and Propaganda during the opening months of the First World War; a Four Nations approach to the case in Ireland

This week, the University of Kent’s Dr William Butler discusses Ireland’s participation in the First World War and asks, can the common experience of the four nations be reconciled? 

Ireland’s participation in the First World War has, until recently, been a challenging subject to tackle. It was one that had largely been overlooked by historians, principally because it was a difficult subject to come to terms with within a nationalist narrative. Surely, all Irish men and women (in the three provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connaught at least) were united behind the effort to eradicate British rule rather than fight in support of the Empire? Yet, at least 150,000 from Ireland served in the armed forces throughout the war (excluding first or second generation Irish who enlisted outside of Ireland), without the need for conscription as in Great Britain.

Historically, of course, Irishmen had made a significant contribution to the British Army- in 1830, for example, when making up nearly a third of the population of the United Kingdom, it provided 42% of the manpower. Even as late as 1881, when Ireland made up 15% of the UK’s population, it still provided a fifth of the manpower. The context of Home Rule, though, had a profound effect on this during the Edwardian period. Recruiting significantly declined, and the response to the outbreak of war was relatively muted. By the time conscription had been introduced in Britain in April 1916, almost 25% of the male population in England, Scotland, and Wales were in the armed forces. In Ireland, the figure was as low as 6%.

When hostilities broke out in August 1914, Sir Edward Carson, the Unionist leader, and John Redmond, the Irish Nationalist leader, pledged their support to Britain’s war effort. This support, however, was conditional and varied significantly. Early on, Redmond suggested that an Irish Army Corps be formed, especially given that the 36th Division had been designated an ‘Ulster’ division. This was also influenced by David Lloyd George’s creation of a Welsh Army Corps. The idea, which was rejected by the War Office, especially because of pressure from Lord Kitchener, highlights a significant issue when assessing recruiting in Ireland during the war: Kitchener was adamant that creating this Irish Corps was tantamount to arming the enemies of the King! By October, the Irish Independent had taken the view that ‘rightly or wrongly, Irishmen are getting the idea that the War Office do not want Irish recruits’. In the backdrop of the Home Rule Crisis and the very real possibility of civil war in the summer of 1914, the British attitude to independently arming a nationalist body was perhaps understandable, but did little to aid Irish participation in the war.

To bring this piece into a ‘Four Nations’ perspective, in Britain, the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) was formed to aid recruiting, this did not exist in Ireland, and no such official body existed until May 1915. The PRC was responsible for such posters as ‘Remember Belgium’, and that of the sinking of RMS Lusitania, and many were forwarded to Belfast and Dublin. Appeals to patriotism and duty were common, but none, at least at this early stage, appealed to the unique Irish conditions. It was not until the middle of 1915 that specific appeals were made which related to the rural nature of Ireland, or appeals being made to the plight of Catholic Belgium (as well as Catholic Poland).

Conversely, because the PRC was composed of local committees, specific appeals had been made to Welshmen and Scotsmen, many posters had even been published in Welsh, including ‘Ye Gallant Sons of Wales’. Eventually, when leaflets and posters were distributed in Gaelic, in an attempt to appeal to Irish sentiment, there was great concern that if men presented themselves for enlistment, with the leaflets in hand, they would be arrested because the language was officially banned under the Defence of the Realm Act.

Ultimately, recruiting in Ireland remained at a much lower level than the rest of the United Kingdom, and in the context of 1914 this is hardly surprising. Appeals to patriotism, duty and loyalty to Britain and her Empire were no longer enough to persuade men in Ireland to help the war effort. Even appeals made to contribute to a united effort along with their English, Scottish, and Welsh counterparts largely fell on deaf ears. A shift had occurred in Ireland by 1916, and the events of that Easter quickly overtook the events of the First World War and its significance in Ireland declined, at least in the public consciousness. The period from 1914 to 1918 did not come to be viewed as a shared experience and it has not until now, as the centenary of the war begins, that the common experience of the four nations has begun to be reconciled. Perhaps with this, the contribution made by Irishmen in the armed forces, but also in the war effort in general, might begin to be fully recognised and appreciated.

William Butler is an Associate Lecturer in British and Irish history at the University of Kent. He recently completed his PhD thesis on ‘The Irish Amateur Military Tradition in the British Army, c.1854-1945’, which has now been adapted into a monograph and is under contract with Manchester University Press. He has also been working as a freelance researcher for the AHRC-funded Gateways to the First World War research centre, and is in the process of completing a jointly-authored monograph entitled Military Recruitment in Ireland during the First World War.

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