‘Unparalleled unity’? A four nations approach to ‘British’ conflicts, the armed forces and society

‘Unparalleled unity’? A four nations approach to ‘British’ conflicts, the armed forces and society

This week, Dr Paul Huddie (University of West London) discusses the interconnectivity of Ireland and Britain during wartime in the long 19th century.

In her 2012 monograph A kingdom united Catriona Pennell showed how ‘intertwined Britain and Ireland were in wartime’. She said ‘citizens in Ireland took to the war with as complex feelings and justifications as their compatriots across the Irish Sea’.[i] The inter-connectivity that Pennell showed as being evident during the First World War (or at least up until 1916) was not simply a phenomenon of that conflict or that time. Rather, as Oliver Macdonagh has argued, it was something that developed steadily throughout the long nineteenth century.[ii] In fact it may well have shown itself on multiple occasions, but more research is required to ascertain this. The development of that interconnection happened as Ireland and Britain became increasingly and heavily socially and economically intertwined, through new links and developments in trade, transport, communication, economic institutions and even culture.

To date efforts have been made within the broader realm of military history (both British and Irish) to view and study the Great War as a UK war, and not just as ‘Britain’s war’ or as a ‘British’ war in which Ireland participated. If that war should and indeed must be researched as a ‘UK war’ then surely a comparative argument should, can and again must be made from any and all major conflicts fought during the broader ‘union period’ of 1801-1922. I argue that far more ‘regional’ research is required in order to help broaden the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British military and social military historiography beyond its generally Anglo-centric focus. To help it become more UK in nature.

Now I’m not saying that ‘regional’, ‘Irish’ or ‘British’ histories shouldn’t be produced. What I am saying is that those that are produced need to be better contextualised within the broader contemporary state, nation-state, and even, as Adrian Gregory has argued, ‘nation’, that was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the mother country of the British Empire.[iii] The reason why I advocate this approach is because such research will help develop our understanding of where all four nations fit into the broader ‘British’ historiography, and more importantly the historical relationships of Ireland, Wales and Scotland with England, the UK, the British state, the monarchy, the armed forces and the empire, but also their perceptions of self within the same and on the world stage.

It has been claimed that the outbreak of that conflict in 1914 led to the formation of a bond between the various factions and strands of society on the island of Ireland, but also between Ireland and Great Britain. Owing to the existence of ‘an external enemy’, a ‘social unity’ was forged; an ‘unprecedented unity’ they argued.[iv] However, what my doctoral research shows is that there was a precedent – sixty years before, during the Crimean War.[v] The simple fact that such a unified response was elicited towards two of the most important general European wars of the long nineteenth century, coupled with the diversity of the British armed forces (e.g. 42.2% Irish, 13.6% Scottish and 44.2% England and Welsh (primarily English) in 1830), not to mention the interconnectivity of the societies of the two islands, suggests that such ‘unity’ and such similar responses were evident during other campaigns.[vi]

But only when Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even the islands are more fully integrated into the British military history, when British history in effect becomes UK military history (even if only through broader contextualisation) will this be truly evident. Or perhaps it won’t, and the Crimean War and the First World War will be unique, but until the research is done we simply will not know. Regardless, the fact that it was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (and in certain instances the broader British Empire) that fought such conflicts makes it necessary for this to happen either way.

So if the Great War is being viewed through a Four Nations lens by certain historians and even the public these days, how does the Crimean War represent the basis for a call further and similar research? It does so because, in short, everything that has been highlighted by the aforementioned historians to date as representing the impacts upon Britain and responses of British society (which has also been too often Anglo-centric) also occurred or was seen in Ireland or involved Irish people; albeit to different degrees. Just like the First World War, though on a far smaller scale, the Crimean War touched every part of society: politics, culture and all social and political groupings, religion, the military and the economy, across the United Kingdom.

However, as was so very much the case with the Great War not every impact of the Crimean War and response to the same were identical across Great Britain or across the United Kingdom (indeed this is in many ways a celebrated aspect of the 1914-18 conflict – regional individualism and identity). Yet such variations are just as important as the similarities, because they propagate the broader questions that I am eager to see applied to all ‘British’ conflicts. Do such differences and similarities exist in other ‘regions’ – Scotland, Wales, England and the islands – or in other campaigns or wars, or even during peacetime? If so why, when, where, how and with whom? In fact the importance of the home front and home front research is no clearer than in such variances.

As Alvin Jackson argues, Ireland in the nineteenth century was simultaneously ‘a bulwark of the Empire, and a mine within its walls’, while its people were both agents of ‘liberation’ and ‘oppression’ within the empire.[vii] The Crimean War was no exception to this; however the scale was very much tipped in favour of the ‘bulwark’ rather than ‘mine’. In contrast the Great War period saw that scale shift on multiple occasions; Ireland was a mine ready to explode in 1912 to July 1914, a bulwark in August 1914, and generally up to 1916, before that mine actually did explode in Dublin. Ireland’s response to the Crimean War was a mixture of martial and often times imperial enthusiasm and local or national interest, mixed with a minority of criticism, opposition and nationalism. This also contrasts heavily with the events and divisions of the post-Crimean decades.

What my research of the Crimean War – from a ‘regional’ perspective but within a UK context – shows, much like that of Pennell and others, is that, in spite of local variations and influencing factors, Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom and the British military establishment, experienced and partook in ‘Britain’s war’ in tandem with Great Britain.[viii] It illustrates the complex and often surprising responses of Irish people, which addresses the ambiguous nature of identity within the United Kingdom and its armed forces, and the complexities of the Anglo-Irish relationship and Ireland’s perceived relationship with, and place within, the broader international arena. Yet other similar studies of that and other conflicts still need to be undertaken.

[i] Catriona Pennell, A kingdom united: popular responses to the outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2012), p. 2.

[ii] Oliver Macdonagh, ‘Introduction: Ireland and the union, 1801-70’ in W.E. Vaughan (ed.), A new history of Ireland, Ireland under the union, 1801-70, v (Oxford, 1989), p. liv.

[iii] Adrian Gregory, The last great war: British society and the First World War (Cambridge, 2008), p. 8.

[iv] Adrian Gregory and Senia Pašeta (eds), Ireland and the Great War: ‘A war to unite us all’? (Manchester, 2002), p. 2.

[v] Paul Huddie, ‘Ireland and the Crimean War, 1854-6: a study of domestic response’ (PhD thesis, Queen’s University Belfast, 2013).

[vi] Edward M. Spiers, The army and society, 1815-1914 (London, 1980), p. 49.

[vii] Alvin Jackson, ‘Ireland, the union, and the empire, 1800-1960’ in Kevin Kenny (ed.), Ireland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2004), p. 123.

[viii] Paul Huddie, The Crimean War and Irish society (Liverpool, 2015).

Dr Paul Huddie is a committee member of the Irish Association for Professional Historians and the Women’s History Association of Ireland. His research principally focusses on British and Irish societies’ relationships with war and the military, principally in the areas of recruitment, memorialisation and military charities. His first monograph The Crimean War and Irish Society features as part of Liverpool University Press’s Reappraisals in Irish History series. Check him out on academia.edu.


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