The first World War marked a change in the nature of war.It also marked the return to foreign battlefields of the fighting Irish. Mons, Gallipoli, Ypres, Somme, Passchendaele were but some of those battlefields where many of the Irishmen who died in battle sunk into the mud, their bodies never to be recovered. Upwards of 35,000 Irishmen died during the 1914-18 war.Their story and those of Irishmen who returned home, many shattered in mind and body, is now at last being told. The men who enlisted in huge numbers following Kitchener’s call for volunteers were on an adventure which they were confidently assured would be over by Christmas 1914.
It was not to be, outflanked by the Germans at Mons the British and French armies dug in and soon a 475 mile long line of trenches stretched across France and Belgium. This was a war which was fought between men in trenches, the essence of which involved attempts to break the stalemate by going over the top. It meant almost certain death as thousands of men, initially reservists, and professional soldiers and later volunteers stumbled across barbed wire in no man’s land in a desperate attempt to advance into enemy held territory. It was stalemated slaughter.
On the first day that men went over the top at the Somme, the British army suffered 60,000 casualties including approximately 19,000 dead. This was the heaviest one day loss in British Military history.Massive artillery barrages and the use of gas poison from early 1915 added to the frightening experience facing Irishmen who a few months previously had seldom travelled beyond the limits of their home towns or villages.
These were the Irishmen who were encouraged by their home town church and civic leaders to volunteer to fight abroad. Many as members of the Irish Volunteers formed in Athy on 9th May 1914 in Castledermot eight days later and in Kilcullen on 1st July 1914 answered the call to arms by their leader John Redmond.
Support for Home Rule, the operation of which was suspended for the duration of the war, prompted many Irish men to joined the British Expeditionary Force. Even without Redmond’s encouragement many young men quickly committed themselves on hearing Kitchener’s call for volunteers. The excitement of travel abroad, the glamour of a uniform, the fact that most people supported the war and by no means least, the generous separation allowances paid for wives and children proved persuasive to young men for whom a life of unemployment and poor living conditions was the everyday alternative.
The British Army mobilised over 9 million soldiers of which over 900,000 died during the war. The figures for Irish men serving in the British army are in the order of 250,000 of which approximately 35,000 died.
Of the Irishmen who returned from the war, their memories were for the most part to remain untold and unrecorded. The Irish political landscape had changed during their absence. The 1916 Rising and the subsequent execution of its leaders culminated in the overwhelming success of the Sinn Fein party in the general election of November 1918. The Irish public’s support for the war had dissipated long before that election and the drive for Irish political independence sidelined the soldiers who had fought overseas. Their stories, their memories were irrelevant to a people to whom the British uniform signified the enemy.
Despite this Remembrance Sunday ceremonies were held by the ex soldiers and comrade halls were built during the 1920’s as social centres for the men of the Great War. However the election of the first Fianna Fail government in 1932 marked a major shift in Ireland’s politics and so marked the beginning of the end of widespread remembrance day commemorations in Ireland. The men of 1914-18 forgotten in the drive for independence in the post treaty period now felt further isolated as their country entered into the economic war with Great Britain. Their involvement in the 1914-18 war was not regarded as part of our shared history.
Such was the position throughout the 1940s, the ‘50s and the ‘60s.
In 1988 in Athy from where so many men had enlisted a few friends organised a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in the local cemetery. It was the first time in almost 55 years that the south Kildare town had publicly acknowledged the contribution of a previous generation of Athy men. It was some years later before the Irish publics attitude to World War 1 remembrance began to change. That change in attitude, I believe was largely due to one man, Kevin Myers, Irish Times journalist and columnist, who persistently wrote of the Irishmen’s involvement in the Great War. It was Kevin Myers who brought the forgotten story of Irishmen’s involvement in that war to the attention of the Irish public. His work led to others taking an interest in that overlooked part of our shared history. Today as we approach the centenary of the start of the Great War the Irish nation can be said to have at last acknowledged and to have honoured, as is their due, the men and women who suffered the horrors and the slaughter which marked the 1914-18 war.