Heroes or Traitors: Experiences of Southern Irish soldiers returning from the Great War, 1919-1939, by Paul Taylor. Liverpool University Press. 273 pp, £75, ISBN: 978-1781381618
Taylor answers the question posed in the title to his book at the end by saying the 200,000 Irishmen who served in the Great War were neither heroes nor traitors. It is a great pity that the exorbitant price will prevent it reaching the wide readership it deserves.
He also poses important questions about the role historians and journalists can play in creating a false public consciousness, even a guilt complex, about the past. The conjunction of work around the neglected subject of Irish ex-servicemen in the 1990s with the peace process has seen veterans of the First World War depicted as “forgotten victims” of the IRA by Eoghan Harris, described as “almost non-persons in many rural Irish communities living in a condition of semi-boycott and often in one of permanent fear” by Kevin Myers, forming “a marginalised and unwelcome group in Irish Society” by Jane Leonard and classified as “types” by the late Peter Hart, killed for what they were rather than what they did. Even the then president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, speaking at the Peace Park in Messines, described the fate of ex-soldiers as “doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. They fell victim to a war for independence in Ireland.”
I must confess I was perplexed by such assessments, growing up as I did in a family with long links to the British army who had never heard of, let alone suffered from such experiences. We were neither Protestant nor loyalist, and had no affinity with the British Legion, let alone the Crown. I took much of what I was told for granted on the basis that maybe they did things differently down the country. Now I find that Taylor’s findings conform with my memories and family lore far better than those of any of the above commentators. Nor is Taylor drawn from the rival pool of “republican” historians. Rather he came to historical research from a career in business and only developed a personal interest in the fate of Irish ex-servicemen after discovering that his maternal grandfather had been an Irish soldier in the war.
He concentrates on the twenty-six counties that would be incorporated into the new Irish Free State and begins by looking at the most emotive issue, the number of ex-servicemen executed as spies before the Truce. He found there were forty, or 0.13 per 10,000 people. A breakdown by provinces shows there were no executions in the three Ulster counties and only one in Connacht. There were twelve in Leinster, comprising 0.10 per 10,000 of the population and twenty-seven in Munster, or 0.28 per 10,000. Two-thirds of the Munster executions took place in Cork, but at seventeen that still only comprises 0.46 per 10,000 of the population of the rebel county. There were a further ten serious incidents of intimidation of ex-servicemen by the IRA, of which seven related to arms raids, one involved forcing a justice of the peace to resign because of his opposition to Dáil courts, one concerned a landowner who refused to contribute to an arms levy and one, the most serious case, led to an ex-serviceman being arrested in connection with the death of a neighbour in a land dispute. He was subsequently executed.
Taylor concludes that the IRA had good reason to suspect all of the ex-servicemen executed as spies and, in some cases, there was conclusive proof. He accepts the explanations given by IRA commanders that the increase in executions in the last seven months of the war was due to the British becoming increasingly dependent on informers in the absence of effective RIC intelligence. He says monetary awards were a significant factor for the unemployed ex-servicemen recruited.
He also examines in detail claims by Southern unionists to the Irish Grants Commission for compensation due to injury or loss of property arising out of their support for the Crown. Only two hundred and sixty-two claims were made by ex-servicemen, or 7.5 per cent of the total. Of these, seventy-three cite wartime service as a cause of intimidation, of which one hundred and fifty-two were in Munster, seventy-four in Leinster, twenty in Connaught and sixteen in the Ulster counties. Dublin accounted for seventeen, compared with fifty-eight in Cork and thirty-five in Tipperary. The figure for Dublin is remarkably low given the number of ex-servicemen in the city and the intensity of the War of Independence there.
One reason for the low prevalence of claims in the capital is that land ownership was not at issue. Things were different in rural Ireland. A typical case was Capt Pim Goodbody, who returned to Ballytore in Kildare after the war only to be continuously raided and threatened. He left in May 1921 after the local RIC told him he was to be shot. When he came back during the Truce the RIC told him they were powerless to protect him and he sold off his three farms for £4,000, although he claimed they were worth £12,000. Maj Arthur Blennerhasset was kidnapped from his home outside Tralee and beaten in February 1922 before he finally agreed to leave. As Taylor points out, these men were targeted because they were large landowners and would naturally point to their military records to reinforce their IGC compensation claims, which had to be on the basis that they were targeted because of their services to the Crown.
Some ordinary ex-servicemen were also targeted where land was involved. These had been granted holdings under the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Resettlement Act passed by the British government to honour its commitment to making the United Kingdom a country fit for heroes. They received short shrift from the IRA, mainly in the Truce period. Edmund Harty, one of seven ex-soldiers driven off his holding in Limerick said he was told, “if I wanted land I should go to England and get it from the Government I acknowledge”. Nor was such hostility reserved for men who served in the British army. Edmund Davern, a local who served with the Australian forces, received similar treatment. These men were, in Harty’s phrase, “Nobody’s Children”. In most cases they were able to repossess their holdings after the anti-Treaty forces were defeated. Taylor’s point is that all of these men were targeted over land, not for being ex-servicemen.
The vast majority of ex-servicemen owned no property and many returning manual workers, including agricultural labourers, were too debilitated by military service to resume their old occupations. Except for a small number who joined the Black and Tans or Auxiliaries, these veterans were not singled out by the IRA. Using various metrics of violence in the War of Independence, Taylor found that incidents involving ex-servicemen “correlated to the level of violence experienced by other segments of the population”. In total, ninety-nine ex-servicemen were killed by the IRA in the whole of Ireland, representing a fatality rate of 0.0066 per cent. Crown forces killed another forty-six. In some places relations between the military and ex-servicemen were much worse than between the IRA and ex-servicemen.
The main protagonist of ex-servicemen in Ireland after the First World War proved to be the British government, which was not overly generous to veterans. In Britain it was able to minimise its obligations by persuading employers to join the King’s National Roll Scheme, which helped ensure about 80 per cent of disabled ex-servicemen found employment. This left unemployment rates at eight to eleven per cent among ex-servicemen generally, and compared favourably with eight to fifteen per cent among the rest of the male population in the 1920s and early 1930s. Irish firms were unwilling to join the scheme, leaving the state with a bigger burden to carry.
In other major belligerents such as Germany, France and Italy, more generous state assistance to veterans did not assuage their hostility and sense of betrayal but in Britain Taylor concludes that the creation of the British Legion by Earl Haig not alone aborted the emergence of politically driven veterans’ associations but provided an apolitical vehicle that helped reintegrate them in civil society. Some critics accused the legion of selling out the rank and file for a privileged relationship with the establishment, and it certainly protected the status quo, but it also helped improve the public perception of war veterans and ensure they were seen as victims rather than a problem.
In Ireland there was initially a proliferation of ex-servicemen’s groups that only slowly coalesced into the British Legion. Their grievances were hijacked to a great extent by the Southern Irish Loyalist Relief Association, which realised that these would strike a more sympathetic chord with British voters than pleading the cause of the wealthy landowners and businessmen who formed its main client base. Yet, far from abandoning Irish ex-servicemen, the British government paid greater attention to their needs precisely because it feared political disaffection. If one of the first measures it passed, the Irish Land (Provision for Sailors and Soldiers) Act, 1919, had, as we have seen, unhappy if unintended consequences, a more positive measure was the establishment of the Irish Soldiers and Sailors Trust, which provided them with homes. Relations between the trust and tenants broke down in some of the schemes, particularly Killester, the model suburb village on the outskirts of Dublin. This led to protracted rent strikes and evictions but the fact remains that there were eighteen thousand applications for homes in the estate, which were far superior in quantity and quality to anything provided by the local authorities. The British Legion played an important role in supporting these tenants, although it later withdrew because it disagreed with their increasingly militant and litigious tactics.
The creation of the Irish Free State would relieve the British government of many of its obligations to ex-servicemen which, in some cases such as the provision of free medical care, it could transfer to the Irish exchequer under the Treaty’s provisions. This change was reflected in much higher unemployment rates among ex-servicemen in Ireland. Even before independence, proposals by the Viceroy, Lord French, that public works programmes be created exclusively for ex-servicemen were turned down for fear of the political fallout. There were certainly areas where some discrimination took place under the new Irish political dispensation, but these tended to occur before independence. For instance, some local authorities which had given men leave of absence to join the British army in 1914 or 1915 refused to take them back during the War of Independence.
On the other hand they had access to civil service jobs. Some departments filled 100 per cent of vacancies with ex-servicemen, compared with 75 per cent in Britain. Unfortunately most of these posts were temporary and, when the Free State needed to find jobs for demobilised National Army personnel many ex-servicemen lost their posts. However as many as a quarter of the positions may have gone to other ex-servicemen who had also served in the National Army during the Civil War.
Another factor affecting employment of ex-servicemen in Ireland was that for the first six months after demobilisation they were entitled to a 24s weekly “donation” from the British exchequer, which was as high as the working wage most of them could expect to command as unskilled workers. Another problem was the dearth of training places, because Irish employers would not participate in the Kings National Roll Scheme or take on men without large subsidies. Disabled soldiers were particularly affected, as there were only one hundred and eighty training places available at state-run centres in Ireland.
One of the few employment outlets was on housing schemes built by the trust. Even these attracted criticism for discriminating against men who had not been in the British armed forces. Eventually the workforce at schemes such as Killester was expanded marginally to defuse local tension. Much worse was the plight of mentally ill ex-servicemen, who needed work not alone to earn a living but as therapy. They also needed training. However several units established by Industrial Training Scheme were destroyed by the IRA as part of the general campaign against British state agencies. The large industrial training facility in Tipperary survived intact because the chairman of the board was the local parish priest.
Far more ex-servicemen were affected by delays in the British ministry of pensions assessing them for disability benefit. In some cases men joined the National Army and served in the Civil War who were credited with 100 per cent disability, which says a lot about recruiting methods adopted by the new state. It was only in January 1923 that the National Army stopped recruiting men suffering from more than 20 per cent disability. There was certainly no reluctance by that Army to take them on, and some of the much smaller number of ex-servicemen serving with the Anti-Treaty forces continued to claim British benefits while doing so. The only concern shown by the Ministry of Pensions was that men might seek higher benefits based on extra disabilities incurred during the Civil War.
On the other hand ex-servicemen suffering from mental ill-health as a result of war service were entitled to treatment in asylums, but as these received higher grants for looking after criminal lunatics a lot of men had to be redesignated as such to gain access. During 1920, when many local authorities transferred their allegiance to Dáil Eireann, gaining admission to asylums proved even more difficult and in some cases the ministry of pensions had to resort to private hospital care.
One area of discrimination that affected Irish ex-servicemen as a result of the establishment of the Free State was exclusion from the assisted passage scheme to the colonies and “white” commonwealth countries. Applicants had to be resident in Britain. However there is no evidence that the residency qualification was ever enforced. The real obstacle was that the vast majority of Irish ex-soldiers were poor urban dwellers without the skills, experience or capital in demand overseas.
After the initial disruption of military conflict, Taylor found no evidence of discrimination against ex-servicemen. When a government commission was set up to investigate ex-servicemen’s complaints after Capt William Redmond called for one, it was found that 84 per cent of complaints were against the British government. Even so, Taylor argues that the benefits enjoyed by ex-servicemen were widely envied and led to the Free State government passing the 1924 Pensions Act. It hoped in doing so to ensure the loyalty of National Army veterans, but also served to highlight how much more generous ex-servicemen’s benefits were, a point highlighted by the Association of Ex-Officers and Men in the National Army. The only serious negative impact of Free State legislation on ex-servicemen was that it took into account payments they received from the British ministry of pensions when assessing them for Irish welfare payments or, later on, old age pensions. However this merely ensured that they were not treated more favourably than other recipients.
A further factor in their favour was that every political party in the Dáil contained ex-servicemen, except for Labour. This ensured a favourable hearing whenever ex-servicemen’s issues came up. Fianna Fáil TDs such as IRA veteran Patrick O’Dowd seemed particularly fond of dusting off their war records in the Dáil. Fianna Fáil seemed to be the political party of choice for most ex-servicemen by the 1930s and they were not put off by de Valera having a frostier relationship with the British Legion than Cosgrave did. The legion itself never had a membership that exceeded the 4,285 achieved in 1929 and most war veterans only approached it when they had problems for assistance or advice.
Life was therefore no worse for ex-servicemen than other predominantly low income groups living in the Free State; rather they benefited from their continued connection to the British welfare state. However, Taylor estimates that 90 per cent of ex-servicemen were unskilled and over time they found it harder to compete in an overcrowded market with younger, better educated men. On the other hand some companies showed positive discrimination towards them, and even showed them preferential treatment when it came to allocating apprenticeships. Besides, the pensions gave them a useful cushion in a country where the cost of living was substantially lower than Britain. Taylor believes that the degree of alienation from the wider society was no greater for these men than that suffered by anti-Treaty republicans, or indeed pro-Treaty republicans who participated in the 1924 Army Mutiny.
He also gives 1924 as the first year when Remembrance Day was celebrated unhindered by conflict. In fact there was widespread commemoration from 1922 onwards in Dublin, when poppies were sold on a large scale, Masses held in Catholic as well as Protestant churches and a minute’s silence observed in many workplaces. Republicans were dismayed at this development. Kathleen Barry Moloney, wife of a senior IRA officer and a sister of Kevin Barry, wrote to her sister Elgin after observing the growing popularity of First World War commemorations in 1926: “Talk about the country being Free State or Republican or Mutineer or anything. It is British through and through.”
There were certainly incidents involving tearing poppies from people’s button holes, or pulling down and burning union jacks, but these were carried out by small groups and many republicans stressed that their opposition was to the imperialist war and continuing links to the empire rather than any lack of respect for the war dead. Nor was the British Legion blind to the potential danger of having its agenda hijacked. Its president, Gen William Hickie, wrote to The Irish Times in 1935 complaining of those trying to make Remembrance Day “another July 12th” and assured readers that “we will prevent November 11th from being a political demonstration”. Many ex-servicemen dissociated themselves from Remembrance Day by simply never attending.
Of course the relationship of the Irish state and people to Remembrance Day changed over the years. In the decade after the Civil War, Cosgrave, O’Higgins and other ministers attended Remembrance Day ceremonies. De Valera stopped the practice when Fianna Fáil came to power but continued to meet British Legion representatives over ex-servicemen’s concerns, even at the height of the economic war. The first real change came when the Free State remained neutral in the Second World War, an event presaged by the IRA bombing campaign in Britain. This did not prevent sixty to seventy thousand Irishmen and women from joining the British armed forces or from coming home on leave when circumstances permitted.
The declaration of a Republic and Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth in 1949 saw a further weakening of the link with Britain and its historical legacy, including the First World War. A further step came in 1966 when the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising in the South and the Somme in Northern Ireland demonstrated how differently both societies had come to understand and commemorate their past. If there was no inclusive narrative for British ex-servicemen in the South there was none for Catholic ex-servicemen in Northern Ireland. When a new political crisis erupted there in 1968, it was precisely because of discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland across so many areas of life. Remembrance Day, which had all but been forgotten in the South as veterans of the struggle passed away, took on a new, pejorative character and became an almost private event for the faithful few.
The peace process may be said to have rescued it and, in doing so, created a new myth of collective amnesia. Strangely enough, many IRA veterans had similar complaints about how their sacrifices had been forgotten and expressed contempt for the ingratitude of a younger generation which took their sacrifices for granted.
If the peace process has revived Remembrance Day in Ireland, foreign military adventures have done so in Britain. In both countries there are plenty of people willing to recruit the legions of the dead to justify current political agendas but, as Taylor says, ex-servicemen constituted too large a group to be homogenous and were drawn from so many strands of Irish society that they defy easy categorisation. He is surely right in concluding that if, “Loyalty to Britain did not define those who volunteered, even less so did it define them on their return.” It is ironic that the peace process has seen them demeaned and pigeon-holed as another yet another category of victims, this time of militant Irish nationalism rather than British imperialism.
Note: One serious research flaw in Taylor’s study is his use of British Legion recruitment figures for various major urban centres such as Cork and Dublin, but he assumes the catchment areas are the city boundaries when they refer to the much larger populations of their recruiting districts. He also says that only thirteen rebels were executed in 1916. This review is based on the assumption that the other data used is accurate.
Padraig Yeates is a journalist and author whose books include A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918, A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 and A City in Civil War.