Dublin’s Great Wars: The First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish Revolution, by Richard S Grayson, Cambridge University Press, 484 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1107029255
Nine years ago Professor Grayson produced Belfast Boys: How Unionists and Nationalists fought and died together in the First World War, which provided an in-depth study of West Belfast’s military involvement in the Great War. It was a pioneering study not alone of the battles fought but of their effects on communities then, and since.
His new book covers a much longer period, from the start of the Second Boer War to the end of the Irish Civil War a quarter of a century later. In the process it traces the involvement of Dubliners who fought for and against the British empire and, in some cases, individuals who fought on both sides such as Michael McCabe, a former Fianna boy who fought against the British army in 1916, was released afterwards on account of his age and joined the British army in 1918. He deserted in 1922 after meeting his old friend and former Fianna leader Liam Mellowes to fight on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War. Subsequently he rejoined the British army and served through the Second World War before being discharged in 1946, returning to live in Dublin until his death in 1975. All of which did not prevent him from applying successfully for an IRA pension.
As Grayson says, McCabe may have joined the British army twice for economic reasons, or “simply enjoyed army life, whatever the army and whatever the cause. Perhaps at different times the opportunities open to him were extremely limited. None of this can be known.” It should be stressed that McCabe’s idiosyncratic military career was rare, yet it is hard to disagree with Grayson’s verdict that it “was a symbol of that paradox of British-Irish relations”.
More representative were men like Tom Byrne, who served with John McBride’s Irish Brigade in the Transvaal and then in the IRA during the Easter Rising and War of Independence, or Michael Tracey, who was more representative still. A building labourer, he fought in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Boer War, returned to the colours in 1914 and was killed in April 1916 on the Somme, just days after the Easter Rising ended. In many ways Tracey represented the most typical group of the 40,000 or so Dubliners who were engaged in this series of “Great Wars”. My own grandfather served in the Boer War and my father served in the Second World War. I never knew my grandfather or knew what his political views, if any, were, but like many Second World War veterans my father was a committed socialist and republican.
He was also a casual labourer whose realistic prospects of work in Dublin effectively ended with the outbreak of war in 1939. The industrial underdevelopment of the Irish capital had ensured it was a rich recruiting ground for the British army over several generations because of the constant surplus of unskilled workers in search of employment. Joining the British army was a half-way house that provided employment overseas but left ties to family and community more or less intact. It was made easier for those with relatives and friends who had preceded them into a particular regiment or corps, in much the same way as emigrants found homes among expatriate communities in Birmingham or Boston.
Unless a soldier received a dishonourable discharge, army service could smooth the path to employment on returning to civilian life with employers such as Guinness or the railway companies. Joining the reserve could provide an important supplementary income worth up to a third of a labourer’s wages. Army service could even lead to the acquisition of a trade or technical skill, but the propensity of recruits to join regiments where relatives were serving, or had served, suggests this was a relatively unexplored option. Besides, the British army was not a recognised house as far as Dublin’s craft unions were concerned. The only drawback to joining the reserves was the liability to renewed military service in the event of war.
The Belfast tradition was somewhat different. Before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 recruitment to the British army was often less than half that of Dublin, although the northern city had a much larger population and a catchment area that included all of Antrim and Down, whereas the Dublin recruitment district was restricted to the city and county. But then Belfast was a powerhouse of the industrial revolution not a sleepy provincial backwater that relied on the production of beer and biscuits and its role as a transport hub to get by. This changed with the outbreak of war when over 20,000 Belfastmen joined the British armed forces in the first five months, a figure that would rise to almost 51,000 by 1918. As Professor Grayson showed in his earlier book, Belfast Boys, many of these men were Catholics and Redmondites, or rather Devlinites, following the lead of the legendary local champion of constitutional nationalism, Joe Devlin. Nevertheless, it was the influx of Ulster Volunteer Force members which defined Belfast’s involvement in the Great War.
Far from cementing the union with Britain, this legacy and the triumphalist way in which it was commemorated saw the Northern capital breed a dangerous and sometimes lethal legacy more akin to politics in Eastern European cities than anywhere on these islands. Only in recent years has its involvement in the Great War begun to evolve into the sort of historical tourism that characterises Dublin.
This development is still fragile, and unresolved issues from the thirty years war, not to mention Brexit, could see things go into reverse. Ironically, some of the most positive initiatives in working towards reconciliation have come from groups such as the Messines Association, in which former paramilitaries from both sides of the sectarian divide have come together, having found a common identity through grandfathers who served in the Great War. Professor Grayson’s book played an important role in helping nurture that process.
His new book covers a broader canvass and, if it does not have the contemporary resonance of its predecessor, it is because the 1922 Treaty, for all its faults, was a far more satisfactory political settlement than the Good Friday Agreement, which is more of a truce than a resolution to the Northern conflict. The war continues by other means, ranging from political exchanges between Sinn Féin and the DUP over “legacy issues”, to court battles based on contested versions of what constitutes “Truth and Justice”, to the petty but distressing vandalising of commemorative sites.
But returning to Dublin’s Great Wars: with less than 11 per cent of Ireland’s population, the city still contributed 30 per cent of Irish recruits to the British army in some years during the decade before 1914. Unlike recruitment patterns in most other areas, most Dubliners did not join the local regiment but other units, either when the latter were stationed in the capital, because they had family links with them or by joining after emigrating to Britain. Therefore, Grayson points out, tracing the history of Dublin’s involvement in the Great War extends far beyond the Fusiliers.
Coming to the Home Rule crisis and the outbreak of war, Grayson takes care to point out that the nationalist response was varied and that many of those who joined the Irish Volunteers were supporters of Redmond’s policies. Nevertheless, when the Volunteers split after Redmond called on them to serve “wherever the firing line extends”, 28 per cent of the members in Dublin adhered to the IRB-dominated Irish Volunteers, compared with only seven per cent nationally. In the two Northside battalions a majority of members adhered to the militants.
Grayson covers briefly the panic buying of foodstuffs, wild rumours of Russian Cossacks making amphibious landings in the North Sea to take the Germans by surprise and the disgraceful mini-pogrom against German nationals unfortunate enough to work or have businesses in Dublin. As the prosecuting counsel said during the trial of some of those prosecuted for looting German pork butchers: “It is not cricket.” Grayson points out that Tom Kettle’s articles written at the outbreak of war, while he was in Belgium trying to buy guns for the Irish Volunteers, had a significant impact on public opinion at home. This may help explain Kettle’s own increasingly tortured stance on the war, which led him eventually to his death at Ginchy in 1916.
But these useful asides apart this is overwhelmingly a military history that provides matching narratives of the war on the Western Front, in the Balkans and in the Middle East with events at home. For many Dublin reservists the war came brutally fast. Already fully trained, they were usually required to report to their units within forty-eight hours and be deployed within days in France. This was during the war’s fastest-moving phase and they found themselves engaged in the longest fighting retreat in the British army’s history. Many of them were out of condition and became casualties or prisoners. By contrast the Irish Volunteers would have a leisurely introduction to war.
For new recruits to the British army there was the traditional recruiting office, two doors down from the Pearse brothers’ monument works on Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, and a new premises was opened on Grafton Street in the hope of attracting a better class of applicant. Grayson calculates that as many as 210,000 Irishmen served in the British forces in the Great War, of whom 21,000, or ten per cent, were already enlisted regulars and another 30,000 were reservists. As many as 6,500 of the regulars and 6,900 reservists may have been from Dublin. His research suggests that 26,538 more volunteered by the end of the war, somewhat higher than my figure of 25,644 in A City in Wartime, but I gracefully bow to his more thorough investigation of sources. He gives a denominational breakdown for over 23,000 men who had joined the colours by mid-January 1918. Some 56 per cent were Catholics, 14.5 per cent were Protestant and no religious affiliation is given for the rest. Other figures he presents suggest Catholics accounted for 90 per cent of recruits, or slightly more than the 83 per cent Catholic component of the overall population of Dublin.
National Volunteers accounted for 3,012 of the total, and there were sixteen men who had been members of the UVF. But there was no known political affiliation for over 87 per cent of those who signed up. We shall never have exact figures because so many Irish records were destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz, but Grayson estimated that at least 35,000, and possibly nearer 40,000, of those who served were Dubliners.
He has done a lot of research into the type of units that Dubliners joined, and the type of Dubliners who joined those units. There was considerable variation, but a general pattern emerges of unskilled labourers being the largest group overall at just under 60 per cent, but reaching as much as 75 per cent in the 6th Battalion of the RDF, compared with a low of four per cent in the 10th “Commercial” Battalion, which had 50 per cent white collar members. Some skilled and semi-skilled workers gravitated to units such as the Army Service Corps or, in the case of telegraphists, to the Royal Engineers. White collar workers comprised 10.5 per cent of all recruits, 20 per cent of the air force personnel, and 30 per cent of those in the cavalry, many of whom had previously worked with animals. What is not clear from the figures is if the pattern of recruitment changed during the conflict. As volunteers, Irish recruits had a much greater choice of units than a British conscript and it must have been clear by 1916 at the latest that the infantry was the least healthy career option.
There is interesting detail on men’s physical descriptions. They were shorter and thinner than their modern counterparts, but one characteristic they shared with them was a fondness for tattoos. However, these were usually restricted to the forearms and followed very traditional motifs such as anchors, crosses and hearts; which were still popular in the Second World War.
Grayson compares the social composition of the Irish Volunteers with the army intake. Only 25 per cent of Irish Volunteers were unskilled workers, compared with 55 per cent of those joining the army. He concludes that the figures point to “the working class of Dublin being far more rooted in the British military than in republican ranks, a factor which would help to dictate some reactions to the Easter Rising”. Grayson accepts that the paper strength of the Irish Volunteers was 5,464 during the Truce, which would indicate a vast inflation on numbers from the War of Independence when Oscar Traynor, the Dublin Brigade commander put the effective strength at 1,250, including everyone who turned up for parades and paid weekly contributions. Even allowing that most of the 1,000 Dubliners interned were Volunteers, and by no means all of them were, that is still a massive increase, especially as the internees remained hostages of the British government until the Treaty was secured.
The book gives due coverage to often neglected aspects of the war, such as naval fatalities at engagements such as Coronel and Jutland. Grayson also looks at the women who formed 90 per cent of the 4,000 non-combatant volunteers in the British war effort. Nearly 40 per cent of women served as nurses in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Another 30 per cent worked in the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot at 40 Merrion Square, 20 per cent were engaged in knitting, sewing and providing other comforts for the troops while 5 per cent harvested sphagnum moss for dressing wounds.
Grayson provides plenty of detail for military pundits, supplemented by personal stories including the cut and thrust of war at local unit level, and he shows how little-known minor battles exacted as high a price as the more renowned engagements. The hell of the Gallipoli landings still has the power shock. The 1st Dublins had the dubious distinction of losing the first British army chaplain killed by enemy action in the Great War. Insisting on being with the first wave ashore, Fr Finn was killed at the very water’s edge.
Casualties were often as high during the great battles on the Somme but the men at Gallipoli rarely benefited from rotation as there was no rear area and they had to remain in position week after week, while often suffering the ravages of dysentery. Gallipoli had a special impact in Dublin as it was the first time that the volunteer battalions suffered heavy casualties in the war and the effects were felt far beyond the families of the largely inarticulate regulars, who came from the tenements and had been dying or being taken prisoner in smaller contingents since hostilities began. Grayson notes that the newspaper coverage given to the “rugby stars of the Pals’ company” in the 7th Battalion far exceeded that of other units who, in the case of the working class 6th Battalion suffered even heavier losses.
Grayson moves seamlessly into the War of Independence, showing how some former soldiers joined or aided the Volunteers, such as Dublin Fusilier Edward Handley, who used his position as a storeman at Portobello Barracks to divert weapons and ammunition to them. Joseph Byrne was another former Fianna member, like Michael McCabe. However he had joined the Royal Irish Rifles before the Rising. He was in Dublin during the Rising and attempted, unsuccessfully, to join his brothers, who were fighting with the rebels. After his demobilisation he joined the IRA and ended up in The Squad. Grayson also says that fourteen Auxiliaries were living in Dublin during the War of Independence, although it is unclear if they were all Dubliners. Six of them were Catholics. Grayson says that the civilian population in Dublin was not as supportive of the IRA as in some rural areas, which he rightly attributes partly to the greater intimacy of rural life. But it was also because civilians were at greater risk from IRA attacks in the city. Often the main casualties of IRA attacks in Dublin were civilians, especially when grenades were being used that often missed the intended targets. Nor does he discuss the effectiveness of internment.
On the Civil War I have to disagree with the author’s assessment that British artillery “shifted the balance in favour of the National Army” in the fight for Dublin. While the field guns provided by the British were certainly important when it came to storming the Four Courts, the crucial difference between the two sides was one of leadership. The National Army commanders had a plan and a will to execute it in the face of significant numerical superiority on the other side. There was no agreed policy, let alone strategic plan in the anti-Treaty ranks. Tom Barry had the nearest thing to a strategy in hoping to provoke a situation where the British would attack the Four Courts, thus forcing the Free State forces to come in on their side and renew the war with Britain. Churchill almost fell into that trap by telling the British GOC, Neville Macready, to take the Four Courts, but the latter had the sense not to be provoked.
In many ways the military bankruptcy of the anti-Treaty leadership was summed up in Simon Donnelly’s recollection of the eventual surrender of the Four Courts garrison, when the men were told that “while they were compelled to surrender their guns they would never surrender their principles”. The reality was that while some anti-Treaty personnel had experience of small-scale military operations, often grossly inflated in reports and memoirs, they lacked the skills needed to plan, let alone organise, anything bigger. Nevertheless, two-thirds of all Civil War casualties in Dublin occurred after the Free State secured control of the city during the critical first week of the fighting. This battle was won by Volunteers who had all fought in the Tan War. The subsequent loss of life in the city over the next nine months was tragic, but futile and militarily insignificant.
Professor Grayson points to the often overlooked fact that November 11th, 1918 was an armistice not the end of the war, which would not come until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This meant that, besides those casualties continuing to die of wounds and disease incurred during the fighting, some 300 more Dubliners lost their lives on active service in places as far flung as the Baltic, fighting the Bolsheviks, Constantinople, fighting a resurgent Turkey, and Baghdad, suppressing an Arab revolt. There was even a Dubliner, John Flannery, who took a leading role in the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India. He was sentenced to death but was reprieved like most of his comrades and served a short prison sentence.
Whatever their experiences in Dublin’s “Great Wars”, for many who served on all sides commemorating their dead would become a central aspect of their lives in the years that followed. Others preferred to put it behind them and some went AWOL, abandoning their families and, in some cases, developing new relationships in Britain, or France.
Grayson covers the commemoration controversies briefly but adequately. There is also a discussion of the experiences of ex-servicemen in the new Free State. He follows the traditional path of highlighting the high levels of unemployment among ex-servicemen in Ireland compared with Britain as evidence of discrimination, but overall unemployment levels in Ireland were traditionally higher than in Britain. Therefore unemployment was also high among IRA members. For instance, about half of those in Dublin were unemployed during the Truce period. Volunteers who took the anti-Treaty side would become virtually unemployable for a time.
The most important attempt to provide jobs by former combatants had in fact nothing to do with Dublin’s Great Wars. It was dictated by the necessity of the Free State to find alternative employment for members of its bloated National Army in 1924. It desperately needed to discharge most of the 53,000 men mobilised before the cost of their upkeep bankrupted the state. Every public body in the country was told to give priority in filling vacancies to National Army members with dependants, followed by National Army members without dependants. Private employers were urged to do likewise.
Other than that caveat, this book is a very significant addition to our knowledge and understanding of the Irish revolution and should be read by everyone wishing to understand it more fully.
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.