"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Wherever the Firing Line Extends

Ireland and the Western Front
Ronan McGreevy
History Press
Wherever the Firing Line Extends


From the Introduction

In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms.

- The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916

In addition to being Irish Catholics, we have the honour to be British soldiers.

Irish officers at Limburg, 1914

You could not call it war. It is murder and nothing

like the game as it is played in Africa and the Chitral Expeditions, through both of which I went.
- Colour Sergeant John Cooper, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, killed at Ypres 1915

If we are going to have a shared history and share our traditions and share our peace, we have to share the whole history of the war dead.
- Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach

The heroic dead of Ireland have every right to the homage of the living: for they proved, in some of the heaviest fighting of the World War, that the unconquerable spirit of the Irish race - the spirit, that has placed them among the world's greatest soldiers - still lives. France will never forget her debt to the heroic Irish dead.
- Marshall Ferdinand Foch, 1929

It is perhaps the great paradox of Irish history that more Irishmen died fighting for the Crown than ever died fighting against it.

Irishmen in every generation were willing participants in an army which was regarded by many of their compatriots as an instrument of oppression. The his­torical reality confounds the modern Irish mind, conditioned as it was until recently, to see the relationship between Britain and Ireland only in adversarial terms.The willing participation of so many Irishmen in the British armed forces was nationalist Ireland's secret and one that it sought to either explain away or conveniently forget after independence in 1922.

More Irishmen fought in British uniforms during the First World War than in any other single conflict, foreign or domestic, before or since.The Irish who joined up between 1914 and 1918 were following a long tradition. Numerous antecedents had been enthusiastic contributors to the great colonial adventure of the nineteenth century which made Britain a superpower. Indeed, they were proportionately over-represented in the armed forces for the whole of that cen­tury when British supremacy reached its zenith and the sun never set on Queen Victoria's Empire.The Irish represented 28 per cent of Admiral Nelson's crew at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805' and 30 per cent of the Duke of Wellington's troops at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.2

Catholic soldiers had been banned from joining the British army until 1799. A year later the Act of Union abolished the Irish parliament altogether and brought the country under the direct governance of Westminster. Irish Catholics were not allowed to sit in parliament until Catholic Emancipation in 1829.Yet none of these pernicious circumstances seemed to deter Irishmen from joining the Crown forces in great numbers. Some 159,000 had been integrated into the British army by the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.3 And they continued their disproportionate prominence in the British army after that date. In 1830, Ireland constituted a third of the population of the United Kingdom, yet 42.2 per cent of all non-commissioned officers and other ranks were Irish.4 There were more Irishmen than Englishmen in the British army during that decade.5 Irish numbers in the British army subsequently declined as the century progressed. This was not a measure of waning interest but of catastrophic demographic trends which saw the population of Ireland plummet while that of the rest of the United Kingdom increased rapidly.The Great Famine of the 1840s was the major factor in this devastating diminution of the native population. By 1861, Ireland's share of the UK population had fallen to 22 per cent — but it still made up 30 per cent of the army.6

Parallel with the phenomenon of mass Irish participation in the British armed forces was the process whereby nationalist Ireland sought greater freedom from the British Empire.The majority used constitutional means through the Repeal Movement and later the Irish Parliamentary Party and its decades-long campaign for home rule and a peaceful resolution of the differences between Ireland and Britain. A smaller cohort resorted to military action. Of the six rebellions men­tioned in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (1641,1798,1803,1848,1867 and 1916), those staged in the nineteenth century were poorly organised affairs, lasting only a single day. These rebellions were often quashed in part by fellow countrymen who had become professional soldiers in the British army.

The Irishman in the British army was typically from a rural area. In other parts of the United Kingdom they more often came from urban slums. The Irish recruit was regarded as healthier, better nourished and sturdier than his city-based English, Scots orWelsh equivalent. He was less likely to be turned down for military service. He could bear more hardship.7

The Irish also came with a martial reputation, burnished in the armies of the continent, most notably in France during the eighteenth century.The same repu­tation was also gilded across the Atlantic by their actions in various American wars. The 'fighting Irish' became a cliche but it was one many Irishmen were keen to embrace, most notably the Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond, who could, at the outbreak of war in 1914, summon up 'that gallantry and courage which has distinguished our race all through its history'.

By 1829, the Duke of Wellington had become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. In the same year, after a long, formidable cam­paign led by Daniel O'Connell, Catholic Emancipation for Ireland was passed by the houses of parliament in London. In a telling contribution to a sceptical House of Lords, Wellington imagined an exchange he might have had with his Irish Catholic soldiers:

You well know that your country either so suspects your loyalty, or so dislikes your religion, that she has not yet thought it proper to admit you amongst the ranks of her free citizens; if, on that account, you deem it an act of injustice on her part to require you to shed your blood in her defence, you are at liberty to withdraw. I am, quite sure, my lords, that, however bitter the recollections which it awakened, they would have spurned the alternative with indigna­tion; for the hour of danger and of glory, is the hour in which the gallant, the generous-hearted Irishman, best knows his duty, and is most determined to perform it.8

It was, he acknowledged, 'to the Irish Catholic that we all owe our proud pre­eminence in our military careers'.9

Wellington was Irish by birth and represented another strand of identity: the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy. The Anglo-Irish were also disproportion­ately represented in the British armed forces, though they were mainly in the officer class.This would still be the case 100 years after Waterloo.