Category: ireland

British Drop Plans for Conscription in Ireland

Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), a Sinn Féin politician who won a by-election in County Cavan on June 20, in part due to the party’s strong stance on conscription.  Like all Sinn Féin MPs, he would not take his seat in Westminster.

June 21 1918, Dublin–Two months after Lloyd George announced his plan to enact both conscription and Home Rule in Ireland, it was clear that the plan had failed.  Almost every segment of Irish society, from its politicians to its churchmen, had rejected conscription, and saw the offer of Home Rule for the tactic it was.  Irish republican nationalists had been emboldened by the effort, and Sinn Féin had won two by-elections in the last month.  The German offensives that had driven far into British lines in March and April had passed, and their attacks on the French had stalled as well.  The necessity for conscription in Ireland was also fading as more American soldiers crossed the Atlantic every week.  On June 21, Lloyd George abandoned the dual effort for conscription and Home Rule.  Subtler efforts to encourage Irish participation for the war effort continued, including a plan to appeal to Irish Catholic leaders to encourage men to join the French army to help defend their fellow Catholics on the continent.

Today in 1917: Kerensky Inspects “Women’s Battalion of Death”

Today in 1916: Battle of Carrizal
Today in 1915: French Make Successful, if Limited, Advance at Gallipoli

Sinn Féin Leaders Arrested

Michael Collins (pictured in 1919), one of only two Sinn Féin leaders to escape arrest.

May 17 1918, Dublin–The British government was determined to enact conscription in Ireland, and newly-installed Lord Lieutenant French saw Sinn Féin as the major obstacle preventing this–despite the broad opposition to conscription from every element of Irish society and political life.  On the night of May 17, on the pretext that they were plotting with the Germans to stage a rebellion in Ireland, French had over 150 Sinn Féin leaders arrested.  Although the Germans certainly had an interest in Irish intrigues, especially in the leadup to the Easter Rebellion, when they sent arms (which were interecepted) and Roger Casement (who was captured and executed), the evidence for any grand “German Plot” was shaky at best.  Some have theorized that the attempt to tie Sinn Féin to Germany was an attempt to turn American public opinion against the Irish.

Only two Sinn Féin leaders managed to escape the arrests–Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha, who were tipped off by a source inside Dublin Castle.  With the remainder of the leadership detained without trial for the rest of the war, Collins and Brugha rose to unexpected prominence.

Today in 1917: Marshal Putnik Dies

Today in 1916: Kut POWs Paraded Through Baghdad
Today in 1915: Germans Attack Along the River San

May 5, 1918 – Sir John French Becomes Lord Lie…

May 5, 1918 – Sir John French Becomes Lord Lieutenant of Ypres

Pictured – Sir John French, Earl of Ypres. 

In August 1914 Sir John French had commanded the British Expeditionary Force upon its arrival in France. But while a brave soldier, French was also inclined to petty personal grievances, and unprepared for the scale of modern industrial war. In 1915 he was relieved of command and made head of Britian’s Home Defence; in this position he put down the Irish Easter Rising in April 1916.

In 1918 French was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and assigned command of British troops in the island in an attempt to enforce the government’s conscription policy. French supported Home Rule but as in 1916 his reaction to Irish protests against the British war effort were unnecessarily harsh. More concerned with writing a self-indulgent war memoir, French failed to realize that the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin held popular support. His attempts to stifle dissenting voices would in no way calm tensions in Ireland.

Lord French Made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland

A 1919 John Singer Sergeant portrait of Lord French.

May 5 1918, Dublin–Since his dismissal as head of the BEF, Sir John French (eventually made Viscount French) had been relegated to serve as commander of the UK’s Home Forces, guarding against the oft-overblown fears of a German invasion.  In April 1918, faced with severe manpower shortages and multiple German offensives, Lloyd George had decided to extend conscription to Ireland, a move that brought immediate vociferous opposition in Ireland, not only from Sinn Féin, but from the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Catholic Church as well.  Determined to push through conscription (albeit in conjunction with Home Rule), on May 5 Lloyd George appointed Lord French as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and gave him independent command of all British troops there.  In the past, the post was a figurehead, but Lord French insisted that he be made effective “Military Viceroy at the Head of a Quasi-Military Government.”  French would consult Irish business leaders for advice during his tenure as Lord Lieutenant, but largely ignored the current civil administration in Ireland and refused to talk to Sinn Féin or other Irish nationalists; opposition to conscription was in no way reduced.

Today in 1917: French Capture Eastern End of Chemin Des Dames

Today in 1916: Villistas Raid Texas During Cinco de Mayo
Today in 1915: Italian Nationalist Poet D’Annunzio Calls for War

Crowds in Dublin protest conscription, 1918.

Crowds in Dublin protest conscription, 1918.

April 22, 1918 – Irish Conscription Crisis: Mi…

April 22, 1918 – Irish Conscription Crisis: Military Takes Over Infrastructure, Unions Call a General Strike

Pictured – Men in Country Mayo protest the draft.

With Ireland dangerously unstable in the wake of extension of the draft to the island, the British military seized railroads, the post office, and telephone exchanges. This was an attempt to prevent any wide disorder, which was wise on Dublin Castle’s part, as Irish unions had called a general strike for April 23. Perhaps more alarmist was the decision by police to lock up all the guns in Irish gun stores. There would not be another 1916 Rising, but this time anti-British sentiment was widespread. The Catholic Church joined the unions in opposing conscription and its Irish bishops published their own protest that week as well:

“It is for an Irish Government — a Government selected by Irishmen — to
decide how the manhood of the country is to be disposed of, and if the
British Government usurps that authority and attempts to enforce it by
superior strength, then the hypocrisy of Great Britain’s declaration
that she is fighting to secure the rights of small nations, will stand
exposed before the world.”

Irishmen sign anti-conscription pledges. April…

Irishmen sign anti-conscription pledges. April 1918.

Conscription Extended to Ireland

John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party leads an anti-conscription rally in Roscommon.

April 18 1918, Dublin–The British government was sent into crisis by Germany’s renewed offensives in the west.  Believing he was in real danger of losing the war, Lloyd George introduced a bill to expand conscription into the House of Commons on April 9, only hours after the Germans launched Operation Georgette in Flanders.  Conscription would now affect all men from 17

½ to 50, though 40-50 year-olds would remain in Britain for home defense.  Some exemptions for munitions workers were removed, and standards for good eyesight were lowered.  Most controversial, however, was the expansion of conscription to Ireland, where it had so far not been enacted due to extreme political opposition.  Lloyd George attempted to temper this by announcing that he would also implement Home Rule for Ireland, attempting to co-opt the report of the Irish Convention. The bill was pushed through in a week’s time with a majority of 198 votes.  A day later, the Irish Parliamentary Party left the Commons in protest; this would mark the end of (non-abstentionist) Irish representation in Westminster outside of Northern Ireland.

The Military Service Act become law on April 18.  The same day, leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin, the All-for-Ireland Party, and Labour met in Mansion House in Dublin, formed the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee, and began to plan how would they oppose the realization of conscription in Ireland.  On the same day, Ireland’s Catholic bishops were holding a meeting, and agreed that they should call upon their parishioners to resist conscription “by the most effective means at our disposal…[that are] consonant with the law of God."  In conjunction with the Anti-Conscription Committee, they agreed to post the following pledge on the door of every Catholic church the following Sunday, April 21:

Denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.

This was followed by a one-day general strike on Tuesday the 23rd.  Ultimately, the extreme opposition in Ireland, the passing of the crisis on the Western Front, and the arrival in France of many more American troops (and others; the Italians sent a force of 50,000 to the Western Front on April 18 as well), meant that the government would never attempt to enforce conscription in Ireland.

Today in 1917: Second Battle of Gaza

Today in 1916: Russians Capture Trebizond
Today in 1915: Roland Garros and his Plane Captured by Germans

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

April 18, 1918 – Irish Anti-Conscription Commi…

April 18, 1918 – Irish Anti-Conscription Committee Meets

Pictured – This anti-conscription pledge and ones like it were signed by Irish men in rallies throughout the country.

The majority of Irish had accepted the outbreak of war in 1914 favorably in hopes that it would lead to greater autonomy and home rule. While there was support for a volunteer war, however, few nationalist Irish accepted a draft like there was in Britain. In April 1918, however, the British government extended conscription to Ireland in hopes of making up manpower shortages.

The extension provoked widespread resistance by nationalists, trade unions, and the Catholic church. In Dublin, a group of party leaders met as the Anti-Conscription Committee, including Sinn Féin leaders Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith. In coordination with the Church, Irish nationalists devised an anti-conscription pledge to be taken by men at a series of rallies against the practice. Strikes and protests would accompany the pledge.

In the end (and despite a British idea that it might be easier to send Catholic Irish troops to the French Army,) the government would abandon conscription in Ireland. The arrival of the Americans had in any case begun to make it unnecessary. However the outrage caused by conscription would be a chief factor leading to Irish nationalist election victories in 1918 and ultimately the Irish War of Independence.

An Irish anti-recruitment cartoon. The Irish p…

An Irish anti-recruitment cartoon. The Irish politician John Redmond is telling a Volunteer to join the colors, saying “the Empire (which denies you Home Rule) needs you.” Redmond was a nationalist who supported the war in the hopes it would result in Irish autonomy.