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A Great War; not a good war
Kevin Myers - Ireland’s Great War, Dublin 2015, E20.
Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght
It is only during the last four decades that there has been much research into Irish participation in the First World War. To the author of this book, this neglect is due to a deliberate process of suppression by the governments that emerged after the 1921 treaty. However, to be successful, such oblivion has to have some basis in popular consciousness. The more egregious suppression of the social struggles of the working people after 1916 was the result of the eventual triumph of their bourgeois opponents. Forgetfulness of the role of the Irish in the British Army is to be explained as the product of a more subtle phenomenon, although, admittedly, one particularly extreme in Ireland. This was the recognition that the heroism and suffering of the war had been, at last, for nothing, and that the viruses that had caused it on both sides would have to face their extreme expression before they could be overcome for any time.
The need to repair the omission should not be denied. As far as possible, the facts of history should be seen as an whole. The problem arises in how they are portrayed.
In this case the packaging cannot be faulted. Myers has worked hard in his research and he presents his findings in an excellent literary style. His descriptions of the horrors of life in the trenches and of the dangers facing the airmen in the struggle are difficult to better. His chapter on Verdun conveys the horror of the fight, though it is out of place in a book about Irish soldiers. There are some vivid descriptions of individuals, such as Patrick Delaney ‘who was really heroic at being a deserter’ (P.53) and of Tom Kettle armouring his chest in a (futile) attempt to avoid dying in battle. Myers does not mention the report by Kettle’s nephew, Cruise O’Brien, that, after the Rising Kettle’s own daughter fled in fear from him because he was wearing his British Army officer’s uniform. This might have shed some light on why he volunteered for frontline duties, and why he wrote her the poem that Myers quotes in full.
On the other hand, it could be considered that to mention that incident might weaken the overall argument that disfigures this work. Equally, while Myers exposes the despair that gripped Francis Ledwidge when his old sweetheart died in childbirth and which helped propel him into the British Army, his born-again neo-liberalism causes him to suppress two other factors in his decision, the facts that he had been defeated in his efforts to organise his fellow rural workers and that he had been victimised for trying. He had to join or starve. In addition, had he lived he would almost certainly have have used his discovery of his martial talents in joining his brother in the I.R.A. There are other minor weaknesses. No mention is made of several of Ledwidge’ Irish comrades in arms, such as the diaspora’s Lieutenant Michael O’Leary (double V.C.) , Cork’s Christopher Griffin (later Acting-General opposing the Limerick Soviet), such prospective Republicans as Tom Barry and Michael Price and, on the other side, the Unionist Smyth brothers, of whom Gerald’s execution by the I.R.A. was the pretext for the anti-Catholic pogroms in Ulster. Still, it may be worthwhile to neglect these in favour of the lesser-known recruits. On the other hand, the listing of these names becomes monotonous; the text becomes, at times just a matter of, as it were ‘another Irish soldier killed, and then another’ and so forth.
There are more substantial objections. While he describes the Battle of Jutland, he ignores the subsequent struggle against the Uboats, and the British blockade of Germany. Nor does he examine the recruits in the last push: he emphasises the fact that recruitment figures were not met, but not the fact that they were still higher than the figures since 1916, a phenomenon caused possibly by a wish to jump rather than be pushed by conscription, or by a recognition that with Russia eliminated and America committed in its stead, the war was more than in 1914 a struggle for [liberal] democracy, one which could be (and was) ended before Christmas 1918, with a steamroller made in Detroit rather than Petrograd and which could (though it would not) provide the rationale for a greater measure of Irish independence than the provincial status of Home Rule.
These weaknesses are errors of omission and can be rectified easily. There is a more crucial flaw to Myers’ account. He sees himself as asserting the existence of his subjects against what he calls ‘The Truth’ , in fact the Irish historical narrative understood since 1923 and particularly since 1932. Certainly there is a lot wrong with this history, but on the evidence, Myers’ alternative is far less accurate. He has two trump cards. The first is the fact that more men joined the British Army than the republican Volunteers, but this is not, in itself, evidence of their correctness, even less so when it is remembered that practically all the media of the time, pulpit, newspapers and public meetings were pressing them to go. The second is the undoubted fact of German atrocities in Belgium. This would be more effective were state powers more conscientious about righting foreign wrongs; Britain was committed to fighting Germany as ally of Russia and France regardless of how well or ill the German Army behaved
He presents the international context as being one in which Germany launched a war of expansion against Belgium and France. This was of course the line pedalled over nationalist Ireland and it remains an example of truth being war’s first casualty. Myers embroiders this calling France with Belgium ‘the unwilling hosts to a war of both conquest and liberation.’ (P.15). While this applies to Belgium, it does not apply to France which was the major architect of the Triple Entente that would give extra weight to its longterm aim of retaking Alsace-Lorraine and, grabbing the Rhineland as well, with a little bit of luck. That the Entente forced France to enter a war being fought by its ally Tsarist Russia to the east of Germany has a certain artistic justice. Similarly, Britain was being dragged into the war to protect its naval supremacy before a Prussian Army boot crossed the Belgian border, in what was initially a pre-emptive strike, as well as a diplomatic disaster.
Not only is Myers’ insistence on the war being essentially one for the defence of Belgium inaccurate, it prevents him understanding the other fronts. Beginning what becomes a very accurate and searing account of Gallipoli, he can explain Turkey’s entry to the war only as a result of British blunders particularly by Churchill. In fact, the Entente had to attack Turkey in order to re-moralise Russia whose attack on Germany had floundered at Tannenberg, by supporting its claims to annex northern Anatolia and Constantinople. As for Bulgaria, Myers finds it ‘virtually impossible to give a plausible account of why [the British Army] were fighting Bulgarians’(P.109). In fact there are three reasons. Bulgaria had attacked the Entente’s ally (and the first adversary of Germany and Austria), Serbia and occupied some of its territory, it was a useful landlink between Austria and Turkey and the Entente was offering Greece the Bulgarian coastline on the Aegean sea as a bribe to join it.
To back his case, Myers resorts to alternative history, projecting a grisly vision of what might have happened had the Central Alliance won the war. He asks if Germany would be ‘sated by victory, or made hungrier?’ The answer is unknown, but there is at least the possibility that a German hegemony would have neutralised the atavistic pressures that erupted in Nazi-ism, and that it would have kept a European peace far more effectively than it was to be kept by a weak France weakened further by World War, with a Britain finding its empire increasingly over-extended, a U.S.A. sunk in isolation and a Germany with gangrenous wounds turning its state into a monster. Of course these alternatives are lesser evils; there is also an ideal one in which the workers and oppressed overcome their leaders and follow the example of (or even precede) the Russians creating a federation of workers’ states as the prologue to world socialism.
Myers gives the game away in his chapter on Robert Gregory, he de-constructs Yeats poem, that made out his subject to be practically a peasant (‘my countrymen Kiltartan’s poor’) to reveal a rather unlikeable orthodox member of the ascendancy with a talent for stage design and for fighting. He was the heir of generations of land-grabbers who had often enforced their grabbing by means comparable to that of the Germans in Belgium. Myers shows that he had a racist disdain for Kiltartan’s poor. Yet he seems to have felt a duty to join up to save Belgium. What was that country to he or he to Belgium? The answer is simple; Belgium was a member of the club. In the eyes of the people of western Europe, developments since the Franco-Prussian War had allowed them to assume that their countries could enjoy peace while any differences between them could be fought in the colonial world. Their rulers knew better, of course, but did not disillusion them. Belgium was a west European power, an established colonial metropolis, on the small side, but still the country of two of the world’s master races. For Germany to invade it was a breach of the club rules, far worse in the eyes of the other members than the German genocide of the Herreroes, or, indeed, than the King of Belgium’s treatment of the Congolese. The First World War was an imperialist war far more starkly than the second.
Myers shows his bias, too, in his handling of the Irish situation. He suggests, albeit, as he admits, ‘on challengeable grounds’ (P.16) that the sacrifices of the Irish soldiers in the British Army influenced the British negotiators in agreeing to the Treaty. This is to ignore the history of the period since 1918. The British government was now dependent on an overall Unionist majority at Westminster, in its so-called Better Government of Ireland Act it offered Ireland less than its predecessor had done in the 1914 Home Rule Act and it tried to enforce the new law through the Black and Tans. In the Treaty negotiations themselves, Lloyd George’s first idea of a compromise was of an home ruling united Ireland,. When his Unionist majority told him it was impossible, he decided to give the rest of Ireland more, while the six county province remained as Britain’s base. Moreover, the old Home Rule Liberals, Lloyd George and Churchill were notably less conciliatory than the old Unionist Birkenhead. Irish World War losses seem to have been mentioned in the Treaty negotiations as little as they were in Ireland subsequently
There are other, minor, seasonings to Myers’ confection..He sneers at Count Plunkett and Countess Markievicz’ love of ‘royal titles’ (P.37), ignoring the fact that Plunkett was a Papal Count and Markievicz a couontess only by marriage. More obnoxious is his lumping together all formal R.I.C. losses, regular, ‘Tan and Auxiliary, in the Anglo-Irish War (P.13) and stating that that body’s atrocities in Co.Galway were only ‘according to Yeats” (P.206). Finally, despite his refusal to ascribe reasons for recruitment to the British Army as ‘human motives are usually mixed and quite beyond clinical analysis’(p.69), this does not stop him implying them. He tells how National and Ulster Volunteers marched together in Cos.Donegal and Down in the early months of the war as if it was the Rising that separated them Yet the British recruiting officers knew that the Ulster Protestants were far more enthused by the prospect of smashing Catholic Austria than of liberating Catholic Belgium. More specifically,, Myers insists that’the Irish veterans I spoke to in the 1970s and 1980s, without exception, unionist and nationalist, passionately believed they were fighting for the freedom of Europe’ (P.82). Despite this, the only actual quotation he gives from one of these, the Dubliner Eugene Riordain gives a more shaded view: ‘I joined because I felt sorry for Belgium, yes, but I joined because I believed in John Redmond and home rule’(PP.131-2). This belief is often forgotten, yet it was pushed at the time by the Redmondites. In fact, it imagined an Irish freedom that did not exist then, except as a promise of provincial self-determination, which has existed only partially since and which is being eroded today. Myers refuses to recognise the swindle.
All in all, to paraphrase Eamon Dunphy: it was (in size) a Great War, but not a good war for anyone, really.
As for Britain’s Irish soldiers therein,
one can only echo James Connolly in respecting all brave men who did their
duty according to their lights, without agreeing that those lights were
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