herald

Tuesday 24 October 2017

210,000 Irish answered the call to fight in World War One

IT was unprecedented and the greatest send-off ever. Many would never return home.

On August 6, 1914, 50,000 well-wishers gathered at the North Wall in Dublin Port to see off the first batch of Irishmen who enlisted for the Great War.

Even the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who days previously had killed four civilians when they fired on a crowd on Bachelor's Walk, were given a rousing cheer as they headed for the docks.

It was just two days after war had been declared and the deepening plans for a nationalist rebellion against Britain were forgotten as local people sang God Save the King, waved flags and sent each man to war with cakes, a packet of fruit and cigarettes.

While Ireland was approaching the 1916 Easter Rising, thousands of Irishmen had signed up for the war effort.

Members of the National Volunteers, who were preparing for an armed response against Britain, answered a pivotal call from Home Rule party leader John Redmond to join the British Army, as he stressed that this should take priority.

In the end, 210,000 would take part in the war and 49,400 of them would die over the next four years.

The Evening Herald of July 27, 1914 carried the banner headline "The Balkans Ablaze: War Begun".

A few days later the headline read "100,000 Germans Forcing Passage Through Belgium" with reports of Belgian towns in flames, two German cruisers captured and one sunk and hospital arrangements being made in the UK to receive the wounded.

The Irish responded by joining the British Army in ever larger numbers.

Some signed up in the sincere belief that the Germans should be stopped.

Adventure

Some wanted adventure, others Home Rule, but for many it was the only way to escape abject poverty at home and basic wages of a shilling a day.

The Dubliners who left squalid slums, deemed the worst in Europe, to take up paid employment as soldiers would shortly realise they had traded poverty for water-sodden trenches rife with fungal infection, gangrene and death.

Thousands of them spent their 
time hunched in trenches where they could not stand up straight, under 
constant shelling and many who survived were forever scarred by poison gas.

By the end of the first year, 
the numbers enlisting had already topped 80,000 and most of those were in their 20s and from the poorer classes.

The thousands also included doctors, priests and even pilots as this war became the first ever to use bombardment from the air.

More than 6,000 joined the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Services and some 500 Irish died in the flying services.

PRIESTS

Irish priests too made their mark, many of them dying as they tended 
to the wounded and 2,000 Irish 
women who became Voluntary 
Aid Detachments were sent to the frontline or to hospitals for wounded soldiers.

At home, the Irish War Hospital Supply Department had more than 6,000 women employed making dressings and medical appliances and 2,000 women worked in five national munitions factories in Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Galway.

While 3,224 Irish died in the five months of 1914, this rose to just under 10,000 the next year and a peak in 1916 of 13,523 Irish soldiers.

csheehy@herald.ie

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