Ireland’s Great War

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Lilliput Press

ISBN 9781843516354

Reviewed by
Myles Dungan

Sometime back in the 1970s a seventeen-year-old UCD scholarship candidate faced the might of Prof. Kevin B. Nowlan and Prof. F.X. Martin in an oral examination. Early on in the inquisition he was asked by the affable Prof. Nowlan, ‘Can you name any Irishmen who fought in the First World War?’ The candidate, whose Leaving Certificate history teacher had been of the republican persuasion, racked his brains before finally blurting out, ‘Willie Redmond’. ‘Good’, responded the patently bored Prof. Martin, ‘can you name any more?’ The stricken candidate was affronted. There could not possibly have been TWO Irishmen who fought in the Great War. It was clearly a trick question. It wasn’t. ‘Have you never heard of Thomas Kettle?’ asked F.X. The candidate admitted that he had not. Needless to say, I didn’t get the scholarship.

Which is why the work of Kevin Myers in the Irish Times’s ‘Irishman’s Diary’ in the 1980s and ’90s was so important. But for his tenacity and occasional bloody-mindedness a wider public might not have become aware of the extent of Irish involvement in the Great War. Ireland, in particular official Ireland, had largely forgotten about one of the most significant passages in our recent history. Even worse, as Myers avers in his introduction to this volume, we had forgotten that we had forgotten. So Myers dutifully reminded us.

David Fitzpatrick, Terence Denman and Thomas Johnstone were covering similar ground at the time, but their work was only having an impact on a tiny academic community and would take years to bear fruit. Myers was reaching—and occasionally shaming—a much wider public. His influence on the greater acceptance and recognition of the Irish role in the Great War has been immense. All of which makes the publication of this volume by Lilliput Press very welcome indeed. Ireland’s Great War collects some of his old ‘Irishman’s Diary’ columns but consists, in the main, of previously unpublished material.

The Introduction focuses on, among other concerns, Irish fatality numbers. Myers is absolutely correct in his assertion that the figure of 49,400 Irish war dead, culled from the Irish National War Memorial Records (INWMR), is inaccurate. More than 11,000 of those names are of largely British-born soldiers who died in Irish regiments. When Irish-born soldiers who were omitted from the original INWMR (this includes many of the relatively small number buried in Ireland) and those who fought in armies other than that of Britain are included, Myers is on safe ground in suggesting that the actual figure for Irish fatalities is probably closer to 40,000.

In his chapter on the Gallipoli campaign Myers manages to debunk what he describes as a ‘myth’, which, he admits, he helped to propagate. The vivid and sanguinary contemporary accounts of the 29th Division landings at ‘V’ Beach on Cape Helles on 25 April 1915—involving the 1st Dublins and the 1st Munsters—have long been taken at face value. Myers points out that there were actually relatively few fatalities. Though demonstrably true, this does not tell the full story. At a roll call on 29 April 1915 more than 40% of the Munsters failed to respond. One of the survivors, Lt Guy Nightingale, later claimed in a letter home that the casualty figures had been massaged to make it appear as if they had occurred over a number of days when, in fact, most had taken place on 25 April. The comparable figure for the 1st Dublin Fusiliers was almost 66% casualties—but not necessarily fatalities—in the first few days of the campaign.

Some caveats—it is rather disconcerting to be informed in the opening paragraph of the introduction that the year 1979, when Myers first became engrossed in his subject, is ‘eighty years on from the Treaty of Versailles’, or that RTÉ made a flawed documentary programme on Francis Ledwidge in 1987 ‘on the sixtieth anniversary of his death’. The volume could also have done with more attention to proofreading. There are too many small typographical errors. Most are inconsequential, though cumulatively irritating. Some, however, are of greater significance. The RMS Leinster, for example, was sunk on 10 October 1918, not 19 October. The Irish Party MP Stephen Gwynn did not sport a final ‘e’ in his surname, nor did Victoria Cross-winner Midshipman George Leslie Drewry spell his as ‘Drury’. It was also surprising to read that Ernest Julian, Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College, Dublin, died at Kiretch Tepe Sert in mid-August 1915. Far from leaving his ‘bones on the unforgiving granite of the ridge’, he had died a week beforehand on board a hospital ship and had been buried at sea. Neither was Charles Frederick Ball, assistant keeper of the Botanic Gardens, a fatal victim of the infamous ridge. He survived until 13 September 1915.

Despite these quibbles, this is a highly informative and well-written work. Myers is a consummate storyteller with an eye for detail. Where it offers new and previously unpublished insights it is very welcome; where it reproduces material from past work, such as the pivotal ‘Irishman’s Diary’ columns, it is good to meet old friends once again. Ireland’s Great War deserves to be read by serious and even casual students of this country’s involvement in the poignantly and inaccurately named ‘war to end all wars’.

Myles Dungan is presenter of RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘The History Show’.


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