British Army First World War recruitment in Ireland

Published in Decade of Centenaries, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2014), Volume 22

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About 150,000 Irishmen volunteered for the British Army during the First World War, in addition to the c. 50,000 Irishmen already serving at the outbreak. Joining the army was seen as an opportunity to better oneself, and the military provided a source of income for many of Ireland’s unskilled workers. Only those who came from the unionist and some from the Catholic middle classes, inspired by John Redmond’s call to fight for small nations abroad, volunteered for ideological rather than financial reasons.

Recruiting in Ireland was not an easy task despite the profusion of military forces. In 1914 there were three paramilitary forces to which the British could look for recruits: the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), primarily under the influence of Edward Carson; the Irish Volunteers, ostensibly under the influence of John Redmond; and the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), completely under the influence of James Connolly. The ICA was not seriously considered, since it was not regarded as a real army and there was an obvious animus on the part of Connolly. Nevertheless, many financially hard-pressed Citizen Army members did join up, especially those blacklisted during the 1913 Lockout.

In the spring of 1914 Ireland stood on the brink of a civil war and political tensions were running high even before the third Home Rule bill was passed on 25 May. From the beginning of martial posturing in Europe, the British had placed their bets on the loyal, better-trained and well-equipped UVF. Many of its members, however, feared what would happen in Ireland when the Home Rule bill was enacted and were reluctant to join the British Army. Besides, the threat to put the British Army into service against the UVF to enforce Home Rule was not helping recruitment in the summer of 1914.

Irish involvement in the war was then of utmost importance to Carson and Redmond. On 1 August Carson pledged the UVF to serve in the British Army for home defence and, if necessary, for foreign service. In response, on 3 August Redmond declared that the Volunteers would take on the defence of Ireland, allowing the British government to withdraw all their troops on the island, and for this purpose the ‘armed Catholics of the south would only be too glad to join with the armed Protestant Ulstermen’.

On 7 August, Carson and Redmond met British secretary of war Lord Kitchener separately and both requested that their units be incorporated into the British Army as distinct divisions. Kitchener refused on both accounts, despite Prime Minister Asquith’s support for such a plan. Within weeks, however, the UVF was taken into the British Army as the 36th Division, with unionist leaders as officers, and granted permission to recall any UVF men serving in other divisions. Redmond requested equal accommodation, but Kitchener refused again; the creation of the 36th as politically separate encouraged unionists to join up but had a negative effect on recruitment of nationalists and Catholics.

Recruitment had slowed prior to the Easter Rising in Dublin, and while it continued after the Rising it was only a trickle. The Rising and the War of Independence that followed pushed the story of the Irish who fought in the First World War into the background.

Joseph E.A. Connell Jr is author of Dublin in rebellion: a directory, 1913–1923 (Lilliput Press, 2006).

Further reading

P. Callan, ‘Recruiting for the British Army in Ireland during the First World War’, The Irish Sword 17 (66) (1987), 42–56.
J. Horne (ed.), Our war: Ireland and the Great War (Dublin, 2008).

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