1916: A wider Context

As the Irish Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and ICA members gathered around Dublin City, and further afield, on Easter Monday, 700km away on the sodden fields of Flanders, their fellow countrymen stood and equally fought for their own lives. While the Sherwood Foresters were being shipped into Dublin later in that Easter week, their brothers in arms were doing battle on five continents. The death and destruction of that week of fighting in Dublin was replicated on numerous European battlefields, as the continent experienced total war. This context of global war, a ‘Great War’, can often be forgotten when discussing the history of 1916. The diary of J.C. Strange, an English housewife, allows us to view the wider context of 1916, as her notes place the daily developments from Dublin alongside events in England and Europe.

The Easter Rising stands out in world history of the First World War, as it was the only insurgency to take place on what was home territory for the British. As the British had full legal and political control over Ireland at this time, a rebellion in Dublin was seen as no different from a rebellion in Leeds. This has a number of important implications; firstly the soldiers who were stationed in Ireland and those of the Sherwood Foresters who were brought over to suppress the rebellion were not deemed to have been fighting in the Great War and were therefore not entitled to the provisions given to the men fighting in France. This meant that those who had fallen in combat in Ireland were not entitled to be buried in military cemeteries, nor were they listed as war dead. Secondly it allowed the authorities to treat the rebels as terrorists and criminals rather than as soldiers of war. This was why the execution of the leaders of 1916 was allowed to go ahead until public opinion brought a halt to it, as this would have been banned under the accepted rules of war. 

 

 

 Michael O'Leary was one of hundreds of thousands who fought in WWI.

Michael O'Leary was one of hundreds of thousands who fought in WWI.

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Despite attempts by both British and Irish sides to ignore the Rising’s link to the First World War, the connection is there. The soldiers of the Irish Volunteers who fought in Dublin had fellow comrades fighting in France. These Volunteers fought in France in the name of Ireland, following John Redmond and the IV’s call to arms in 1914, in the ‘defence of small nations’. On the more republican side, Roger Casement, one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers, had been in Germany since 1914 attempting to raise funds and an army of Irish POWs in German Prison Camps to return to Ireland with. While Casement was unsuccessful at finding Irish soldiers to turn their backs on their fellow POWs and leave to fight in Ireland, he did secure a shipment of rifles in time for the Rebellion in April 1916. However, this consignment of 20,000 rifles and 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition was much smaller than what Casement had originally sought. The Germans had also refused to send any of their own troops to support the rebellion attempt. The Aud (the ship used to transport the weapons) was scuttled off the coast of Kerry in an attempt to stop the British obtaining the cargo on board. For the IRB, involving the Germans was as simple as “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, however for many Irish, who had relatives fighting with the British Army, this link amounted to treason. 

 By 1917, most of the world's countries were playing a role in the war.

By 1917, most of the world's countries were playing a role in the war.

A Daily Record

Joan C. Strange’s diary offers another level of depth to this wider context, placing the events of the Rising in the same timeline as that of global events of WWI. Strange was a British housewife who wrote an incredibly interesting diary, from her house in England, which focussed mostly on the reports of the war. She was never in active combat nor a warzone, however her daily notes would not be out of place in a general’s briefing. Strange’s notes provide an insight into what information the British and Irish public was getting about the war at this time, and sets the Rising into the timeline of the events of the Great War. 

The Diary - 

Below are the relevant extracts about the Rising, taken from J.C. Strange's diary. The brevity of the references to the Rising strike home as to how small it was within the context of a global war. England was in the midst of dealing with Zeppelin raids on the south coast, while the war raged in Europe and East Africa. 

Air raids, carried out by the modern invention of the Zeppelin airships, clearly played havoc on the national morale and preoccupied a lot of Strange's diary entries. However, mentions of Dublin and the Rising are peppered throughout. In the following days, beginning with Saturday April 29,  further information began to filter through to the British public. 

Conscription was only being introduced across the United Kingdom in 1916, it passed just days after the Rising, on May 4th 1916. The case of Roger Casement must have been fascinating and shocking in many ways to the public. A well known former public official, the fact that he had traveled to Germany to raise an army against what most saw as his own country, justified the harsh sentence for treason for most of the British public. 

The notes of executions occur almost daily in the diary, with a special note reserved for Countess Markievicz's sentence, commuted to life on the grounds that she was a woman. The executions continued until May 12, the day after Prime Minister Asquith arrived in Dublin to debrief with General Maxwell. 

Strange's notes on the '500 yards of British trenches lost, & partly retaken', only reminds one of the massive loses of life that was taking place across Europe at the same time. While this diary may not reveal anything new for the informed reader, the simple fact that details of the Rising are listed side by side with those of the wider war, serves to remind us that the Irish rebels were not acting in a vacuum. Rather the opportunistic nature of the rebellion becomes clearer, they used the British preoccupation with the war in Europe to their advantage. This choice earned the rebels few supporters in Britain, who saw it as a stab in the back, and was also why the British treated the Rising with such harsh repression. This repression was soon to worsen the British position in Ireland, as sympathy grew for the captured rebels over the coming weeks. Even in England, the sentence of Markievicz to life in prison was greeted with some shock. But for the majority of the public, the erroneously titled 'Sinn Fein Rebellion', remained a side note as attention remained firmly looking east. 

- Written by Daire Collins