THIS WAS THE week the Irish chose to kick off, big time – right in the middle of desperate danger for Britain in France and in the Middle East. Imagine the rage.
Then, perhaps, reflect upon the reality of foreign occupation, under-investment, religious sectarianism, official discrimination and rampant hunger. Imagine the rage.
The 1916 revolt was rich in greatness, high drama – and farce. The two nationalist militias, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Citizen Army, had planned for an insurrection to start on 23rd April, Easter Sunday, under the guise of military manoeuvres. Since the British government had permitted the Ulster Volunteers to undertake marches and drills, bearing arms, the authorities in Dublin had reluctantly conceded that the Irish Volunteers had to be permitted to do the same.
Arguably they were putting a gloss on their own impotence, since any attempt to disarm the Irish Volunteers might have precipitated violence. It was too late anyway: two British agents, “Chalk” and “Granite”, reported a rising was imminent. Early on Good Friday, 21st April, news came of the arrest of Sir Roger Casement, who had been landed from a German submarine, U-19, at Banna Strand in Tralee Bay.
It was a moment in which the textures of martyrdom and bathos became confused. Casement, his health impaired by years of service in the Tropics, had been too exhausted to proceed and had rested on the beach whilst his companions went to find transport. By the time they returned, he had been arrested. The ship carrying the arms, the Libau, was intercepted by Royal Navy warships and, on entering Cork Harbour, on 22nd April, was scuttled by her German captain and the cargo of arms and ammunition lost.
Now, if ever, was a time for cool heads to prevail. Britain’s Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wimborne (a cousin of Churchill), was morally and intellectually ill-equipped for anything more elevated than philandering. His bright idea was that “60 to 100” nationalist leaders in Dublin should be rounded up, on the basis that the Casement incident was tantamount to a German invasion. The final decision on that would rest with the Chief Secretary, Augustine Birrell, but he was in London.
Both loyalists and nationalists were now assailed by doubt. The Irish Independent on Easter Sunday published orders cancelling the “Easter manoeuvres” of the Irish Volunteers:
Owing to the very critical position, all orders given to Irish Volunteers for tomorrow, Easter Sunday, are hereby rescinded, and no parades, marches, or other movements will take place. Each individual Volunteer will obey this order strictly in every particular.
Freely translated, this meant that the rebellion was off. Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff, was convinced that without the German arms any rebellion was doomed. Wimborne and his key acolytes were now sanguine that the crisis had been averted and breathed a deep sigh of relief and on Bank Holiday Monday most of the British garrison went off to the races at Fairyhouse.
Other leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood dissented, determined that the rising must go ahead and ordered their proclamation to be printed at Liberty Hall with the rising merely postponed to Easter Monday. The cost of this confusion was all too visible insofar as only half the expected number of Volunteers materialised when they took to the streets in late morning on 24th April. Many civilians thought it was some kind of theatrical performance — but by noon rebels had taken over key buildings in the city including the General Post Office in Sackville Street. Two flags were hoisted, the Irish tricolour and another flag, green with the words, Irish Republic, in gold.
To the bewilderment of a small crowd, Padraig Pearse now appeared at noon and read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, with its seven signatures.
IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom… supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe… We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.
In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.
It was a poetic and emotive document, and it took the British by surprise. Barricades had been erected and arms collected from hiding places such as the Abbey Theatre before any military response arrived. The first fatality was at Dublin Castle, seat of the British government, where an unarmed policeman was shot. The rebels were, however, quickly driven off, apparently unaware that only a handful of soldiers was on guard.
Mounted Lancers were then sent to Sackville Street to investigate what was happening there, but came under fire from the GPO, and evidence of that exchange was seen in a horse’s cadaver which lay on the street for days. Rebel confidence slowly grew: brigades moved on to occupy St Stephen’s Green, the South Dublin Union, Boland’s Mill, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory and houses near Mount Street. By week’s end, the outcome of this eruption was entirely unpredictable.
At Kut-al-Amara, there were no real surprises. Inside the garrison, Major Dunn wrote that Good Friday was “a wonderfully quiet day – only seven rounds gunfire into the town and sniping hardly noticeable. A message today to say the relief is certain and everything goes well.”
Only those faced with annihilation were able to rescue much hope. Officers with the relief force were more realistic. Lieutenant Aston noted: “The Turks hold their line with a good many machine guns… We have superiority of guns and numbers and it’s just those infernal machine guns that make one man as good as a battalion on this level coverless country. If it weren’t for these… we’d be in Kut now!”
A relief force officer, Captain Dawson, blamed water rather than guns: “We got into the Turkish two front lines and then could not use our rifles as everything was under water,” he wrote on 23rd April. Two days earlier, he had expressed less than perfect confidence in the personnel: “Oh for the men we had at the beginning of the war. We should go through them like paper.”
Major Dunn bleakly recorded the bad news: “Relief force attacked the Sannaiyat position today and failed so we are put off again, unless something happens unexpectedly and soon our fate is sealed.” Lieutenant Bell Syer recorded in his diary for 22nd April:
We are down to starvation rations now, 4 oz. of meal and 9 oz. of horsemeat per man. The Arabs of the town are in an awful state and absolutely starving. We are supposed to be able to last out until the end of the month, but we shall be in a very rocky state by then.
The medical officer for the 6th Division, Colonel P. Hehir, was full of respect for the men:
There is a vast amount of suffering from hunger amongst the troops, which is being borne with admirable patience and fortitude and arouses enthusiastic praise at the pluck and grit displayed by both our British and Indian soldiers… the behaviour of the men in meeting these unfortunate conditions is heroic.
The commanding officer in Kut, Major General Sir Charles Townshend, reminded his men that their “duty stood out plain and simple; it was to stand here and hold up the Turkish advance on the Tigris… and I expressed the hope that you would make this defence to be remembered as a glorious one”. All very uplifting, but it read badly later – when the extent to which Townshend exempted himself from the privations he demanded of others became apparent.
Townshend also suggested that the Turks might be persuaded by a bribe to let the garrison go free, a ruse sanctioned by Kitchener and the Cabinet. A sum of one million pounds was mooted plus 40 artillery pieces, although it was never clear whether the money was intended for Turkish officers or their government.
Sir Percy Cox, the experienced Indian government’s political agent in Mesopotamia, was horrified, not least because he knew news of it would undoubtedly leak and undermine Britain’s standing in the region. Two officers, however, were delegated to take the money – Captain T.E. Lawrence, working with British Intelligence in Cairo, and Auberon Herbert, nephew of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon. It all came to nothing, however. The Turkish commander, Enver Pasha, claimed rather grandly that Turkey did not need the cash and that the siege had cost 10,000 men whose lives were worth more than money. A second offer of two million pounds was similarly rejected.
This attempt to buy a way out of trouble was evidence of desperation rather than of evil. It spoke of British manpower being stretched well beyond breaking point, which was true – not least because the Western Front absorbed so much of what there was.
All this while, Verdun continued to exert an awesome attrition and to admit of no clear outcome. On 19th April, the Germans captured two craters at St Eloi and positions north of Langemarck-Ypres, although the latter was retaken by the British a couple of days later. Next day, French troops regained ground near Mort Homme – appallingly well-named – and south of Douaumont. But nobody could know just yet which way this would end.
On Easter Sunday, Siegfried Sassoon observed the desolate landscape of the frontline:
Down in the craters the dead water took a dull gleam from the sky. I stared at the tangles of wire and leaning posts and there seemed no sort of comfort left in life… And here I was staring across at the enemy I’d never seen. Somewhere out of sight… a bird had begun to sing. Without knowing why, I remembered it was Easter Sunday. Standing in that dismal ditch, I could find no consolation that Christ was risen.
The drive for consolation had assumed more earthly proportions for those in government. The only possible way to address the desperate manpower shortage would be to extend conscription to married men, but this was politically explosive and the Cabinet was dangerously divided. Asquith admitted so much on 19th April to the House of Commons.
Rather than allow the enemy to enjoy the spectacle of British parliamentary disunity, it was agreed that the House should meet to debate the matter in Secret Session on 25th–26th April. Churchill immediately applied for leave to attend, which was granted on condition he returned to his battalion as soon as the debate was over.
Hankey, Cabinet Secretary, spent much of the Easter weekend preparing material for Asquith’s speech, and visited him at his country house, The Wharf, on Easter Monday:
There was a conclave to decide whether it would be best for him to spend the night at The Wharf or to motor to Town that night. Finally, it was left to me to decide — in fact the whole party treated me as though I were a “trainer” charged with the duty of bringing “the Bantam” into the ring in the pink of condition. I decided, knowing his habits, to go up that night, so he and I started at 10.30 pm to motor to Town. He was very chatty and jolly and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride… On arrival in Town we got the first news of the Dublin outbreak. Asquith merely said “well, that’s something” and went off to bed.
Asquith remains an enigma. His son Raymond had written a few days earlier to his wife Katharine:
What you tell me about the political situation is alarming. According to today’s papers it still hangs in the balance. I should be sorry if Lloyd George came in for the last 6 months of the War, and got all the credit of winning it, which he assuredly does not deserve. Whether or not I should be sorry if he made another bungle of it and Thomas [trade union leader] called out the railway men and the war was prolonged for another two years, I hardly know. The compulsionists may be right, but if there is a God he will certainly never forgive them for the bosh they have talked.
The letter breathes resentment of Lloyd George’s avuncular manners and easy popularity, both of which redounded to the disadvantage of his father. One senses a seasoning of class contempt lurks as well. More significant was the reluctance of Raymond Asquith, a seasoned and gallant infantry officer, to embrace universal conscription. Perhaps, as the scion of a great liberal dynasty, this is unsurprising. But, as son of the Prime Minister, he was uncommonly well-placed to have seen that times were desperate.
They were for the Germans, too, and for the same reason. The impact was being felt, traumatically, by the citizens of Lille. Pierre Baucher recalled of this time:
During the month of April, an official announcement informed us that in view of the population’s lack of eagerness in volunteering to work for the Germans, and because England’s attitude was making the supplying of food difficult, the city was to be evacuated. Actual evacuation operations would begin on Easter Sunday and would be completed by May 1st.
The Lillois were filled with apprehension and anxiety, as the evacuation was going to be effected according to districts, but without forewarning. For many days, people’s faces revealed their deep worries and despondency.
At 4.30 a.m. on April 24th, I was awakened by noises from the outside: the turn of my district had come. Armed soldiers were posted at the end of every street, and a sad-looking French policeman knocked at every door, telling people to get ready for the fateful visit. It seemed as though he was handing a death-sentence on every one of us. A young non-commissioned German officer, who spoke but little, had been assigned to the unpleasant task. He went about his business quietly, entering each house and, having been given the official list containing the names of its inhabitants, he designated, more or less haphazardly, those who were to go. The painful scene in a way was comparable to the slave market described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
People were given half an hour to get ready, under the watchful eyes of German sentries, and then were herded along like convicted criminals. At the end of my boulevard, a man and his son in his mid-teens were tearing themselves away from the crying mother. Elsewhere, a man walking with bent head and carrying a small suitcase, was accompanying the son who had been designated.
Here and there, some people succeeded in escaping exile by using supplications or ruses, or thanks to special protection granted for one reason or another. The German officer kept saying he had to fill his evacuation quota. The last ones he took were heart-broken. At last we saw the Germans leave with their victims. No one knew what use would be made of them, and what sort of ordeals were in store for them.
In fact, most would be deported to Germany to work as farm labourers, thereby releasing more men for the front. With destination and duration of absence unknown, deportation seemed like death.
There was a lot of that, obviously enough, and many different versions of grief. Vera Brittain had been struggling with her own following the death of her fiancé, Roland Leighton. She had felt confused, planning to leave her hospital work as a VAD one moment, signing up for overseas service at another. At last, on 18th April, she confided to her diary that she believed Roland wanted her to remain at the hospital:
After indescribable suffering, indecision, almost madness, at last, if not happy, I am at least quite at peace. And out of it all I have won that queer conviction, quite against my reason, that “the dead die not”.
Her late fiancé’s mother had already written a book commemorating her son. Many bereaved parents, usually the mothers, planned similar memorials, often to be privately printed and circulated to an intimate circle.
Lady Ettie Desborough, who had lost her sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell, within months of each other in 1915, was now composing the story of their lives, enriched with their letters and testimonials from friends. She was an exceptional supporter of the bereaved. One of her friends, Lady Kenmare, had written after the death of her son, Dermot Browne:
I think of his short life full of blessings, full of love & of joy & that was all God wanted him to know. But oh! Ettie what terrible pain—the crushing and breaking of our human hearts, and when I think of your two, it seems too much to bear.
Lady Desborough’s Christian faith helped greatly to sustain her, however, as well as the reflection that her boys also “always thought of death as a gateway, not a barrier, and the path to new life and work”.