Note: Waterford County Museum does not hold the records for any of the Irish Regiments that served in World War 1. Due to the pressures of time on our voluntary staff, the museum is not in a position to answer queries about specific soldiers. We have prepared a short guide to help genealogists find their military ancestors. The article is called Tracing Your Irish Military Ancestors.
If you do not have the time or expertise to research your military ancestors you should consider using a professional military researcher. Members of the museum have in the past used the services of Richard Moles and found him to be a most efficient and trustworthy researcher.
The Irish infantry regiments of the British Army whose territorial and recruiting affiliations lay in the new Irish Free State(above) were disbanded in 1922. These were The Royal Irish Regiment (formerly 18th Regiment of Foot); The Connaught Rangers (formerly 88th Regiment of Foot and 94th Regiment of Foot); The Prince of Wales's Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) (formerly 100th Regiment of Foot and 109th Regiment of Foot); The Royal Munster Fusiliers (formerly 101st Regiment of Foot and 104th Regiment of Foot); and The Royal Dublin Fusiliers (formerly 102nd Regiment of Foot and 103rd Regiment of Foot).
Irish Recruitment in WWI
In this section we will explore the background and motivations of many of the men from Ireland who fought in WW1. 350,000 Irishmen volunteered for service during WW1 in addition to the 50,000 Irishmen already serving in the regular army and reserve at the outbreak of the war. Most of the southern Irish Catholics served in the five regiments mentioned above that is why we have decided to focus on them. However it should be noted that many Irishmen served in British Regiments (including the Tyneside, Liverpool and London Irish Battalions). What drove such a large body of men to sign up and fight in the army of foreign country? There is no simple answer but a combination of unemployment, idealism and adventure probably accounted for most of the enlistment.
The British Army was traditionally seen as an area of potential employment for working class Irishmen. Many of the recruit's came from the urban poor, joining the army was seen as an opportunity to better oneself. The pay was good in comparison to what was available at home and an allowance was also paid to the spouse of the soldier while he was away on duty. This made the army financially attractive to the Irish poor. It is notable that despite many inducements (including setting up special battalions for clerks and office workers) recruitment proceeded at a much slower pace among the Irish middle classes.
Many of the early recruits were also members of the Irish Volunteers (180,000 strong at the outbreak of war), a military force whose aim was to obtain Home Rule for Ireland. Home Rule meant that Ireland would have an Irish Parliament for domestic affairs while the British Parliament would retain control over the armed forces, taxation and foreign policy of Ireland. The Irish Volunteers political leader was John Redmond MP for Wexford. On the 25th of May 1914 the British Parliament had passed the Irish Home Rule Bill but the commencement of the war prevented it being implemented immediately. Asquith (the British Prime Minister at the time) promised that it would be implemented after one year or at the end of the war whichever was longest. Redmond did not want to turn British opinion against Irish Home Rule by declining to side with Britain in the war against Germany. Redmond felt that it was the politically correct move to encourage the Irish Volunteers to join up, thus would Britain be assured of Irelands loyalty to it. This, it was felt, would assure the smooth introduction of Home Rule after the war. Most of the Irish National Party leadership agreed with this assessment of affairs. The only nationalist political group who opposed this stance was the minority Sinn Fein party who felt that Ireland should be completely independent from Britain.
Most Irish recruitment to the British Army took place prior to 1916. Recruitment had slowed prior to the Easter Rising in Dublin, as many finally realised there was no probability of the war finishing quickly as had initially seemed likely in early 1914. The introduction of the Ulster Unionist Carson into the British Cabinet also made nationalist's wary. The impending prospect of conscription (all Irishmen who fought were volunteers) into the army, as the need for manpower grew, turned many moderate Irishmen against the war.
The execution of the leaders of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising proved to be the final straw that changed most Irish people's view of Britain. While the rebellion itself was initially unpopular, (many of the rebels being jeered by ordinary Dubliners for destroying the city) it was felt that the executions of the leaders which followed were acts of needless savagery by the British Government. Especially Connolly's who was shot by firing squad sitting down because of a wound suffered in the fighting. While Irish recruitment continued after the rising it was at a trickle. The executions had radicalised the Irish population; Home Rule was no longer enough most Irish Nationalist's now wanted complete independence. Redmond's Nationalist Party was overtaken by the more radical Sinn Fein party, and became a spent political force. The Easter Rising and the War of independence which followed pushed the story of the Irish who fought in WW1 into the background. Most Irishmen came back from the war disillusioned and wondering what they had been fighting for. Circumstances at home dictated they could take no pride in the role they played in WW1 fighting in the British Army. Indeed in the following War of Independence 1919-1921 some of the most effective IRA fighters were ex-British servicemen (most notably Tom Barry leader of a "flying column" in Cork.
Most of this essay was compiled from information and statistics in a book by Terence Denman called "Ireland's Unknown Soldiers" Irish Academic Press 1992. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in reading more on this subject.
The Round Tower Memorial at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines.
Memorial Plaque at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines.
The above photos are courtesy of H.V. Howard.
If you have found this article of interest you may also be interested in the stories of Sgt. Michael Healy and Private Maurice Duggan.