83: Easter Rising Pt. 3


The Rising, that so quickly came to be, will now quickly come to an end.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 83. Before we get started this week I would like to thank Brian, Thomas, Matthew and Joe for supporting the podcast on Patreon. You can also support the show at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to get access to special Patreon only episodes. Last episode we discussed the planning and then the start of the Rising in Dublin on Easter Week 1916. When the Rising started less than half of the men who had been planned for mobilized to participate and this caused the plan to, essentially, go out the window. This episode we will look at what happened once the initial shock of the Rising wore off. There will be a small amount of initial fighting that will happen before the situation settles down. Once it does the British strategy of surrounding and slowly closing in on the scattered rebel positions will begin in earnest. This will result in the Rising ending less than a week after it started. We will then continue by looking at what happened to all of the leaders and participants of the Rising after the surrender. At the end of the episode we will discuss just briefly the position of the Rising in Irish culture leading up to the very turbulent middle decades of the 20th century. There will also be a brief section on the response to the Rising by the Irish soldiers at the front. There were thousands of Irishmen, both Nationalist and Unionists, on the Western Front in early 1916, many preparing for the coming battle of the Somme. I find their reactions to the rising interesting, especially in terms of how homogenous they were between the two groups of soldiers, even though they had very different viewpoints. We begin our story where we left off last time, with the groups of rebels spread out around the city, but now the British were coming.

On the first and second day of the Rising there was not a ton of fighting. The British units in both Dublin and other areas of Ireland rapidly moved into the city but they chose not to fully engage the Rebels, but instead to garrison a number of buildings and protect them from also being taken. Many of these were strategically important like Dublin Castle, Trinity College, and the Shelbourne Hotel, but there were also areas like the army barracks, train depots, and port facilities that were not under immediate threat but would be required for the eventually British counterstroke. Throughout all of Tuesday reinforcements continued to pour in from all over Ireland with Curragh and Belfast being just two of the locations. These troops were also able to bring in 4 filed guns that were setup in at Trinity College. These guns, when fired apparently broke all of the glass in the area, which makes sense. Serious reinforcements began to arrive from England at mid-morning on Wednesday and this is when the heaviest fighting of the entire Rising would take place. The main skirmishing at this time was between the rebels around Mount Street and the British troops marching from the docks up Northumberland Road. There was heavy fighting at this point with the British suffering 200 casualties from the fire of only 17 rebels. This could have been much worse for the British if the rebel commanders would have had a better grasp on what was happening. Overall, the rebels had been given orders to hold their positions and surrounding areas and in this instance they followed this order almost too far. Instead of using their ability to move around in the early fighting to interdict British movements, they instead kept most of their strength in their garrisons which were mostly out of action. The skirmish on Northumberland Road is a perfect example of this. If the commander had reinforced those 17 men that were raining hell down on the British, who knows how long they would have been able to hold back the British troops. This refusal to reinforce when in good positions would seal the fate of many situations which could have worked out in the rebels favor. Another factor that comes into play, especially during the early fighting, was that the rebel commanders almost across the board gave the British WAY too much credit. They always believed that the British knew more than they did, had more men than they did, and were far superior in fighting skill and experience. This was generally not the case though, especially for the first half of the week. The British troops and officers that were being used at this point generally had even less experience that the Volunteers and members of the Irish Citizens Army that they were fighting, most had never fired a shot in anger. These were either garrison troops from around Ireland or green conscripts from Britain not fresh troops off of a tour of the Western Front. The commanders were just as inexperienced as the men, and their general tactic was to just keep throwing men at objectives until they were taken. This is what would happen in Northumberland Road and it would be why the British suffered so many casualties. Unfortunately for the Rebels, this was one of the few opportunities that they would have to really put the hammer down on the British and they squandered it. After this encounter the British would be able to enact their tactics for the rest of the week, cordoning the rebels into their groups and then slowly squeezing. From here on out, most of the fighting, what little there was, would be long range sniping duels instead of massed assaults. This resulted in a battlefield that was often pretty quiet, with the rebels told not to waste ammunition on speculative shooting and the British just wanting to keep the various groups of rebels in their buildings.

The rebels were ready to fight on Monday, and when that did not happen, when they did not experience instant and glorious death at the ends of British bayonets there were other problems that began to emerge. The first problem was food. As in any city, on any given day there was only so much food in the city center. When the Rising started all shipments of food into the city were halted by the British and the Rebels, and all of the civilians in the area, had to survive on what was present on Monday. This would be problematic at any city, but it was especially bad in the center of Dublin due to how poor the areas were at the rebels had occupied. The people in these areas were not exactly flush with money and therefore their food stocks were on average much lower than richer areas of the city would have been. Food was such an issue so quickly in the Rising that rebels would have to use their guns to repel a mob of people who were trying to get bread from a bakery that the rebels had occupied. Some of the rebels were fortunate to be based in bakeries or other buildings were more food was available, but even these cornucopias began to run low as the week wore on. One groups was even in a candy shop, and while I am sure it was great in the beginning sugar could only keep the men going so far. The problem with food shortages was also not limited to the area directly under or within the general perimeter of rebel control and would also affect the areas around it. In some areas bakeries gave out free bread to try and stave off the suffering. Fortunately for the people in trouble the British would come in an commandeer any food stores which they found to distribute to those in need, they would also ship in a lot of food to hand out. Food was not the only problems for the rebels and they also found themselves facing the same problems that men at the front did, trying to get some sleep. Exhaustion would play a big role in the final days of the fighting, and there was no situation in which the rebels could rotate men off the front line to get any rest. This problem was exacerbated when the artillery bombardments would start up on Wednesday and run for the rest of the week.

The shelling of the rebel positions came from 2 different sources, the first was the guns at Trinity college that I mentioned earlier and the other was a ship that was brought into the area, the Helga, which used its gun to add to the carnage. These guns would target various rebel positions around the city until Thursday, at which point they began to focus their fire on the GPO and the surrounding buildings. On Thursday night incendiary shells were dropped both on the GPO and on the rest of Sackville Street which resulted in a veritable firestorm. On soldier would record that when the fire hit an oil works “Suddenly some oil works near Abbey Street is singed by the conflagration and immediately a solid sheet of blinding, death-white flame rushes hundreds of feet into the air with a thunderous explosion that shakes the walls.” This attack was devastating to rebel morale, as with any artillery fire during the war, many rebels recorded feeling completely helpless at this stage of the fighting. They were trapped in their little zones with no possible recourse against the artillery shells that were falling around them. One of the more remarkable things that was happening at this point was that there were still some normal Dublin services like the fire brigades and ambulances that continued to run through most of the fighting. These groups were also assisted by normal civilians who put their lives on the line to try and help people. This included the park keeper at St. Stephen’s Green who benefitted from an agreed upon ceasefire in the area that allowed him to perform one of his duties, “The most unusual example of cooperation between both sides was the twice-daily ceasefire at St. Stephen’s Green that allowed the park-keeper to venture out to feed the ducks.” Early in the morning on Friday the British brought a new commander onto the scene in Dublin, and this man was Major General Sir John Maxwell. Maxwell had been in Egypt since 1914 and was made the military governor of Ireland when he arrived. This action essentially completely swept aside the normal civilian leadership. Maxwell thought that Lowe had actually doen a good job up to this point, and completely agreed with his tactical decisions. He did add two new items into the mix in Dublin though and the first was that there would only be unconditional surrender, he made it very clear to everyone, including eventually the rebels, that it would only be unconditional. The second decision that he made, as per his orders from London, was that anything up to and including the complete destruction of Dublin was considered acceptable as long as it resulted in the end of the Rising. This last bit was a problem for the rebels, who had counted on the British being at least a little hesitant to perpetuate wholesale destruction on the city. The belief that the British would be hesitant to do this was part of the reason that the city was chosen. With wholesale destruction of Dublin now on the table, and endless artillery hitting the rebel positions, the week rolled into Friday, which would mark the beginning of the end of the Rising.

For the rebels Thursday night and into Friday morning had been a very rough 12 hours, especially those in and around the GPO. Sackville street was still mostly on fire and the fire was rapidly approaching the GPO. On Friday morning a rebel into the command center would record that “The flames from the Imperial Hotel and from Hotye’s drug and oil stores at the corder of Sackville Place were so fierce that they almost touched the walls of the GPO, and we could feel the heat of them.” On Friday at around noon the GPO would come under heavy fire once again, and this time it would catch fire very quickly. There was a valiant attempt to contain the flames but in the end it proved impossible. After it was clear that the fire was spreading, without any chance of quelling the flames Pearse would stand on a table to make his address to all those who were present to announce that they were abandoning the building. As part of this speech he would say “the gallantry of the soldiers of Irish freedom who have during the past 4 days been writing with fire the most glorious chapter in the later history of Ireland.” There was first an attempt to move out onto Moore Street, but when 40 men were sent to clear the way, they rapidly came under fire and had to retreat. The next attempt was made to go out of the building through the Henry Street entrance. This would end up being successful and the evacuation would begin at 8PM. It is difficult to determine if the evacuation of the building was an orderly event or if it was a mad dash for the rebels involved. Regardless, the rebels found themselves in a small and narrow lane which was covered by British soldiers who instantly began to lay down fire. The rebels were forced to take the first shelter that they could find, which ended up being the tenement houses on Moore street. Once inside they began the process of burrowing through the walls to continue on their path to, what they hoped, was safety. Around this time discipline in the headquarters company began to deteriorate, some men just sort of melted away into the civilians and others just stopped participating. One rebel would say that at this point “There was no cohesion. Nobody seemed to be in charge once we left the Post Office; it was every man for himself.” As the rebels entered the tenement houses they came face to face with the suffering that they were putting the people of Dublin through, for the most part the rebels had been segregated from the general population. Now they could see that nobody had any food and that there were large numbers of wounded. The artillery fire had been indiscriminate in its destruction and the citizens of Ireland had been paying for it. Seeing what was happening around them did nothing to help the morale of the tired and hungry rebels.

One thing that we have not discussed so far has been how the Rising went in other parts of Ireland. Generally, the entire focus has been both in these episodes and in history at large is on the actions in Dublin and little is said about the Rising elsewhere. In the rest of the country there were a decently large numbers of volunteers who mobilized on Easter Sunday and Monday. Throughout the next week some of these units would just wander around the countryside without accomplishing very much. Here and there they would skirmish with local authorities, maybe even some British troops in the area, but there was no real effort to coordinate the various groups. The fact was that they were not prepared and not ordered to do anything and this just left each unit to answer for themselves what they should be doing. Should they endeavor to march into Dublin? It was a possibility for some of the closer surrounding areas. Should they just find a way to attack local governmental buildings in their area and spread chaos? Probably some sort of value in this, I guess. Or should they just hang out and wait for orders? That was the easiest. The problem was that nobody knew the correct answers to any of these questions. It was a shame really for the Rising as a whole that they were not able to better leverage the rural units of volunteers. The secrecy of the Military Council, rarely willing to bring an outsider into their confidence was one thing that can be blamed. But of course any impact that the Rising could have had was dulled by MacNeill’s order that caused, if anything, more confusion in the countryside than in Dublin itself where Pearse and the other leaders held much more sway with the local unit commanders.

The most dramatic of the surrenders in the city was undoubtedly that of the Headquarters Battalion, so that is the one that we will focus our story on. Friday was a day of various speeches and orders given by leaders of the rising from their area on Moore Street. These were designed to try and keep morale up with the men in a very challenging situation. Here is a piece of one given by Connolly “Courage boys, we are winning. For the first time in 700 years the flag of a free Ireland floats triumphantly in Dublin city.” And here is another from Pearse “We are completing arrangements for the final defence of Headquarters, and are determined to hold it while the buildings last. If we accomplish no more than we have accomplished, I am satisfied that we have saved Ireland’s honour.” No matter how positive or defiant these speeches were they could not completely ignore the current situation and by Saturday that situation was bleak. Captain Brennan-Whitmore, present for all of the speeches and until the surrender would say that “we were simply in a ring of steel from which three were only two avenues of escape, death or surrender” while another rebel would describe how some men dealt with the current, very stressful, situation “Most of the men by this time were utterly tired, exhausted and apparently despondent. A large number in the more or less darkened rooms were saying their rosaries.” Among the leadership serious discussion were now circulating about what should be done, they could not just sit in their current location without food or supplies. There was some discussion about escaping outside the city to join up with the Volunteer units from the countryside, but while a great idea, ignored the difficulty of getting there. Some of the men wanted to do a bayonet charge to go out in a blaze of glory, but the situation on the street was at a point where they probably would not have been able to get more than a few steps. Eventually even the leadership was forced into the realization that surrender was the only option. At 12:45PM on Saturday Elizabeth O’Farrell approached the British under a white flag. O’Farrell informed the local commander that the rebels wanted to surrender, and wished to discuss terms, to which of course the answer was that the only terms available were unconditional. After some back and forth to try and improve the terms available, at 3:30PM Pearse and his men officially surrendered. After this decision was made he would write an order that would be given to other groups of rebels and part of this order would tell them “to lay down arms, to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers now surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered.” The usual reason given by the leadership for their surrender was to save the lives of the normal men under their command and to ease the suffering of the people of Dublin as mentioned above. It was widely believed that when it was all over, even though the leaders had hard punishments ahead of them, maybe even death, the rank and file rebel would face much lower sentences. Even with all of these reasons there were still some men who wanted to continue the fight, to carry on to the end even if it meant mutinying. It was Sean MacDermott, one of the original members of the Military Council that planned the Rising from the beginning that would bring everyone back on board the decision to surrender. While the exact text of his speech does not survive, one rebel that heard it would say that “He suggested that we take a long look at the dead civilians lying the street outside our windows. He asked us to imagine how many more of them would be lying there if we fought on.” While this got the more adventurous of the rebels back in order, there were some that were simply too exhausted to care either way. One of them was John MacGollogly who was actually asleep when all of the discussions about surrendering were happening, “When I awoke the Rising was over, and I hadn’t fired a shot.” After the order to surrender was given the rebels formed up into units and marched out of their positions carrying a white flag. The Irish Republic, declared in the proclamation at the GPO on Monday, was over just 6 days later. Over the course of the next 24 hours garrisons all around the city surrendered, it took some time to get the orders around and to get them to believe that Pearse would have ordered the surrender, but in the end most units came peacefully. Some groups were angry at having to surrender, like those to the north of the Four Courts where most of the actual fighting took place. Other groups were just confused because they had seen almost no fighting at all, and had no knowledge of what was happening elsewhere. Regardless of what they thought of the surrender eventually all of the garrisons would agree to it, and they took it as a point of pride that they maintained military discipline throughout the process, with almost all units sticking together and marching to surrender in orderly units. Fearghal McGarry would say in his history that “For the military council, one of the objectives of the Rising had been to restore dignity to the separatist movement and the nation by making a courageous and disciplined stand in the face of impossible odds. In terms of its impact on public opinion, the rebels’ manly acceptance of defeat and punishment, carefully choreographed by their leaders, exerted a greater emotional charge than the six days of scrappy fighting that preceded it”

The overall numbers of wounded and killed furing the Rising, on all sides, seems tiny compared to the other events that were occurring in 1916. The British suffered 600 casualties, with 143 killed, while the rebels suffered just 66 killed and an unknown number wounded. The tragic part of the death toll comes when we start looking at civilians. During the week there were 260 civilians killed, more than both sides combined, and over 2,200 civilians wounded, making them the vast majority of the casualties. In total a little under 3,500 men and women would surrender to British authorities. With the Rising over the biggest problem for the British was where to put all of these prisoners. Eventually they would all just be crammed in anywhere they would fit, and generally accomodations were not exactly rated five stars. Just to close out the story of the role of women in the Rising, many of them had to insist on their combatant status, since most of the British officers believed that they must have been abducted by the rebels and forced into the fighting. In fact, only 5 women would eventually be sent to Britain with the other prisoners, while the rest were released on the grounds that they had been misled into joining the rebellion. General Maxwell would be quoted as saying that he was happy to get rid of “all those silly girls.” Most of the prisoners, both male and female, would be quickly released with 1,000 leaving custody over the next two weeks. The reason that so many were released so quickly was that the British had the problem of trying to prove which rebels had actively participated in the fighting, this was essentially impossible in most cases. Unless it could be proven that they themselves fired shots against British troops there really was nothing to convict them of. That 1,000 number also includes a good number of civilians that had gotten swept up in the sweeps of Dublin to try and round up all of the rebels. There were some 2,500 prisoners left that were sent to Britain. While for the most part the prisoners were treated well, for the leaders of the Rising it was a different story. Between May 3 and May 12 14 of the most prominent rebel leaders were executed. The trials were held in secret to try and limit the ability of the rebels to spread their message, but while they waited they were able to write a veritable stream of letters and statements to the outside world. Pearse would write at this time that “You cannot strike us down now, we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot reconquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed.” The first 3 to be executed were Pearse, Tom Clarke, and Thomas MacDonagh, who were all three executed on May 3rd. Executions would continue at the pace of a few a day until the 9th. Are very few accounts of the actual executions, they were kept secret for obvious reasons. There When the news got back to London about the executions there was serious concern that such harsh treatment would have devastating effects on trying to reconcile with the Irish nation. Asquith himself would arrive in Dublin on May the 12th to make sure that no more executions were carried out. Unfortunately, in the hearts and minds of many in Ireland, the damage had already been done. The executions, and their secrecy, played a huge role in transforming the Rising, and the men who took part in it, into something that the majority of Ireland identified with and they became sympathetic to the men involved, something that was not necessarily true during the Rising itself. Another bit of news that did the British no favors in Ireland were all of the rumors circulating about atrocities committed against civilians by the British troops during the fighting. The most serious of these was the killing of 15 men on North King Street, all of which weere believed to be rebels without any real evidence. The men who participated in these killings were not punished, first of all because there was no record of exactly who had participated, but also because General Maxwell believed that it had been simply too hard to distinguish rebels from civilians. He would say “These rebels wore no uniform and the man who was shooting at a soldier one minute, might, for all he knew, be walking quietly beside him in the street at another…Nearly everything had to be left to the troops on the spot.” The deaths of the civilians were tragic, both from specific incidents and the shelling of various areas inside Dublin. However, some blame must be placed on the Rebels themselves, they knew the danger that they were putting the citizens of Dublin in and they chose that it was worth the risk and therefore, while the killing of innocent civilians is always a tragedy, the blame cannot be placed strictly on the British soldiers.

One of the facets of the rising that I found it difficult to find much information about, but which interested me greatly about the Rising and its larger role in the war was how it was received by the thousands of Irishmen at the front in spring 1916. After spending a lot of time poking around the internet trying to find a few good sources on it I ended up picking up the book Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience by Hugh Cecil. It is just a collection of essays, but it included one by Jane Leonard entitled The Reaction of Irish Officers in the British Army to the Easter Rising of 1916. This information is taken from that source. There were, of course, very different feelings between the Unionists and the Nationalists in their respective divisions. Among the officers Unionism was more prevalent, and for this reason the reaction among this group was not that dissimilar to the reactions of normal British officers. The nationalists on the other hand present a much more interesting reaction once they received the information of what had happened in Dublin. It took several weeks for any information about the Rising to get to the men in the trenches, and it was initially mistaken as a simple workers strike or some other small disturbance. As more information filtered out to the front the overwhelming feeling among the men of the Irish Division was a feeling of disappointment, bordering on betrayal. While the rebels were fighting for a cause that the nationalist soldiers believed in as well, they did not like that it was happening while a war was on. It did not help that some units received the news while they were in the trenches actively fighting and dying, in fact, some troops of the 16th Irish Division were coming off the line after being hit by a devastating gas attack, not the best time to get news that something crazy was happening back home. While the initial shock by the troops was powerful, it would also have effects on the soldiers that would survive the war and who would later return home. By the time many returned in 1918 or 1919 their country had drastically shifted its feelings towards Home Rule and Independence. Having spent time fighting with and for enemies of the Rising, many Irishmen did not know what kind of reception they would receive when they returned home. Eugene Sheehy would say “As the tide of Irish public opinion gradually changed and hostility to England grew we did not quite know where we stood, or where our duty lay.”

I have mentioned a few times that the Rising would have lasting effects on Ireland, and this was true. After the Rising, and the British reaction to it, across the board in Irish society many people moved from the moderate positions to more radical beliefs on nationalism and its place in Irish society. This would also be the time that Sinn Fein, soon the standard bearer for the nationalist movement would grow in importance and power. From 1916 on out all of the various groups of Irish Radicals, from the War of Independence Volunteers, to the anti-treaty IRA, to the Provisional IRA of the troubles, would all claim to be carrying on the spirit and cause of the Rising and the men who had laid down their lives for Ireland. They used the declaration of Martial law during the Rising, and the suppression of the opposition after, as the reason for their continued anger and violence. Any politician who took part in the Rising itself would be sure to trumpet it loudly in the years after as a sure way to gain some support. It is likely that, had the Rising not happened, a much smoother and less violent course would have been found for Ireland in the decades after the war and the trend toward moderate mediation between Dublin and London would have continued. However, it of course did not play out that way. On the other side, and it is impossible to talk about 20th century Ireland without discussing both parts, the Protestant Unionists would point to their contribution during the war as a reason that they should be allowed to stay in the United Kingdom. This feeling, and the continued popularity of Unionism in Britain, would create the situation of the two Irelands that survives to this day. I have even seen the feelings in Ulster compared to those in Australia and New Zealand after the war, drawing on their experiences in the war to come together as a country, or as a unit of a country that wanted to stay as part of it. Regardless of what would or would not have happened had the Rising not occurred, it is but one bump on the long story of Irish History, and I encourage everyone to go out a do some research on the country and its history, it is just as fascinating as any other. I hope you also join me next episode as we begin to discuss what might just be the second most impactful offensive of 1916, after Verdun, and no I am not talking about the Somme but instead the offensive in the East as the Russians once again find a way to attack under the command of General Brusilov.