Conscription Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 38. Before we dive into the primary topic of this episode, which is Ireland and conscription, I just wanted to touch on two tpics. The first is how the early 20th century ideas about womenhood interacted with the push to introduce conscription in Western democracies, and the second being the intreactions between Native Americans and the American government during the war, specifically around conscription and volunteerism during the war. These are just two topics that I ended up running into while researching conscription and which I found interesting. So I am going to throw them here at the beginning of this episode. The main course of this episode will be around the British efforts to introduce conscription in Ireland late in the war. This was a controversial topic in the British government, and was certainly not looked upon favorably by Irish Nationalists. When it was approved by parliament in London it would have important ramifications and would play an important role in increasing the tensions within Ireland in the run up to the post-war Irish Civil War.

Of all of the villians portrayed by the conscriptionist movements the white, middle-aged mother was not one that I expected to find playing such an important role during the war. There was a particular concern among American conscriptionists, which in America would be called the selected service, that the prewar peace movement, which was led mostly be white feminists, would play a subversive role against the implementation of selective service. The conscriptionists would implement a different strategy when attacking these groups when compared to males. When attacking male anti-conscriptionists, or pacifists, the obvious attack vector was in attacking their bravery and patriotism, calling them cowards and comparing them to women. Of course, when it came to attacking women they could not compare them to women, and so they called out their excessive attachment to their sons, and dismissed their feelings as sentimental nonsense. In 1915 a top ten song in the United States was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” and this became both an anthem for anti-war mothers and also the centrepiece for criticism from conscriptionists. For Americans the war would be over before this conflict of viewpoints was fully resolve,d but it would return in the next war.

Another group that had a more complex interaction with conscription than was normal was Native Americans. While American conscription efforts were resisted by white peace activists, it would also be resisted by Native Americans. When America entered the war many Native Americans would volunteer for the military, and then when conscription was introduced many would accept it. Much like any other group of Americans there would also be those that would resist its implementation. Many groups would see conscription as yet another example of the government weakening the autonomy of Native American groups that had been guaranteed in previous agreements between the federal government and the tribs. In some isntances this resistance was through official channels, like that of the Iroquois Council, but in others it would result in violent confrontations between Native Americans and the authorities. This would hinder relations between the Native American groups and the Federal government during the war, and would again be a disagreement that would not be fully resolved during the war.

We now shift our focus over to Ireland. During the 19th century Ireland had been a very important recruiting ground for the British army. This influence slowly declined in the last few decades of the century due to demographic changes, especially around the rural depopulation of Ireland, but in the early decades of the 19th century almost half of all of the NCOs in the British army came from Ireland. One of the interesting little conflicts within the army int he late 19th century was actually concerns about the declining percentage of Scottish volunteers that were placed in Scottish units, with this decline being partially compensated for by bringing in Irish volunteers. This tend caused concern among the Scottish regiment that they were losing their Scottish identity. That little anecdote doesn’t really play a role in our story today, I just thought it was interesting. Anyway, the role of military volunteerism in Irish society would be in conflict with the growing Irish nationalism in the decades before the war. It would then play an important role in the Home Rule debate that would dominate Irish politics in the years immediately before 1914. When the war started the Irish Party leader in the British parliament, Redmond, would pledge Irish support for the war. This was generally well received by all but the most artdent Irish nationalists and in the early months of the war there would be a huge response to British calls for volunteers. Throughout August and September thousands of Irishmen would volunteer for service, with both Northern and Southern, and therefore both unionists and nationalists well represented. In Glasgow newspapers, on the heels of the Home Rule bill which would have created a level of Irish autonomy, would publish glowing calls for Irish volunteers, saying that men should come to the colors “to defend the Empire to which for the first time Ireland has been admitted on terms of dignity, equality and mutual consent. The Irish nation having at length secured the national liberty for which it has struggled for so long…enters simultaneously on a partnership in the Empire with the sister kingdoms and other dominions of the realm overseas. Ireland longer need look on the Union Jack as the ensign of their country’s enslaver. Ireland stand’s side by side with her sister countries as enemies of the German despot…The real line of defence for Irish freedom is the line of allied armies holding back the Germans from Belgium and France.” The rush of volunteers would continue, but much like in other areas of Britain by mid-1915, with the war looking to continue far into the future, volunteer numbers dropped drastically. In Ireland this realization was particularly important because the agreement had been that Home Rule would not be enacted until the war was over, which in August 1914 had not seemed so bad, but now it became clear that the end may be far in the future.

At the same time that Irish support for the war was in question discussions were happening in London on the topic of conscription. These discussions began with the idea that conscription would be extended to all British territories, including Ireland. However, Ireland would eventually be removed from what would become the first Military Service Bill, but it was clear even at this early stage that Irish conscription was a divisive issue among both the Irish and British politicians. Among British conservatives, led by Bonar Law, and among British newspapers that favored conscription there were acusations that excluding Irealand from conscription amounted to punishing the rest of the country. It was a form of favoritism when the country needed to be united in its sacrifice. On the other side of the argument there were concerns about the amount of resistance that would be encountered when trying to extend conscription into Ireland. Lord Wimborne, the leader of the government in Ireland, would write to Lloyd George in October 1916 on this topic, saying that “The fact is that it does not appear to be feasible to demand national service from any community without a general measure of consent, and of such general consent there is at present no evident.”

As with everything in Ireland at this point in history there were huge divisions within the Irish society between those in the norther around Ulster and those Irish in the south. Initially there was huge support for conscription among the northern Unionists. This was lead by their leader Carson, and they were convinced that conscription needed to be introduced in all of Ireland. They would use the argument that, as part of the United Kindom, the government actually had no right to exclude a particular area of that Kingdom from the obligation of conscription. This extreme support for conscription would drastically change in 1916 when discussions began in London about tying the Home Rule bill to conscription. The Home Rule bill had already been passed when the war began, but its implementation had been delayed until the war was over. With the possibility that it would be implemented sooner, the northern Unionists quickly soured on the entire idea. They had only went along with the Home Rule bill in the first place because of its delayed implementation and the hope that they would be able to alter it before it was put in place. With it being used as a way of gaining support for conscription among Irish nationalists the northern Unionists quickly began to resist conscription.

The idea of tying Home Rule to conscription would begin in December 1916 when Lloyd George became Prime Minister. Lloyd George was a conscriptionist, and the push for more conscripts would continue for the rest of the war, a push that we discussed last episode. With Ireland being seen as an untapped resource it was always a topic of discussion anytime conscription was expanded by Parliament. Lord Milner would do a good job of describing the pro-irish conscription viewpoint “The generals needed conscripts to maintain the strength of the divisions in France; these men could be found in Ireland; there would be blood shed in taking them but the firmness by the British government would have moral effect there; Ireland would be better for the ‘improvement of the men drilled’” From a political perspective the changes of getting Irish conscription implemented were slim, as the Labour representative on the War Cabinet would explain “Conscription for Ireland is, I think, impossible, unless you get the assent of the Irish party, which is not likely. If those oppose they are sure to carry Labour with them” It was estimated that there were 161,000 Irishmen who would be eligible for conscription that were not part of war production or agriculture. This number was important because it was quite large, and it was important for the government to have a good solid number because it was accepted right from the beginning that Irish conscription would require some number of troops as security forces to actually implement it. The question was whether it would require more security forces than conscripts that conscription would produce. Throughout 1917 the debate on conscription simmered but did not come to a boil, but with the German spring offensives in 1918, and the British army’s need for more men, Ireland would again find itself in the crosshairs.

Lloyd Goerge was a realist when it came to waht Irish conscription would mean, and he knew it might result in bloodshed. But he also asked the other ministers how conscription could possibly be extended to all other citizens from 18 to 45, and how the government could pull more men from essential war industries while Irishmen of all ages were still exempt. There were serious concerns among the British leaders that another expansion of conscription that still excluded Ireland might cause public opinion to firmly set itself against further conscription and the government. This would be the point that Home Rule would begin to be tied to the conscription expansion. It basically was added as bait, or I guess as a reward, for Irish support for conscription in the hope that it would placate the Irish political leaders. On April 9th it would be part of the new Military Service Bill which contained a clause that the government could extend conscription to Ireland by an Order of Council.

Over in Ireland Lord Wimborne, who would soon be relieved of his post as the top British leader in Ireland, would say that “I have…repeatedly warned you and your colleagues of the political, food supply, and economic consequences attendant upon an attempt to enforce conscription in Ireland.” Other British leaders agreed with him, even many who had supported Irish conscription in 1916 when the First Military Service Bill had been introduced. Their primary concern was that after the Easter Rising the support for Sinn Feign, who strongly opposed any British influence in Ireland, had massively increased. They brought with them not only an anti-British mindset, but also a resistance to that British influence with no problems with violent resistance. Some Irish leaders believed that if the British tried to implement conscription that it would be violently resisted in almost every single town and village.

With the shakey status of Home Rule the Nationalist Irish Party was totally against Irish conscription, but against their very vocal opposition the new Military Service Bill was put to a vote in parliament without Home Rule attached, when it was accepted with a vote of 301 to 103 the Irish Party walked out. This was a watershed moment in Irish politics. For decades the Irish party had worked with the British government in London to try and keep Irish leaders in a working relationship with the British. At this same time Sinn Fein had pursued a policy of not working with the British at all, with the conscription vote the British pushed the Irish Party, long the moderates, into the hands of Sinn Fein, the avowed extremists. This was in many ways the beginning of the end of the once dominant Irish Pary, which was soon replaced by the far less moderate Sinn Fein. With the Irish Party walk out it would jointly pledge with Sinn Fein that they were “Denying the right of the British Government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.”

The Catholic Church, more than any other official group within Ireland was responsible for uniting Irish opinion against conscription. In an official statement from the Catholic Bishops in Ireland they would state “To enforce conscription here without the consent of the people would be perfectly unwarrantable, and would soon and inevitably end in defeating its own purposes. It would be a fatal mistake, surpassing the worst blunders of the past four years.” At the same time the Nationalist newspapers would also trumpet a very anti-conscription message, with one say “that to try to enforce conscription would be an act of insanity, that it would kill every chance of a political settlement, and that it would create a new war front in Ireland.” One of the reason that the reaction to the introduction of conscription was so severe was that up until early 1918 there had been a widely held opinion that the British would never try to implement conscription in Ireland. Most of this belief was due to the fact that it would be unwise to even attempt it, since it was against the wishes of the Irish Pary and would so clearly move Irish opinion further from that of the British, and yet it had been done, and indeed Irish opinion moved closer to that of Sinn Fein.

With conscription in Ireland in place opposition began, initially it was quite disorganized. it did not take long for this to change. Soon people were attending public meetings, and while they were not at this point organized by a central authority they began to coalesce around some local organizations. In newspapers all over the country ads began to appear that promoted local meetings. These ads would use inflammatory language, with one ad in the Nenah Guardian titled “Declaration of War.” They generally announced a central place of protest, generally at the local center of government, that same Nenah Guardian ad would describe the planned protest as a “protest against the compulsory conscription of Ireland’s manhood by an Alien Government, and to pledge ourselves to resist it by the most effective means at our disposal.” As the protests grew in size the government began their response, on May 16th a large number of Sinn Fein leaders were arrested, with 73 immediately sent to England. The hope with this move was that Sinn Fein would lose its cohesion, with most of its leaders off in English jails, but this would not be the outcome.

With so much protesting happening in Ireland, back in London the tone of the discussions changed. There were no longer discussions about Home Rule or other ways of sweetening the deal, instead the topic of Irish conscription moved onto one of the authority of parliament. This meant that more troops were sent to Ireland to make sure conscription was carried out. This also meant that the equation of how many troops the army expected to gain from Irish conscription versus how many it took the keep the peace changed. By June there would be over 100,000 British troops in Irealnd, and up to that point there had been almost no successful conscriptions. That old 160,000 number that had been used in the push for conscription would never materialize, mostly because the Irishmen refused to even register with the government, let alone show up when conscripted.

The problem of Irish conscription would never be solved during the war, instead the war would end and that would remove the problem. However, the long lasting consequences of the attempts of the British to put conscription into place would not go away. The Irish Party found itself without a base of support, and with it went the most moderate voice of the Irish nationalists, Ireland was not well on its way to Civil War.