World War I veterans who helped lead the struggle for Irish independence
I was demobilized from Cologne in January 1919. After all, I had been involved in this European air combat for over four years (I enlisted in September 1914), so it was time to pack my bags, to go home. home and ask me what it was. even if you can never really find out. […] I returned from the Rhine in January 1919, cursed as I thought of this soldier’s affair, and practically pacifist. […] However a few weeks later I was in the volunteers (7th Battalion Tipperary No 1 Brigade, 3rd Southern Division) for the outreach part, although it may seem paradoxical to say it, I was hardly disconnected even when armed. I was like that. (An anonymous soldier)
During the War of Independence, hundreds of veterans of the Great War volunteered their service in the Irish Republican Army and quickly obtained training and command positions in the Republican battalions. The veterans spied for the IRA, cracked intelligence codes, and even approached military forces under the guise of a friendly old comradeship to gather information.
The veterans were given the delicate task of ambushing British trucks, shooting drivers and soldiers. The diversity of the missions carried out by these veterans invites historians to rethink the contribution of career soldiers in the composition of the Irish Republican Army. A thorough investigation of witness statements (Bureau of Military History, Military Archives of Ireland), police reports (Colonial Office, The National Archives London) and personal correspondence (University College Dublin Archives) all underscore the need to recognize that the IRA benefited from the combat techniques of professional veterans during the War of Independence.
At night, far from public attention, in remote places, young Republican recruits trained under the surveillance of these shadows in the trenches. This is the reason why, while military studies have focused exclusively on guerrilla methods of explaining the heavy losses among Crown forces, the involvement of British veterans should not be underestimated.
What the IRA would have achieved without the contribution of these veterans of the Great War is difficult to comprehend, if not historically irrelevant. However, while unqualified militarily young people could cut down a tree for roadblocks, threaten civilians, loot a house for weapons, or even shoot a rabbit or pheasant for the flying column pot, when an operation required tactical fire or when a unit was ambushed by the British armed forces, veterans of the Great War were called upon. The IRA could not engage so effectively with the superior resources and skills of the British Army without resorting to these “bangs”.
The IRA Headquarters viewed Great War veterans for what they could offer: additional military effectiveness in times of war. The British authorities too. When the resignations of the RIC and the assassinations of soldiers and police increase, the British government relies on veterans of the Great War, men already trained, who can be quickly transferred to Ireland and can intervene without undergoing training. The training of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans testified to the British urgency to raise a force of professional soldiers in order to quickly crush the IRA.
In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Dáil Éireann hoped to weaken the anti-treaty forces and therefore made sure to offer former Republican militants strategic positions in the military. Thousands of former British officers and men transferred their loyalty to the Free State Army. Most of the commanders and generals of the national army had fought for the British in World War I and then in the IRA during the War of Independence. Veterans of the Great War offered their military skills, expertise and professionalism to what was an army in its infancy.
I noticed that additional military experience with the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War increased their chances of receiving important responsibilities in command positions. The criterion here was that of symbolic legitimacy and prestige. The transfer of powers from the British forces to the Free State Army resulted in a redefinition of loyalties among the military forces. Former members of the British Crown voluntarily enlisted in the national army on the grounds that the oath of allegiance to the British monarch allowed them to retain their imperial identity, while fighting for the Free State. Former IRA activists agreed to tone down their Republican ideals and pledged allegiance to Dáil Éireann.
By deliberately placing former IRA members in command positions, Free State government authorities were able to offer them some substantial recognition within the new nation-state, while weakening the IRA. , even though the authorities recognized the role of republican units during the War of Independence in the creation of Dáil Éireann.
All over Europe, veterans transferred their military skills and loyalty from Imperial armies to national armies. The ex-servicemen guaranteed security and stability during the state formation processes as much as they could fuel the paramilitary violence. The return of Irish troops is just one example of what happened on a larger scale across Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. What happened in Ireland was not unique. Former servicemen and officers formed a heterogeneous community with kaleidoscopic motivations and expectations. Some of them strongly supported the British Crown and others supported the revolution, while the majority aspired to a serene and peaceful reintegration into their local community.
Upon their transfer to civilian life, many of them found it difficult to find employment in a society plagued by unemployment and continued paramilitary violence. Everywhere in Europe, in the aftermath of 1918, as historian Bruno Cabanes has shown, “the moment of reintegration has become, almost necessarily, a moment of frustration” for veterans. Britain helped them, going so far as to create large “veterans colonies” in all 32 counties and to implement re-education programs. Britain has never reneged on its moral obligation.
Following the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, the withdrawal of British troops seriously complicated their socio-economic demobilization (as for other communities) but the veterans could count on the initiatives of private employers, especially in Northern Ireland where the veterans entered the pantheon of loyalist fighters. for the king and the country.
As far as paramilitary violence is concerned, there is no evidence to suggest that there was an official or even tacit Republican policy aimed at eliminating the veterans of the Great War. However, in some regions, it cannot be denied that there were individuals (members of the IRA or not) who harbored deep resentment towards them. While this personalized animosity rarely led to their execution, it generally exposed them to acts of political violence, both verbal and physical.
The belief that the IRA deliberately launched a campaign against them coupled with the artificially constructed and systematic opposition between IRA members and Great War veterans has prevented further analysis of postwar trajectories. of these men.
2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the War of Independence and represents the opportunity to shed new light on the roles played by British veterans. Shadows from the Trenches follows their trajectories, illuminating their hopes, expectations and uncertainties.
Shadows from the Trenches: Veterans of the Great War and the Irish Revolution (1918-1923) by Emmanuel Destenay is published by UCD Press