Nationalists and Conscription

Ronald McNeill
Chapter XXIII

While the Irish Convention was toilfully bringing to a close its eight months' career of futility, the British Empire was in the grip of the most terrible ordeal through which it has ever passed. On the 21st of March, 1918, the assembled Irishmen in Dublin were discussing whether or not proportional representation should form part of the hypothetical constitution of Ireland, and on the same day the Germans well-nigh overwhelmed the 5th Army at the opening of the great offensive campaign which threatened to break irretrievably the Allied line by the capture of Amiens. The world held its breath. Englishmen hardly dared to think of the fate that seemed impending over their country. Irishmen continued complacently debating the paltry details of the Bishop of Raphoe's clauses. Irishmen and Englishmen together were being killed or maimed by scores of thousands in a supreme effort to stay the advance of the Boche to Paris and the sea.

It happened that on the very day when the Report of the Convention was laid on the table of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister made a statement of profound gravity, beginning with words such as the British Parliament can never before have been compelled to hear from the lips of the head of the Government. For the moment, said Mr. Lloyd George, there was a lull in the storm; but more attacks were to come, and—

The "fate of the Empire, the fate of Europe, and the fate of liberty throughout the world may depend on the success with which the very last of these attacks is resisted and countered."

Mr. Asquith struck the same note, urging the House—

"With all the earnestness and with all the solemnity of which I am capable, to realise that never before in the experience of any man within these walls, or of his fathers and his forefathers, has this country and all the great traditions and ideals which are embodied in our history—never has this, the most splendid inheritance ever bequeathed to a people, been in greater peril, or in more need of united safeguarding than at this present time."

Not Demosthenes himself, in his most impassioned appeal to the Athenians, more fitly matched moving words to urgent occasion than these two statesmen in the simple, restrained sentences, in which they warned the Commons of the peril hanging over England.

But was eloquent persuasion really required at such a moment to still the voice of faction in the British House of Commons? Let those who would assume the negative study the official Parliamentary Report of the debate on the 9th of April, 1918. They will find a record which no loyal Irishman will ever be able to read without a tingling sense of shame. The whole body of members, with one exception, listened to the Prime Minister's grave words in silence touched with awe, feeling that perhaps they were sitting there on the eve of the greatest tragedy in their country's history. The single exception was the Nationalist Party. From those same benches whence arose nineteen years back the never-forgotten cheers that greeted the tale of British disaster in South Africa, now came a shower of snarling interruptions that broke persistently into the Prime Minister's speech, and with angry menace impeded his unfolding of the Government's proposals for meeting the supreme ordeal of the war.

What was the reason? It was because Ireland, the greater part of which had till now successfully shirked its share of privation and sacrifice, was at last to be asked to take up its corner of the burden. The need for men to replace casualties at the front was pressing, urgent, imperative. Many indeed blamed the Government for having delayed too long in filling the depleted ranks of our splendid armies in France; the moment had come when another day's delay would have been criminal. As Mr. Lloyd George pointed out, the battle that was being waged in front of Amiens "proves that the enemy has definitely decided to seek a military decision this year, whatever the consequences to himself." The Germans had just called up a fresh class of recruits calculated to place more than half a million of efficient young men in the line. The collapse of Russia had released the vast German armies of the East for use against England and France. It was under such circumstances that the Prime Minister proposed

"to submit to Parliament to-day certain recommendations in order to assist this country and the Allies to weather the storm. They will involve," continued Mr. Lloyd George, "extreme sacrifices on the part of large classes of the population, and nothing would justify them but the most extreme necessity, and the fact that we are fighting for all that is essential and most sacred in the national life."

The age limit for compulsory military service was to be raised from forty-two to fifty, and Ireland was to be included under the new Military Service Bill now introduced. England, Scotland, and Wales had cheerfully submitted to conscription when first enacted by Mr. Asquith in 1916, and to all the additional combings of industry and extension of obligation that had been required in the past two years. Agriculture and other essential industries were being starved for want of labour, and men had actually been brought back from the sorely pressed armies to produce supplies imperatively needed at home.

But from all this Ireland had hitherto been exempt. To escape the call of the country a man had only to prove that he was "ordinarily resident in Ireland"; for conscription did not cross the Irish Sea. From most of the privations cheerfully borne in Great Britain the Irishman had been equally free. Food rationing did not trouble him, and, lest he should go short of accustomed plenty, it was even forbidden to carry a parcel of butter across the Channel from Ireland. Horse-racing went on as usual. Emigration had been suspended during the war, so that Ireland was unusually full of young men who, owing to the unwonted prosperity of the country resulting from war prices for its produce, were "having the time of their lives." Mr. Bonar Law, in the debates on the Military Service Bill, gave reasons for the calculation that there were not far short of 400,000 young men of military age, and of "A1" physique, in Ireland available for the Army.

No wonder that Mr. Lloyd George said it would be impossible to leave this reservoir of man-power untouched when men of fifty, whose sons were already with the colours, were to be called up in Great Britain! But the bare suggestion of doing such a thing raised a hurricane of angry vituperation and menace from the Nationalists in the House of Commons. When Mr. Lloyd George, in conciliatory accents, observed that he had no wish to raise unnecessary controversy, as Heaven knew they had trouble enough already, "You will get more of it," shouted Mr. Flavin. "You will have another battle front in Ireland," interjected Mr. Byrne. Mr. Flavin, getting more and more excited, called out, with reference to the machinery for enrolment explained by the Prime Minister—"It will never begin. Ireland will not have it at any price"; and again, a moment later, "You come across and try to take them." Mr. Devlin was fully as fierce as these less prominent members of his party, and after many wrathful interruptions he turned aside the debate into a discussion about a trumpery report of one of the sub-committees of the Irish Convention.

It was truly a sad and shameful scene to be witnessed in the House of Commons at such a moment. It would have been so even if the contention of the Nationalists had been reasonably tenable. But it was not. They maintained that only an Irish Parliament had the right to enforce conscription in Ireland. But at the beginning of the war they had accepted the proviso that it should run its course before Home Rule came into operation. And even if it had been in operation, and a Parliament had been sitting in Dublin under Mr. Asquith's Act, which the Nationalists had accepted as a settlement of their demands, that Parliament would have had nothing to do with the raising of military forces by conscription or otherwise, this being a duty reserved, as in every federal or quasi-federal constitution, for the central legislative authority alone.

But it was useless to point this out to the infuriated Nationalist members. Mr. William O'Brien denounced the idea of compelling Irishmen to bear the same burden as their British fellow-subjects as "a declaration of war against Ireland"; and he and Mr. Healy joined Mr. Dillon and his followers in opposing with all their parliamentary skill, and all their voting power, the extension to Ireland of compulsory service. Mr. Healy, whose vindictive memory had not forgotten the Curragh Incident before the war, could not forbear from having an ungenerous fling at General Gough, who had just been driven back by the overwhelming numerical superiority of the German attack, and who, at the moment when Mr. Healy was taunting him in the House of Commons, was re-forming his gallant 5th Army to resist the enemy's further advance.

In comparison with this Mr. Healy's stale gibe at "Carson's Army," however inappropriate to the occasion, was a venial offence. Carson himself replied in a gentle and conciliatory tone to Mr. Healy's coarse diatribe.

"My honourable friend," he said, "talked of Carson's Army. You may, if you like, call it with contempt Carson's Army. But it has just gone into action for the fourth time, and many of them have paid the supreme sacrifice. They have covered themselves with glory, and, what is more, they have covered Ireland with glory, and they have left behind sad homes throughout the small hamlets of Ulster, as I well know, losing three or four sons in many a home."

On behalf of Ulster Carson gave unhesitating support to the Government. He and his colleagues from Ulster had always voted against the exemption of Ireland from the Military Service Acts. It was true, no doubt, as the Nationalists jeeringly maintained, that conscription was no more desired in Ulster than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Of course it was not; it was liked nowhere. But Carson declared that "equality of sacrifice" was the principle to be acted upon, and Ulster accepted it. He "would go about hanging his head in shame," if his own part of the United Kingdom were absolved from sacrifice which the national necessity imposed on the inhabitants of Great Britain.

The Bill was carried through by the 16th of April in the teeth of Nationalist opposition maintained through all its stages. Mr. Bonar Law announced emphatically that the Government intended to enforce the compulsory powers in Ireland; but he also said that yet another attempt was to be made to settle the constitutional question by bringing in "at an early date" a measure of Home Rule which the Government hoped might be carried at once and "without violent controversy."

After the experience of the past this seemed an amazingly sanguine estimate of the prospects of any proposals that ingenuity could devise. But what the nature of the measure was to have been was never made known; for the Bill was still in the hands of a drafting committee when a dangerous German intrigue in Ireland was discovered; and the Lord-Lieutenant made a proclamation on the 18th of May announcing that the Government had information "that certain of the King's subjects in Ireland had entered into a treasonable communication with the German enemy, and that strict measures must be taken to put down this German plot."[98] On the same day one hundred and fifty Sinn Feiners were arrested, including Mr. De Valera and Mr. Arthur Griffith, and on the 25th a statement was published indicating the connection between this conspiracy and Casement's designs in 1916. The Government had definitely ascertained some weeks earlier, and must have known at the very time when they were promising a new Home Rule Bill, that a plan for landing arms in Ireland was ripe for execution.[99] Indeed, on the 12th of April a German agent who had landed in Ireland was arrested, with papers in his possession showing that De Valera had worked out a detailed organisation of the rebel army, and expected to be in a position to muster half a million of trained men.[100]

Such was the fruit of the Government's infatuation which, under the delusion of "creating an atmosphere of good-will" for the Convention, had released a few months previously a number of dangerous men who had been proved to be in league with the Germans, and who now took advantage of this clemency to conspire afresh with the foreign enemy. It was not surprising that Mr. Bonar Law said it was impossible for the Government, under these circumstances, to proceed with their proposals for a new Home Rule Bill.

On the other hand, no sooner was the Military Service Act on the Statute-book than the Government began to recede from Mr. Bonar Law's declaration that they would at all costs enforce it in Ireland. They intimated that if voluntary recruiting improved it might be possible to dispense with compulsion. But although Mr. Shortt—who succeeded Mr. Duke as Chief Secretary in May, at the same time as Lord Wimborne was replaced in the Lord-Lieutenancy by Field-Marshal Lord French—complained on the 29th of July that the Nationalists had given no help to the Government in obtaining voluntary recruits in Ireland, and, "instead of taking Sinn Fein by the throat, had tried to go one better,"[101] the compulsory powers of the Military Service Act remained a dead letter.

The fact was that the Nationalists had followed up their fierce opposition to the Bill by raising a still more fierce agitation in Ireland against conscription. In this they joined hands with Sinn Fein, and the whole weight of the Catholic Church was thrown into the same scale. From the altars of that Church the thunderbolts of ecclesiastical anathema were loosed against the Government, and—what was more effective—against any who should obey the call to arms. The Government gave way before the violence of the storm, and the lesson to be learnt from their defeat was not thrown away on the rebel party in Ireland. There was, naturally, widespread indignation in England at the spectacle of the youth of Ireland taking its ease at home and earning extravagantly high war-time wages while middle-aged bread-winners in England were compulsorily called to the colours; but the marvellously easy-going disposition of Englishmen submitted to the injustice with no more than a legitimate grumble.

In June 1918, while this agitation against conscription was at its height, the hostility of the Nationalists took a new turn. A manifesto, intended as a justification of their resistance to conscription, was issued in the form of a letter to Mr. Wilson, President of the United States, signed by Mr. Dillon, Mr. Devlin, Mr. William O'Brien, Mr. Healy, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and some others, including leaders of Sinn Fein. It was a remarkable document, the authorship of which was popularly attributed to Mr. T. M. Healy. If it ever came under the eye of Mr. Wilson, a man of literary taste and judgment, it must have afforded him a momentary diversion from the cares of his exalted office. A longer experience than his of diplomatic correspondence would fail to produce from the pigeon-holes of all the Chanceries a rival to this extraordinary composition, the ill-arranged paragraphs of which formed an inextricable jumble of irrelevant material, in which bad logic, bad history, and barren invective were confusedly intermingled in a torrent of turgid rhetoric. The extent of its range may be judged from the fact that Shakespeare's allusions to Joan of Arc were not deemed too remote from the subject of conscription in Ireland during the Great War to find a place in this amazing despatch. For the amusement of anyone who may care to examine so rare a curiosity of English prose, it will be found in full in the Appendix to this volume, where it may be compared by way of contrast with the restrained rejoinder sent also to President Wilson by Sir Edward Carson, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, the Mayor of Derry, and several loyalist representatives of Labour in Ulster.

In the Nationalist letter to President Wilson reference was made more than once to the sympathy that prevailed in Ireland in the eighteenth century with the American colonists in the War of Independence. The use made of it was a good example of the way in which a half-truth may, for argumentative purposes, be more misleading than a complete falsehood. "To-day, as in the days of George Washington"—so Mr. Wilson was informed—"nearly half the American forces have been furnished from the descendants of our banished race." No mention was made of the fact that the members of the "banished race" in Washington's army were Presbyterian emigrants from Ulster, who formed almost the entire population of great districts in the American Colonies at that time.[102] The late Mr. Whitelaw Reid told an Edinburgh audience in 1911 that more than half the Presbyterian population of Ulster emigrated to America between 1730 and 1770, and that at the date of the Revolution they made more than one-sixth of the population of the Colonies. The Declaration of Independence itself, he added—

"Is sacredly preserved in the handwriting of an Ulsterman, who was Secretary of Congress. It was publicly read by an Ulsterman, and first printed by another. Washington's first Cabinet had four members, of whom one was an Ulsterman."[103]

It is, of course, true that not all Ulster Presbyterians of that period were the firm and loyal friends of Great Britain that their descendants became after a century's experience of the legislative Union. But it is the latter who best in Ireland can trace kinship with the founders of the United States, and who are entitled—if any Irishmen are—to base on that kinship a claim to the sympathy and support of the American people.

Read "Ulster's Stand for Union" at your leisure

Ulster's Stand for Union

Read Ulster's Stand for Union at your leisure and help support this free Irish library.

Ronald McNeill provides a truly fascinating account of the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 from a Unionist perspective. The book covers, inter alia, the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the drafting and signing of the Solemn League and Covenant, gun-running to Larne and Donaghadee, Ulster in the Great War, and the establishment of the Ulster Parliament in 1921.

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