Yesterday, I finished edits on a short story, Ghost Dog, to be published in a horror magazine in April. Its about an Irish soldier who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British Forces during WWI. About 35,000 died. It was an interesting time for Ireland as the Irish were divided over their loyalty to Great Britain. Many Irish, the Nationalists, wanted Ireland to be a separate country. This had been a political driving force for the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Unionists were loyal to Great Britain. Both groups enlisted, but their reasons varied.
Many Nationalists were swept up in the cause of protecting small sovereign countries like Serbia and Belgium from being taken over by larger countries. Many Irishmen joined for personal rather than political reasons. Job opportunities were limited in Ireland and poorly paid. Soldiers could earn almost twice what a common laborer could make. Many men wanted to see the world and see what the war was about. There’s an Irish saying that may explain why some men signed up. Is this a private fight or can anyone join?
In 1916, sentiment about the war changed when two nationalist leaders and 1800 volunteers seized many public buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic. This was called Easter Rising or the Easter Rebellion. The British sent in a sizable armed force and some 500 people were killed, mostly civilians. The volunteers and their leaders surrendered, but shortly after, 15 of the Nationalists were executed by firing squad. This was a bad move by the British as it fueled anti-British sentiment and the Ireland independence movement.
Soldier recruitment from Ireland plummeted after the Easter Rebellion. Irish nationalism increased. Those who returned from the war after 1916 were often met with open hostility, as Tom Kettle predicted. Tom was a former nationalist MP who served with the British forces in the Battle of the Somme. He wrote, “These men (the 1916 rebellion leaders) will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.” Tom was killed on the Somme in the summer of 1916.
It only took Ireland eighty years to recognize the soldiers of Ireland who fought in the Great War. In 1998, they dedicated the Island of Ireland Peace Tower located in Mesen, Belgium to all the Irish people who had fallen during WWI. Tom Kettle and all his fellows were finally remembered.