A striking aspect of the historiography of Ireland’s revolutionary decade is that John Redmond’s National Volunteers are still often overlooked. And while a definitive account of the Irish Volunteer movement also remains unaccomplished, there is still far more information concerning the radical and separatist element that would ultimately change the face of Irish history. Subsequently, historians often tend to encompass the narrative of the National Volunteers in conjunction with their post-split counterparts.
Having been formally established on 25 November 1913, recruitment to the Irish Volunteers grew dramatically. Their numbers exploded from about 20,000 members in March 1914, to nearly 150,000 members by the following July. Tom Kettle, the nationalist MP, would capture the mood effectively when he commented: ‘From time to time a great wave of emotion and action sweeps through the life of a people, stirring it all, shallows and depth. Such is volunteering’.
Yet Redmond’s speech at Woodenbridge, County Wicklow, on 20 September 1914, would irrevocably change the dynamic. Here he offered up the services of the Irish Volunteers in ending the war, an act that catalysed the split in the organisation. Consequently, the majority of these men would follow the Irish Party leader. They were restyled the National Volunteers and retained some 93% of the organisation’s strength, which numbered nearly 160,000 men.
Accordingly, what needs to be recognised and reflected upon are the enlistment figures for National Volunteer members who did indeed join the British army and fight in the First World War. Their association to John Redmond would lead many to suspect a vast majority of the movement followed Redmond’s call to arms. However, only very few of those men enlisted to fight overseas. If we consider that the nominal strength of the movement was nearly 160,000 by late October 1914 – after the loss of the army reservists and due to the loss of the separatist Irish Volunteers, who numbered an estimated 9,000 men – the numbers who joined the British Army are actually quite low. Enlistment still meant the trenches, gas, and German bayonets.
For it did not take long for many to see that the First World War was different. The intensity of the battles of the first month was a forerunner to how bloody this war would eventually become. When the Battle of Mons erupted at the end of August 1914, Irish troops would be heavily engaged. On 25 August the 2nd Connaught Rangers suffered more than 100 casualties, and at the Battle of Le Cateau; where the 2nd Irish Rifles were engaged, total British casualties amounted to nearly 7,800 men.
Unsurprisingly, considering that the ferocity of this war was already on show, fears amongst the rank and file of the Volunteers increased. A common rumour circulating that autumn was that they would be compelled to enlist ‘en masse’ and sent to the front, for Redmond had of course declared: ‘The proper place to guard Ireland is on the battlefields of Europe’. His stance on recruitment had exacerbated the situation, and the crisis in Europe had certainly not presented Redmond with a crisis of conscience.
With Ulster’s continued intransigence to Home Rule stymieing its proposed enactment, he threw his full support behind the war in an effort to secure a devolved form of government. As a result, confusion reigned amongst the rank and file, which was merely compounded by the coincidental raising of the 16th (Irish) Division in September 1914. As historian Thomas Dooley has noted, this ‘was inevitably interpreted by some as… an agreement with the government’ to send the Volunteers to the front.
The recruitment figures testify to this. The vast majority of the National Volunteer movement did not want to ‘risk their lives, and spill their blood’ on the battlefields of Europe. Paul Bew – a former biographer of Redmond – noted how ‘death at the front was non-sectarian and apolitical’ and, as such, asked whether Redmond’s hope of a common sacrifice could ‘have softened nationalist-unionist enmity?’
In fact, the creation of the 10th (Irish) Division epitomised this. As Redmond would later state: ‘Irishmen of all political opinions were united in the Division… The men who had differed in religion and politics and their whole outlook on life, became brothers in the 10th Division, Unionist and Nationalist, Catholic and Protestant’.
This variation on the blood sacrifice theme, often attributed to the leaders of the Easter Rising, is an oft forgotten legacy of Redmond’s too. His use of certain rhetoric attains a divine significance, as can be seen when he argued: ‘No people can be said to have rightly proved their nationhood and their power to maintain it until they have demonstrated their military prowess: and though Irish blood has reddened the earth of every continent, never until now have we as a people set a national army in the field’. In his opinion, the united sacrifice of these men was for the ‘future liberty and honour of their own country’.
Yet, with the advantage of hindsight, it can be argued this was a forlorn hope. The deaths of men like Tom Kettle, or more symbolically, Major William Redmond, John Redmond’s brother, did little to sway attitudes deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche. So while ‘William was comforted by an Ulster Protestant chaplain… as he lay dying’ and ‘his body was carried from the field by the men of the 36th Division’, no blood sacrifice on the Western Front was going to change such deep-seated and deep-rooted attitudes.
In Pauline Codd’s analysis of recruiting figures in County Wexford, the lack of a steady occupation ‘appeared to affect recruitment to a much greater degree than did loyalty’. In one stark comment an Irish recruit strikingly revealed the truth as to why some men decided to join. He explained how ‘not many fellas from the country joined up. It was mainly the poor… who had nothing much to lose’.
Historian Ben Novick felt pro-war propagandists had one clear advantage at the start of the war, which was ‘the British army’s traditional appeal to poor, urban Irishmen’. Codd’s work provides further analysis on this. Her conclusion was that ‘pull factors such as patriotism… provided far weaker incentives to enlist than did the push factor of poverty and insecurity’. As a consequence, when deciding to enlist, the words of Tom Kettle resonate even more; thousands died, ‘not for flag, nor king, nor emperor’, but simply because they were poor and had nothing else to lose.
There is also one more pertinent factor to note; approximately half of these National Volunteer recruits who did enlist, did so during the first six months of the war. This would have been before the 10th (Irish) Division suffered catastrophic losses at Gallipoli in the summer of 1915, after which ‘even staunch supporters of the war effort saw their faith crumbling’.
Therefore, tracing the progress of the National Volunteers throughout 1915, it can be seen that by the end of that year they were practically non-existent in Ireland as an active force. Contemporary sources highlight that the National Volunteers were in fact moribund by 1915. In searching for a root cause for this decline, historian Michael Wheatley identified another major aspect that warrants further attention. He noted that ‘the defining issue of the party’s autumn campaign, its advocacy of recruiting, must have increased… fears, greatly accelerating the decline of Volunteer activity. It may, indeed, have inflicted the coup de grâce to an already fading movement’.
Hence, by 1915, the malaise in the National Volunteer ranks could not be dispelled, even by ‘the largest military display Dublin has ever seen’. The Easter Review in April 1915 at the Phoenix Park was the high-water mark for the movement, with some 27,000 men attending in companies from all the four Provinces. Nevertheless, despite the impressive numbers it still did not cover the cracks. Stephen Gwynn has highlighted the perpetual problem that faced the movement, noting that half the men who attended had ‘neither arms nor uniform’. In his biography of Redmond he stated that ‘the Volunteer organisation as it stood had exhausted its usefulness; its enthusiasm was gone – a natural result of having no purpose’.
Subsequently, while public opinion was at first against the rebellion of 1916, certain actions by National Volunteer companies on Easter Week further denigrated their standing in national memory. Companies in Bray, Dundalk, and Waterford, amongst other counties, voluntarily loaned their arms to the military authorities during the Rising. A letter by Colonel Moore to General Maxwell noted that ‘these rifles were lent in some cases for the protection of the unarmed police and soldiers during the Rising’. Thomas Treacy, Brigade Commandant of the Kilkenny Irish Volunteers in 1917, also recalled how ‘the Redmondite Volunteers in Kilkenny paraded in Easter Week 1916, apparently to show their loyalty to John Redmond who was opposed to the Rising’.
For the dye had been cast for the National Volunteers in the months preceding the 1916 Rising. Future events in Ireland would certainly supersede the movement. With a reinvigorated Sinn Féin emerging in 1917, it is of little wonder that their victory in the 1918 general elections culminated in the whitewashing of the National Volunteers, relegating the organisation to an historical limbo. As a result, the National Volunteers remain a non-entity in the revolutionary narrative to this day.
Figures from the National Library of Ireland indicate that 158,360 men of the National Volunteers remained in Ireland during the war, and while the endeavours of Colonel Moore would ultimately fail, (to mould the National Volunteers into a fully trained and fully equipped national army), a critical analysis of this intriguing outfit would be a welcome change.