Derek Smyth will look at the role Ireland played in the great war and at the circumstances surrounding the recruitment, enlistment and the return of Irishmen as veterans of the so-called ‘war to end all wars’

Photo of 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions at Messines Ridge, 1917


In total, about 210,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during World War One. Since there was no conscription, about 140,000 of these joined during the war as volunteers. Some 35,000 Irish died. Irishmen enlisted for the war effort for a variety of reasons. Some joined up for the perceived justice of the cause or because

…the ‘freedom of small nations’ such as Belgium or Serbia, was that of Ireland as well.

Nationalists, for whom the establishment of an Irish ‘home rule’ parliament in Dublin had been the principal political aim for most of the 19th century, were committed to the war effort by their leader, John Redmond, in September 1914.


Joining up

Picture of soldiers from the Ulster Division, by William Conor ‘Off: the Ulster Division’, by William Conor, 1915  ©


But Irishmen joined up for more than political reasons. Some were simply after adventure.  For others the motive was economic (an unskilled worker might more than double his pay by joining up). And yet others, as the historian Philip Orr has argued, may have been borne along on ‘a surge of naive patriotism’.



Photo of Irish soldiers examining a captured German machine gun Irish soldiers on the Western Front  © 

Not all nationalists followed John Redmond’s lead. A small minority of separatist republican radicals broke away to form the ‘Irish Volunteers’ and began planning for a rebellion for Easter 1916.

1916 and after in Ireland

Image of Dublin ablaze during Easter Rising, 1916 

Dublin ablaze during Easter Rising, 1916  © 


Soldiers return

The Armistice was marked by the families of the surviving volunteers families with relief and in unionist communities there was a sense of pride in the achievement of victory, yet for nationalist volunteers in the British army, there would be no triumphant welcome home to Ireland. 


Photo of officers reading out news of the armistice to their men

Ireland and the Great War by Keith Jeffery (Cambridge University Press, 2000).


Derek Smyth OBE MA is a history graduate of both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster. For many years he has been involved, in conjunction with Paddy Harte, former TD for Donegal, with guiding cross-border groups to the battlefields of the First World War. This year he carried out the same task with a cross-community group from North Down. 
In 2009 he completed a book, A Journey of Remembering which was an attempt to list all the Great War casualties from Belfast. The publication was financially supported by Belfast City Council, the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and the Newsletter.

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