Monday, August 1, 2016

Prelude to the Great War: England

…England, long-peaceful England, was the society nearest cracking in 1914….Up to the last days of July, the “Revolt in Ulster” received more coverage in 1914 than any other story in the world.

To “home rule” or not to “home rule”; that is the question.  Asquith’s liberal government attempted to offer home rule to Ireland, only to have the minority Protestants disagree – fearing the rule of the majority Catholics.

The “Protestant people of Ulster” would sooner be governed from Berlin.  They would not submit to the Catholic majority in the south of Ireland.

Volunteers mustered, German gun-running up and down the Irish coast, the Tories talking rebellion with Churchill daring them to bring it on.  If civil war broke out, would England be drawn away from the coming conflict on the continent?

Wait a minute, you protest – all of this began long before the infamous assassination.  It seems England and France could divine the future:

Starting in early 1906 the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, authorized secret “military conversations” with the French that bound the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the French army….

Berlin learned of these conversations via its spy in the Russian Embassy in London.  The British Parliament and public remained in the dark – Grey kept even Asquith in the dark for three years.

In any case, the race was on: civil war and rebellion in Ireland or continental war due to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia.  Per Beatty, had the Great War been delayed by even a couple of weeks it is likely that the Irish civil war would have won this race.  In this case, the British could not afford to send troops to defend France as they would be needed in Ireland.

Churchill ordered eight battleships based in Gibraltar and eight destroyers of the Fourth Flotilla in England to sail to the waters between Scotland and Ulster….

Citing Niall Ferguson: “If the BEF had never been sent [to France], there is no question that the Germans would have won the war.”

Churchill offered an inflammatory speech against the Irish on March 14.  He challenged those who offered “menace and brutality” and “loose, wanton, and reckless chatter”:

“I can only say to you, ‘Let us go forward together and put these graves matters to the proof.’”

In other words, I’m your huckleberry.

Unfortunately for the big-talking Churchill, the army wasn’t with him.  Bonar Law offered that if it was dealing with civil disorder, the army would do its duty; if it came to civil war, “soldiers are citizens like the rest of us.”

Asquith, like Churchill, also believed otherwise: the army would follow orders.  This was not to be the case:

For the first time in over two hundred years, high army officers would dictate to the government in what has come to be known as the Curragh Mutiny.

Some officers were from Ulster; many others had relatives there.  Nearly all were sympathizers to the minority Protestant cause.  Dozens of officers – including Brigadier Herbert Gough – preferred dismissal if ordered north to Ulster.  Many more would offer the same ultimatum.  Ultimately, any idea of home rule for Ireland would be shelved – else England would be left with a shell of an army. 

Of course, this left the Catholic majority troubled.  Ireland was now racing toward guerilla war: Protestant and Catholic; some fighting for home rule, some against; others still for Irish independence.  And the British army stuck in the middle.

On June 29 – the same day that news of the assassination of the Archduke was reported – the Times asserted, regarding Ireland: “Complete disaster is now but a few weeks – it may only be a few days – away.”  As late as the end of July – even when Austria declared war on Serbia – it was the news from Ireland that carried the day.

Berlin read the news of Ireland as good fortune – strife in Ireland would certainly keep Britain out of the war. 

This was not to be.  Once news of the war broke, the Irish immediately became Britons.


  1. Nice link to my favorite Wyatt Earp movie, and one of it's great scene's.

    Val Kilmer's performance really stole that movie but I've always been a Kurt Russel fan. (when I think of his movies it always brings a smile to my face: Escape from NY, Big Trouble in Little China, even more recently Death Proof- but I didn't care for the Hateful 8)

    The Kevin Costner version of Wyatt Earp was a tough sell and the movie seemed too slow at times- but even if the script was better Costner doesn't carry the "tough guy" personae as well as Kurt Russell. I loved The Untouchables, but even then Costner didn't carry the "tough guy" thing well, Sean Connery carried his water in that movie.

    But this is a commentary about the Irish and Briton's relationship just prior to the apologies for dragging it somewhere else but I just love Tombstone.

    1. Don't apologize, I am glad I was able to work that scene into the post.

      Kilmer gave one of the best performances by any actor in any movie…ever (which probably speaks more about me than it does anything else!). Yet he didn’t even get nominated for best supporting actor – not even nominated!

      Gene Hackman won for his role in “Unforgiven,” at best a semi-memorable role. The best actor / role nominated that year was Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” where the trial scene is worth watching every single time.

      But this belonged to Kilmer. A big snub.

  2. OK guys, enough movie stuff. (Naw.. I like movies too. :) )

    But your tag line about the Irish becoming Britons after the war broke out really resonates. Bourne got that. (No, not the movie one).
    I myself was out for blood after 9/11. Embarrassing, that.
    The great unifier is war. Peace just doesn't sell. Sad.