In late 1917 the British satirical magazine Punch, the Charlie Hebdo of its day, printed a cartoon, the context for which was the progress – or lack of it – of the First World War. It depicted two men with a large comb divided into equal parts marked ‘England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.’ The Irish section was toothless. The magazine, not noted for its admiration of ‘John Bull’s other island’ was suggesting that this country was not sending enough of its young men to stop machine-gun bullets on the Western Front and that it was high time the government did something about it. Compulsory military service for men between 18-40 had been introduced in Britain in early 1916.
A few months after Punch’s barb Lloyd George’s administration, which had hesitated to bring conscription to Ireland, finally grasped the nettle with the introduction in the House of Commons of an amendment to the Military Service Act. This raised the age limit to fifty and ended Ireland’s exemption.
The move came, essentially, as a panic measure in the wake of the crippling and humiliating German offensive of 21 March 1918.
The Home Secretary, Sir George Cave, in proposing the extension of compulsory military service to Ireland observed that ‘we are advised that it will yield a large number of men.’ The doubly bereaved Irish MP and British Army officer, Captain William Archer Redmond, who had lost his father and uncle in the preceding nine months, inquired ‘May I ask the right hon. Gentleman who advised him?’ The implication was clear. The Irish, who had volunteered in respectable if unspectacular numbers, were not going to be forced to join the British Army.
Cave was then interrupted by a passionate interjection from the Irish Party MP for Kerry North, Michael Flavin who shouted, ominously, at the government benches, ‘You come over and try it.’
John Dillon, leader of the Irish party since the death the previous month of John Redmond, pointed out that the raising of the military age and the extension of conscription to this country would have no impact on the military disaster that was the German Spring offensive in terms of manpower. It would take months to train the new conscripts by which time it looked then as if the Germans would be drinking champagne on the Champs Elysee and accepting the surrender of France and Britain. As it happens, by the time the debate began the German offensive had already begun to peter out and it would not be long before the Allies rolled back the German gains and made huge advances of their own that ended the war in November.
That they did so without any Irish conscripts was a function of a concerted and determined campaign in Ireland. A national strike, the opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, a series of massive public meetings and the temporary shelving of the political differences between the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary and the more radical Sinn Fein ensured that the British government concluded it would cost more troops to enforce conscription than would be raised.
Had they not done so, and in the unlikely event that they had been successful in forcing Irishmen into the Army the death toll of Irish soldiers might well have greatly exceeded the 35,000 who did perish in the ironically titled ‘war to end all wars’.
The proposal to extend compulsory military service to Ireland was brought to the floor of the House of Commons 97 years ago, on this day.