Ireland 1914-1918

The Road to War

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On the 28th June 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist, waited patiently for the Archduke Frans Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, to arrive on an official visit to Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia. The Archduke drove through the narrow streets until, after taking a wrong turn, the car stalled. As the driver attempted to restart the vehicle, Princep stepped forward from the crowd, produced a 22 calibre browning pistol and fired three shots. Franz Ferdinand was struck in the neck; Sophie, who was pregnant with their fourth child, took a bullet to the stomach. Both were soon declared dead.

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While the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by an extreme Serbian organisation known as the ‘Black Hand’ was not the sole or principal cause of the events that followed, it was seen by many as the lighting of the fuse that set Europe ablaze. As the sabre-rattling of the world’s politicians echoed throughout the many empires, the world’s armies mobilised and made ready for war. The Great War, as it was to become known, had commenced.

However, like all wars, the origins of World War one are complex.

Since 1815 the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire in Europe, which included the Balkan Peninsula and contained several Christian races of Slav origin, was collapsing. By 1870, Greece, Serbia and Rumania had attained a certain degree of independence. However, many Slav peoples remained under the oppressive rule of the Turks and as the nineteenth century progressed they became more and more determined to gain independence.
In 1878, the Congress of Berlin took place and was presided over by Otto Von Bismark. It was attended by Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, France, Italy and Germany.

The term s of the congress stated:

  • Rumania, Serbia and Montenegro were reaffirmed as independent states.
  • Bulgaria was reduced in size and declared an autonomous principality under the Sultan.
  • Austria was allowed to reoccupy and administer Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Britain was granted the island of Cyprus.
  • France was promised territory in Tunisia.

The Congress of Berlin was a blow to Russian prestige. Though Germany wanted to keep Russia appeased, Bismark knew that he may have to have to make a choice between Russia and Austria. Germany decided to form an alliance with Austria which was signed in October 1879. This Dual Alliance was to become Triple Alliance in 1882, when Bismark extended the alliance to include Italy. Throughout the world, the major powers scrambled for colonies as a major expansion of Empire took place.

In 1904, France and Britain established an Entente Cordiale. Though this was not an alliance as such, France permitted Britain to have free reign in Egypt while Britain agreed to recognise French predominance in Morocco. Germany called for a conference in relation to the question of Morocco. While the world powers gathered to discuss the situation in North Afica, Germany found herself isolated with only Austo-Hungary as an ally. Within a few short years, Germany had gone from a position of diplomatic strength to one of isolation. Between 1902 and 1907 Britain made alliances with Japan and Entente Cordiale with France and Russia. Arguments ensued over colonial affairs with minor skirmishes occurring. Navies were rushed to trouble spots as a show of strength while espionage, both military and industrial, increased with all countries increasing their armies and developing new weapons.

Capture 1Europe had become divided into two rival camps – the Triple Entente composing of Britain, France and Russia, and the Triple Alliance consisting of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy. While the purpose of the alliance system was initially defensive, international relations became strained due to the massive arms race between countries. Both the Entente and the Alliance were more aggressive in their actions and their outlook.
The Balkan wars between 1912-1913 created further tensions in the region but fortunately, no great powers entered the conflicts which resulted in the end of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. This was largely brought about through the efforts of the Balkan peoples themselves. However, relationships became strained between Austria-Hungary and Russia’s ally Serbia.
Within a short period of time, that relationship was to explode with devastating consequences.

On July 23rd 1914, following the assassination in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary submitted an ultimatum to Serbia with a demand that Austrian officials be allowed to enter Serbia and participate in an investigation into the assassination and the suppression of anti-Austrian subversives. Serbia refused, stating that to allow Austrian officials into Serbia to investigate the killings would be an infringement of Serbian independence.
As events were unfolding in Serbia, the Tsar ordered a partial mobilisation of the Russian army, stating it was to exert pressure on Austria. Austria was prepared to wage war against Serbia with the support of Germany while Russia was prepared to lend its support to Serbia.

Due to the Dual Alliance between Russia and France in 19894, Germany faced the possibility of fighting a war on two fronts.
The German Schlieffen Plan devised in 1905, called for a rapid and concentrated German drive into France which would encircle and trap the French army at Alsace-Lorraine. The plan counted on the slow mobilisation of Russian forces and that the main German army would sweep through Belgium and northern France and secure Paris. They would then turn and catch the beleaguered French forces in a pincer movement at the Alsace-Lorraine border. With France defeated, Germany would transfer the majority of its own forces across Germany in order to meet the Russian advance.

On 1st August, France mobilised its forces and prepared for war. On August 3rd German, as per the Schlieffen Plan, declared war on France. Germany demanded that its troops be allowed pass through Belgium and when Belgium refused this request and claimed neutrality, Germany invaded. With this action, Britain immediately demanded that Germany respect Belgian neutrality and withdraw her forces. When Germany refused, Britain, on the 4th August 1914 declared war on Germany. The First World War had Begun.

How The Great War Saved The British Army

Curragh camp looking South East (authors collection)

One hundred years ago this year, March 1914 to be precise, events at the British army camp on the Curragh, in County Kildare, Ireland, had a disastrous effect on discipline within the army and inflicted irretrievable damage on the careers of many leading figures within its ranks. The events have gone down in history as the Curragh Mutiny, although one may argue that the name is not strictly accurate as no British army officer mutinied by refusing to obey an actual order.

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A Call to Arms

British troops leaving the Curragh August 1914 (John Henderson)

From 1700 to the end of World War One, it is estimated that two million Irishmen died fighting for King and country. The laws restricting Catholics from enlistment were relaxed in the 1700s, thus encouraging thousands of Irish men to join non-Irish regiments stationed in Ireland. While many men enlisted for different reasons, adventure, the chance to travel, the eligibility for promotion or to escape economic hardship, the reasons often outweighed the dangers of being killed in battle or taken by disease in places far from Ireland.

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Shells and Shamrocks


2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. Commemorations and remembrance ceremonies relating to those who fought and died in this conflict are being planned and carried out throughout the world. However, there is one group that has been forgotten; the female munitions workers. Many gave their lives for war production and in Dublin, Ireland, these women also worked to feed the endless amount of artillery pieces with shells. The women who worked within the National Shell Factory located on Parkgate Street Dublin are one such group.

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