Irish Emigrants and the Great War
On the 11th of November 1918 the Armistice took effect, which finally brought an end to the first World War. The conflict lasted for over 4 years from 1914 to 1918, and involved a total of nearly 70 million combatants, with fighting taking place in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, China, the Indian Ocean, and off the coast of South and North America.
Some 300,000 of these combatants were Irish. 200,000 of them fought within the Irish regiments and divisions of the British Army, as the island of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom during this period. Many others also signed up and fought in the armies of other countries that many Irish people had emigrated to.
Australia was as popular a destination for Irish emigrants at the start of the 20th century as it is in the 21st. Historian Dr. Jeff Kildea estimates that around 6,600 Irish born men and women enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, which was combined with the forces of New Zealand to become known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or ANZAC. There was no conscription in Australia, but many citizens were keen to sign up to support Britain and protect Australian interests in the Pacific from German interference.
The ANZAC forces have become particularly synonymous with the assault and battle at Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. The ANZAC forces fought alongside many other Allied nations at Gallipoli, including Britain, France, India and French Africa. Three Irish regiments and the 10th (Irish) Division were also deployed to Gallipoli as part of British Army.
Untold Veteran Stories
So who were the men and women who enlisted? Kildea’s research has unearthed a wealth of fascinating stories, including that of Martin O’Meara of Tipperary, one of only 64 Australians to receive the Victoria Cross. At the Battle of Somme, he repeatedly rescued wounded men from No Man’s Land and was described by a Lieutenant Lynas as ‘the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen.’
He also mentions Father John Fahey, originally from Tipperary, and the longest serving frontline chaplain in the First World War, who was awarded a Distinguished Service Order. He wrote dispatches on his time at Gallipoli which were published by the Australian papers.
Other soldiers include Everard Digges LaTouche from County Down and Private Patrick Morgan from County Antrim. Though the former was an opponent of Home Rule and the latter from a family with a history of involvement in the struggle for Irish independence, both died at the battle of Lone Pine at Gallipoli in 1915.
The ANZAC casualties at Gallipoli are counted at 26,000 and the death toll is 8,141, and many Australians see the ANZAC experience at Gallipoli as a formative moment in the birth of an Australian nation; the first time Australian forces fought together against a common foe. The Irish men and women who served in the ANZAC forces can claim a place in that history. You can read a more detailed account of the history of the Irish ANZAC soldiers by Dr. Jeff Kildea here.
Loss and Conflict
In all it’s estimated that close to 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians died during the war. 50,000 Irish soldiers lost their lives fighting in World War I, with countless others returning wounded with serious physical injuries, and suffering extreme mental trauma.
The Irish regiments included: Royal Irish Regiment, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Rifles, Princess Victoria’s (Royal Irish Fusiliers), Connaught Rangers, Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Numerous other Irish brigades were formed in other armies, notably the Tyneside Irish Brigade (in Newcastle, England), Canada’s 199th (Duchess of Connaught’s Own Irish Rangers) Battalion, CEF, and the Irish American 69th Infantry Regiment in the United States.
At EPIC our Conflict gallery tells the story of Irish emigrants who fought in foreign armies and conflicts all over the world, from the 17th century to present day. Our interactive table tells the story of Emma Duffin, a nurse who served throughout the war and kept a detailed diary of the war. It also tells the story of George McElroy. McElroy had survived a gas attack in 1915, and by 1916 was stationed in Dublin. With the outbreak of Easter Rising, McElroy refused orders to open fire on the rebels, insisting he could not shoot upon his own countrymen. Amazingly he escaped a court martial, and in 1917 joined the Royal Flying Corps where he became one of the top-scoring air aces.