An appetite for war

A peaceful graveyard and Irish soldiers’ graves ... how Germany wrote a “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary for its revenge on the Serbs and the corner of a German field that is forever Irish

A field of lush grass and a 3m-high Celtic high-cross in the German countryside are the last clues to a sad chapter of Irish history. A century ago this field outside Limburg, near Frankfurt, was the site of a camp for 10,000 prisoners of war, including 2,200 Irish officers in the British army.

The Irish men captured by German forces in the opening months of the first World War were collected here at the request of diplomat and revolutionary Roger Casement. He travelled to Berlin in October 1914 and found German officials were agreeable to assisting in his Irish liberation struggle in the hope of destabilising the British empire.

Key to Casement's mission to Germany was establishing an "Irish Brigade", drawing recruits from the Limburg camp. He travelled at least twice to the camp but sceptical Irish prisoners booed him out and Casement secured only 56 conscripts.

In the Limburg town archive, silvery images show how the empty field outside town was once a sprawling camp with half-timbered, single-storey barracks, a tidy hospital and even an ornate chapel.


Other propaganda images in a crumbling photo album show smiling men exercising or taking disinfection showers. A striking picture shows a coffin being carried to its grave with full military honours as a brass band plays.

That was the scene the day before Christmas eve in 1914 at the funeral of Fredrick Reilly. The 50-year-old Irish officer in the British army succumbed, records indicate, to a lung infection.

Before the war ended in 1918, at least 44 more Irish prisoners would die in the Limburg camp. All were buried with full military honours by their German captors. Today, a Fredrick Reilly Strasse overlooking the camp remembers its first Irish casualty. “It was a completely different attitude to war that’s hard for us to fathom today,” says local man Bernd Eufinger. “In the war a century ago, death ended the enmity.”

The respect shown to the Irish dead didn't end there. On May 25th 1917, Irish prisoners in the Limburg camp were allowed to erect a Celtic cross in the graveyard to honour their fallen comrades. Financed by the prisoners and created by a German stonemason the Nassauische Bote, a local paper, praised its "glorious" depiction of St Patrick. The cross was a worthy memorial both to the fallen soldiers and of British colonial oppression, the report said before concluding: "May the hour of liberation beckon soon for the Irish people."

In a yellowing school chronicle, in a hardbacked ledger, a Limburg school teacher also records the unveiling of the cross. “The dog (on the cross) is the emblem of alertness and looks to the future,” he wrote in a fine copperplate script. “The Irish people want to remain alert for the suitable moment for their liberation from long suffering.”

For town archivist Christoph Waldecker, these reports about the camp and its Irish internees indicate the prominent role both played in the area. "Having the camp has kept the first World War alive for people here, more so than elsewhere in Germany," he said.

The lead-up to war
For most Germans the first World War is many worlds away. Reaching pre-1914 Germany is a reverse obstacle of historical hurdles: German division and unification; the chill of the Cold War; the shadow of the Third Reich and the humiliating chaos of the Weimar Republic. Only then do you reach the moustached, bombastic figure of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prussian king and unpredictable German emperor.

His Germany was a young imperial power, a collection of kingdoms united under Prussian rule in 1871 following the victory over France, the despised Erbfeind, or "hereditary enemy".

This German Reich was a place of rapid industrialisation, technical progress and grinding poverty – overseen and exploited by an apathetic industrial class and a self-serving military elite.

Late to the table of world powers, this Germany felt pressure to justify a club membership it feared could be easily revoked. Behind the propaganda image of Kaiser Bill, the strings were pulled by a clique of generals, paranoid about being trapped between the military allies of France and Russia.

This overriding concern prompted Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Germany’s military chief of staff, to devise, in 1905, his eponymous war strategy. Germany could best secure its status in Europe, he argued, first by defeating France on the western front before, if required, shifting German troops quickly to face down Russia in the east.

His deputy, Friedrich von Bernhardi, in the 1912 book Germany and the next war, portrayed war as a biological necessity and the basis for a healthy human development. In short, military conflict was an unavoidable obligation for the new German Reich. Such views coloured opinion among Germany's national conservative elite and dominated the middle-class media.

In the lead-up to 1914, with fears of Russian militarisation driving Germany’s own arms build-up, the Schlieffen plan was adopted and modified by his successor as chief military strategist, Helmuth von Moltke.

He shared a common view that it would be better to take on Russia before it became too strong. Incoming foreign intelligence was framed accordingly for the Kaiser, such as news on April 1914, from German spies in London, that the British had signed a navy agreement with Russia. This, the generals argued, was proof that the wheels of war had been set in motion.

Two months later, Kaiser Wilhelm was shocked by the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent, who he had met just a fortnight previously. For his generals it was a welcome opportunity to test the waters with Russia.

Would the tsar step in to assist his traditional Serbian allies if Vienna moved on Belgrade? If so, would France and Britain assist Russia or decide Serbia was not worth the risk of a wider conflict?

Most German historians see imperial Berlin’s war-guilt here, egging on Vienna in July to see how Russia would react, like a child encouraging another to set the curtains alight to see if they burn.

For them, the spark was Kaiser Wilhelm’s “blank cheque” of July 5th, 1914, promising to “stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship” – a reference to the alliance with the Danube monarchy dating back to 1879.

For the next month, Berlin’s pursued a mixture of half-hearted and even duplicitous diplomacy, confusing other European powers about Germany’s intentions. Records suggest even the kaiser was confused. In early July he noted in his diary that it was “now or never . . . the Serbs need to be sorted out”; weeks later, seized by doubt, advisers reported Wilhelm delivered “confused speeches that make clear he doesn’t want a war anymore”. He urged Vienna to go easy on Serbia but failed to withdraw his blank cheque offering support.

When Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 29th, Russia mobilised a day later. After a reportedly tearful Kaiser signed the declaration of war on August 1st, he had little to say on military strategy: von Moltke activated his war plan.

Germany’s declaration of war was portrayed at home as a defensive step against Russian aggression and helped unite Berlin’s political parties behind the leadership.

On August 4th the Social Democrats (SPD) vowed they would “not let down the fatherland in its hour of need” and backed crucial loans to fund the war effort -- to the disgust of SPD voters who, a month earlier, had protested in their millions against “criminal warmongers” in Berlin.

The strategic shortcomings of von Moltke’s plan soon became apparent. He had not reckoned with Britain entering the war to support Belgium, nor had he anticipated strong Belgian resistance to the marching of his troops to France.

With hopes dashed of a quick victory over France and the Russians mobilising faster than Berlin anticipated, Germany now faced the very two-front war it had feared. The war deviated dangerously from his plan and, in September 1914, von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown and was removed.

The nerve of the German populace was similarly unstable. Behind the cheering propaganda images of soldiers marching to war, diaries of ordinary people reveal anxiety and doubt from the outset.

Artist Käthe Kollwitz reproached herself in her diary for letting her under-age son go to war: “What will the fatherland and the kaiser do when you’re all dead?”

Germany's cultural elite was starkly divided. Heinrich Mann watched as the serialisation of his novel Der Untertan (The Subject) was halted, so vicious was his satire of Prussian militarism. His brother Thomas, meanwhile, supported the Kaiser's effort to destroy the "depraved police state" of Tsarist Russia.

The mood of Germany’s war supporters darkened within weeks as the scale of the war unleashed became clear. By September German newspapers apologised to readers for no longer being unable to reprint in full the endless lists naming fallen soldiers.

By October 1914 a depressed Kaiser Wilhelm suggested the only option was for Germans to “go down with dignity”. After Germany’s defeat four years later, he took his own advice – albeit with considerably less dignity – and abdicated. The prisoner of war camp in Limburg survived both conflicts until post-war shortages of building materials saw the barracks dismantled to house German refugees. The remains of the fallen Irish soldiers were reinterred near Kassel in the 1960s and only the sandstone cross has remained.

Uniquely in Europe, Limburg locals are rightly proud of the massive structure. A poppy wreath is laid every Remembrance Sunday and, seven years ago, they restored the crumbling stone and added a bronze plaque listing the names of all Irish men once buried here.

Experiencing first-hand the love, care and respect with which the graveyard is maintained by Limburg volunteers is deeply humbling. “Young people today have everything ahead of them but these men died so young and not even for their own country,” said local woman Annegret Moth, choking back tears. “Every one of these names is important.”

Those important people lay here during those decades when it was a taboo to speak the names of Irish soldiers who died serving the British crown. Here in Limburg they were always remembered: John Nolan, 21; William Keane, 22; Patrick Kearns, 25; and 42 others.

Almost a century on, the Celtic cross is a small but important piece of an appalling wartime puzzle in a peaceful graveyard of terrible beauty. Breaking the silence, a bird chirps overhead then flies away.