From Gallipoli to Salonika and the Balkans, to the Calvary of Passchendaele

A hellish conflict united Irish soldiers from both sides of the religious divide

In the wake of their costly participation in the Somme campaign, the two Irish infantry divisions that had served so far in France were moved north to Flanders. The high attrition rate at the Somme – there were more than 4,000 casualties in the 16th Division and more than 5,000 in the 36th – meant new recruits were needed.

As recruitment had diminished in Ireland, soldiers were transferred from other units of the British army. New conscripts were also beginning to arrive from Britain. The distinctive unionist culture of the 36th and the nationalist ethos of the 16th were being diluted.

Nonetheless, when the divisions were brought together in Flanders, in the same corps of the Second Army, they were tasked with fighting side by side at the Battle of Messines. This was an opportunity to salvage John Redmond’s dream of an Irish postwar brotherhood forged by soldiering against a common foe.

After the battle had finished, in mid-June 1917, the story emerged of how Redmond's brother, Willie, had died in action after being retrieved from the battlefield by Pte John Meeke, a stretcher bearer in the 36th Division. Despite Maj Willie Redmond's demise, the manner of his death had the potential to embellish the Redmondite narrative. Here was an edifying instance of shared courage and reconciliation on the Western Front. A nationalist MP in a British officer's uniform had been cared for by a young man who had been a member of the prewar Ulster Volunteer Force. He was wounded himself in the process of bringing his Irish political enemy in from the battlefield.


It is important that the Irish focus on 1917 not be confined to Messines

In recent times this narrative has been given commemorative weight by those who diligently search for benign elements within this divisive period of Irish history, a decade, from 1912 to 1922, that manifested deep political antagonisms, sectarian violence and, ultimately, the partition of this island.

But it is important that the Irish focus on 1917 not be confined to Messines or, indeed, the protracted battles that followed on the Flanders front, including the bloodbath of Passchendaele.

A year that changed the world

This was, after all, a year that changed the world, and Ireland with it. It was the year of the Russian Revolution and the year when the United States exerted its financial, industrial and, ultimately, military muscle on the side of the Entente Cordiale. It is the year that heralded the beginning of the end for Turkey's Islamic empire in the Middle East and the year of the Balfour Declaration, which pointed towards a Palestinian homeland for Jews. Important elements of future global conflict were emerging.

So, unsurprisingly, Irish military history includes stories from 1917 that are linked to this global politics. The 10th Division is worthy of mention, for this third body of Irish infantrymen spent 1917 either assisting the British army in its conquest and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire or fighting Bulgaria, its Balkan ally.

In 1915 it had been withdrawn from Gallipoli with a dire casualty list and sent to Salonica to take part in the Macedonian campaign, whose aim was to support Serbia and push back the Bulgarians. In June 1917, as the two other Irish infantry units experienced success at Messines, the men of the 10th still toiled in this very different war zone.

The Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, while serving with the 10th, encountered long lines of refugees making their way across the Balkan hills, victims of what we have all come to know as ethnic cleansing. Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serb and Albanian clashed with one another before his eyes. He saw the signs on shopfronts in Balkan villages being replaced with others in a different alphabet, as waves of microconquest and ethnic reappropriation swept the region.

Other Irish soldiers, as prisoners of war, witnessed scenes of torture and execution as Balkan rivals took revenge on one another.

At one stage the 10th Division occupied trenches that local militias had used during the bloody conflicts that had swept the region before the Great War. In these conflicts, the first and second Balkan Wars, the crumbling European empire of the Turks had battled it out with successor states. And they in turn fought one another for territory.

Diluted Irish identity

The division left Salonica for the Middle East in September 1917. With its Irish identity very much diluted, it would take part in the war against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. In December Gen Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem with his troops and Islamic control of this contested holy city came to an end. Then, after the Great War had concluded, the following year, British forces would occupy Constantinople, the caliphate would eventually fall and the Anglo-French conquerors would divide and control the Middle East in an enterprise whose bitter long-term consequences are witnessed today on our television screens.

An overemphasis on the Irishmen who fought together in Flanders can perhaps deflect us from a crucial understanding that Irish servicemen in the British forces were in fact agents of geopolitical change – something that is maybe more easily understood in locations farther from home. A visit to the military graveyards of the Dardanelles, Salonica, Mesopotamia and Palestine is capable of stirring us into that recognition.

Kantara War Memorial Cemetery, in Egypt, is one such example. Tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it lies not far from the Suez Canal. Buried there is Flight Lieut Henry Joy McCracken, who died on October 17th, 1917, as a member of the Royal Flying Corps.

His squadron was based in the area of Palestine now known as Gaza Strip, near a town called Deir al-Balah. Today this is the site of a camp that has housed Palestinian refugees for many decades, but back in October 1917 Gen Allenby's army was here, fighting for control of the Middle East. That battle required aerial power.

The pilot who is buried at Kantara was an experienced airman, despite his youth. From Belfast, he had been an apprentice manager in Ewart's prosperous linen business in the city when war began. Although his family name invokes the events of 1798, when another Henry Joy McCracken led an insurrection in Ulster, the young Irishman who lies at Kantara was there to fight a 20th-century aerial war on one of the modern world's most enduring geopolitical fault lines.

Post-Rising Ireland

But it is also important to recognise that in 1917, as British victory at Messines was being savoured, important political events were happening in post-Rising Ireland. Lines of division were deepening that place the generous courage of an Ulster Division stretcher bearer and the wounded soldier he was carrying into stark relief.

When a byelection was held in Willie Redmond’s East Clare constituency, in July 1917, the victor was Éamon de Valera. This Sinn Féin success was one in a sequence of electoral triumphs throughout 1917 – a sequence that presaged victory at the polls in the general election of December 1918.

During 1917 Willie Redmond had spoken in parliament during his spells of leave, emphasising the comradeship in arms that he had found in France and Flanders. And at his funeral a firing party from the 36th and 16th Divisions had released a volley of shots over his grave. But things were moving in other directions at home.

Back in February 1917 the Belfast News Letter, which was deeply unionist in its sentiments, had expressed shock and distaste at the recent electoral result in which Count Plunkett had been successful in North Roscommon. The editor thundered that "Home Rule is incompatible with loyalty to the United Kingdom", blaming the Irish Parliamentary Party for stirring up dissension and turmoil in the prewar period, as much as the separatist politics of the "Sinn Féiners".

In May the newspaper reported with horror the presence of a green, white and orange flag hanging from a window above a post office on Falls Road and the sight of youths “wearing republican colours” who were celebrating yet another byelection success, in South Longford.

Ironically, the electoral aftermath of Messines opened up the already widening gap between Redmond's nationalism and Ulster unionism

In June the Belfast News Letter gave a short account of the Battle of Messines and commented that "a very pleasing feature . . . is that Ulster regiments are fighting side by side with southern Irish battalions". But on July 12th de Valera's victory became the latest piece of distressing news to feature on its pages.

Speakers at the annual Orange celebrations that day also offered scathing criticisms of the Easter Rising and spoke glowingly about the sacrifice on the Somme. The News Letter opined that all forms of nationalism must be viewed as suspect – but at least Sinn Féin were "honest" about what they wanted and did not engage in "insincere talk", whereas the Irish Parliamentary Party of the Redmond brothers had, in the editor's opinion, given disingenuous lip service to the war while opposing conscription in Ireland and evincing "sympathy" with the rebels.

So, ironically, the electoral aftermath of Messines opened up the already widening gap between Redmond’s nationalism and Ulster unionism, despite collaboration between the two divisions on the field of battle.

Veterans’ parade

It is, then, interesting to fast-forward to the third anniversary of Messines, in 1920. A veterans' parade and Mass were held by the Irish National Veterans Association in central Belfast to commemorate the battle. In attendance were thousands of onlookers.

But within six weeks of this the association marched once more. This time it paraded along Falls Road, attending the funeral of six Catholics who had died in the recent surge of civic violence. In early August the association would boycott the official Peace Day parade in Belfast, protesting about the government’s failure to implement home rule and the dominant position given to the Ulster Division’s narrative in the commemorative events.

Perhaps because of this sad story of escalating tension and fractured public memory, it is all the more important to recognise Messines as a battle in which Irish soldiers fought and died, unionist and nationalist alike. Indeed it is important to remember those who died on all sides in the hell of wartime Flanders.

It is also valuable for those who work in the sphere of community relations to stress that this battle involved Irishmen of deeply opposed views who fought together.

But 1917 must also be seen as a year in which huge tides of change swept the world, including Ireland, where the pillars of empire were already beginning to quiver and where political divisions between unionist and nationalist were sliding downhill towards the street violence of 1920.

We also need to remember that the Irishmen who fought for Britain in 1917 were servants of an international alliance that, despite the catastrophic losses of the war, did achieve a final victory and then went on to attempt an ambitious and controversial reshaping of global affairs, both in Europe and in other theatres that the Irish and British public have all too readily forgotten.

Philip Orr is author of a number of books and dramas on aspects of Irish history, notably the experience of the first World War. They include The Road to the Somme and Field of Bones