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Archbishop Clarke reflects on World War One

Archbishop Clarke reflects on World War One

Tuesday 06 November 2018

The Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, reflects on the First World War, one hundred years on.

The sheer fascination that the First World War continues to exert – even a full century after its ending – may seem bewildering to many (and perhaps even rather misplaced), but there of course are sound reasons for the awe that this conflict in particular can still arouse. 

In the first place, the First World War was a new kind of war. The century before this confrontation began was an age, not only of empire but also of industrialisation for the northern hemisphere, and massive industrialisation inevitably affected weaponry. The means of destruction in war had become incrementally more deadly as the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth century. Expressed crudely, far more people could be killed more effectively, more quickly, with less effort, and over a far wider area when the Great War began than could ever have been conceivable at the Battle of Waterloo a century earlier. As means of transport and populations had also developed at a tremendous rate over the century, soldiers could now be mobilised extremely quickly in vast numbers. They could also fight, not simply in relatively short campaigns while weather permitted and supplies could be transported, but in a constant state of battle–readiness for years at a time, as the Great War indeed proved. 

Although the United Kingdom (which included the whole island of Ireland at that time) had a rather small standing army at the beginning of the War in comparison to the other countries engaged, some six million people from these islands as a whole were mobilised in the course of the conflict, of whom around 700,000 were killed. These figures were beyond anything that could have been imagined prior to 1914, and it was in the course of the First World War that the phrase ‘total war’ was first coined (by a German Zeppelin pilot, as it happens). A war between nation–states now affected an entire population. In parallel, it should also be emphasised that as a sense of nationhood and democracy itself had developed through the nineteenth century, the First World War was perceived as war between peoples for the survival of their own nation with all the personal and communal emotion that this would evoke, rather than as war as waged by rulers (sometimes for rather obscure reasons), from which most people could remain relatively detached. Soldiers in previous generations were of little interest to the population as a whole, and indeed the lower ranks in particular were treated with contempt by most people as violent ruffians. They were now heroic figures. Figures for the total number of deaths in the First World War are extremely difficult to estimate, but fifteen million (including civilians) would be a conservative estimate. The number of non–fatal casualties might be close to double this figure. The sheer scale of the War was truly unprecedented and cataclysmic in its impact. No–one in Britain or Ireland could claim either ignorance or total detachment.

When it comes to Ireland in particular, there is uncertainty with regard to figures for those who fought in the War. It is thought that around 200,000 may have fought, of whom more than 35,000 were killed (although some would put this latter figure rather higher, as many Irishmen fought in armies other than the British Army on the allied side). There were army divisions formed from both the northern and southern parts of the island. As there was no conscription in Ireland, the vast majority of those who fought were volunteers. When the War began, both unionist and nationalist politicians urged their followers to ‘join up’. Matters became steadily more complex, as an element within the separatist cause chose to use the European war as an opportunity to further their cause against Britain, hence the 1916 Rising. 

Peace ParkIt would be a travesty of history to argue that only those intent on maintaining the union with Great Britain joined the War on Britain’s side. It is clear that many who fought in the Irish divisions believed that their loyalty to Britain would ensure that Ireland would be given a degree of Home Rule when the War ended, just as many others believed equally that their commitment to Britain would guarantee that the Union would remain sacrosanct. There is no uncomplicated single narrative of motivation. The Irish Peace Park on the Messines Ridge in Belgium (right) is a symbol of how northern and southern soldiers, Protestants and Roman Catholics, unionists and nationalists, fought side by side and defended each other with loyalty and courage. Having travelled to the Peace Park twice (with Archbishop Eamon Martin) in the past couple of years, with groups of young people – Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic – I can affirm that no–one could fail to be moved by the sense of comradeship and courage that the Park evokes.

Sadly, for decades after the War, memories of the terrible conflict were deeply divisive in Ireland. Remembrance Sunday was a ‘Protestant’ matter, south as much as north. That this would be the case was recognised, even during the War. Tom Kettle, one–time nationalist MP, professor of economics, barrister, writer and general polymath, who died at Ginchy on the Somme in the autumn of 1916 was a friend of many of the 1916 leaders, even though he strongly disapproved of the Rising. He wrote sadly that the leaders of the Rising ‘will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.’ 

Thankfully, all this has changed in recent decades. We can now live with the sheer complexity of the First World War, and remain in genuine awe tinged with a profound sadness, at the waste of so much young life, even as we recall the sacrificial courage that those youthful lives expressed, many of them in the sincere belief that this terrible War was a war to destroy war itself. How mistaken they may have been, but their motivation cannot be gainsaid. And so, as we must, ‘we will remember them’.

This article was first published in the Church of Ireland Gazette.

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