In summer 1914 Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom, stood on the brink of civil war. Parliament had voted for Home Rule - limited self-government - for Ireland, a controversial and divisive policy.
One result of this was that both those in favour of Home Rule and those against it organised their own armed forces: the anti-Home Rule Ulster Volunteer Force and the pro-Home Rule Irish Volunteers.
Here’s how a divided Ireland ended up supplying 200,000 men to fight Britain's cause against Germany.
Some of the items below are on display in our First World War Galleries. You can use this article to guide you to their location in the galleries. We have also included additional information that sheds light on the story of the Ireland's contribution to the war effort.
How Many Irish Soldiers?
You can see this letter in the 'Shock' area of our First World War Galleries.
Lieutenant Neville Woodroffe of the 1st Irish Guards wrote this letter on 3 November 1914. Three days later he was killed during the First Battle of Ypres.
The British Expeditionary Force that left for France in the early days of the war contained several units from Irish regiments. Their ranks had also traditionally included English Roman Catholics.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914 there were around 30,000 Irish men serving in the British Army. Those serving overseas were recalled back to Britain and another 30,000 reservists were called up.
Estimates of how many Irish men fought in the First World War vary, but it is now generally accepted that around 200,000 soldiers from the island of Ireland served over the course of the war. The majority of them would not be the professional soldiers and Territorials who fought in those first clashes in 1914, but volunteers.
The 10th (Irish) Division At Gallipoli
You can see this map of Gallipoli in the 'World War' area of our First World War Galleries.
Among the units that took part in the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli campaign was the 10th (Irish) Division. It was the first of three new Irish divisions to be created in August 1914 and formed part of Kitchener’s first New Army. Its men, noted The Irish Times, were drawn from all classes.
The 10th Division was involved in the chaotic Suvla Bay landings in August 1915, and its attacks on Turkish positions at 'Chocolate Hill' and Kiretch Tepe Sirt ridge led to significant casualties. Lack of water and the fierce Turkish summer sun also took their toll on the men. After just two months, half of the 10th Division’s 17,000 soldiers were dead, missing, injured or sick.
The 10th (Irish) Division After Gallipoli
The 10th Division was withdrawn from Gallipoli at the end of September 1915. Its soldiers next saw action on the Serbian frontier against Bulgarian forces. The Division endured a freezing winter with many men suffering from exposure and frostbite. Captain N E Drury of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers wrote in his diary, 'Our overcoats are frozen hard, and when some of the men tried to beat theirs to make them pliable to lie down in they split like match wood.'
The 10th Division ultimately became part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. It fought in the November 1917 Third Battle of Gaza, facing extreme heat, sandstorms and lack of water, before joining in the capture of Jerusalem the following month.
36th (Ulster) Division On The Somme
You can see this German MG08 machine gun in the 'Total War' area of our First World War Galleries.
The 36th (Ulster) Division mainly comprised men from the northern counties of Ireland. Many of them were former members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been organised before the war to resist Home Rule. For 36th (Ulster) Division, the 'Big Push' on the Somme would be its first major action after arriving in France in October 1915. Many of its soldiers would be cut down by one of these weapons, the German MG08 machine gun.
At 7.30am on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the soldiers of 36th (Ulster) Division began their advance towards the German lines. Their objective was the capture of the Schwaben Redoubt, a German defensive structure built to withstand heavy artillery attack. Colonel William Savage, who commanded 13th Royal Irish Rifles - one of the battalions which made up the Division - reported that, 'Directly the start was made the German MGs could be heard firing at once. From this time I received no messages, & the Companies were lost.' One soldier from the Division man described how bullets could be seen in the air looking like a 'fine shower of hail'. The Division nonetheless managed to seize its objective, one of the few to do so. Yet lacking support and running out ammunition, it was forced to withdraw.
That day, over one in three of the 15,000 soldiers in 36th Division became a casualty and 2,000 lay dead. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to officers and men of the Division for their gallantry in the attack on the Schwaben Redoubt, two of them posthumously.
16th (Irish) On The Somme
You can see this British 9.2-inch howitzer in the 'Total War' area of our First World War Galleries.
The Battle of the Somme was a series of overlapping battles fought over five months. The scale and ferocity of the British attacks shocked German soldiers. Those attacks were carried out with artillery, such as this 9.2-inch howitzer, and with unprecedented numbers of British and Empire soldiers. Before the conclusion of the Somme offensive, another Irish formation would play its part in this titanic struggle - 16th (Irish) Division.
The 16th (Irish) Division drew many of its recruits from the Irish National Volunteers, which was created before the outbreak of war to counter any armed opposition to the implementation of Home Rule. The Division landed in France in December 1915 and was in action two months later. In September 1916 on the Somme, it suffered over 4,000 casualties - of which 1,200 were killed - in ten days of fighting at Guillemont and Ginchy. Of Guillemont, one Irish officer wrote, 'There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes - a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim overlapping rim - and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead.'
The 16th (Irish) Division’s capture of Ginchy deprived the Germans of observation posts, from which they could observe the whole battlefield. It also eliminated the salient at Delville Wood, which had been subjected to German artillery fire from three sides as well as counter-attacks by German infantry through July and August.
16th (Irish) Division And 36th (Ulster) Division In Flanders
In June 1917, the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division fought at Messines in Belgium, capturing the village of Wytschaete at the top of the Messines Ridge. Both divisions went on to fight in the Third Battle of Ypres in August 1917 - usually referred to as Passchendaele - where they suffered heavy casualties.
Please note: This video contains no sound.
The Irish On The Western Front
This film shows the 36th (Ulster) Division, the 16th (Irish) Division and other Irish units on the Western Front between 1915 and mid-1917.
The Home Front In Ireland
Irish civilians played an important part in the war against Germany. In Belfast, 37,000 workers were involved in the shipbuilding industry during the war, whilst munitions factories could be found across Ireland. James Mackie & Sons in Belfast produced an estimated 75 million shells, whilst Kynoch’s in County Wicklow produced a hundred tons of cordite a week. Between February 1917 and the end of the war Dublin’s Great Southern and Western Railway Company produced almost a million fuze bodies.
State munitions factories were also established employing around 2,100 people, mostly women, in Cork, Dublin, Galway and Waterford. Although Irish women did not work in munitions factories in the numbers seen in Britain, their numbers were sufficient to raise a moral panic about their behaviour which led to the setting up of patrols to police the off duty conduct of the women. One patrol member claimed, 'I have turned my flashlight into dark doorways and corners in laneways and disclosed scenes that are truly indescribable'.
Irish women also took on jobs traditionally done by men such as working as bus conductors, farm hands and office clerks. Many women were also involved in voluntary roles such as fundraising and preparing comfort packages for troops.
You can see this fretwork figure of a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse - made by a disabled ex-serviceman - in the 'At All Costs' area of our First World War Galleries.
During the war many Irish women worked as nurses. Some were professional nurses, others volunteered for the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), the Red Cross and other organisations.
The exact number of Irish women who took on nursing roles is not clear. Many joined British organisations such as the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service, but it has been suggested that at least 4,500 Irish women served as VADs. Nurses served at the fronts, in some cases losing their lives, and in Britain and Ireland looking after injured soldiers. One soldier of the 36th Division, fighting in the Battle of the Somme, described how he watched '… our women workers, nurses and drivers, working at terrific speed, under fire, but working, and doing their job magnificently.'
The Easter Rising
Not all Irish men and women supported Britain's cause. This photograph shows a captured Irish rebel being led away by British soldiers during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. On 24 April 1916, Easter Monday, Irish republican rebels began an armed revolt to further the cause of Irish independence. Their insurrection did not go as planned.
The Royal Navy had intercepted the rifles and guns which Germany had sent to arm them, and many people in Ireland opposed armed revolt or were reluctant to take part. The result was that the Easter Rising was confined to Dublin, with only around 1,000 rebels taking part.
Britain sent troop reinforcements into Dublin and a week of fierce street fighting followed. An estimated 300 civilians, 60 rebels, and 130 British soldiers and police were killed or wounded. On Friday 28 April, vastly outnumbered, the rebels surrendered.
The following month, 90 participants in the Rising were court-martialled and sentenced to death. Fourteen were executed by firing squad. One of them, James Connolly, had been badly wounded and was unable to stand. He was shot whilst tied to a chair. Many other rebels, including future Taoiseach and President Eamonn de Valera, were imprisoned without trial in Britain. The brutality of Britain’s response to the Easter Rising would generate much sympathy in Ireland for the rebels and their cause.
More objects and photographs about the Easter Rising can be seen in the 'At All Costs' area of our First World War Galleries.
Please note: This video contains no sound.
This film depicts scenes in Dublin on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918. That day marked an end to the fighting that had left many thousands of Irish men dead.
It is not clear precisely how many Irish soldiers were killed in the First World War. Estimates vary from the 27,405 calculated in 1926 by the Registrar General of the Irish Free State to the 49,435 listed in Ireland’s Memorial Records. The latter figure probably includes men born outside Ireland but serving in Irish units. Historians today tend to use a figure of between 27,000 and 35,000 men killed.
You can see this Thompson sub-machine gun in the 'War Without End' area of our First World War Galleries.
For Ireland, the aftermath of the First World War took on a form wholly different to that in England, Scotland and Wales. The end of war did not bring peace, but instead armed rebellion and civil war. This Thompson sub-machine gun was one of a number smuggled into Ireland from 1921 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in its fight to end British rule.
The execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising had swelled support for a republican movement that demanded complete independence from Britain. In the general election of 1918, the Irish republican party - Sinn Fein - won a majority, set up their own parliament in Dublin and proclaimed Ireland a republic. When Britain tried to suppress the republicans, the situation in Ireland rapidly became a bloody guerrilla war, with both sides resorting to brutal tactics and atrocities.
Widespread revulsion in Britain forced the government to negotiate. In December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. It saw the establishment of an independent Irish Free State, while six northern counties with a strong Protestant majority remained part of the United Kingdom. It was not, however, the end of the violence. From 1922 to 1923, anti-Treaty republicans, who demanded independence for all Ireland, fought a bitter civil war against the forces of the Irish Free State, which emerged victorious.
The Legacy Of The First World War
In the counties that remained part of the United Kingdom, the 36th (Ulster) Division’s role at the Battle of the Somme became and remains a key aspect of the unionist community’s identity and heritage. The situation was different for soldiers returning to what became in 1922 the Irish Free State - modern day Ireland. They faced hostile treatment from the authorities, including being barred from holding civil service positions.
Yet in recent years, attitudes regarding Irish participation in the First World War have changed. In 1998 the Island of Ireland Peace Park near Messines in Belgium was opened. The park seeks to commemorate 'the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland' who fought in the First World War.
In July 2014 Irish President Michael D Higgins attended the dedication of a cross of sacrifice at Ireland’s Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. In his address, President Higgins said, 'We cannot give back their lives to the dead, nor whole bodies to those who were wounded, or repair the grief, undo the disrespect that was sometimes shown to those who fought or their families. ... To all of them in their silence we offer our own silence, without judgement, and with respect for their ideals, as they knew them, and for the humanity they expressed towards each other.'