Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses discipline and morale in the Irish regiments during 1914–18 and illustrates that, during the Great War, Irish soldiers committed a large number of disciplinary offences. This, in turn, questions the conclusions of some previous works on this subject. In general, it appears that the number of men tried by courts martial was generally higher in Irish than in English, Scots or Welsh units. It also appears that Irish soldiers were more likely to be involved in crimes involving drunkenness or serious indiscipline, and that the number of mutinies committed in Irish units during the Great War appears to be out of proportion to the number of Irish units in the British army. While the numbers of soldiers tried by courts martial in Irish units were generally higher than those in other British units, this does not necessarily mean that discipline was generally worse in Irish units. This study also suggests that morale remained high in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) throughout the war, questioning the views of other historians that crises of morale occurred in the BEF during the winters of 1914/15 and 1917/18, and during and immediately after the German Spring Offensive of 1918.
This study of discipline and morale in the Irish regiments between 1914 and 1918 has shown that during the Great War, Irish soldiers committed a large number of disciplinary offences. This, in turn, questions the conclusions of some previous works on this subject.1 In general terms, it appears that the number of men tried by courts martial was generally higher in Irish than in English, Scots or Welsh units. It appears that Irish soldiers were more likely to be involved in crimes involving drunkenness or serious indiscipline (which, of course, could be closely interrelated) and the number of mutinies committed in Irish units during the Great War appears to be out of proportion to the number of Irish units in the British army.
While the numbers of soldiers tried by courts martial in Irish units was generally higher than that in other British units, this does not necessarily mean that discipline was generally worse in Irish units. British army officers did see the Irish soldier as being distinct from his English counterpart and it does seem likely that Irish soldiers were tried by courts martial for offences where an English soldier would simply have appeared before his CO. On more specific issues attention must be given to the operation of British military law during the Great War, the differences between discipline in regular and New Army units, the political and manning pressures on Irish regiments, the differences between Irish units serving on the Western Front and in other theatres of war and, finally, the attempts made to maintain morale in Irish units during the Great War.
(p.203) The operation of military law in the British army during the Great War was rather more just than some historians have allowed. This study has shown that most British soldiers appearing before courts martial during 1914 to 1918 were sentenced to nothing more severe than short terms of field punishment and executions were an unusual but at times necessary aspect of life in the Irish regiments during the Great War. On the rare occasions when executions were carried out ‘for the sake of example’, there is some evidence to suggest that this had the intended impact; for example, in the 107th Brigade of the 36th (Ulster) Division in early 1916.
During the entire war there was generally a clear distinction between regular and New Army battalions in disciplinary terms. Regular battalions largely had higher numbers of men tried by court martial than their New Army counterparts. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, for example the 6th Connaught Rangers had a courts martial pattern which was similar to regular, rather than New Army, trends. In the early years of the war, this does seem to be easily explained. Many regular soldiers had committed offences in peacetime and thus were tried by courts martial when they re-offended on active service. By contrast, men serving in New Army units normally began the war with unblemished records and were initially punished by their CO rather than being referred to a court martial.
As the war went on, it is more difficult to account for this differentiation between regular and New Army battalions, especially as post 1916 both were receiving replacements from exactly the same sources. However, the initial attitude of New Army battalion COs may account for this difference. Many COs, especially in the 36th (Ulster) Division, recognised that they were dealing with ‘temporary soldiers’ and made allowances for this. For example, in the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, Lieutenant Colonel Chichester always referred to his men as ‘Young Citizens’ and the original Adjutant refused to have men tried by courts martial for desertion.2 However, this recognition of ‘citizen soldiers’ was by no means universal. The high courts martial record in the 6th Connaught Rangers is directly attributable to the fact that this battalion's first CO, Lieutenant Colonel John Lenox-Conyngham, ran it like a regular battalion.3
(p.204) This differentiation between New Army units merits some further comment. Lenox-Conyngham's methods appear to have been, at least initially, unpopular. No less than three mutinies occurred during the 6th Connaught Rangers’ training period in Ireland. Nevertheless, Lenox-Conyngham was seen as an efficient CO by his subordinate officers,4 and he survived the purge of senior officers in the 16th (Irish) Division in late 1915, presumably by Major General Hickie, the then GOC of the Division. Also, the 6th Connaught Rangers had an enviable combat record in France, their disbandment in 1918 being one of the last of Irish Service battalions and largely due to recruiting problems in Ireland. By contrast, the 14th Royal Irish Rifles, whose original CO took a more lenient view of indiscipline amongst his ‘citizen soldiers’, was not a successful combat unit. A good courts martial record in this battalion disguised a large number of leadership problems and when this unit was disbanded in 1917, Major General Oliver Nugent, GOC of the 36th (Ulster) Division, made it quite clear that this was due to its poor performance in action.5
An important point which has emerged from this study is that each battalion has its own distinctive courts martial record. When discussing morale and discipline in Irish units on the Western Front, the careers of fifty-six separate infantry battalions and six cavalry regiments are being examined, not one homogeneous body.
Social composition may also have affected discipline in New Army battalions. For example, in the 36th (Ulster) Division, the 14th Royal Irish Rifles was seen as socially superior to the other Belfast-raised battalions in this formation: the 8th, 9th, 10th and 15th Royal Irish Rifles.6 This may, at least partially, account for the differing courts martial records in these units. It is also noticeable that commanders still prized Irish rural rather than urban recruits,7 which may also have accounted for the varying court martial rates within divisions.
Political pressure was present in Irish units from the beginning of the war, and proved to be a very mixed blessing. Ulster Unionist support for the 36th (Ulster) Division did see this formation supplied with equipment, arms and some trained officers long before its sister divisions in ‘K6’. However, this political support came at a high price. Many officers who were (p.205) not fit for active service commands were appointed to the division more on the basis of their political contacts than their military capabilities. Two leading examples of this political jobbery are the appointments of Colonel Couchman, who had been the Belfast UVF commander, as the GOC of the 107th Brigade and Captain James Craig, MP as the Division's Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Couchman was removed from his command shortly after the 107th Brigade arrived in France due to the poor standard of training in this formation.8 Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel James Craig was ill during most of 1915 and early 1916 and therefore unable to fulfill his duties in the 36th (Ulster) Division.9 The politicisation of the 36th (Ulster) Division had other serious side-effects. The identification of the Division with the UVF meant that recruiting was hampered as Catholic recruits were reluctant to join this formation. Likewise the proposal that units in the Division should wear UVF style badges seemed to threaten the entire regimental system, which British army officers saw as essential in maintaining morale.
IPP influence on the 16th (Irish) Division was considerably less than that exerted by the Ulster Unionists on the 36th (Ulster) Division; however, it too led to problems. With the 47th Brigade being dubbed the ‘Irish brigade’ and appealing for recruits from the INV, the regimental recruiting system was thrown into chaos. While 600 INV from Belfast joined the 6th Connaught Rangers, the 7th Royal Irish Rifles, a Belfast-based unit in the less politically favoured 48th Brigade, was starved of recruits. Lieutenant General Sir Lawrence Parsons spent a considerable amount of time dealing with political issues such as to what units recruits were being posted, where officers came from and the badges used by the 16th (Irish) Division. This time could have been much better spent by Parsons in drawing up a proper training schedule for his division.
Post 1916 events in Ireland appear to have soured attitudes to Irish soldiers. While there is little evidence to suggest that soldiers in Irish units felt any sympathy for the Sinn Fein movement, Irish battalions were treated with mistrust by other units. This may partly account for the black propaganda campaign surrounding the retreat of the 16th (Irish) Division in March 1918. Certainly the removal of Irish Special Reserve battalions (p.206) from Ireland in 1917 and 1918 and the almost indecent haste with which some Irish Service battalions were disbanded, does suggest that the War Office was concerned about Sinn Fein infiltration into Irish units, however little basis this had in reality.
During the Great War, Irish units, like most units of the BEF, faced serious manning problems. However, the decision not to introduce conscription in Ireland greatly exacerbated this problem. The impact of this was that many Irish Service battalions were reinforced with drafts from Great Britain and, then Irish regular battalions had to resort to a policy of ‘cannibalising’ their Service battalions for men. The effect of this on the disciplinary record of the Irish units is difficult to assess. Certainly, there was no drastic change in the courts martial patterns in Irish Service battalions when they received non-Irish drafts. Conversely, many officers and men in Service battalions resented the disbandment of their units. This resentment appears to have found expression in the mutiny of a large number of men in the 2nd and 7th Royal Irish Regiment, the 7/8th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 49th Company, Machine Gun Corps in April 1918 when their units were due to be reduced.
While in other regiments of the British army, the most junior battalions were disbanded first in the face of increasing manpower problems, this was not the case in Irish battalions. A number of Irish units appear to have been disbanded due to disciplinary, rather than recruiting problems. Thus, the 7th Royal Irish Rifles, the most senior Royal Irish Rifles Service battalion in France, was the first to be disbanded, largely due to disciplinary problems and feared Sinn Fein infiltration. By contrast, the 16th Royal Irish Rifles, the most junior service battalion of the Regiment in France, survived until the Armistice.
As examined in chapters 6 and 7 it appears, based on the sample of Irish units used, that troops serving in the United Kingdom or in other theatres of war were generally worse disciplined than those serving on the Western Front. Indeed, discipline drastically improved in battalions of the 10th (Irish) Division when they were transferred from the Middle East to France in 1918.
Troops serving in the United Kingdom appear to have had higher military crime rates for very good reasons. The closeness (p.207) of home and familiarity with the area in which a unit was stationed meant that absence and desertion were more prevalent in reserve battalions. Soldiers must have been aware that the sentence for desertion while their unit was based in the United Kingdom would be much less harsh than when they were on active service.
With regard to soldiers serving in other theatres of war, the situation is more complicated. It does seem more than coincidental that Irish regular battalions, with good disciplinary records in France, were transferred to other theatres. Such units appear to have maintained good disciplinary records when serving elsewhere. By contrast, Irish Service battalions serving at Gallipoli, Salonika and in the Middle East appear to have, generally, experienced worse courts martial records than their sister Service battalions serving in France. One can only suppose that the extreme weather conditions, endemic malaria in Salonika and the feeling amongst troops that by fighting Turks and Bulgarians, they were not fighting the ‘real’ enemy, led to low morale which manifested itself in high levels of indiscipline.
As has been demonstrated, no concerted attempts were made by the High Command to address the issue of troop morale in the BEF. In the Irish regiments, a mixture of regimental traditions and battalion sports were utilised to improve morale. A number of officers procured gifts for their men and battalion chaplains aided morale, not only through the spiritual comfort which they afforded men, but also in more practical ways.
At the divisional level attempts were also made to improve morale. Both the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, like other units of the BEF, organised divisional baths. The 36th (Ulster) Division had its own comforts fund and portable cinema. Divisional sports proved popular, while both divisions issued their own gallantry certificates to deserving officers and other ranks. To modern eyes, these measures may appear far from innovative; however, they generally seem to have been successful in maintaining morale in Irish units.
One must address the question of what the experience of the Irish units on the Western Front tells us about the experience of the BEF as a whole? The answer may well be very little. This study has demonstrated that discipline and morale varied at the battalion, let alone the brigade or divisional level. It would (p.208) appear that, generally, Irish units had worse courts martial records than their English, Scottish or Welsh counterparts. Certainly, the number of mutinies which occurred in Irish units is out of all proportion to their number in the British army.
This study also suggests that morale remained high in the BEF throughout the war questioning the views of other historians that crises of morale occurred in the BEF during the winters of 1914/15 and 1917/18 and during and immediately after the German Spring Offensive of 1918. The introduction of conscription in Britain led to few disciplinary problems in the BEF; courts martial rates were much higher in 1914–15 than 1917–18.
In terms of morale, it is worth quoting the view of Major W. A. Montgomery, 9th Royal Irish Rifles, in August 1917, ‘Morale. I have heard of it. It is taught. Thank God it just IS anywhere I have had to do with men up to now.’10 It appears that Montgomery's comment could have been applied to almost any Irish unit serving on the Western Front at any point of the war. The unique British regimental system, officer–man relations in the British army, and the fact that the BEF did not reach its peak strength on the Western Front until 1916, all help to explain why the BEF, unlike most European armies during the Great War, did not face serious morale problems.
(1) T. Denman, ‘The Catholic Irish Soldier in the First World War: The “Racial Environment”’, Irish Historical Studies, XXVII, 108, 1991, p. 360.
(2) Royal Ulster Rifles Museum, Anon, ‘Service with the 14th Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (Young Citizen Volunteers), 1914–18 War’, p. 42.
(3) IWMSA, 11214/2, interview with Colonel F. W. S. Jourdain.
(4) See Captain Stephen Gwynn's comments in, M. Lenox-Conyngham, An Old Ulster House and the People who Lived in it (Dundalgan Press, Dundalk, 1946), pp. 225–6.
(5) PRONI, MIC/571/10, Farren Connell papers, letter, Nugent to the Adjutant General, 11 December 1917.
(6) E. Mercer, ‘For King, Country and a Shilling a Day: Recruitment in Belfast during the Great War, 1914–18’, unpublished MA dissertation, Queen's University of Belfast, 1998, p. 10.
(8) PRONI, D.3835/E/2/5/8, Farren Connell papers, letter, Nugent to his wife, 10 October 1915.
(9) PRO, WO339/3792, personal file of Lieutenant Colonel James Craig.
(10) PRONI, D.2794/1/1/30, letter, Major W. A. Montgomery to his parents, 17 August 1917.