The war that affected practically every aspect of life for the people of Bexhill and every other community in the country had not been entirely unexpected, but until just before it started most people would have been more concerned about matters closer to home. The British press had encouraged thoughts of war but it seemed unlikely that Britain would get involved in the arguments between nations on the continent of Europe other than in the realm of diplomacy.

There had been concern that the dramatic expansion of the German navy could present a threat to Britain’s trade routes and colonies but it was hoped this could be contained by the construction of more ships for the Royal Navy. However, a combination of events in continental Europe led to Britain being drawn into war and this process is outlined in Road to War.

Reading War Reports, Colonnade 1914

One of the political issues that had been causing concern for many years and thought more likely to result in conflict was the agitation in support of, and resistance to, the proposal for Home Rule in Ireland. Even in Bexhill, the local newspaper the Bexhill Observer dedicated more column inches to the problems in Ireland than it did on any potential conflict in Europe. It seemed that the matter might be resolved when the Home Rule Bill was finally passed just after the war had begun, although implementation was to be delayed for the duration of hostilities. While the country concentrated its efforts on the war, matters in Ireland continued to demand attention; Ireland and the First World War describes the events that exercised the British government before, during and immediately after the war.

Another matter that had caused increasing trouble for the British government was the campaign for women’s suffrage. Demands for the vote had been made for many years and towards the end of the nineteenth century some progress had been made by getting the vote in local government elections. The parliamentary vote was still denied and the campaign to gain it became split between the “Suffragists”, who hoped to achieve their objectives through peaceful lobbying, and the “Suffragettes”, who adopted a more militant, even violent, approach. The outbreak of war led to the end of the campaigning by all but a few and support for the war effort was to become a powerful bargaining tool for those supporting women’s rights.

The Road to War

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was like a spark that started the smouldering of a bonfire. The material for this bonfire had been created by a series of events over the previous decades and which would burst into flames a month later, enveloping most of Europe and many other parts of the world.
Title page of the Domenica del Corriere with a fantasy drawing by Achille Beltrame, how the assassination of Sarajevo could have happened.

By 1914, Europe had become divided into two camps, the Triple Entente, comprising Britain, France and Russia and the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Each group had been formed by nations which shared some common interests including fear of the intentions of one or other member of the opposing bloc.

It was because of these alliances that war became inevitable. After presenting Serbia (which it blamed for organising the assassination) with a list of impossible demands, Austria declared war on that country on 28 July. On 29 July, mobilization was ordered by Russia, taking up its role as protector of Serbia; because of this, Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August. Because of its obligation as an ally of Russia, France prepared for what it hoped would be a defensive war but on 3 August, Germany declared war on France anyway. The long prepared plan for a German invasion of France (the Schlieffen Plan) provided for the armies to go through Belgium. As a signatory to the Treaty of London 1839, Britain was a guarantor of the neutrality of Belgium so when the German armies invaded, Britain declared war on 4 August.

How had this state of affairs been reached? Since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Britain had tended to stand aloof from the rest of Europe as its interests lay more in its expanding empire which provided raw materials for its growing industries. The Royal Navy was the guardian of the trade routes which brought so much prosperity to the country. It was only when there was a potential threat to economic interests that Britain got involved.

Britain and France had not been the best of friends during the nineteenth century although they had found common cause against Russia in the Crimean War. France had eventually become more closely aligned with Russia as both saw Germany as a threat and they formed an alliance in 1894. Britain and France finally patched up their differences, thanks in part to the diplomatic skills of King Edward VII, when the Dual Entente was agreed in 1904; this became the Triple Entente in 1907 when Britain and Russia came to an understanding. Russia needed friends after a defeat by Japan in a war of 1904-05.

Germany was the driving force of the Triple Alliance. Until 1871, Germany had been a collection of smaller states, of which Prussia was the most powerful. Prussia had fought wars with its neighbours, Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-71); after the last of these, the German Empire had been created, with the Prussian king as emperor. The perceived threat from Russia in the east and France in the west caused Germany and Austria-Hungary to form the Dual Alliance in 1879, which became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882 (although, after secret negotiations with France, Italy would join the opposing side in the war in 1915).

There were two main areas which caused tension between the European powers; one was within Europe, the Balkans, in the south east of the continent; the other was in overseas colonies. The Balkans had been part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire but in the nineteenth century, many of the provinces had gained independence.

In 1912, the small Balkan nations had fought to take from the Turks most of their remaining European territory and achieved this in a war lasting barely two months; however, the following year another war was fought between Bulgaria and its former allies. Austria-Hungary was concerned at the strengthening of the states on or near its borders while Russia saw itself as the protector of the Slav peoples in the Balkans – hence there was a source of potential conflict between those two powers.

Outside Europe, several nations had established colonies and here was another source of conflict. Britain and France had competed for possessions in the Caribbean, in the East and in Africa. Germany had come to the race for colonies later than the others but had managed to claim a few areas in Africa: South West Africa (now Namibia) Tanganyika, Cameroon and Togo; and, in the far east, part of New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago and the Caroline, Mariana and Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It was Germany’s objection to the increasing influence of France in Morocco that led to a visit by the Kaiser to Tangier in 1905 when he indicated support for Moroccan independence; war was averted after the European powers attended a conference at the Spanish port of Algeciras the following year. A further crisis occurred in 1911 when the French sent troops to restore order in Fez, in response to which Germany sent a gunboat to the port of Agadir, ostensibly to protect its interests in the area. Britain backed France and Germany backed down.

Relations between Britain and Germany had become strained, particularly since the accession of Wilhelm II as Emperor in 1888. Wilhelm was a grandson of Queen Victoria and therefore Edward VII was his uncle and George V his cousin but these family connections did not prevent an increasing rivalry. During the Boer War of 1899-1902, Germany was regarded as a tacit supporter of the Boers. As unrest in Ireland grew, Germany was accused of supplying arms to both those seeking Home Rule and those who opposed it. Above all, there was the naval race, when Germany expanded its navy and both it and Britain sought to build larger ships with greater firepower.

While a few military men in each of the nations involved might have wanted to engage in hostilities, few of the leaders had sought such a drastic solution to their problems. But the road had been trodden and it led to war.

Ireland and the First World War

Before entering the First World War on 4 August 1914, the British government had been grappling with a number of domestic affairs, not least the matter of how Ireland should be governed. It seemed that a solution to the problem had been found, with the third Home Rule Bill (the previous two had been promoted in 1886 and 1893) about to reach the statute book.

The Parliament Act of 1911 had limited the power of the House of Lords to veto measures passed by the House of Commons to two years so although the Lords had rejected the bill three times since its introduction in 1912, the Commons were able to prevail.

There were still details to resolve, particularly with regard to the counties of the province of Ulster (six of the nine were to be excluded temporarily) but Asquith’s government was determined to get the act passed and thus it received the Royal Assent on 18 September 1914; however, commencement was postponed until the end of the war. Many Irishmen, both those who supported Home Rule and those who opposed it, joined the British forces, seeing in their different ways that the war was essentially about freedom. But others sought to bring about a greater freedom for Ireland before the war ended.

Political expediency had caused Home Rule to become an urgent problem for the Liberal government. When the Liberals had regained office at the end of 1905, confirmed by a landslide victory in the general election of 1906, social reform was a more important issue than Ireland. In 1910 there were two general elections; in the first, the Liberals lost their overall majority and fared no better in the second. The votes of the Irish Nationalist members of parliament then became essential for the Liberals’ reform agenda to succeed; the price was to deal with the Home Rule issue.

Opposition to Home Rule came from the Conservatives and Unionists in parliament and in Ireland from the Ulster Protestants. Some half a million people signed the Ulster Covenant, declaring they would not recognise the authority of an Irish parliament. In addition, the Ulster Volunteer Force was created to oppose the proposals by force if necessary. The response on the part of Home Rule supporters, particularly members of Sinn Fein (who thought that the proposed legislation did not go far enough), was to establish the Irish Volunteers and so there were two armed camps with the potential to start a civil war. In March 1914, when there were fears on the part of the Unionists that the government would order the Army to resist any action by the Ulster Volunteer Force, officers of British Army units based at the Curragh Camp in County Kildare threatened to resign their commissions. This incident became known as the “Curragh Mutiny” but an actual mutiny was avoided by the government making clear that the Army would not be used against the Ulstermen.

When the war started, the majority on both sides agreed that the threat from Germany had to be dealt with and they put aside their differences for the time being. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force were keen to demonstrate their loyalty to the Crown while members of the Irish Volunteers were encouraged by the Nationalist leader, John Redmond, to support the war effort as a way of establishing that they could be trusted and given credit for their support.

Not everyone on the Nationalist side agreed with Redmond. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (see below) and the recently founded Irish Citizens Army, with some other, smaller, organisations saw the opportunity to further their aims while the attention of the British was focussed elsewhere. Despite some misgivings, the rebels took action on Easter Monday 1916, seizing significant points in Dublin. After a hesitant start, the British responded and by the end of the week the rebellion had finished with the leaders in custody. Retribution was swift, with many tried by secret military courts and sentenced to death. Fifteen faced the firing squad in the stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Jail, the last, James Connolly, badly injured in the fighting, tied to a chair for his execution. Most Dubliners had not supported the rebels but when news of the executions became known public opinion swung quickly against the British. Many of those arrested were soon released in an attempt to appease public sentiment.

When Lloyd George succeeded Asquith at the end of 1916 he attempted to gather the various interested parties to a convention but as Sinn Fein refused to attend this ended in failure. Sinn Fein began to gain seats in parliament at by-elections (although those elected would not attend) while leading members of their organisation were often arrested. This pattern continued more obviously when, following the German offensive on the Western Front in March 1918, the government decided to extend conscription to Ireland, which had been exempted from the original provisions in 1916. Opposition from Sinn Fein and the Catholic Church meant that, although the policy remained in place, it was not put into effect.

The end of the war was followed by a general election; in Ireland, the results showed a clear split between those areas electing Unionists and those electing supporters of independence. The Nationalist Party returned a handful of members, the vast majority of anti-unionists now being Sinn Fein members who refused to attend Westminster and formed themselves into a parliament, the Dail. The scene was set for the War of Independence. The British accepted partition as inevitable and set up separate parliaments, one for the six counties of Ulster, the other for the rest of Ireland which because of Sinn Fein’s opposition did not come into operation. The irony was that those who vehemently opposed Home Rule before the First World War found themselves with Home Rule in Ulster, now the province of Northern Ireland, while in the south the Irish Free State was founded, fulfilling the dreams of those formerly regarded as extremists.

Background history

The events immediately before and during the First Word War had a long gestation period. The relationship between Britain and Ireland had been fraught with problems over many centuries. From Norman times, the English had made attempts to exert some control over at least part of the island. Henry II had declared himself “Lord of Ireland” and Anglo-Norman barons established themselves, mainly in the north and east. In 1541 the link with the English crown was formalised when the Irish Parliament bestowed the title “King of Ireland” on Henry VIII. Over the following decades, settlers from England and Scotland arrived in increasing numbers, particularly in Ulster. Most of the settlers were Protestant and thus the seeds of conflict with the overwhelmingly Catholic native population were sown. During the English Civil War, much of Ireland supported the Royalist cause and subsequently Cromwell re-imposed British control by force. The Protestant ascendancy was confirmed when the army of William of Orange defeated those supporting the deposed James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

There was relative peace until the end of the eighteenth century when there was a rebellion in 1798. It was largely in response to this that the decision was taken to abolish the Irish Parliament in 1801 and include representatives of Ireland in the British parliament. Catholics had been granted some rights towards the end of the eighteenth century but full emancipation, including being able to sit in parliament and admitted to most public offices, was not achieved until 1829.

Famine was the cause of further discontent. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 and the next two years resulted in an estimated one million deaths and more than a million people emigrating, some to England but many more to North America. Some aid was sent from Britain but the principles of Free Trade were more important to the government than the needs of the citizens in part of the realm. There was a feeling among the Irish that they would have to help themselves and this prepared the ground for an upwelling of republican sentiments that would increase as the nineteenth century went on. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858 and the Fenian movement started around the same time, gaining support from exiles in America and England as well as from those remaining in Ireland. The Fenians attempted an uprising in 1867, attacking Chester Castle to obtain arms but failing to do so, and exploding a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison which succeeded in killing a number of Londoners and alienated public sympathy for their cause.

Not all Irish people supported a violent resolution of their problems; many favoured a constitutional approach and the Home Rule Party was founded in 1870. The introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 meant that tenants could not be intimidated by their landlords and thereafter usually around 80 Home Rule supporters were sent to parliament. When William Gladstone became Prime Minister in 1868 he determined to help the situation by disestablishing the Church of Ireland, which meant that Catholics would no longer be forced to pay tithes, and introducing reform of the land law to give greater protection to tenants. After a six year gap, Gladstone returned to office in 1880 and while he attempted to stem the violence created by the Fenians he also tried to improve the rights of tenants with another Land Act. The assassination of the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Permanent Under-Secretary in Phoenix Park in Dublin in 1882 made Gladstone’s task more difficult; however, in his brief third ministry in 1886, he introduced his first Home Rule Bill, gaining the support of the Irish MPs but splitting his own party and the bill was defeated by the House of Lords. A further attempt to pass a bill in 1893, during his last ministry, met the same fate. The Liberals fell from office in 1895 and Ireland would have to wait for their return before any further progress could be made.

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