Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Nation Once Again: An Alternate History of the Easter Rising

Guest post by Andrew Schneider.
The next-to-last Irish rebellion against British rule began on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, when the Irish Republican Brotherhood seized control of the General Post Office and proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic. Within days, Crown forces had cut off the city from the outside world and were starving it into submission. Land and sea based artillery pounded much of the city center to rubble. The end came on Saturday, April 29, when Padraig Pearse, commander of the Irish Volunteers, surrendered unconditionally.

The forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were hampered throughout by a divided command structure, poor communications, a lack of clear strategic objectives, and little support from the surrounding population. It’s often been argued that these factors doomed the Easter Rising from the start.  Pearse’s own writings suggest he went into the rising knowing it would fail. His hope, the argument goes, was that leaders of the Rising would become martyrs. Their blood sacrifice would set the stage for the final overthrow of British rule in Ireland.

The bulk of the Irish people either opposed the Rising or remained neutral. But the trial of the rebel leaders by secret courts-martial and their swift executions led to a massive upsurge in Irish nationalism. Britain threw together thousands of other participants in the Rising together in prison, where they were able to review and learn from their mistakes.  It released all of these prisoners by summer of 1917. The Lloyd George Government hoped this would reconcile the Irish populace enough to allow the introduction of conscription -- the Great War was entering its fourth year with no end in sight.

In the end, the combination of heavy-handedness and clemency backfired on the British in the worst way possible. Membership in Sinn Féin took off. [1]  The December 1918 parliamentary elections gave it a 70% majority of the Irish vote, demolishing the traditional nationalist parties. The Sinn Féin members refused to take their seats in Westminster, instead convening their own Irish Parliament, the Dáil Éireann, and declaring independence.  There followed a war lasting nearly three years, ending in the Anglo-Irish Treaty and independence for all but the six counties of Northern Ireland. The division triggered a civil war between pro- and anti-Treaty forces in the new Irish Free State , which lasted another year and defined the political landscape in Ireland (South and North) down to the present day.

Given the ultimate outcome was Irish independence, the Easter Rising would not appear to provide much interest as a historical point of divergence. Writers and readers of alternate history tend to be more interested in scenarios where the loser in a particular contest wins, rather than one in which the winner achieves victory sooner. But the Rising took place during and immediately prior to some of the most significant fighting of the First World War. For that reason alone, it merits greater attention.

In late April 1916, Britain was transporting gargantuan numbers of men and materiel to the Western Front in preparation for the Battle of the Somme, which would begin July 1. General Sir Douglas Haig (commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force) and General Joseph Joffre (commander-in-chief of the French Army) had agreed in December 1915 to make an attack on German positions along the Somme River the focus of the 1916 campaign. The Battle of the Somme ultimately cost over 400,000 British killed and wounded and barely moved the Western Front at all.

What’s rarely appreciated is that German casualties were even steeper than those of the British. The Germans lost half a million men fighting a defensive battle on the Somme at the same time they were waging a ferocious battle of attrition against the French at Verdun. Had the Germans been able to concentrate more of their forces at Verdun, they might eventually have broken the French Army.  A serious threat to the British home front that weakened or postponed the BEF’s attack on the Somme could thus have changed the outcome of the war.

So how could the Easter Rising have achieved all this? There were several lost opportunities before and during the Rising that, while they may not have led to a rebel victory, could have prolonged the fighting by weeks or even months. What would have made the greatest difference was better organization on the part of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The IRB’s Military Council, which planned the Rising, included romantics like Padraig Pearse. But it also included experienced, hardened fighters such as Thomas James Clarke. These were men who knew what had been tried in previous attempts to throw off British rule and what had failed.

One who was not admitted to the Council until very late in the planning was James Connolly. Connolly was head of the Irish Socialists, a prominent trade union leader, and commander of the Irish Citizen Army, a force of about 250 men organized to help protect workers from police brutality. Connolly long disparaged the IRB leadership as all talk and at one point threatened the IRB he would act on his own. Not only would an uprising by the Irish Citizen Army on its own have failed, but also it would have given the British a perfect excuse to crack down on the IRB and disarm the Irish Volunteers. To avert this, Clarke and Pearse met with Connolly on January 19, 1916 and only at this stage brought him on board.

Clarke first proposed an Easter 1916 date for the uprising to some of his senior IRB colleagues in mid-December 1915. Critically, he excluded from these discussions the Irish Volunteers’ chief of staff, Eóin MacNeill. MacNeill opposed the idea of an armed uprising unless the British attempted to suppress the Volunteers. MacNeill was informed just days before the Rising was to begin. He was convinced to go along partly by means of a forged letter that indicated the British were about to arrest him, partly by the news that a German shipment of arms was due to be landed on Ireland’s southwest coast. When the Royal Navy intercepted the arms shipment, MacNeill sent out orders to the Volunteers calling off the Rising. Pearse subsequently sent out orders countermanding MacNeill’s. In the resulting confusion, far fewer Irish Volunteers mobilized for the Rising than had been envisioned.

Walk this back to mid-December 1915, and let’s take as our starting point two decisions by Clarke and his closest compatriots.  One would be to approach Connolly immediately and take full advantage of his organizational skills. A second would be either to completely isolate MacNeill or remove him from his posts as head of the Volunteers and as a member of the IRB Military Council.  Connolly, one of the first true theorists of urban warfare, wound up in our timeline as deputy commander of the Rising. [2] In this timeline, he would be the natural choice to lead the Volunteers in MacNeill’s place.

I envision several developments following from this.  The first, and most important, would be far greater operational security. With MacNeill unable to block the Rising, even if he became aware of it in advance, the orders to rise would have gone out with a minimum of confusion. The result is that far more Volunteers would have taken up arms than actually did. [3] Instead of taking place almost entirely in Dublin, the Rising would have taken place in cities and towns all over Ireland, as originally intended.

Second, it’s far less likely that the Volunteers would have committed some of the amateurish blunders that made it easy for the Crown forces to recapture the city.  These included the failure to seize Trinity College Dublin, or even make a serious attempt to do so.  Trinity housed a large armory that would have more than made up for the loss of the German arms shipment. It also commanded the approaches to the center of the city. The college’s Officer Training Corps held out against the rebels until units of the British Army arrived to launch a counterattack. There were also no efforts to destroy or secure the telegraph lines connecting Dublin to the outside world, which could have hampered the British ability to learn of the Rising and then deploy forces to respond.

All of this is asking a lot of the rebel forces, but one must consider what many of the same men and women achieved between 1918 and 1921 with better organization and better leadership.

If the Rising were prolonged by more than a few weeks, there would have been serious ramifications for the British war effort.  For a start, one has to look at the forces the British deployed to put down the Rising as it occurred. Apart from the naval units that bombarded Dublin from the sea, these included the 7th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment) and the South Staffordshire Territorial Regiment, both units that saw action on the Somme. A more widespread Rising would have meant more units due for transfer to the Western Front being held back in the home islands to fight the rebels, or even some units being shipped back to Ireland from Europe for this purpose.

This would almost certainly have included part of the 36th (Ulster) Division, also known as the Ulster Volunteer Force.  The Ulster Volunteer Force was created as a Protestant Unionist militia, shortly after Parliament passed a bill that would have granted Ireland home rule within the British Empire. The UVF’s sole purpose was to resist the imposition of Home Rule by force. It had considerable support in this in the British Army, so much so that there was a very real danger of civil war breaking out in Ireland in 1914. [4] The only thing that prevented this was Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. At this point, the UVF volunteered en masse and was given official status. [5] By 1916, the Ulstermen were battle hardened and would have had tremendous motivation to crush the rebellion. In our timeline, the UVF saw some of the worst fighting on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Taking these soldiers out of the line would have wrecked the timetable for the campaign -- massively increasing British casualties if the battle were launched on schedule, massively increasing French casualties at Verdun if it were not.

Prolonging the Rising until at least the end of May would also have had consequences for the war at sea. This was when the German High Seas Fleet attempted to trap and destroy enough of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet to cripple the latter’s blockade of Germany. The resulting Battle of Jutland was the biggest naval clash the world had ever seen, dominated by long-range artillery duels between battleships. It ended in a draw, and the High Seas Fleet remained confined to port until it mutinied at the end of the war.

The German government had attempted unsuccessfully to supply the IRB with weapons before the uprising. By all accounts, the Germans had little faith the rising would succeed. But they recognized that a friendly Ireland would offer them naval facilities that would have made it impossible for Britain to maintain its blockade. [6] The longer the Rising lasted, the more tempting it would have been for Germany to intervene. It would have been a simple enough matter, while the Royal Navy was distracted in the North Sea, to send one or two U-boats to Ireland with additional arms for the rebels.

Finally, at this stage, Britain’s great hope for defeating Germany depended on convincing the United States to side with the Allies. America was still neutral in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson would go on to win reelection that year campaigning on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The U.S. finally did enter the war in April 1917, after the British intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram and handed a copy to the Americans. The telegram from Germany’s foreign secretary to its ambassador in Mexico City proposed a German-Mexican alliance against the U.S., with the aim of restoring to Mexico much of the American Southwest.

The Irish, then and now, constitute one of the largest ethnic blocs in the American population. By 1916, they were a major force in American politics. Most wanted no part of a war for Britain’s sake. The longer the Rising lasted, the more it would have inflamed Irish-American opposition to Britain. If, in the end, it still failed, the British suppression of Ireland that followed would certainly have been harsher than what followed the Rising in our timeline. That too would have stiffened Irish-American opposition. In this atmosphere, even the Zimmerman Telegram might not have been enough to tip the U.S. to Britain’s side. The contents of the telegram were outrageous, but they were also fantastic, and it would have been easy enough to dismiss the telegram as a British forgery. If Irish-American opposition kept the U.S. out of World War I, a German victory would have been all but certain.

How long the Rising would have lasted in these circumstances is anyone’s guess.  It may have evolved into a guerrilla campaign very like what took place during the Anglo-Irish War, or it could have collapsed in a matter of weeks.  If it had brought about a German victory, though, it very likely would have led to Ireland’s gaining independence as a German client state. The naval facilities such an Ireland could give Germany would eliminate the threat of a Royal Navy blockade permanently. This Ireland would likely include the six counties that now make up Northern Ireland, something the Ulster Protestants would bitterly oppose.  It’s easy to imagine Britain channeling clandestine support to Ulster militants, much as Nazi Germany aided the Sudeten Germans up to 1938. Ireland, rather than Eastern Europe, could ultimately have provided the spark that ignited a Second World War.


[1]: Sinn Féin was a pacifist organization prior to April 1916. British newspapers mistakenly blamed it for the Rising, in which it played no role. It was only after the 1917 amnesty, when Éamon de Valera took control of the group, that Sinn Féin embraced militant republicanism.

[2]: For an example of Connolly’s thinking, see his article, “On Street Fighting,” Workers Republic, July 24, 1915, reprinted in The Guerilla Reader: A Historical Anthology, ed. by Walter Laqueur (New York: New American Library, 1977), 169-71, and in The Art of War in World History, ed. by Gérard Chaliand (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 911-13.

[3]: Most sources estimate less than 2,000 fighters mobilized on Easter Monday 1916.  The total strength of the Irish Volunteers is unknown. Sources place it anywhere from 14,000 to well over 100,000. See William H. Kautt, The Anglo-Irish War, 1916-1921: A People’s War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999), 56.

[4]: The classic treatment of this is George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914 (New York: Putnam, 1980).

[5]: The Irish nationalists, largely Catholic, formed their own militia in response to the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which they called the National Volunteers. Like the UVF, most of the National Volunteers sought to enlist at the start of WWI, in large part because they believed a show of loyalty in Britain’s time of need would be their best guarantee to gain the promise of Home Rule after the war. Unlike the UVF, these volunteers were split up rather than being allowed to form their own official unit within the British Army. About 14,000 of the National Volunteers refused to enlist. This group became the Irish Volunteers and was soon dominated by the IRB.

[6]: Peter De Rosa, Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916 (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1990), 227.

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Andrew Schneider is the business news reporter for KUHF Houston Public Radio

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