School Resource Packs: Cork 1912-1918

Resource Pack 10: 1918 Conscription

2 Cork City & County Archives: Through War and Rebellion: Cork 1912-1918

Year 1918: BG69/B/9 Cork Union Letterbook August 1911-February 1918- extract – letter to Canon Nicholson regarding conscription

‘Our 16th Division, which was on the right of VII corps and lost Ronssoy village, is said not to be so full of fight as the others. In fact, certain Irish units did very badly and gave way immediately the enemy showed’.

Sir Douglas Haig, 22 March 1918

Background: On March 21 st 1918 the German Army made one final effort to defeat Britain and France before more than 1,000,000 fresh United States troops arrived on the battlefields of France. The British had been losing 500 more soldiers every day than could be replaced since 1916. In November 1917 they had been short 80,000 troops and this was expected to rise throughout 1918 to more than 250,000. As Germany and France were in the same position, this led to stalemate on the Western Front throughout this period. However, after Russia had been defeated in 1917 Germany would be able to bring enough divisions of top class troops from the Eastern Front to mount a spring offensive against the British. The German general Erich Ludendorff believed if he could defeat the British, the French would also seek peace terms. With the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with newly communist Russia on March 3 1918 Germany no longer had any fear of an attack on two fronts. Two weeks later almost 600,000 troops supported by 6,600 guns, 3,500 mortars and 325 aircraft launched their attack after an artillery barrage which fired 3,500,000 shells in five hours. Facing them was the British Fifth Army with 250,000 men in front of two reserve armies which could be moved to plug any breach. Such was the ferocity of the German assault with its combination of flame-throwers, storm-troopers and the massive artillery barrage the Fifth Army collapsed creating a gap in the trench system as they were driven into a general retreat over the next five days before the Germans outran their supplies and British reserves moved to plug the gap. The German breakthrough caused panic in the British High Command and they sent an urgent demand for fresh troops. By this stage volunteers were few. Compulsory military service had been introduced to the United Kingdom in March 1916 but the then leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) John Redmond had succeeded in excluding Ireland. On 9 April 1918 the Germans launched a second offensive. On the same day British Prime Minister David Lloyd George addressed the House of Commons and said ‘I am perfectly certain it is not possible to justify any longer the exclusion of Ireland’, when he introduced a new conscription bill for all men between 18 and 50. The leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Dillon replied ‘you will not get any men from Ireland by compulsion—not a man’ and when the bill was voted through just after midnight on the 17 April Dillon led the Irish Party out of the House of Commons and they returned to Ireland in protest. While the British execution of 16 leaders of the Easter Rising and the internment of more than 3,000 members of Sinn Fein had turned many Irish people against the British government, the attempt to introduce conscription further galvanised Irish opinion against them. Many young men flocked to join the Irish Volunteers and many voters turned to Sinn Fein. While the Irish Parliamentary Party had won three of the eight by-elections in 1917 and 1918, in the general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein won virtually every seat in the provinces of Munster, Leinster and Connaught. Many of the

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