Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Heroes or Traitors
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

Heroes or Traitors: Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from 
The Great War, 1919–1939

by Paul Taylor
Liverpool University Press, 2015

The guns are silent, the grand review is concluded, the politicians are creating the new world order, and the soldiers return home. Things are different. They are not the same men who marched away. While war has changed them, it has also changed the homes to which they returned seeking to pick up life where they left off. Among none of the nations that were on the winning side during the Great War was the change as profound as it was in Ireland. In 1914 they answered the call in a part of the United Kingdom, but in 1919 they returned to a country seething with rebellion and soon to be one of the new nations to be born out of the cataclysm. How were they to be viewed? As heroes who fought bravely for the kingdom of which their island had been a part for 800 years and that small nations might be free, or as traitors who enabled the imperial power to maintain its grip on their homeland? Those are the start of the questions that author Paul Taylor wants to answer.

The Irish Peace Tower at Messines, Ypres Salient
On 7 June 1917 the Mostly Northern Manned 36th Division Went Over the Top Side-by-Side with the 16th Division Recruited Mostly from Southern Ireland in the Battle of Messines

Taylor begins with an introduction that seeks to untangle the web of myth and history that is, inevitably, written by the victors. As President Mary McAleese noted in a 1985 commemoration, "Those whom we commemorate here were doubly tragic. They fell victim to a war against oppression in Europe. Their memory fell victim to a war for independence in Ireland." (p.4) Taylor shows that Ireland was not as united as Republican tradition would have us believe, nor were the Irish who flocked to the colors as loyal to king and country as some would suppose. Nationalism was stronger in the west, with its dairy industry serving the domestic market, and Unionism more prevalent in the east, where farmers depended on the export market in England.

The author then moves on to examine several facets of the relationships between the returning Irish soldiers and their neighbors. His method relies heavily on statistical analysis and interviews of participants. He examines records of violence and intimidation against ex-servicemen and asks whether they were targeted because of their past service. He cites many examples of men killed or driven into exile by irregulars. Yet men of military experience were of value to both sides in the War of Independence (1919–1921) and the subsequent Civil War (1922–1923). Some offered their skills to the freedom fighters or the Pro-Treaty or Anti-Treaty forces, while others were threatened or executed for suspected espionage. Watch the names carefully; you might find a relative, as I probably did. Britain, like other belligerents, provided benefits to some of its veterans, including pensions and housing. This placed the Crown in the unusual position of providing pensions and owning houses in a land from which it drew soldiers but which was no longer a member of its country.

The expectations of the veterans, the generosity of the Crown and the attitude of the Irish government all contributed to a muddled state of affairs. A few got pensions, and a limited amount of housing was constructed which, while benefiting Ireland economically, was an irritant to its government. When a veteran died should his widow be allowed to stay, or should she be moved out to provide housing for another veteran? Different answers were proposed to that question.

In the final part of the book the author considers the rivalries within society: between those who fought for the Crown in the Great War and later either joined the rebellion, supported the government, or tried to stay out completely, and those who claimed veterans' preferences for having served in various Irish military or para-military units and claimed abstinence from the Great War as a virtue. Heroes or traitors resonated with my interests in Irish and Great War history. At times I found the author to be more statistical and anecdotal in his presentation than I am used to, but overall this is an excellent read for anyone interested in the lingering echoes of the Great War and its wake.

James M. Gallen


  1. Excellent summary of a book that shows in great detail what was essentially a no-win situation for many Irishmen and their families. It would be nice to know why so many volunteered to serve in the first place. I suspect there were almost as many reasons as volunteers. Thanks for a great review!

  2. Very useful review. Helps shed light on the 1920s to come.