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

Monday, May 6, 2019

Ireland's First World War Veterans: Shunned, Ostracized, Murdered

A Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Stands Inspection in France

Over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British Army in the war. Ex-British servicemen and their dependents constituted half a million people in the Republic of Ireland, a State of just 3.3 million. For the Irish who returned home, their fate was compounded by the political situation. These men were shunned, ostracized from Irish society and in many cases murdered by the IRA, but that is only part of the story. The fate of ex-British servicemen after the war has been the subject of fierce debate. Approximately 120 were killed during the War of Independence and Civil War. Were they killed because of their service in the first World War?

The historian Peter Hart, in his book The IRA and its Enemies, suggested as much. Paul Taylor, the recent author of the book Heroes or Traitors? Experiences of Southern Irish Soldiers Returning from the Great War, 1919–39, maintains instead that they were targeted for being loyalists rather than ex-British servicemen.

Dublin Armistice Day, 1924
A Celtic Cross War Memorial to Be Sent to France Is Dedicated

Yet, other First World War veterans went straight into the Irish Volunteers/IRA after returning from the front, taking up arms against the army they had fought for. The best known of these was Tom Barry, mastermind of the Kilmichael Ambush in Co Cork in 1920. According to historian Stephen O’Connor, 226 members of the British forces served in the IRA during the War of Independence. More significantly, O’Connor estimates, at least 24 had senior positions and seven commanded brigades. O’Connor concludes: “Ex-servicemen had a disproportionate impact on the IRA’s campaign in comparison to their actual numbers in the movement.”

Source: The Irish Times, 10 November 2018


  1. Thanks for this. It's an important part of Irish history.
    (Shows up in the great tv series Peaky Blinders, too)

  2. I didn't know any of this at all until I visited Northern Ireland and was schooled there. Even somewhat true of the 36 division in Ulster. But not nearly as much.