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

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

A Coward If I Return, a Hero If I Fall: Irishmen in World War I

by by Neil Richardson
Stackpole Books, 2019
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

Irish Soldiers Send a Message Home from France

Somewhere around 200,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the First World War; between 35,000 and 50,000 of them failed to return home, victims of the war’s industrialized horror. Author Neil Richardson wanted to tell their story, and this book is the result of his tireless effort. It’s important to remember that the Irish were a deeply divided people, split between those who wanted to remain a part of Britain and those who desired more independence, including complete severance from the British. Because of this, many Irish citizens looked down upon those Irishmen who served in the British forces. Author Neil Richardson manages to tell the Irish veterans’ stories using archival records, diaries, letters, and interviews with family members.

This book encompasses men who served in all branches of the military and in a variety of units. These men saw action in almost every theater of war in which British soldiers and sailors fought. Although most of the men encountered came from Ireland to serve in the British forces, the author also covers Irishmen who served in the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and American forces, a testimonial to the Irish diaspora.

There is no specific framework of arrangement to the stories presented here, but they seem to flow well. One interesting and poignant topic is the discussion of brothers who served together. Two cases deserve to be mentioned here: brothers John, Hugh, and James Shine were all killed in action, and the same fate befell brothers Jeremiah, Patrick, Edward, and Richard Lonergan. Of the latter case, Richardson writes “By 1917—three short years—John and Mary Lonergan no longer had any sons.” (p. 190) This type of sacrifice sheds light on the mothers, fathers, and siblings at home.

Maurice Dease, an Irish-Catholic Officer
of the Royal Fusiliers

There are all types of stories in the book. Richardson includes men who survived, whether wounded or not, men who were gassed, men who suffered shell shock, men who became prisoners of war, men who were decorated for bravery, and men who deserted, including one man executed for that offense.

While Irishmen fought in the British Army, Ireland itself suffered political and social turmoil. The Easter Rising in 1916 and the Military Service Bill, which sought to bring conscription to Ireland in 1918, both served to provoke anger among Irish citizens of all persuasions. Irishmen fighting in the British forces had to come to grips with this at the time or as soon as they returned home. Perhaps the most tragic thing about these men is that many of them were rejected and shunned when they returned—they were symbols of British rule and oppression. In this regard, they shared a fate similar to Indian soldiers who served in the British Army during the war. It is difficult to read about how some of these men were treated, and Richardson handles the sticky issue forthrightly and compassionately. According to him, the men “deserved to be welcomed home to their families.” (p. 350)

In addition to many wonderful photographs of some of the men, the book includes illustrations of all kinds—medals, Irish regimental cap badges, documents, weapons, etc. Richardson’s robust biblio-graphy includes a list of primary and secondary sources, plus dozens of service records, war diaries, and interviews. For those unfamiliar with Irish history, this book will provide a brief overview of the drama as it played out in the early 20th century. This is a wonderful collection of stories that brings to light the deeds of Irishmen during the war; anyone interested in the human aspect of the war, and those in particular of Irish ancestry, will find this a fine addition to their library.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Wonderful review--thanks for sharing. The book's title comes from a poem that appears in a book by Irish soldier-poet Patrick MacGill:

  2. First that I've ever heard about Indian soldiers being shunned or rejected at home when they returned from WW1 service?

  3. The young man in the photo, Maurice Dease, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Mons on 23rd August 1914. He and Private Sidney Godley were the first two VC recipients of the war.

  4. Excellent review. The book reminds me of Russian immigrants in Britain who could avoid conscription by claiming Russian citizenship but then faced extradition to a country they had fled because of persecution. Cheers

  5. hi
    fine review
    the book attached from amazon is a different book?