A Disturbance in Dublin
This weekend we commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising. Amid the pomp of all the parades and the wreath-laying ceremonies, it’s easy to forget what a truly shocking turn of events the Rising was for the ordinary people of Dublin at that time. Although this was a city well used to war, full of soldiers on leave from the trenches or recovering from their wounds, it’s remoteness allowed Dublin to maintain an air of peace. The noise of the guns on the Western Front did not carry here as they sometimes did to London; the skies were not darkened by the ominous shapes of Zeppelins.
So when war broke out right in the middle of Dublin, most ordinary citizens literally couldn’t believe it. This is something I tried to convey in my novel The Soldier’s Song. Pearse’s reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic – one of the seminal moments in Irish History – is greeted by a small crowd of bemused civilians who suspect the whole thing might be a student prank. The trams continue to run until the windows are shot out. Most people think the volunteers, who have carried out military manoeuvres before, are just ‘playacting’.
Of course, it soon became clear that they weren’t playacting. Before the first day of the Rising was out men lay dead in all parts of the city. Frightened cavalry horses ran loose on Sackville Street after a failed charge against the GPO. Makeshift barricades were erected around the several rebel garrisons and British soldiers, many of whom had been on leave or away at the Fairyhouse Races, were hurrying back to the city.
What happened next was not, by the standards of the Western Front, an especially large military action. Although they eventually flooded the city with some 16,000 men, the British only brought to bear one gunboat and a handful of field guns. But in a city as compact as Dublin, whose centre was filled with teeming tenements, their effect was appalling. The heart of the city was destroyed and the GPO garrison – which contained the rebel headquarters – was driven out not by British troops but by flames.
Much has been written about the various aspects of the Easter Rising. It divided people at the time and continues to do so, not least because it is full of contradictions. Several of the leaders of the Rising had strong family links to Britain, while many of the soldiers who fought against them were in fact Irish. Militarily, the Rising was a failure and, yet, it could so easily have been a success. Some would argue that, in the long run, it was a success, in that it led directly to the Irish Republic where we now live. Others would say that it spoiled any chance of a united and independent Ireland and led directly to the partition of the island. Whatever your opinion of the outcome, it remains a significant event not just in Irish but in British history, and it is right that we commemorate it.
Pepper and Pineapples
There are many horrors of war, but perhaps one of the most horrible is chemical warfare. The use of gas as a weapon brings its own special dread. It is insidious, often silent, and causes an agonising death. It is a fairly modern invention: the first large scale poison gas attack took place near Ypres in southern Belgium, on 22nd April 1915.
This was not the first time that gas was used during the First World War. From the very start, both sides had experimented with irritant gases - basically, early forms of what we now call tear gas - to try to gain the advantage during an attack.
But this was the first time that the gas used was poisonous, that is, intended to kill rather than temporarily disable the enemy troops. The gas in question was chlorine, and over 160 tonnes of it were released by the German Army in one of the opening blows of the Second Battle of Ypres.
All that morning, the Germans had been heavily shelling the British and French lines around Ypres. The bombardment eased off in the afternoon but resumed again around 5pm. This time, the French and Algerian troops who held the line west of Ypres noticed a greenish-yellow cloud drifting towards them through the falling shells. Thinking the Germans were using smoke to mask an attack, they stood to arms, ready to defend their positions. But it wasn't smoke.
Chlorine gas has a strong, bleachy odour with a distinctive flavour of pepper and pineapples. When breathed in it mixes with the fluid in the lungs and turns into hydrochloric acid. As the French and Algerian troops - who had no protection at all against gas - started to choke and suffer with chest pains and breathing difficulties, panic broke out in their ranks. Those who still could fled in complete disorder, leaving a gap in their defences that was almost four miles wide.
This was, quite literally, more than the Germans could have wished for. They should have sent troops pouring through this enormous breach, but they didn't. Surprised by the scale of their success and reluctant to send their own men into a gas cloud, they advanced only slowly. Although they lost a good deal of ground, the nearby British and Canadian troops were able to stop the German advance. Had they failed, and had the key town of Ypres fallen into German hands, then the course of the war and, indeed, the course of history, might have been very different.
Kilburn Literary Festival
Last week I was in London, where I appeared at the very first Kilburn Literary Festival
on Saturday 1st November. My 'gig' took place in the Sheriff Centre
, which itself bears a little description. From the outside, St James church in West Hampstead looks very conventional and Victorian, all red brick and oak, but, inside, you will find a cafe, a flower shop, a post office and... a children's playground.
This last item proved a bit distracting during the reading, but with a good crowd of attentive listeners and the excellent assistance of Shevaun Wilder, I was soon back in Gallipoli, then in Dublin for the Easter Rising, and finally with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the trenches around Ypres.
It had been a while since I'd last read from The Soldier's Song and I was pleasantly surprised at how immediate and realistic the readings sounded, even to my own ears. An extra poignancy was added to these excerpts by Shevaun's reading of two poems; Lament for Thomas McDonagh
by Francis Ledwidge and To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God
by Tom Kettle - written just days before the Irish Nationalist MP was killed in action during the battle of the Somme.
All in all, it was a great event - and the more significant for me in that it took place so close to remembrance day during the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War.
So, with thanks to Shevaun for her help, to Kayla Forde and Geraldine Cooke, festival organisers, and to Venora Bennett, Mike Hobbs and all the other readers, I'll leave you with Francis Ledwidge's Lament for Thomas McDonagh
– his great friend, who was one of the leaders executed after the Easter Rising in 1916:He shall not hear the bittern cry
in the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain
Nor shall he know when the loud March blows
Thro' slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds
Perhaps he'll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
The Long Road To War
It feels like we’ve been commemorating the outbreak of the Great War for a long time. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was marked over a month ago but the outbreak of the war that this triggered is not yet upon us. As one commentator said recently, the war had a rolling start. It was a World war – or, at least to begin with, a European one – and was the culmination of a chain of events, each of whose significance will depend on where you live.
In these islands, we may not have marked Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia (July 28) nor Germany’s declaration of war on Russia (August 1), nor even the German declaration of war on France, (August 3) – although these are all important events that helped drag the continent closer and closer to all out war.
For us, the most important link in the chain is not the last (the final declaration of war won’t be for another three weeks, or three years if you include America’s entry) but it is, perhaps, the one that tipped the balance past the point of no return.
On August 4, Germany issued an ultimatum to neutral Belgium, demanding to be allowed to pass through their territory in order to outflank the French armies forming to meet them. Britain, which guaranteed Belgian neutrality under a treaty that went back to 1839, in turn issued an ultimatum to Germany, threatening war if they refused to back down from Belgium. Germany refused and so Britain’s declaration of war came into effect at midnight, central European time, on Tuesday August 4, 1914.
The last of the great European powers had joined the fray. There would be no going back.