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.