For years I have seen you in uniform with arms reversed standing on your plinth on the South Mall in Cork. Though you are but one soldier on a limestone memorial, you have no number rank or name. So in that respect I feel you symbolise the many, both those who died and those who survived. Therefore it is to you, Cork’s Unknown Soldier of the Great War of 1914-18, that I address this letter.
Sunday marks the centenary of the ending of the Great War. At 11am on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent on the Western Front and over four years of industrialised slaughter came to an end. In terms of loss of life the war was the greatest catastrophe to hit Ireland since the Famine. Approximately 50,000 Irishmen lost died fighting with the Allied armed forces. Of that number over 4,200 had connections to the city and county of Cork.
Over the last four years Ireland took part in many of the commemorations marking centenaries of the war’s great battles. However, its participation in the war and the motives of the Irishmen who fought in it has been the subject of intense debate.
Some 210,000 Irishmen fought with the British armed forces during the war. I have no doubt that each of did so for different motives. However, rather than revisit these debates or generate new ones, I think it will be more appropriate today to recall some words written by your comrades.
In December 1918, John Flynn, a member of a veteran’s organisation addressed this subject in a letter he wrote to the Cork Examiner entitled ‘Why we Fought’ in which he stated:
At the outbreak of the war we, as plain men, felt that it was our duty to stand against the threat to civilisation. Were we right? Was it an honourable thing to do? Had we any doubts about our duty to Christianity and to our country?
The leaders of our Church agreed that we were right. We found our Nationalist leaders, though opposed in politics, agreed that we were right. We have since been told that our leaders should have made some sort of a political bargain for Ireland first.
Our answer to that is that you cannot bargain with a Nation’s honour. We went into the war in the name of Ireland, with clean hands and a pure heart, and we came out with a reputation that did not disgrace the name of Ireland.
These words speak volumes and they are underpinned by the ones inscribed on plinth beneath your feet. They state that you and your comrades fell ‘Fighting for the Freedom of Small Nations.’ Over time other opinions have been expressed about the sacrifice you made, all of which can be said to be valid. Though the cost was heavy, the war ultimately ended in an Allied victory. The ‘small nation’ of Belgium was liberated while others were formed from the debris of the defeated empires. In that regard, many have considered that the sacrifice made by you and your comrades was justified.
However, the one small nation that didn’t gain its freedom at the end of the war was your own. While you undoubtedly acted in good faith, the British Government refused to keep faith with the Irish people and grant them the ‘Home Rule’ that had been promised before the war broke out. In that regard there are those who will say that your sacrifice was in vain. During and after the war the perception many people had of the British Army also changed. The aftermath of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence would lead many people to view British soldiers as the enemy.
So while you and your comrades may have been seen as a heroes when you left Ireland many of those who survived would return home to face a hostile environment. While this is understandable, it must be remembered that you were not responsible for the actions of the British government.
And many of those who returned home were disillusioned by their experience of war and joined the fight for an independent Ireland.
How, or indeed, if, you should be remembered has also been the subject of much bitter debate. There are those who believe you fought courageously, acted honourably, made a great sacrifice to stop German aggression and should be remembered. Equally, others believe you were duped by politicians into enlisting, fought with the enemy of the Irish people in an imperialist war and to remember your sacrifice would glorify war and imperialism. Again, there is some validity in all those opinions.
Today, however, Ireland is a different country from the one you knew. Today, all those who fought in the Great War are no longer with us but, as a soldier, you continue to do your duty and stand in silent tribute to your fallen comrades.
This weekend and in the weeks and months that follow, many people will see you on your plinth with head bowed. When they do, perhaps the best you can hope for is that they will pause for a moment and reflect on the sacrifice you made.
And, as they do so, that they may also resist the temptation to either condemn or condone, but will do their best to understand the times in which you lived and how they influenced the decisions that you made.
Yours sincerely, Gerry White