2015 06 – Parliament and World War One

Parliament And World War One

by Dick Barry


We return yet again to the contentious issue of compulsory military service. On 3 May 2016 the House of Commons debated the First Reading of a new Bill which introduced Conscription for married men, among other proposals. Jimmy Thomas forecast that this would happen when he opposed an earlier Bill which proposed Conscription for unmarried men. The debate was notable for speeches by Laurence Ginnell, Irish Nationalist Member for Westmeath North, and Colonel (James) Craig, Unionist Member for East Down. The Bill was introduced by Prime Minister Asquith and key extracts from his opening remarks are published, followed by contributions from Ginnell and Craig. A short profile of Laurence Ginnell and James Craig, taken from Wikipedia, is set out below.

Laurence Ginnell (c.9 April 1852-17 April 1923) was a lawyer and a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) for Westmeath North at the 1906 UK general election. From 1910 he sat as an independent Nationalist and at the 1918 general election he was elected for Sinn Fein.  Ginnell was born in Delvin, County Westmeath in 1852. He was self-educated and was called to the Irish bar as well as the English bar. In his youth he was involved in the Land War and acted as private secretary John Dillion.

In 1909 Ginnell was expelled from the IPP for the offence of asking to see the party accounts, after which he sat as an independent Nationalist. During this time he was addressed frequently as “The MP for Ireland.” In Westminster he was highly critical of the British Government’s war policy, and its holding of executions of certain participants in the Easter Rising of 1916. On 9 May he accused the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, of “Murder”, and was forcibly ejected from the assembly.

In 1917 he campaigned to try to ensure the election of Count Plunkett in the Roscommon North by-election in which he defeated the IPP candidate on an abstentionist platform. Following the victory of Eamon de Valera in East Clare, while standing for Sinn Fein, on 10 July 1917, Ginnell joined Sinn Fein. At the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis that year, at which the party was re-constituted as a Republican party with de Valera as President, Ginnell and W. T. Cosgrave were elected Honorary Treasurers.

Ginnell was imprisoned in March 1918 for encouraging land agitation, and later deported to Reading Gaol. In the 1918 general election, he was elected as Sinn Fein MP for the Westmeath constituency, comfortably defeating his IPP challenger. After his release from prison, he attended the proceedings of the First Dail. Along with fellow TD James O’Mara he was one of the only TDs ever before to sit in a parliament. He was one of the few people to have served in the House of Commons and in the Oireachtas. Ginnell was appointed Director of Propaganda in the Second Ministry of the Irish Republic. He opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty that was ratified by the Dail in January 1922, and was elected as an anti-Treaty Sinn Fein TD at the 1922 general election on the eve of the Irish Civil War.

James Craig, 1st Viscount Craigavon (8 January 1871-24 November 1940) was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He was created a baronet in 1918 and raised to the Peerage in 1927. Lord Craigavon was born at Sydenham, Belfast, the son of James Craig (1828-1900) a wealthy whiskey distiller; he had entered the firm of Dunville Whiskey as a clerk and by aged 40 he was a millionaire and a partner in the firm. James Craig was the seventh child and the sixth son in the family; there were eight sons and one daughter in all. He was educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, Scotland; his father had taken a conscious decision not to send his children to any of the more fashionable public schools. After school he began work as a stockbroker, eventually opening his own firm in Belfast.

He enlisted in the 3rd (militia) regiment of the Royal Irish Rifles on 11 January 1900 to serve in the Second Boer War. Military life suited him well, but he became impatient with the lack of professionalism and efficiency in the British Army. He was seconded to the Imperial Yeomanry, becoming a lieutenant and then a captain, was taken prisoner in May 1900, but released by the Boers because of a perforated eardrum. On his recovery he became deputy assistant director of the Imperial Military Railways, showing the qualities of organisation that were to mark his involvement in both British and Ulster politicos. In June 1901 he was sent home suffering from dysentery, and by the time he was fit for service again the war was over.

On his return to Ireland he turned to politics, serving as Member of the British Parliament for East Down from 1906 to 1918. From 1918 to 1921 he represented Mid Down, and served in the British government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Pensions (1919-1920) and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Admiralty (1920-1921). Craig rallied the Ulster unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule in Ulster before the First World War, organising the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers and buying arms from Imperial Germany. The Volunteers became the nucleus of the 36th (Ulster) Division during the Great War. He succeeded Edward Carson as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in February 1921.

On 7 June 1921 (over two weeks before the opening of the Parliament of Northern Ireland), Craig was appointed the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. A dedicated member of the Orange Order and staunchly protestant, he famously stated, in April 1934, in response to his assertion that Ireland was a Catholic nation, “The hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South.”

However, later that year, speaking in Stormont on the 21 November 1934 in response to the accusation that all government appointments in Northern Ireland are carried out on a religious basis, he replied., “…it is undoubtedly our duty and our privilege, and always will be, to see that those appointed by us possess the most unimpeachable loyalty to the King and Constitution. That is my whole object in carrying on a Protestant Government for a Protestant people. I repeat it in this House.”

The Prime Minister (Mr. Asquith):

I beg to move, “That leave be granted to introduce a Bill to make further provision with respect to Military Service during the present War.”

I will not occupy the House for more than a few minutes, because the Bill I am asking leave to introduce is, in all substantial respects except one, the same Bill which was introduced by my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board (Mr Long) last week. The Bill which was introduced by him, and was carefully explained by him to this House, encountered a good deal of hostile criticism not because of what it contained, but because of what it omitted, and the Bill which I am going to ask leave to introduce is a Bill which will supply the omission that was then complained of. The Military Service Act, which was passed, I think, in the month of January of this year, subjected to compulsory enlistment every male British subject who was ordinarily resident in Great Britain and had attained the age of eighteen on 15th August, 1915, and had not attained the age of forty-one, and who, on the 2nd of November, was unmarried or a widower without any child depending on him.

The first Clause of this Bill extends the compulsory obligation to all male British subjects in Great Britain, married as well as single, between the ages of eighteen and forty-one. The Act which was passed some months ago brought in men who had reached the age of eighteen on the 15th of August last year. This Bill brings in every male according as he reaches the age of eighteen, thus providing for a constant supply of new recruits. The second Clause provides, as the Bill of last week did, for an extension during the period of the War of the services of men now serving whose ordinary period of service would otherwise expire.

The third Clause provides for the recalling to the Colours of any time-expired men, whether married or single, who have left the Army already if they are at the time of the passing of the Bill under forty-one years of age, that is to say, within military age. We provide further the power to enable the Army Council to review the medical certificates of those who have been rejected on medical grounds since the 14th August, 1915. The reason is a very simple one. As the standard of medical fitness has now been extended, and I think very properly extended, and men who are not fitted for active service abroad are now taken for less arduous duties, it is desirable in those cases that there should at any rate be an opportunity to review them. I believe that a great many of the men would be very glad that they should be so reviewed.

The fifth Clause is the one which deals with the certificates of exemption and the period of two months which the present law provides in that regard. Its object, as my right hon. Friend explained last week, is to prevent indefinite prolongation of such periods of temporary exemption. Then there is a provision to which I personally, and I think many of my colleagues, attach great importance. The Bill provides for the formation of a special Reserve to which men in the Army or the Territorial Forces may be transferred when this course appears to be expedient in the interests of the country. The intention is that men in this Reserve might be or would be employed to a large extent in civilian life, and would be immediately available for military service in case of military necessity.

Then there is the Clause which is now familiar—of which I need say no more than a word—by which Territorial soldiers, who under the present law cannot be transferred to any other corps of Territorials or into the Regular Forces without their own consent, may be so transferred. Military necessities require absolutely during the period of the War that this restriction should removed. Some Territorial battalions are very full, while others are very short of the necessary men. Great difficulty is experienced, as everybody knows who has been at the front, in keeping some battalions up to strength from their own drafts, while other battalions are overflowing. The Bill, therefore, authorises the transfer of the Territorial from one corps to which he belongs or to which he is transferred.

Mr Ginnell:

This Bill has been appropriately introduced by the announcement of a triple murder—

Mr Speaker:

We have nothing to do with that question. That is a matter which was mentioned before this Bill was introduced at all and it has nothing whatever to do with this Bill.

Mr Ginnell:

At all events, it was very appropriate. The Bill has also been supported by hon. Members sent to this House, if for any purpose, to maintain and enlarge personal liberty. They have abandoned that position. Why? Because they have been bought over for one reason or another, some of them having been made right honourables. They have been made to swallow all their previous convictions—they have been bought over to maintain a policy which is to put an end to all personal freedom—freedom of opinion, freedom of the Press, and every manner of freedom which they have been sent to this House to maintain and enlarge. On the other hand, I do not consider this Bill, sweeping though it is, a really serious matter. I regard this Bill as I regard the announcement yesterday, of an increase in the Army by 5,000,000 men, as so much dust thrown in the eyes of unfortunate France, which is sacrificing itself in this War. France is not able to retain any of her men of military age and fitness for her civil purposes, yet this Bill was introduced by the Prime Minister with the careful promise that a sufficient number of men of military age and fitness should be retained for civil occupations. That, being boiled down, means the cry with which this War began—the cry of “business as usual.” It is still “business as usual” in this country, although not acknowledged. (HON. Members: “NO, no!”)

France cannot continue to practice her business as usual, but this country means to do so. (An HON. MEMBER: “You are quite wrong about that!”) This infamous War, which could easily have been avoided, has been embarked upon largely as a commercial speculation—(An HON. MEMBER: “Rubbish!”)—and this country is publicly fitting herself for greater than her present commercial supremacy. Flourishing and prosperous England is working double time to expand her enormous trades and industries—(An HON. MEMBER: “Nonsense!”)—to capture German trade and industries—(An HON. MEMBER: “Rubbish!”)—and to do business better than usual. She is keeping millions of men of military age, millions of slackers of military age at home safe in connection with mining. Millions of English slackers are being kept at home safe at the shipping, docking, and other trades and industries. Millions of English slackers are kept at home safe at agriculture. So many English slackers of military age and fitness are sheltered at home, under the various State Departments, that the Heads of those Departments, one after another, have answered my inquiry in the House as to the number by saying that it could not be told. (HON. MEMBERS: “Divide!”) Is it because they were so numerous that it cannot be told? Is not that a nice message to be sent to France, and a nice comparison with France, who is sacrificing herself? This is the way in which this country is conducting the War. It is making a great show of a sweeping Military Service Bill for the purpose of leading people on the Continent, friends and foes, to imagine that this country is at last going to do, what she ought to have done twenty months ago, if she was prepared to make the necessary sacrifice.

Colonel Craig:

I venture to say a few words once more upon the subject about which I troubled the House on a former occasion, because what appears impossible of being carried out today becomes an accomplished fact a short time after. On the last occasion, at the request of my Ulster colleagues,  I made an earnest appeal to the Nationalist party to allow themselves to be included in the Bill for Conscription. Although since that time there have been certain happenings in Ireland which all classes of Irishmen extremely regret, still I think that the leader of the Nationalist party, who I am sorry to say is not in his place at the moment, might take advantage of the situation, as it is at present, to come forward and say to the Government that they would be prepared to be included in the scheme of the compulsion, in order to place themselves in exactly the same position as the rest of the United Kingdom. I would go a step further than I went on that last occasion, and I hope the House will thoroughly understand that in this matter I am thinking of nothing whatever except how best we can bring the War to a successful conclusion.

Some people might say that to urge the Nationalist party to take this step would, from the Ulster political point of view, be rather against than in favour of our cause in the future, but I am, like everybody else in the House, I hope, able to rise far above any petty considerations, as I would consider them to be, of that kind. I can see a double reason now why the hon. and learned Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond) should approach the Government on this subject. Could anything re-establish him and his party more in Ireland itself than to go back now and say that they were prepared to take their fair share of the burdens that have fallen upon the married and unmarried men of this country? So far as England and the Empire is concerned, I have no hesitation in saying that it would be a grand action on his part if, at this great crisis in the history of my country, he went across and made that appeal to his fellow countrymen.

I would go even a step  further I would ask the Government to approach the hon. and learned Member on the subject more fully than they appear to have done from the reply which I received from the Secretary of State for the Colonies. On the last occasion when this question was broached in the House, he used the words to the effect that he feared the trouble and turmoil that might be created in Ireland would not compensate them for the number of men they might be able to raise. Have not the recent happenings proved that if the Government would take a firm line in this matter, with the full co-operation of the hon. and learned Member for Waterford and his colleagues, they would at all events be able to do their best in a matter of such grave importance at the present moment.

What, after all, will the married men throughout England, Scotland, and Wales say if this Bill goes through and they are compelled by the country—properly compelled by the country—to come forward and do their duty, and if at the same time it is known that anything between 200,000 and 300,000 men, equally eligible for military service, are allowed to remain in Ireland doing practically nothing? The hon. and learned Gentleman on that occasion pointed out that the opposition to such a course in Ireland was small. He said there was only a trivial minority which has been creating the disturbances which, unfortunately, have recently disgraced our country, and so far as they are concerned they no further count in the matter, and I believe that with an energetic effort made by the hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues a large response would be made to the appeal, and Ireland would then be taking her proper place, which at present no one who knows Ireland can say she is doing.

I will go a step further and say that those of us who know the country and who have been watching the development of events from the very beginning can recognise this fact standing out most prominently, that one reason why the Irish people as a whole have not come forward and done their duty is because they have been misled by their leaders from the very outbreak of the War. When men were most earnestly required, when the old historical Irish regiments were being depleted and being filled up by Englishmen and Scotsmen, the statement made by every responsible Nationalist leader was that the Irish people had done their duty, and in some cases they went so far as to say they had done more than any other part of the United Kingdom in proportion.

Those statements are very far short of the truth. If you take what has been done in England and strike an average of what Ireland has done you will find that the response that has been made to the recruiting agents in Ireland has been a disgrace to a large portion of that part of the country. It would have been infinitely better and more creditable to those who really knew the true state of affairs if they had been told frankly from the beginning that the Irish people were not doing their duty so far as recruiting was concerned, and that a much larger number of men was still required. But instead of taking that attitude they were patted on the back, not only by hon. Members who represent Nationalist constituencies in Ireland, but by the Government to this extent, that on every occasion on which legislation was introduced into this House to forward the cause of the War, Ireland was invariably given separate and more favourable treatment.

In the very beginning, when the special taxes on whisky and other intoxicating liquors and closing Orders were introduced Ireland was excluded at the request of the Nationalist party. When more money was required you were not able to get it from Ireland. She was not able to contribute the means to carry on the War, and later, when various measures were introduced, on each occasion there was some special reason. The Registration Act was not applied to Ireland. We were told by the Government it was quite unnecessary, as they had all the information which was required. Then only the other day, to come down to recent times, we had this special exemption from the budget of the Gaelic Athletic Association. All these special bribes, as it were, to the Irish people have been absolutely without effect. The results which were obtained from them were without credit from the very beginning, and the consequence is that the people in Ireland were led to believe that they were a special class and were not required to come forward, and were assured that they had done so well that it was unnecessary for them to make a bigger effort.

Does anyone say that even in England or in Scotland that the response to the voluntary appeals made has not been magnificent? And yet, when you put to yourself the question, “Has the country done its best?” the answer was that the Irish people had given their answer which invariably must be, “No, and in some cases they went so far as to say they have not put forward our whole effort to win this War.” If that be so in England, how much more must it be apparent to everybody that in Ireland there has not been the response which one would like to have seen to the appeal for more men to keep up our regiments at the front? The Nationalist party has an opportunity of rehabilitating their cause in the South and West of Ireland, of purging Ireland of what has recently occurred and of showing to the whole wide world that there was nothing more behind this state of rebellion that cropped up than a mere section of the population, and of getting rid of suspicion, and it should come forward now and say to the Government, “We are willing to come into this Bill and to take our fair share with the rest of the country.”

I should like to point out how sad it is for any Irishman to see our magnificent regiments filled up by Englishmen, Welshmen and Scotsmen. You take away immediately the esprit de corps, you ruin the local feeling, you destroy the old hereditary names these regiments have earned in the past history of our country, and anyone who thinks of it must be wholly aware that for a regiment to do its best it must have in it those who have got the traditions and those who have the same local feeling as those who fought in it in the old days. From the reports that reach us from the front, wherever they happen to be, there is the same sad story that instead of the divisions which went out Irish Divisions we now find they are three-quarters English and Scottish and the remainder are sending out drafts from Ireland to fill them up.

It would be very wrong to quote figures in this connection, because you would be giving information which I dare say  it would be improper to do even in the House of Commons. The argument used by the Nationalist party was that the agricultural occupation of the people prevented them from responding in anything like the same degree as in England, Wales, and in Scotland. I have the figures in my pocket. I do not intend to weary the House with them, but there is more land under tillage in Ulster than in any of the other three provinces. That is to say, so far as Ulster is concerned, she is as much an agricultural county as Munster, Leinster or Connaught, and Ulster has been able to give—I do not wish to press the point—more soldiers and sailors than the other three provinces put together, therefore these arguments which are used by the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr Redmond) and his colleagues are, in my opinion, not worthy of this House of Commons, and are not regarded as of any importance whatever by those who know Ireland from North to South.

I do not believe I am drawing any fancy picture; I do not believe that the difficulties, of getting the Nationalists to come forward and accept this Bill are insuperable. I have an idea in my own mind that at this moment Ireland would welcome having her mind made up for her on this important subject. Half the people of this country prefer to have their minds made up for them. Take the average man you meet in the street. He lives in comfort and ease because he knows when he goes to bed at night what he has to do when he rises next morning, to go through his round of work, and in Ireland it is exactly the same. Men there will wait and wait and wait, as many men are waiting in this country for the Government to make up their mind in order that they can make up their mind to take their proper place in the fighting line. In Ireland, if you once take the step, in my opinion you will be able to carry a very large section of the community with you, and even if it was not wholly successful, even if it was impossible in some districts to get the men to come forward, I believe the result would be one of very great importance, and certainly any small district which stood out would not be standing out either to the credit of the country or at the desire of those who are making a strong appeal.

Then another point. We have only one desire, and that is to put our whole force into the field. If you do not make the attempt to get the Nationalists to come forward and keep their regiments, brigades and divisions filled up with Irishmen, the Government are not doing all that they might do in this great crisis. I say to my Nationalist fellow countrymen that they do not come forward and offer their services willingly to the Government in this matter. If they did so they would not be one whit more going back on the action they have taken in the past than many others who were conscientious objectors to any form of compulsion in the old days, and who are now at its strongest and most earnest and determined advocates. Therefore, if they have been able to reconcile their minds with compulsory service, is it too much to ask that the Nationalist party as a whole should also take their stand when they can see clearly that in the future history of this country, far more than the rebellion which has broken out, it would always stand against them that in the hour of England’s trial they did not come forward and do the utmost they possibly could to help her and send troops out to the front.


The last remark I have to make is this: What would be the effect in America, among our allies, and amongst those with whom we were fighting, if at this psychological moment, before the Bill is put into print, the Nationalist party were to come forward and say to the Government, “Ireland has been slandered. Ireland has in the last few days had many bitter opponents, she has had these men in her midst who have turned traitor to her wishes, but in spite of that, and to show that in this matter there is no division between any part of the British Islands, to show that there is no difference whatever, we willingly now place ourselves in the hands of the Government.” I believe if the attempt was genuinely made, whether in the Bill—that is to say, a complete Bill to apply to Ireland, or whether an attempt was made to allow them in their own way—and I have suggested to them myself how it would be possible by having local committees of well-known Nationalists running a ballot on lines satisfactory to the locality—they might be able to keep their regiments up to full strength. It is quite a small matter. It is not such a very big task as it might appear in this House to keep all Irish regiments filled with Irishmen, and if the Nationalist party would take that patriotic action at present our enemies would feel that we were really getting down to business in this matter, and our Allies, and those who have come from Canada and Australia and are now in our midst drilling day and night to prepare themselves for this great struggle, would undoubtedly say to themselves, “After all the Irish are not the rebels this rebellion seems to have made them out.”

The following day, 6 May 1916, the House of Commons supported the Second Reading of the Act by 328 votes to 36. The 36 MPs who voted against were:

Rt Hon. W Abraham (Lib/Lab), W. C. Anderson (ILP), Sydney Arnold (Liberal), Joseph Allen Baker (Liberal), Sir John Emmott Barlow (Liberal), Rt Hon. John Burns (Liberal), Sir William Pollard Byles (Liberal),  Henry George Chancellor (Liberal), Laurence Ginnell (Irish Parliamentary Party), Harold James Glanville (Liberal), Frank Goldstone (Labour), A. G. C. Harvey (Labour), T. E. Harvey (Liberal), James Myles Hogge (Liberal), Walter Hudson (Labour),  Leif Jones (Liberal), Frederick William Jowett (Labour),  Joseph King (Liberal), Sir Ernest Henry Lamb (Liberal), Richard Lambert (Liberal), J. Ramsay Macdonald (Labour), David M. Mason (Liberal),  Percy Alport Molteno (Liberal), Philip Morrell (Liberal),  R. L. Outhwaite (Liberal),  Arthur A. W. H. Ponsonby (Liberal),  William M. R. Pringle (Liberal), Thomas Richardson (Labour),  Arnold Rowntree (Liberal),  Sir Walter Runciman (Liberal), Rt Hon. Sir John Alsebrook (Liberal), Philip Snowden (Labour ), Charles Philip Trevelyan (Liberal), Llewelyn Williams (Liberal), Rt Hon. J. W. Wilson (Liberal).

Note: The Rt Hon. Sir John Alsebrook resigned as Home Secretary over the introduction of Conscription. Charles Philip Trevelyan resigned in 1914 as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education as an opponent of the War.

The following 12 Labour MPs voted for the Second Reading: George Barnes, C. W. Bowerman, William Brace, William Crooks, Charles Duncan, Arthur Henderson, John Hodge, James Parker, George Henry Roberts, John Edward Sutton, Stephen Walsh, Alexander Wilkie.