Soldiering in the 20th & 21st Centuries
From the World Wars to the Irish Defence Forces’ peacekeeping role with the United Nations.
In the first half of the twentieth century, 1914 – 23, the Irish people endured ten years of intense military activity, including participation in a World War, an urban insurrection, a guerrilla War and finally a bitter Civil War. Ireland changed from a country that was a source of foot soldiers for the British Army to an Independent nation with its own armed forces.
The result was a new nation bearing both the hopes of many of its citizens, and the pain left by the wars that had brought it into being. The experience of individual Irish men, women and children during these years are described in galleries 5-8 in Soldiers & Chiefs.
The War of the Professionals
When war broke out in 1914, about 21,000 Irishmen were serving in the British Army. Another 47,000 reserve officers and men were quickly mobilised in the first couple of months. Most of these professional soldiers went straight into battle as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France. They were well trained, but poorly equipped for the kind of mass war that was rapidly emerging.
The First Shots
The first shots of the British Army on the Western Front were fired on August 22nd outside of Mons, Belgium by the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards. At the outbreak of war Britain had sent a small army (the British Expeditionary Force) of 70,000 soldiers to oppose the German armies invading France and Belgium. This Force included four Irish Cavalry regiments and nine Irish Infantry battalions. Artillery pieces such as the 18 pounder field gun would have been used to during World War I and armed by 10 soldiers. The 18 pounder was also used by the British during the Easter Rising and the Irish Civil war.
War On The Somme
In 1916, the British Army undertook a major offensive on the Western Front in the valley of the River Somme. Soldiers of the Ulster Division were prominent in the battle; several other Irish units also took part. However barbed wire, machine guns and artillery made the attacking infantryman’s chances of survival slim, despite all his courage and training.
The Final Convulsion
On 21st March 1918 the German Army attacked on the Western front in a last attempt to win the war before American divisions arrived. The attack as fast and fluid, using specially-equipped soldiers called stormtroopers. The allies held on, eventually counter-attacking all along the line. The German Army was overwhelmed and requested an Armistice, which went into effect on November 11th, 1918.
After gaining Independence, the small Irish Army trained throughout the 1920s and 1930s to defend Ireland against possible threats. In 1939 the Irish Free State decided to stay out of the new European war unless attacked by one of the combatants, and so kept the country neutral, a period called ‘The Emergency’.
During this time the Irish Army was expanded and re-equipped to defend Ireland from attack.
In the second half of the 20th century, Ireland provided troops and equipment for UN missions to troublespots such as Lebanon and the Congo.
Ireland joined the United Nations in 1955. Since 1958, the Defence Forces have been involved continuously in peacekeeping duties throughout the world. Since 1960 Ireland has committed armed contingents at different times to the Congo, Cyprus, Somalia the Sinai and the Lebanon, among others.
The United Nations gallery at Soldiers & Chiefs exhibition examines the role played by these Irish men and women in the cause of world peace over the last 50 years.