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1 June 2015 Edition

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Gallipoli, the British Cabinet and the road to the Rising

Remembering the Past

• In total, almost 500,000 lives were lost in the Gallipoli campaign

The British and French got together to plan the carve-up of the Middle East

RECENT COMMEMORATIONS have largely ignored the important political implications for Ireland of Britain’s failed campaign in the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. Yet this military disaster had consequences which further undermined the Home Rule party of John Redmond and helped pave the way for the 1916 Rising. 

The ramshackle Ottoman Empire was based in Turkey with its capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul). It nominally ruled most of the Middle East but its empire was crumbling. Since 1882 the British Empire had controlled Egypt, formerly ruled by Constantinople. The British had seized Egypt in order to control the Suez Canal, a vital strategic link to their vast empire in India.  

When the Ottoman Empire joined the war on Germany’s side it was vulnerable to attack from the much stronger empires of Russia, Britain and France. It soon became very clear in the Middle East that this war was far from a fight “for the freedom of small nations”. The British and French governments got together to plan the carve-up of the entire region. This culminated in the Sykes/Picot Agreement, signed in May 1916 (which divided the Middle East between British and French zones) and the Balfour Declaration (which guaranteed a Zionist homeland in Palestine, with disastrous consequences that are still felt in the war-torn region today).

Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, planned a naval attack through the Dardenelles to capture Constantinople, knock Turkey out of the war and grab her empire. The naval attack began on 19 February 1915 but it was a failure as the British and French had underestimated the strength of the Turkish defences. A plan to land troops on the Gallipoli peninsula was hastily improvised and carried out on 25 April but met with fierce resistance. The British and their allies never had much more than a beach-head and the campaign dragged on for months, costing tens of thousands of lives on both sides, many of them Irish serving in the British Army but taking the heaviest toll on the defending Turks. 

The failure of the naval attack and then the Gallipoli landings caused a crisis for the British Cabinet in May 1915.  

The Liberal Government under Prime Minister H. H. Asquith had brought the British Empire into the war. It had placed Home Rule for Ireland “on the statute book” but suspended it for the duration of the war. The opposition Conservative and Unionist Party had fought Home Rule to the extent of threatening civil war in Ireland and England. Now that opposition, led by Andrew Bonar Law, demanded places in the British Cabinet. 

On 25 May 1915, to shore up the Government, Asquith formed a new Cabinet, bringing on board the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Cabinet now included Unionist leader Edward Carson, who was made Attorney General of England, the British Government’s chief law officer.

Asquith offered John Redmond a token place in the Cabinet but Redmond refused, knowing that taking office would further undermine his position among Irish nationalists. Redmond told Asquith that appointing Carson “will mean installed in power the leader of the Ulster revolters who, the other day, was threatening hostilities to the forces of the Crown and the decision of Parliament” and “will most certainly enormously increase the difficulties of my friends and myself”. But Redmond’s appeal was in vain. 

In Ireland, the Irish Volunteer newspaper declared:

“The ‘Home Rule Government’ has come to an end and Home Rule has not come to a beginning. We are now under a Unionist/Liberal coalition, and a Unionist/Liberal coalition means for Ireland a Unionist government, nothing else.”

In the Workers’ Republic on 19 June, James Connolly wrote: 

“Home Rule is on the statute book, but the chief figure in the new Cabinet is the man who organised 50,000 armed men to resist by force its passage from the position of an Act to that of a fact... Carson organised an army to fight the forces of the Crown but now he is one of the men who will direct the armed forces of the Crown to whatever end he and his may desire.”

With Carson now as Attorney General, the pursuit of nationalists and republicans under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was to be stepped up. On 9 June, Seán Mac Diarmada was sentenced to four months’ hard labour in Mountjoy for a speech in Tuam where he urged resistance to British Army recruiting and said: “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.”

Mac Diarmada was a key member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Military Council, the formation of which dates from this period. He would emerge from prison more determined than ever to bring about the Rising which was made a far more likely event following the developments of 100 years ago in May and June 1915. 


• Seán Mac Diarmada

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