A chain of events brought the Central Powers, led by the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, to war with the Éntente, led by Britain, France and Russia. A localised conflict in south western Europe between Austria-Hungary and Serbia quickly escalated into European and then global conflict.
The United Kingdom officially became involved in early August, 1914. The government could not avoid becoming entangled in the conflict due to its commitments to France and Russia. In August and September 1914 ‘war fever’ gripped large numbers of people who mistakenly believed the fighting would be over before Christmas.
Several motivations inspired people to lend their support to the Éntente, which rapidly became known as the ‘Allies’. Some responded to calls to fight for ‘King and Country’, in a ‘war for civilisation’, and ‘freedom of small nations’. For others, key reasons for signing up included friendship, ‘mateship’, fraternity, economic considerations and ideas of masculinity and martial traditions. It was commonly believed that the war would be over before Christmas, though as the weeks dragged on, uncertainty regarding when it might end crept in.
The looming civil war in Ireland was replaced by a new battle as Protestants and Catholics, from all over Ireland, enlisted in the British Forces, including many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the newly renamed National Volunteers.
Politicians tried to use their respective stances on the Home Rule question to encourage their followers to join up. Edward Carson, the Unionist leader, believed that Unionists could demonstrate their loyalty to Britain by enlisting and so kill the Home Rule Bill. John Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, believed the opposite, and argued that enlisting would demonstrate that Nationalists could be entrusted with self-government.
In the end, Ireland’s two militias accounted for less than half of the total number of volunteers: 24,000 recruits were drawn from the National Volunteers and 26,000 from the Ulster Volunteers. The Home Rule question was put on ice until the end of the war but would unexpectedly revive in mid-1916.
The First World War would come to occupy an uneasy place in the memory of Nationalists for much of the 20th century due to its association with the British military and Britishness, particularly in Northern Ireland. By contrast, the efforts of the 36th (Ulster) Division in the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 – where 5,000 Ulstermen were wounded, went missing, or were killed on one day alone – have taken a treasured place in the collective memory of Unionist and especially loyalist communities. The three divisions raised in Ireland also fought at Gallipoli, Palestine, Salonika, Guillemont and Ginchy, Ypres and during the German spring offensive of 1918. It is estimated that 210,000 men from Ireland served in the conflict and about 37,000 died. One in three eligible young men in Ireland likely volunteered for service.