Like many South Florida Irish-Americans, I spent the summer in Maine, enjoying its soft Ireland-like weather, searching for sea glass on the beach and spending many quiet evenings reading. One of the great books that I read this summer was The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, originally published in 1962 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction that year. This amazing history of the politics and persons responsible for the outbreak of World War I, and of the first few weeks of battle, so impressed President John F. Kennedy that he gave copies of the book to his friends as Christmas gifts.
The Guns of August was a revelation to me, surprised me by revealing how little I knew about “the war to end all wars”, and provided me with a fresh perspective on events that shaped the history of the 20th century. If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it:
Of particular interest to me was a now little-known incident relating to northern Ireland that paralyzed Britain’s military decision-makers in 1914, and which emboldened Germany to launch its invasion of Belgium and France in August of that year. The Guns of August briefly mentions the so-called “Curragh Mutiny” incident that rocked Britain’s military and political structure to its foundations in the months before the start of World War I, and left the mighty British Empire unprepared and indecisive on the precipice of impending war in Europe.
In January 1913, after over 700 years of England’s colonial oppression of Ireland, a Liberal Party-controlled British Parliament voted to grant “Home Rule” to Ireland, including its own independent Irish Parliament. Conservative pro-British Unionists in the north of Ireland vehemently opposed “Home Rule” and the prospect of being governed by a liberal Irish Parliament in Dublin. The Ulster Unionists threatened armed rebellion to prevent Irish “Home Rule” in the north, formed their own provisional government at Belfast and established their own paramilitary force with an estimated 100,000 volunteers by 1914. Faced with the threat of armed opposition to the enforcement of the Home Rule Act, the British Government ordered its military to ready weapons and troops to respond to any armed rebellion in Ulster. In March 1914, the largely pro-Unionist British officer corps in Ireland balked at the prospect of fighting against “its own people” in Ulster, in what became known as the “Curragh Mutiny”. Britain’s Parliament and Government were shaken by the resignation of a large number of its senior Army officers and by the threat that its military might not obey the civilian Government.
Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was contemplating the imminent invasion of France through Belgium. His decision would be based upon the likelihood of Britain’s not honoring its treaty obligation to defend neutral Belgium. The Kaiser’s close cousin was King George V of England and the mighty British Empire, and Kaiser Wilhelm was afraid of facing a British military response to any German invasion of Belgium. The political chaos and fractured military authority in England, created in large part by the “Curragh Mutiny”, lead the Kaiser to believe that England would either opt to stay out of any Continental war or, at the very least, delay any British military response long enough for Germany to launch a rapid and overwhelming invasion through Belgium and achieve a quick conquest of France. Upon this wishful and faulty assumption, the Kaiser plunged the world into the greatest and costliest war in human history to that time. World War I killed much of an entire generation, wasted Western Europe and, in its festering ruin, spawned nearly a century of world conflict. The “Curragh Mutiny” also resulted in nearly a century of unnecessary conflict and terror in northern Ireland.
Read more about the “Curragh Mutiny”: http://www.examiner.com/irish-american-culture-in-fort-lauderdale/my-summer-maine-a-great-book-an-incident-ireland