Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Great War in Europe that nobody was expecting!

Irish home-rule poster
When the first rumblings of war were heard in Europe during the summer of 1914, it took most ordinary British people by surprise. Most assumed that, if there was to be any trouble at all, it would be Ireland where the demand for home-rule had been causing mounting tension.

This was certainly the opinion of Maude Boucher, a mother of four from Bristol, when news of war came through after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant in Serbia. In a journal she kept throughout the Great War, the following entry reveals how she - and many others like her - were taken completely by surprise:
The summer term was just completed and the holidays commencing, when on Tuesday, July 28 1914, the evening newspaper boys were shouting in the streets ‘War declared’. We had all been wondering and speculating as to whether there would be war in Ireland or not, as there has been much quarrelling and many disturbances there in connection with the Home Rule Question, so naturally one jumped to the conclusion that it had been decided at last to have war, but much to our surprise, we found that it was not in connection with Ireland  at all, but it was a little war between Austria and Servia [sic] which seemed, at the time, as though it would not affect us in any way.
Mabel called to see us and told us what a shock it had given her when she heard the newsboys calling out ‘War Declared’ as she quite thought then that we were to have a Civil War in Ireland. She said ‘I was so relieved to find that it was only a little war between Austria and Servia ... We none of us then knew or imagined what this little war was going to lead to.”
When Britain declared war on Germany a few weeks later, most Irish people backed the governement regardless of political affiliation, and the Irish 'troubles' died down for a while. But violence flared up unexpectedly in 1916 when republicans mounted an armed insurrection during Easter Week which lasted six days and became known as the Easter Rising.

Executed: Irish republican
Joseph Plunkett
The British Army used its vastly superior numbers and artillery to suppress the rising quickly and the ringleaders were rounded up, court-martialled and executed. Among them was Joseph Plunkett who came from a family of republicans. His brothers George and Jack were also sentenced to be shot, but both had their sentences commuted to ten years' penal servitude. They spent six months in the formidable Portland Prison, in Dorset, and their arrival on the island was witnessed by nine-year-old Mary Bool, whose recollections later in life are among many fascinating WW1 memories held by Portland Heritage Trust:
One day I was down the yard and was watching prisoners being unloaded. One of them was a member of the Plunkett family, a leader of the rebellion. They were difficult prisoners and the guards had quite a lot of trouble with them. When they were coming off the ship’s cutters and whalers and up onto Camber Pier, one of them got up on one of the bollards and sang 'Danny Boy' and there was loud cheering and hurrah-ing and all sorts. 
They were marched away up to the prison, and all night long they would be calling out from their cells to one another and keeping people awake singing Irish songs. Our home was about half a mile from the prison but, if the wind was in the south-east, we could hear them plainly. One of them, maybe the one who stood on the bollard in the dockyard had a very good voice, a tenor.
Mary Bool's recollections - and those of other children who grew up on Portland during the First World War - appear in my new book, Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War, which is out in October 2015. You can read more from Maude Boucher's WW1 journal in my books Letters from the Trenches and Bristol in the Great War.

The formidable Portland Prison: 'All night long prisoners would be calling out from their cells'

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