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Conscription Crisis of 1918

The Conscription Crisis of 1918 stemmed from a move by the British government to impose conscription (military draft) in Ireland in April 1918 during the First World War. Vigorous opposition was led by trade unions, Irish nationalist parties and Roman Catholic bishops and priests. A conscription law was passed but was never put in effect; no one in Ireland was drafted into the British Army. The proposal and backlash galvanised support for political parties which advocated Irish separatism and influenced events in the lead-up to the Irish War of Independence.


  • Background 1
  • Conferences and pledge 2
  • Strikes and other actions in Ireland 3
  • The "German plot" 4
  • Hay Plan 5
  • After-effects 6
  • Voluntary enlistment 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11


In early 1918, the British Army was dangerously short of troops for the Western Front. In the German Spring Offensive of 1918, German troops broke through the Allied lines in several sectors of the front in France, with a local advantage in numbers of four to one, putting severe strain on the Allied armies.[1] The British Army, in one day, suffered a major setback, with the Imperial German Army over-running ninety-eight square miles of territory and penetrating, at the furthest point, to a depth of four and a half miles.[2]

nationalists and unionists in Ireland.[3][4] Despite opposition from the entire Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), conscription for Ireland was voted through at Westminster.[5]

Although large numbers of Irishmen had willingly joined

  • The Hay Plan & Conscription In Ireland During WW1 Dave Hennessy
  • Dublin and the Great War

External links

  • Greenhalgh, Elizabeth. "David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and the 1918 Manpower Crisis." Historical Journal 50#2 (2007): 397-421.
  • Grigg, John. Lloyd George: War Leader, 1916–1918 (2002) pp 465–88
  • Jaan De Wiel, Jérôme. The Catholic Church in Ireland, 1914-1918: War and Politics (Irish Academic Press, 2003)
  • Joesten, Daniel McKenna. "A Declaration of War: The Press and the Irish Conscription Crisis of 1918." Utah Historical Review 3 (2013): 27+ online
  • Karsten, Peter. "Irish soldiers in the British army, 1792-1922: suborned or subordinate?." Journal of Social History (1983): 31-64. in JSTOR
  • Ward, Alan J. "Lloyd George and the 1918 Irish Conscription Crisis," Historical Journal, (1974) 17#1 pp. 107–129 in JSTOR

Further reading

  1. ^ Randal, Gray (1991). Kaiserschlacht, 1918: The Final German Offensive. Osprey Campaign Series.  
  2. ^ a b Hennessey, Thomas: Dividing Ireland, World War I and Partition, The Irish Convention and Conscription p. 220, Routledge Press (1998) ISBN 0-415-17420-1
  3. ^ a b Hennessy, Dave. "The Hay Plan & Conscription in Ireland During WW1". Waterford County Museum. Retrieved 11 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Ward, Alan J. (1974). "Lloyd George and the 1918 Irish Conscription Crisis". The Historical Journal XVII (1): 111.  
  5. ^  
  6. ^ a b c (Article highlighting pre- and post-war attitudes to participation of Irish in Great War)The forgotten soldiersBBC –
  7. ^ a b c Dave Hennessy (2004). The Hay Plan & Conscription in Ireland During WW1, p.5 [7]
  8. ^ Alan J., Ward (1974). Lloyd George and the 1918 Irish Conscription Crisis. The Historical Journal, Vol. XVII, no. 1. 
  9. ^ Dave Hennessy (2004). The Hay Plan & Conscription in Ireland During WW1, p.4 [8]
  10. ^ Robert Fitzroy Foster (1992). The Oxford history of Ireland. Oxford U.P. p. 202. 
  11. ^ T. M. Healy, K. C. (1918). Letters and Leaders of my Day. Personal letters. Entry labelled "Chapelizod, 1st April, 1918."[9]
  12. ^ Hennessey, Thomas (1998). Dividing Ireland: World War I and Partition.  [10]
  13. ^  [11]
  14. ^  [12]
  15. ^ Jerome aan de Wiel (1998). "The 'Hay Plan': an account of Anglo-French recruitment efforts in Ireland, August 1918". The Sword (Military History Society of Ireland) XXI: 434. 
  16. ^ Troy Paddock (2014). World War I and Propaganda. Brill Academic Publishing. p. 62. 
  17. ^ Hennessey, Thomas: Dividing Ireland, World War I and Partition, The Irish Convention and Conscription pp. 226–8, Routledge Press (1998) ISBN 0-415-17420-1
  18. ^ Pennell, Catriona (2012). A Kingdom United: Popular Responses to the Outbreak of the First World War in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  19. ^ Irish soldiers in the First World WarDepartment of the Taoiseach –
  20. ^ David Fitzpatrick, Militarism in Ireland 1900–1922, in Thomas Bartlet, Keith Jeffrey, ed. A Military History of Ireland, p386
  21. ^ a b As noted by the statistics published by the Department of the Taoiseach ("Irish Soldiers in the First World War"), the numbers of Irish who served (and casualties amongst those) vary considerably. Jeffery gives a figure of 210,000 enlisted, and at least 35,000 dead. While the Irish National War Memorial notes 300,000 served, and 49,400 dead.
  22. ^ G. R. Searle (2004). A New England?: Peace and War 1886–1918. Oxford U.P. p. 753. 


See also

In all, 200,000 to 300,000[21] Irishmen served with British forces during the Great War, and, of the 680,000 fatalities from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, some 40,000 to 49,000[21] were from Ireland. In all about 12.3 per cent of Irish men of service age actually served, approximately 25 per cent of the rate in the rest of the UK; 57 per cent of them were Roman Catholics.[22]

Support and enlistment were more prominent amongst Irish Unionist and Protestant traditions, but nationalist and Roman Catholic enlistment was also common,[6] as the war was seen to be fought in defence of smaller Catholic countries like occupied Belgium. In this cause, those who would later become detractors of conscription (including John Dillon, William O'Brien and the Roman Catholic bishops) were prominent on recruitment platforms at the outbreak of the war.

It should be noted that the bulk of opposition to the Great War in Ireland was to compulsory conscription, not to the war nor to voluntary enlistment in the British Army. In fact, many Irish supported the war and Irish involvement.[6][18][19][20]

Voluntary enlistment

The crisis was also a watershed in Ulster Unionism's relations with Nationalist Ireland, as expressed by Unionist leader James Craig: "for Ulster Unionists the conscription crisis was the final confirmation that the aspirations of Nationalists and Unionists were unrecompatible. [sic]"[17]

This opposition also led in part to Sinn Féin being ignored by the subsequent victors at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, despite its electoral success. It appointed representatives who moved to Paris and several times requested a place at the conference, with recognition of the Irish Republic, but never received a reply.

Sinn Féin's association (in the public perception at least) with the 1916 Easter Rising and the anti-conscription movement, directly and indirectly led on to their landslide victory over (and effective elimination of) the Irish Parliamentary Party, the formation of the first Dáil Éireann and in turn to the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish War in 1919. (See: Aftermath of World War I – United Kingdom and Irish (UK) general election, 1918).

Completely ineffectual as a means to bolster battalions in France, the events surrounding the Conscription Crisis were disastrous for the Dublin Castle authorities, and for the more moderate nationalist parties in Ireland. The delay in finding a resolution to the home rule issue, partly caused by the war, and exaggerated by the Conscription Crisis in Ireland, all increased support for Sinn Féin.

By June 1918 it had become apparent to most observers in Britain and Ireland that following American entry into the war the tide of war had changed in favour of the Allied armies in Europe, and by 20 June the Government had dropped its conscription and home rule plans, given the lack of agreement of the Irish Convention. However the legacy of the crisis remained.[2]


In France the German Spring Offensive and its follow-on attacks had failed by July, and the Allies counter-attacked successfully at the Second Battle of the Marne and the Hundred Days Offensive. As a result, recruitment efforts through September and October continued to have very limited success, and by the Armistice in November (marking the end of World War I) conscription remaining unimplemented in Ireland.

Despite some progress in August in persuading Primate of All Ireland Cardinal Logue through these means, the "Hay Plan" was delayed (and ultimately stymied) by complications in diplomatic channels and by political rivalries.[7] The latter included concerns by some in the UK parliament that reciprocal French support of Irish interests would not be to Britain's advantage after the war.[16]

The plan simply called for a letter (drafted by Hay, and approved by Edward Shortt, then Chief Secretary for Ireland) to be sent by the French Primate to the Irish bishops, requesting that they soften their opposition to conscription to aid the war effort in France.

If the church were definitely or even in a large measure converted and the support it has given to disloyal elements be not taken away but thrown on to the other side in the controversy [the conscription crisis], much would be done for the future of the peace in Ireland.
— Stuart Hay[3]

Simultaneously, a more subtle effort (and assessed by later historians as having more potential for success)[15] was undertaken from the offices of Lord Northcliffe under the Minister of Information. The "Hay Plan" was conceived by Stuart Hay—a British Army Captain—who was under orders to establish a proposal to work around widespread anti-conscription feeling and persuade Irish nationalists to join the French army (initially as labourers in specialised battalions). Hay's plan relied on the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland (and empathy among its supporters for fellow-Catholics in Belgium and France suffering from German invasion), to sway opinion:

Hay Plan

Nervous of growing unrest, and still with dire need to progress conscription in Ireland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord French, claiming evidence of a treasonable plot between Sinn Féin and the Germans, ordered the arrest of seventy-three Sinn Féin leaders, including Griffith and de Valera, on 17 May.[7] This heavy-handed response by the Dublin Castle authorities did little to defuse the situation. (In fact, a lack of evidence meant the German Plot was little believed in Great Britain, Ireland or the United States, and aggravated opinion and Sinn Féin support.)

Dillon on platform during Roscommon anti-conscription rally in 1918

The "German plot"

Over a year earlier Wilson had introduced the Selective Service Act of 1917; by June 1917 it enabled the registration of all American men aged between 21 and 31 for conscription.

In the fourth year of a war ostensibly begun for the defence of small nations, a law conscribing the manhood of Ireland has been passed, in defiance of the wishes of our people .... To warrant the coercive statute, no recourse was had to the electorate of Britain, much less to that in Ireland. Yet the measure was forced through within a week, despite the votes of Irish representatives and under a system of closure never applied to the debates, which established conscription for Great Britain on a milder basis.

On 11 June Dublin's Lord Mayor, Laurence O'Neill, in a letter to the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson called for support against conscription:[14]

In the following weeks, anti-conscription rallies were held nationwide, with 15,000 people attending a meeting in County Roscommon at the start of May, where John Dillon, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and Éamon de Valera of Sinn Féin shared the platform. This in itself is notable as, while sharing nationalist views, Dillon and de Valera's parties had previously been divided in opinion as to the means of gaining legislative or complete independence from the United Kingdom.

Following their representation at the Mansion House, the labour movement made its own immediate and distinctive contribution to the anti-conscription campaign. A one day general strike was called in protest, and on 23 April 1918, work was stopped in railways, docks, factories, mills, theatres, cinemas, trams, public services, shipyards, newspapers, shops, and even Government munitions factories. The strike was described as "complete and entire, an unprecedented event outside the continental countries".[13]

Strikes and other actions in Ireland

Denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.

The Anti-Conscription Committee and bishops proposed an anti-conscription pledge that was to be taken at the church door of every Roman Catholic parish the next Sunday, 21 April, which read:[12]

On the evening of the same day, the Roman Catholic bishops were holding their annual meeting and declared the conscription decree an oppressive and unjust law, calling on the Church's adherents to resist "by the most effective means at our disposal" (if "consonant with the law of God.")[10][11]

On 18 April 1918, acting on a resolution of Dublin Corporation, the Lord Mayor of Dublin (Laurence O'Neill) held a conference at the Mansion House, Dublin. The Irish Anti-Conscription Committee was convened to devise plans to resist conscription, and represented different sections of nationalist opinion: John Dillon and Joseph Devlin for the Irish Parliamentary Party, Éamon de Valera and Arthur Griffith for Sinn Féin, William O'Brien and Timothy Michael Healy for the All-for-Ireland Party and Michael Egan, Thomas Johnson and W X O'Brien representing Labour and the trade unions.[9]

The nine Anti-Conscription Committee members
Clickable image: Hover for name, click for article

Conferences and pledge

Although the crisis was unique in Ireland at the time, it followed similar campaigns in Australia (1916–17) and Canada (1917). In Australia, Irish Catholics mostly opposed conscription; in Canada (and the US), Irish Catholics supported conscription.


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