Hot on the heels of Bloody Belfast, I received another book on Irish History, this time focussing on the contribution of Irish people and Irish units to the Second World War.
Irish History really is like trying to untangle a particularly nasty ‘birdsnest’ on a fishing reel. Particularly if we are looking at Anglo-Irish History – its a prime example of how history can be affected by past and indeed future events. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland affected the path towards Irish nationalism, as much as the Easter Rising and the Troubles affect how Cromwell is seen today. Somewhere in amongst this passionate and complex historiography, we have the fact that a significant number of Irishman have fought for the British Crown over hundreds of years. Perhaps one of the best – although fictional – examples is that of Sergeant Harper in Sharpe.
But that is not all. Add into the equation the many thousands of Irish diaspora, particularly people who left during hard times to seek work, and joined the British Armed Forces. This leads us to consider one crucial question – why would Irishmen, particularly from the south, serve the British Crown? Doherty offers a number of reasons – hardship being one, alongside a desire to defend Democracy. Tellingly, however, Doherty tells us that in the post-war years when the Troubles were at their height, many Irish veterans had to use hardshp as an excuse for joining the Royal Navy or the British Army. A prime example of how current events can shape our understanding of the past.
This book by Richard Doherty sheds new light on this fascinating aspect of the War. In particular the first chapter uses some extensive research and statistics to challenge previous work on Irish participation and losses. The rest of the book follows a chronological path, detailing Irish units and Irishmen who took part in key actions. Medal winners are well documented, as are some typically Irish anecdotes – including the Protestant Northern Irish CSM who met the Pope wearing his Orange Order sash.
Its only after reading an account like this that you realise just what a contribution the Irish, from North and South, made to the British war effort. So many Generals seem to have had Irish connections – Dill, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Horrocks and O’Connor to name but a few. And then there was a plethora of other officers who distinguished themselves- Blaire ‘Paddy’ Mayne (DSO and 3 Bars, CO of the SAS and an Irish Achilles if ever there was one), Brigadier Hackett of Arnhem fame, Colonel Otway of Merville Battery, and Joe Vandeleur, CO of Irish Guards in the frantic dash up the corridor to Arnhem. As well as men, we are informed about some fine units, including the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 8th Kings Own Royal Irish Hussars, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Irish Guards.
On the downside, it is sometimes difficult to follow the Irish thread in amongst the broader strategic picture. Admittedly, Irishmen took part in virtually every battle and served on board most ships, so it must have been difficult to keep to the Irish thread. But this is a fantastic book, with thorough research complementing an analytical and well scoped approach.