By July 1914 tension in County Monaghan was very high. Over two years of organisation by Unionists had established 2000 Volunteers in the County Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Well organised, well armed and committed to their cause. A rival Nationalist Force had its origins as far back as January 1913, but was not officially launched until November that year under the label of the Irish Volunteers. For many commentators it was simply a reaction and counter weight to the U.V.F., however within the ranks of the militant Irish Republican Brotherhood the Unionist Volunteers were simply an excuse to form this Irish Volunteer Army for a much broader Irish Nationalist cause. A belief that was to have significant further implications over the coming years. The contents of the Royal Irish Constabulary confidential reports for Monaghan in July 1914 would have been scary reading for many if they had been placed into the public domain. The County Inspector detailed how the Irish Volunteer movement was growing rapidly, with five new units since June bringing the total up to 42. These numbered approximately 5000 men. The largest meeting of Irish Volunteers came in Carrickmacross where 100 of the men were armed with shotguns.
In contrast the Ulster Volunteers held a demonstration at Glaslough at the end of July, where 1468 of the County Regiment where on parade, and where 100 men of each County Battalion carried Mauser Rifles. All of the County’s nine Unionists Clubs were drilling as well, and 7 were doing so with arms. Unionists and nationalists alike were drilling regularly, occasionally parading armed on the public road, and the dangers of a confrontation were nearing as these maneuvers were becoming more frequent. The inspector noted, not surprisingly ‘happily’, that the leaders of both sides were anxious not to have any confrontation, but that a large number of Irish Volunteers were ‘of a class that cannot be disciplined or controlled and may at any time cause a disturbance’. The district of Clones was particularly volatile. In late July a party of I.V. after drilling had degenerated into a parade and proceeded around the town singing Nationalist airs and shouting slogans such as ‘Where’s Carson’, ‘Up Dublin’ and ‘Home Rule’. Unionists did not react BUT stated very ominously that if it was repeated they would turn out in arms to keep the peace.
The 12th of July commemorations passed reasonably peacefully at Ballybay, some 9000 people attending, however confrontation after an attack on Orangemen at Castleblayney was only avoided when the attacker was apprehended. Across the county conflict was being seen as not being just possible- it was inevitable. His report for the end of August could not have contrasted more, with the relief within its pages was palpable. Incredibly he wrote the following…
‘The declaration of War by Britain against Germany and Austria has completely changed the political situation. Much of the bitterness between Unionists and Nationalists which has existed during the past 12 months has been obliterated by the sudden and great danger to the Empire which both parties fully realise and there is a better feeling all round… all dangers of collision between the rival parties has disappeared for the present.’
The relief expressed was repeated across Ireland, no doubt many knowing they had been on the brink of a civil war and grateful for an excuse to pull back.
The ideology’s that had motivated so many for the previous few years hadn’t gone away however and were simply in the wings awaiting revitalised. The county inspector had remarked that while many Ulster Volunteers were willing to join the army, it was to protect Ireland only. Some were willing to go to the U.K., but just one or two were expressing a willingness to go to the ‘front. Irish Volunteers he noted were poorly drilled, disciplined and armed and would need significant training; but they were showing no ‘disposition’ for service anyway. Unionists were waiting on Carson, and Nationalists were waiting on Home Rule being passed.
Notably many of the Unionist leaders within Monaghan did immediately leave for war, either returning to units they had previously served with or enlisting afresh. For the most part this was almost completely those within ‘gentry’ circles. The Leslies, the Pennants, the Maddens, the Black’s. No move to enlist from the lower classes came until Carson made public appeals in early September, telling Ulster Volunteers their core ideal should be Empire before Ireland. The announcement of the formation of a Division for Ulstermen and Volunteers helped to persuade some, an opportunity in Carson’s words to ‘Win honour for Ireland’.
On Friday September 11th 52 men from the UVF from across the County enlisted at the Madden and Johnston Memorial Orange Hall in Monaghan under the watchful eye of clerical staff from U.V.F. Headquarters. A significant number but yet just over 2% of the Monaghan U.V.F. membership. Ulster Volunteers were not enthusiastic about leaving their homes.
When the Home Rule Bill reached the statute books on the 18th September 1914, despite it accompanied by an act of suspension that would stop it being implemented for the duration of the war, there was celebration in many towns of Monaghan. A torch lit parade in Monaghan town included some 500 people, while another large demonstration took place in Carrickmacross. There was no Unionist response to the celebrations, and the county remained peaceful, however there is no doubt that Unionists were watching and being influenced further by the proceedings.
On September 28th the Ulster Day anniversary was celebrated via parade and divine service in various venues including Clones, Glaslough, Monaghan Town and Clontibret where Irish Volunteers were described as selfish and where Ulster Volunteers were asked to trust Sir Edward Carson. A split in Irish Nationalism had no influence on the reluctance to enlist, and Nationalist recruiting was slow to non-existent. The Northern Standard of October 3rd included coverage of the Ulster Volunteers who had enlisted those few weeks before, leaving for camp in Clandeboye, with very few new names joining the ranks of those already having previously volunteered. Companies of Monaghan and District U.V.F. organised a farewell function at Johnston and Madden Orange Hall, where led by Major Richardson 1st battalion Commander and Russell McWilliam Monaghan Company Commander, they were escorted to the railway station. During the war Monaghan would not witness the joint send offs by Ulster and Irish Volunteers that other areas of Ulster experienced.
Even though recruitment was slow, a view that a majority of the County wanted Britain to beat the Germans, but just did not want to leave the County, was borne out by the efforts of several committees and churches to gather both funds and comforts to be sent to troops. As early as August 29th, the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association in Monaghan Town was knitting socks and other items for the front, a jumble sale was held in Monaghan Town hall in September for Belgian Refugees, and in November Clones Ladies Committee under the leadership of Mrs. Madden of Hilton Park announced that so far they had raised £35 for troops. Even the catholic congregation at Ballybay was raising money and collecting for Belgian refugees. By 21st November a committee in Drum had already gathered and forwarded two large parcels of socks, mufflers, etc for troops. Subscriptions were being gathered by treasurer Mrs. Thompson of Rose Cottage, and to date had included £1 from Thomas Moore J.P; and 10 shillings each from Rev Armstrong, J. Carleton, William Carleton, J. Madill, Rev Mears, W. Moore, J. Stewart and Mrs. Thompson herself. In early December a concert was hosted in Mulahara Orange hall, where the cause was a fund that had been started by Lady Dartrey to raise monies for a motor ambulance for the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
The tragedy of the Great War was to be brought home to all of Monaghan very early when a name know to all was Killed in Action on 19th October 1914. Captain Norman Jerome Beauchamp Leslie, son of Colonel Sir John Leslie Glaslough, was killed by a German sniper while on a reconnaissance patrol. Whilst the families heritage was unionist, Normans brother Shane had converted to Catholicism and had began his association with Irish nationalism having drilled with the Irish Volunteers, and Leslie was a house hold name to Monaghan Protestant and Catholic alike. A mark of the type of view held by the gentry of the period is seen in a quotation from one of Normans letters to his brother Shane ‘ Some will live and many will die, but count the loss not. It is better by far to go out with honour than survive with shame.’
Just a few weeks later another high profile loss came through Captain Richard Dawson of the Cold-stream Guards, a prominent member of the Monaghan Regiment U.V.F. U.V.F. Order 143 dated 28th November was devoted totally to paying tribute to him. Somewhat more positive news from the War also came in November however, this time the award of a Victoria Cross to a local man. David Nelson was from Darraghlan, Stranoodan near Cahans Presbyterian Church where he was a parishioner. At the rank of a Sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery, Nelson served with distinction under heavy fire whilst active in the retreat from Mons. Only 46 Victoria Crosses were awarded in 1914 to the British and Indian Forces emphasizing the significance of the achievement. Nelson was the 16th V.C. won in the war of a total of 628. He was promoted to Second Lieutentant and eventually reached the rank of Major before being killed in action on 8th April 1918.
To perhaps illustrate that many Catholics did play a role, in 1916 another Victoria Cross was won for Monaghan, this time by Private Thomas Hughes of Corravoo Castleblayney. On 3rd September 1916 Private Hughes despite being wounded, returned to the front line, rescued several other wounded men and captured a machine gun. He survived the war and was buried in St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church Broomfield.
Despite the romance sometimes portrayed thought the pages of the Northern Standard, recruitment remained very low for the County for the entire war. Cold feet among Unionism remaining as to the value of going to war, was illustrated very clearly in early 1915. In January of the year a recruiting meeting at Rockcorry Orange hall attracted a crowd so large that a second meeting had to be organised nearby. The attendance included 140 men from the Rockcorry, Drum and Newbliss Companies of the U.V.F. The meeting was addressed by Major Blacker of the 9th battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the Nationalist Dundalk Democrat newspaper happily reprinted his assertion that of the 1014 men in his battalion only 70 from Monaghan. Their happiness approached delight when they further stated that despite the large turnout not one single recruit was forthcoming from the rally. In October 1915 a further recruiting march also had no success.
By October 1916 only 738 men from County Monaghan had answered the call to enlist, the majority being Protestant despite Protestants only composing approximately 20% of the population. Slow recruitment was blamed several times on the prominence of farming in the County, with the farming classes accused of not wanting to go to war because they were prospering financially. Evidence suggests however that within Unionism the genuine fear of Monaghan Nationalists had a much bigger influence. The fear was manifest even long after the outbreak of war when the Ballybay U.V.F. paraded publically fully armed in November, and on the 8th December 1914 82 members of the Clones Company U.V.F. were issued with Martini Henri Rifles and ammunition. All of this was likely compounded by the rise of Sinn Fein and their anti-recruitment campaigning, combined with new Nationalist agitation over land issues possibly leaving Protestants even more fearful of going away and coming back to their land usurped from under them. Nationalists as a whole were believed to not be antagonistic to the war, but simply did not care enough to play a part.
The view changed somewhat in Easter 1916 and the events in Dublin. A rebellion that had tiny support, even with prominent and staunch Nationalist newspapers like the Dundalk Democrat calling it a ‘black weeks work’, began to gain sympathy because of the reaction of the authorities. Believed by many to be an over-reaction, martial law was imposed across Ireland and among the many arrested where Monaghan men who had played no part in the Rising. These included Inniskeen’s Bernard O’Rourke who had been very active in campaigning against recruitment. Sinn Fein began to grow, and combined with the mass objections to the possibility of conscription being introduced in 1917-1918, led to what was already a trickle of Nationalist recruitment almost stopping completely for the remaining duration of the war. Unionists spokespeople and the Orange Order were publically campaigning for conscription even if it appeared by actions to date that their community didn’t share the view.
Despite all of these competing interests, the human factor of those that had went to the foreign fields of battle still was at play with the Northern Standard regularly covering details of men injured or killed. In June 1916 the story of Private John Burke was covered. Burke from Guardhill Newbliss was a members of D Company the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, and had been recently wounded. By sad coincidence on the date he was wounded his father had died at home. A brother Joseph who was also serving with the 9th Battalion had arrived home for leave but had unfortunately missed his father’s funeral.
On the 1st July the local paper featured an advertisement for a Patriotic Concert in Mullapike Orange hall with proceeds for the Red Cross, but little did they know that by the 12th of July they would be more focused on other events. Not surprisingly the one day when most of Monaghan would be most affected by the War was the 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
For several weeks lists of the County dead and wounded filtered back to their homes. Among the casualties two names stood out. John Burke who had just weeks before been wounded, lost his life on the 1st July 1916 aged just 20. His brother Joseph died the same day on the same field of battle. There were others. James Moore Drumgarley Newbliss Killed in Action 1st July 1916. James Smyth Killevin Killed in Action 1st July 1916. David Black Banaghroe Killed in Action 1st July 1916. William James Fleming Slieveroe Killed in Action 1st July 1916. Andrew Moorehead Smithboro Killed in Action 1st July 1916. Just some of the names of those killed. Clones alone lost five men. The Davis family of Clonkirk lost two sons, Thomas and John, aged just 20 and 17. The County would lose even more sons in the days to follow from wounds received in the battle.
William Clarke Newbliss was another casualty. D Company of the 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers was that reserved for Monaghan and Cavan men, and from its ranks an officer wrote to his father, William Clarke senior, of Newbliss ‘I am writing to you in sympathy which we all feel for you in your bereavement, through the death of your son, in action on July 1st. all we who are left in D Company regret his loss most sincerely and feel that his will be one of the places which it will be impossible to fill’. In yet another family story of which there were so many in the Great War, Williams brother Joseph had emigrated to Canada, but returned and enlisted. He was injured during the Easter Rising and would eventually end up in the same Battalion as his brother and later again wounded. He was eventually discharged in November 1915 s no longer fit for war service due to wounds.
Some families would suffer unfairly when looking back, such as the Sproules from Carrivetragh Clones. Parents Robert and Catherine Sproule lost three sons in the Great War. Sgt Major Joseph Sproule, 1st Batt Royal Irish Fusiliers was killed in action on 8th December 1914 aged 31 years. Sgt Major John Sproule, 2nd Batt Royal Irish Fusiliers was killed in action on 14th February 1915 aged 25. He is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. Private Robert Sproule, 1st Batt Central Ontario Regiment died of wounds on 11th February 1918 aged 30 years and is buried in Toronto Cemetery, Ontario, Canada
On the whole it is very difficult to fully assess the exact contribution of County Monaghan to the Great War in terms of personnel, however one commentator gives a total of 539 fatalities. Many of these men however had emigrated over previous years and had enlisted in Forces across the United Kingdom and as far a-field as Australia, Canada and America.
Very few complete lists were kept, but one very useful surviving record is that of the Presbyterian Church. From the outset of War, ministers were instructed to note all parishioners who enlisted. There were later issues as a Roll of Honour. From these listing alone there are a significant number of names. Newbliss Church has 18, Stonebridge 12, Monaghan First 47, Cahans 20, Scotstown 2, Smithborough 9, Clontibret 21, Glennan 34, Ballyalbany 29, Ballybay First and second 32, Castleblayney 32, Derryvalley 7, Garmony’s Grove 11, Drumkeen 5, Loughmourne and Crieve 7, McKelveys Grove 9 and Rockcorry 2. A total of almost 300 men listed in the Presbyterian Church alone.
After the events of the Easter Rising it rapidly became apparent that a six county solution to the Home Rule Crisis would be imminent. On May 22nd the Rev Burns of Drum made public his conclusion regarding the political settlement that perhaps would have adequately summed up the views of both Unionists who went to war, the many who didn’t, and even Nationalist voices stating ‘in this Country it does not pay to be Loyal’.