Fighting for the Crown has always been a touchy subject in Ireland. Those who would take the King’s shilling were often looked down upon by friends and neighbours and even family members simply for joining the enemy. Despite the nationalist reasoning behind a substantial number of volunteers who left to fight Germany in World War I, returning soldiers were cast aside, branded traitors to Ireland by a society successfully brainwashed into believing the nationalist narrative driven into their minds by both the nationalist leaders and of course the Catholic Church. Coming home from World War II, one section of Irish soldiers who fought in Europe faced a much graver situation – not just the hatred of a nationalist populace, but imprisonment and reprisals on both themselves and their families, for the crime of deserting the Irish Defence forces.
Recently, Alan Shatter has announced a proposed piece of legislation which will provide an official amnesty for those Irish citizens who left their posts in the Free State army to fight for the Allies in mainland Europe. “The government apologises for the manner in which those men of the Defence Forces were treated after the war by the state,” Shatter declared. Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, Éamon de Valera immediately declared that the Irish Free State would remain neutral for several reasons – in view of the continued partition of Ireland, neutrality as the ultimate declaration of Ireland’s independence as well as the more practical matter of Ireland being a small nation and vulnerable to attack should she choose sides. Throughout the war, Dev maintained the Free State’s position. Strong pressure came from London over the use of Irish ports by the British navy, supported by the American representative in Dublin, David Gray. Dev continually refused any such requests, arguing that any moves in favour of one side would threaten the Free State’s safety, a stance which served to enhance his support from the populace. But really, Ireland wasn’t all that neutral, and certainly showed sympathetic leanings towards the Allies and their cause. For one thing, the Irish army passed on information to the British, while British soldiers who found themselves landing in the Free State were quietly slipped over the border into Northern Ireland; their German counterparts were instead arrested and interned. So, one might think, it wouldn’t be a step too far for some Irishmen to aid the Allies in their fight against Germany.
In the Irish Defence Forces were a large number of highly trained men, ready and itching to go into action which wouldn’t happen for them, barring an invasion of Ireland. A good portion of these men saw what was happening in Europe, and were unhappy with the country’s position of neutrality, men who wanted to fight – against evil, for more money and even food (which was distinctly lacking in Ireland’s army) or just for the hell of it. Around 4,500 to 5,000 are believed to have deserted their positions in the Irish Defence forces (alongside those who had legitimately joined the British army) and left Ireland to fight on the battlefields of Europe, though not all for the same sides. They joined different regiments and fought in many countries and during some of the most important episodes of the war which would eventually swing the Allies way. But if they expected to return home to a hero’s reception, they were sorely mistaken. While the Irish government was ostensibly neutral, the citizens were certainly not. And it’s not hard to understand why. These were a generation of people who had lived through the execution of the rebels of 1916, the War of Independence and the infliction of the Black and Tans, the Civil War and the toll that took on the populace, not to mention the partition of Ireland and the continued troubles across the country. Anti-British sentiment was still very fresh, and here were people, Irish people no less, who had deserted their country to go and fight in the army of the old enemy. And so came, from Dáil Éireann (despite their unofficial assistance to the Allied forces), the starvation order, officially known as the Emergency Powers Order No. 362, passed under the Irish Emergency Powers Act of 1939. The severity of the deserter’s punishment shows that the government of the time wanted to inflict as much physical and psychological pain on those 5,000 returning soldiers as possible. Under the legislation, they were to be punished in four ways – they forfeited all pay during the period of desertion, all pensions were lost to them, any employment benefits they might have been eligible for were revoked and for a period of seven years they were not allowed to hold any job paid for from public money. This, the government maintained, was to ensure that those who had faithfully fulfilled their oaths to the Free State army were the first to get the available jobs following demobilisation, to deter any future desertion and as a cost-effective way of dealing en masse with those who deserted, rather than incurring the cost of dealing with each individual through court-martial. In October of 1945, TD Thomas O’Higgins made moves to annul the legislation; while condoning desertion he felt the punishment laid on those who left for the Allied armies was far too harsh. However, the Dáil voted in favour of the order.
The resultant effect on those soldiers and their families is still felt even to this day. Speaking in recent years, those who still lived recalled the ever-present fear of being brought to task because of their choices. Work was hard to come by, as employers didn’t look too kindly on membership of the British army, forgetting the desertion aspect. Paddy Reid, who fought against the Japanese with the Royal Artillery in the jungles of Burma, resorted to scouring the countryside, finding odd jobs like picking turnips for farmers to survive. For families, home was often to be found in the slums and never in the one place for too long, nor was there ever the assurance of food on the table. Others were thrown directly into jail. Phil Farrington was put in a Cork military prison at the age of nineteen, caught while returning home on leave, where starvation rations were given to the prisoners who often resorted to eating egg shells. The guards showed nothing but contempt for the inmates, who were often beaten if they didn’t work hard enough. Suicides, somewhat unsurprisingly, were not uncommon. And perhaps more disturbing was the fate of the children of these men. Many were taken away from their destitute parents, whether their fathers had returned alive from the war or not, and were placed into industrial schools at the mercy of daily beatings with rubber truncheons and faced with malnourishment and horrifically unhygienic environments. And according to some reports, those children of British soldiers bore the worst of it all. An ‘SS’ beside their names signified the crimes of their fathers, and marked them out for the most cruel of punishments. Whether this occurred or not, the fact of the matter was that physical and sexual abuse was only the norm, for all children unfortunate enough to be cast into these places. “It’s so ironic that their fathers had fought so hard to enter in one of the most atrocious wars in the history of the human race and had freed all those poor people from the concentration camps in Belsen and yet their own children were subjected to a similar type of concentration camp back at home in Ireland, just because their fathers had ‘deserted’ the Irish Army,” said Irish politician, Mary Ann O’Brien.
“A simple pardon, yeah, we’ve had the Queen over, we’ve had people of the North, the peace,” said the grandson of Phil Farrington, deserter and veteran of D-Day, “and yet we still can’t get the Irish lads that fought for the war, we can’t get them a thank you or a pardon, it’s shocking, shocking that someone comes back from the war, could have given their life, I know many did, that are still blacklisted and then to be treated the way he was. They didn’t run away for a holiday, they weren’t making fortunes and gallivanting around Europe they were running towards guns.” Feelings are still quiet deep on a subject which is only coming back to the surface of discussion in recent years, and it’s not as straightforward an issue as one might think. For starters, those men had, at the base of it all, deserted, and any army in the world which doesn’t punish deserters is simply asking for trouble. If they do nothing, even when those who left went for a good reason (in most cases), what message does that send to those left behind, or those who might join in future years? These were men who had sworn an oath to their country and they effectively abandoned that oath. Some have argued that they probably, in fact, got off lightly. Desertion in other countries at the time would have brought a severe sentence on your head – the Soviet army in particular was infamous for punishing its deserters with execution. Having said that, less than ten years after the war ended, an amnesty for all British deserters was announced by Winston Churchill in 1953, so a precedent for forgiveness was indeed there, whereas in Ireland, the same move has taken 59 years more thus far. And whereas those who deserted from the British army surely did so to save their own skins, those 5,000 Irishmen who deserted the Irish army did so to join another, and to face far greater dangers than they would have confronted in Ireland. Their punishment was indeed severe but again at the base of it all, they had committed a crime against the country they had sworn to defend, breaking the law is breaking the law.
People will argue that their reasons were just and the ends justify the means. But we have no idea how many fought on the side of the Germans rather than the Allies, or what reasons other than fighting against evil persuaded them to abandon their comrades, their oaths and their country. Again, the explanation is the same as to why they were so hated in the first place – the residual effect of the protracted fight against the British, the legacy of their rule in this country and the continued partition of North from South. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the move by both the Irish government and the Catholic Church to create a national identity to go along with our new state following independence – an identity which was nationalist and Catholic in its outlook, an identity which didn’t allow for deviations such as fighting for those who oppressed us for so long. Even today many aren’t aware of this part of our past and in schools our history books are either shamefully short or completely empty concerning those men, their actions and their fate, which, despite the complicated nature of their actions, do not deserve to be confined to the footnotes of history..
John Stout, who served with the Irish Guards and fought at Arnhem and the Battle of the Bulge, is unrepentant. “I know in my heart,” he maintains “that we done the right thing. We fought for small nations and we liberated camps where people had been slaughtered. I would never regret…I would do it all over again.” Perhaps they were right in doing what they did. From the comfort of the 21st century, it’s hard to decide.