Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 233rd installment in the series.
April 24-29, 1916: British Crush Easter Rising
While the world was distracted by the bloody drama of Verdun, in spring 1916 Ireland continued to bubble with anger at the island’s English overlords, who had put Irish Home Rule (independence) on the back burner when the war broke out and now appeared to determined to ignore the aggrieved Irish population’s demands altogether.
The situation was made worse with the advent of conscription; although Ireland was exempt for the time being, many Irish Catholics – with plenty of reason to distrust the British government – believed it was only a matter of time before compulsory military service was introduced to Ireland.
This seething frustration finally erupted in the Easter Rising of 1916 from April 24-29, 1916, when a militant organization within the Irish independence movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council, led an armed rebellion against British rule in Dublin.
The rebellion received some covert support from Germany in hopes of distracting the British from the war, but the main organizer of German support, Sir Roger Casement, changed his mind at the last minute because he believed the Germans weren’t fully committed (in any event Casement was apprehended after landing from a German submarine, U-19, on the Irish coast on April 21, 1916, and later executed).
A Long Shot
The Easter Uprising, so named because it began on Easter Monday (April 24 in 1916) was always going to be a long shot. The total armed strength of the Irish rebels probably came to less than 5,000, many of whom never actually fought; the actual fight strength of the Irish rebels was probably around 1,100 in Dublin when the uprising began. These rebels faced the combined might of the British Empire, and although it’s true the British were mired in an unprecedented war on the continent, they were extremely unlikely to sit idly by while one of the “home islands” violently challenged British rule.
The Irish rebels originally hoped to catch the British unawares, enabling the Germans to land several thousand troops on the west coast of Ireland, before proceeding to capture isolated British strongpoints across Ireland before they had a chance to react. However the German failure to follow through with their bold, implausible part of the plan (which didn’t take account of the Royal Navy) made an already difficult strategy almost impossible. The only hope was to trigger an uprising by the broader Irish population by winning support from ambivalent Irish moderates.
As it happened, for the most part the rebellion remained confined to Dublin, where the Irish Volunteers, as the rebels were called, at first succeeded in gaining control of a number of key buildings across the city beginning around 10 am on April 24. The British responded cautiously, withdrawing three of the main regiments guarding Dublin to the government’s headquarters at Dublin Castle in order to protect the civilian administration (altogether British troops numbered around 2,400 at the beginning of the rising, most located west of the city).
Around 12:45 pm on April 24 one of the leaders of the rising, Patrick Pearse, proclaimed the formation of a new Irish Republic, replacing the British monarchy as the government of Ireland (above). The proclamation read, in part:
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be distinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people… Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign, Independent State, and pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations.
The rebels would soon be forced to make good on the pledge of their lives. While they succeeded in occupying most of Dublin in the first day of the rising, they had less success coordinating armed action by the rest of the Irish Volunteers scattered around the country. Meanwhile the British were able to immediately call up reinforcements from their nearby base at Curragh, about thirty miles southwest of the city, as well as from other British garrisons in Ireland and the rest of Britain.
What followed was classic urban street warfare, as the rebels erected barricades (below) and fortified key positions including the General Post Office, City Hall, and Royal College of Surgeons, from which they rained rifle fire against small British scouting parties trying to get the lay of the land. At the same time the rebels failed to capture the British armory at Magazine Fort in Phoenix Park, ultimately opting to blow it up instead, while the British succeeded in sending about 200 reinforcements to Dublin Castle. For their part a number of civilians – far from rising up to join the rebels – began looting shops in downtown Dublin, further complicating the situation.
With the arrival of the first reinforcements from Curragh, the situation began to turn against the Irish rebels: by the end of the first day the British forces in Dublin had risen to around 4,500 men, while the rebels could muster around 1,500 fighters at most. As evening fell the British mounted a concerted attack on City Hall, where they regained the first floor after three bloody assaults, leaving the upper floors in the hands of the rebels for the evening. By the morning of April 25, the British occupied a chain of major buildings through the center of the city, straddling the River Liffey, including Trinity College, the Ship Street Barracks, the Royal Hospital, and the Royal Barracks.
On April 25 the basic British plan became clear: they would establish a cordon around the city and divide the Irish rebels, then lay siege to the isolated rebel bands in a methodical “mopping up” operation (below, a British roadblock). After eliminating the rebels from the upper stories of City Hall, the British seized the Shelbourne Hotel and turned their machine guns on a rebel command center at St. Stephen’s Green, a park in southeast Dublin. By the evening of April 25 the rebels had been forced out of most of northern Dublin, although the rebels clung to fortified positions on the north bank of the river.
With more reinforcement flooding in (now armed with grenades, machine guns and artillery, and assisted by the arrival of Royal Navy ships sailing up the River Liffey) from April 26-29 the British set about crushing the remaining rebel strongholds in central and southern Dublin. After fierce firefights and bayonet charges, on April 26 the British recaptured the Mendicity Institution, and the following day closed in on key rebel positions at Jameson’s Distillery and the South Dublin Union.
During this period the British also began shelling Sackville Street (today O’Connell Street) as they sought to eject the rebels from the General Post Office; Irish nationalists long claimed that the British shelled these positions indiscriminately, without regard for civilian casualties. On April 27 the shelling ignited newspaper in the headquarters of the Irish Times, contributing to a general conflagration in the central city, which generally worked to the advantage of the British as they closed in on the trapped rebels.
Following the fall of the rebel position at South Dublin Union on April 27, the only remaining stronghold was the General Post Office, now in flames as the British tightened their siege. After fierce fighting throughout the night of April 28-29, including a failed breakout attempt, the Provisional Government of the short-lived Irish Republic of 1916 finally agreed to unconditional surrender around 2:30 pm on April 29. In its wake, 485 people lay dead, including rebels, soldiers and civilians.
The Easter Rising was over, but the cause of Irish independence lived on. Indeed, although the rebels failed to stir the enthusiasm of the broader population during these days, the British government’s vindictive response – executing over a dozen leading rebels on grounds of treason – did more to stir sympathy for the martyrs, and the cause of Irish nationalism, than the rebellion itself. British rule would continue in Ireland through the end of the war, but the post-war years promised even greater turmoil.