It is now generally accepted that the number of Irishmen who left this
country as members of the army, navy, as reservists or as volunteers
between 1914 and 1918, was roughly 210,000. This does not include the
many Irish-born soldiers who enlisted (or were conscripted) in Britain,
Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere.
There is far less consensus on how many members of that cohort died.
The Irish National War Memorial Records (INWMR), compiled
in the early 1920s, lists 49,647 Irish fatalities, North and South.
However, included in this register are the names of more than 11,000
men born outside Ireland. Most of these are British soldiers who served
in Irish units like the Dublin Fusiliers, the Munsters, the Inniskillings
or the Connaught Rangers.
According to www.findmypast.ie, only 30,986 of the names recorded
in the INWMR are of men born in Ireland. A third category lists the
names of 7,405 men who are of unknown origin. These include, to cite
but two of the most egregious examples, the former Irish Party MP Tom
Kettle (from Dublin) and the first Victoria Cross winner of the war
Maurice Dease (born in Westmeath).
Of those whose birthplaces are recorded (just over 42,000), Irish-born
soldiers make up about three-quarters of the total. Extrapolating from
that ratio and applying it to the 7,405 of unknown origin – perhaps a
dubious piece of methodology – we would arrive at a total figure for Irish
dead of about 36,500.
However, more than 75 per cent of those in that third category may well
be Irish. Of the mysterious 7,405 names, almost 1,000 are those of men
who died in the service of non-UK armies (Australia, US, etc). Why would
they have been included in the INWMR unless they had been born in this
country, albeit their connection with Ireland was not revealed in final
But what was the Irish ‘death rate’ in the Great War? The overall morbidity
ratio for the United Kingdom as a whole in WW1 – total dead (720,000) as
against total enlistments (5, 700,000) – was 1:8. To arrive at a comparable
Irish ratio we must subtract from that putative total of 36,500 those
Irishmen who died while serving in British regiments. A close study of
the INWMR by this writer reveals about 8,500 such names – 6,000 of
those in English units.
That would mean that about 28,000 of the 210,000 Irishmen who left
this island between 1914-18 to fight in the Great War, died or were l
isted as “missing presumed dead”. This makes sense, as it is close to
the figure of 27,405 recorded in the 1926 Census report as being the
number of Irish deaths (excluding officers) that took place on active
service outside the UK between 1914-18. That would mean a morbidity
ratio of 1:7 for Ireland. The comparable figure for England is 1:9, for
Wales 1:7 and for Scotland a chilling 1:4 (has Alex Salmond been alerted
to this statistic.
There are, however, numerous caveats with all these calculations. As with
the Irish recruitment figures, they do not include the Irishmen who died
in armies other than that of Britain. Australian academic Jeff Kildea has
made a close study of the war records of his country. He is able to verify
the presence of 6,000 Irish-born recruits in the Australian Imperial Force,
of whom 900 died. Anecdotal evidence suggests a figure of about 1,200
deadfor the Irish who fought in the army of the USA.
If, as assumed, there were almost 20,000 Irish-born recruits and conscripts
in the 620,000-strong Canadian force (which suffered 67,000 deaths)
the Irish fatality total would be even greater.
The picture is further complicated when even a cursory study is made of
a cross-section of the 2,600 men buried in Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC]graves in 681 cemeteries in the Republic of Ireland
and Northern Ireland. Some, a very small percentage, are not Irish. But,
after some rudimentary research it is clear that many of those Irishmen
have not found their way into the Irish National War Memorial Records.
In addition, a number of local historians (Brian Scanlon in Sligo,
Margaret Connolly in Leitrim, Mark Scott in Fermanagh, Michael Feeney
in Mayo and Tom Burnell in Tipperary) have uncovered further
discrepancies in the INWMR records. For example, in the case of
Sligo, 395 names are recorded in the INWMR. To date, Scanlon has
identified and verified 548 deceased veterans. Some 694 men from
Mayo are listed in the INWMR. The poignantly beautiful Great War
Memorial wall in the Peace Park in Castlebar has more than 1,100 names.
While some of these can easily be accounted for as men who came
from counties with a high emigration rate and who died in the service
of the USA or the ‘Colonial’ armies, much more work will have to be
done before we can get closer to an accurate Irish morbidity figure.
The final total of all Irish-born soldiers who died in the Great War
is likely to come to about 40,000. A definitive reckoning, given the
extent to which the ‘fog of war’ pervades first World War fatality
statistics, is too much to hope for.