Ireland & World War 1-

Some Comments on 'Hidden History':

summarised in a short review for Books Ireland Feb 2014, and adapted for a more in-depth analysis in Irish Marxist Review issue 9, also Feb 2014.

(c) Roy Johnston 2014

(comments to

'Hidden History: the Secret Origins of the First World War'
Gerry Docherty & Jim Macgregor
Mainstream, Edinburgh, 2013; ISBN 9781 7805 76305


I came across this book by chance in a context where I had been struggling with writing an essay on the origins of WW1 and its relevance to Ireland, arising from some reminiscences of my father Joe Johnston (1890-1972). He had told me, during WW2, that the 1914 Larne and Howth gun-runnings(1) were used as a device to deceive the Germans about the British likelihood of entering the war, should they attack France via Belgium.

This at the time did not register, but I picked up on it when I wrote the introduction to the 1998 re-publication by UCD Press of my father's 1913 book 'Civil War in Ulster: its Probable Consequences'(2). This suggested some research trails to follow, but these however also lapsed, until they became somewhat urgent, now that the centenary of these events is nearly upon us.

I wrote some critical draft notes(3), based on some initial research, and made them available to some contacts for comment. I have to thank one of them for drawing the above book to my attention; it turns out that my draft notes are pointing in the same direction as Chapter 25, where in 'Hidden History' the Irish dimension is analysed.

I have since read the book, and done some initial comparative study with other sources, including some relating to Sir Henry Wilson and the Imperial General Staff, as well as the 1923 Asquith work on WW1 origins, and that of Theodor Wolff giving an outline of his German experience(4).

Much remains to be done, and I hope to publish an in-depth study in a critical learned journal as soon as I can, and people interested in this I invite to contact me at with a view to a possible collaborative project.

However I have delved enough into related publications to be convinced that 'Hidden History' is NOT simply a conspiracy-theory jaunt, but a serious attempt to uncover how British imperial strategy really developed, in the aftermath of the negative experience of the Boer War, in the direction of instigating a war to destroy Germany while making it look like Germany initiated it.

I published a brief review of HH in the January 2014 issue of Books Ireland, but I felt at the time that I needed to comment in more depth, with some cross-checking references. What follows is an expanded version, with some additional comments on its significance in the context of the coming centenaries. This should perhaps be seen as an abstract of a possible future supplementary in-depth review, in the hopes that it will be seen by at least some historians and critical scholars in time to influence any seminars relating to the Larne and Howth gun-runnings(5), and WW1 origins.

The Howth event occurred about 10 days before August 4 1914 when war was declared, by a Liberal-Tory majority supported by Carson who led the Ulster Volunteers and Redmond who led the Irish Volunteers, to the cheers of the assembled MPs(6).

Some Reviewing Topics

It is difficult in a historic situation of this complexity to summarise the machinations of imperial policy arising from their African experience which 'Hidden History' uncovers, but I must try to list some of the key episodes. It begins with Cecil Rhodes(7) setting up a group of executors for his will, in such a way as to ensure that his wealth, derived from his exploitation of African resources, would be used to further the influence of the British Empire. These included Lord Alfred Milner(8), Lord Rothschild(9), Lord Esher(10) and several others who acted as a 'secret elite' in support of of an imperial expansion agenda. With their resources they had an outer circle of influential people whom they were in a position to fund in such a way as to make things happen. The book goes into this in detail; it seems the 'secret group' was set up in 1902 and continued in existence until 1925.

Key events for which they defined the agenda, and in some cases implemented it, included the setting up of the 'Entente Cordiale'(11) in a form that was not a formal alliance, and did not have to refer to Cabinet. In effect it was a gentlemen's agreement between imperial military elites in Britain and France.

Though Britain had a Treaty of Alliance with Japan, the elite group managed to ensure that this did not trigger British participation in the 1905 war with Russia, despite a violent encounter with the Russian fleet in the North Sea, involving British ships(12).

Key contacts in the Franco-Russian networking were Poincare and Isvolsky(13). There was an attempt by Kaiser Wilhelm to agree a pact with his cousin the Tsar which the 'secret elite' were able to kill via the Duma, with the influence of these diplomatic activists.

On the home front they had Balfour and Asquith(14) under their influence, and they managed to get control of Lloyd George, who had initially been an independent radical activist, by a trick involving a court case in which Carson had a role defending him in a context relating to LG's promiscuity. Milner in the Colonial Office, was one of the original 'secret elite' activist; Grey in the Foreign Office, and Haldane in the War Office became associated later. This group developed complete control of the media, via the Times and the elite press, as well as the 'gutter' component.

Prior to Sarajevo there were several episodes, eg Agadir, that could have led to war, but war was in each case avoided, basically because Kaiser Wilhelm did his best to avoid it, and succeeded. Then came Sarajevo, and I will attempt to summarise the detailed activity on the international 'secret elite' network which is covered in five full chapters, 20 to 24 which detail the complexity of the political and military consequences.

To summarise: the assassination of the next Austro-Hungarian monarch by a Serbian armed group was seen as an act of war, leading to an agressive ultimatum by Austro-Hungary to Serbia, who sought Russian support, which was forthcoming. This triggered German support for Austro-Hungary, and this triggered French support for Russia.

The influence of this sequence of events on Germany is best summarised by the Kaiser's memo of July 31:

"...England, Russia and France have agreed among themselves.... to take the Austro-Serbian conflict for an excuse for waging a war of extermination against us.... the stupidity and ineptitude of our ally is turned into a snare for us... The net has suddenly been thrown over our head, and England sneeringly reaps the most brilliant success of her persistently prosecuted purely anti-German world policy against which we have proved ourselves helpless... From the dilemma raised by our fidelity to the venerable old Emperor of Austria, we are brought into a situation which offers England the desired pretext for annihilating us under the hypocrtiical cloak of justice."

The Germans counter-attacked the French via Belgium, and this brought in the British, with the Germans branded as the aggressor. The Irish dimension made this possible, because the Germans thought the British were occupied with Ireland. The Larne-Howth ploy had worked.

So, in conclusion, may I urge anyone considering writing about Larne and Howth in centenary mode not to do so without having read this book. Also may I add a further suggestion: was the 10% ratio of gun quantity between Larne and Howth a strategic decision by Sir Henry Wilson and co? He explicitly wanted to wreck the Home Rule process, and get Ireland partitioned; did he also wish to encourage a rising of the activists so as to execute the leadership? I have heard this suggested, and having read this it seems totally plausible.

[Note on published reviews and possible further development: we need perhaps to expand on these last 2 paragraphs, going into the details of the machinations of Grey, Haldane, Milner at al, but I feel I need to work on this with a competent historian of standing, with a view to avoiding excessive 'conspiracy theory' appearance.]

Notes and References

1. A substantial shipment of guns for the Ulster Volunteer Force was landed at Larne in April 1914, bought in Austria and shipped from Hamburg. A smaller quantity was landed at Howth in July, by a similar process. There is evidence that both events were with the connivance of the British imperial elite. See HH Ch25, especially p316. In HH there are extended lists of references and bibliography, organised by chapter.

2. This was an attempt to build support for all-Ireland Home Rule among Northern Protestants, recognising it an an opportunity rather than a 'Rome Rule' threat. An annotated edition of this historic book was published in 1998 by UCD Press, and is still in print. An e-version is accessible via the author's website; he can be contacted at

3. These notes are accessible via the author's website at

4. HH Asquith, The Genesis of the War; Cassell 1923; Keith Jeffery, Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier; Oxford UP 2006; Theodor Wolff, The Eve of 1914; Gollancz 1935. The author was Editor of the Berliner Tageblatt 1906 to 1933. It seems he was a critic of the Hitler regime. His book was earlier published in German from Zurich, in 1934.

5. The Howth guns were transported in a yacht owned and captained by Erskine Childers, then working for the Admiralty. He had pioneered public concern with the German threat to the Empire, in his 1904 book 'Riddle of the Sands'. His motivation on this occasion was to arm the Redmond volunteers in support of the British war effort against Germany, while at the same time supporting the idea of deceiving Germany by conveying an impression of civil war threat such as to divert British attention to Ireland.

Childers had written a book supportive of Home Rule in 1911, and had been active with his cousin Bob Barton exploring the work of Plunkett and the co-operative movement. In the context of his Howth arms delivery however it seems he was 'taken for a ride' by Sir Henry Wilson and the imperial strategic plans; the latter had been actively supportive of the earlier Larne gun-running, and the Curragh conspiracy, and was the prime mover in the context of the imperial interests in ensuring that the British Expeditionary Force existed and was ready to go in August 1914.

The Howth event was to reassure the Germans that the British were prioritising the Irish problem. On August 3, Childers, taking tea on the terrace outside, explained to his wife the reasons for the cheering. His motivation in the Howth episode presumably was to arm Redmond's Volunteers, to be a sort of Home Guard for Ireland in the coming war, in an all-Ireland Home Rule politically reformed situation.

6. This parliamentary episode had NOT originated via the Cabinet; it came as a result of the workings of an imperial activist group in the War Office, and remains open to question as regards constitutionality. The King, incidentally, was included in the activist group. So we have King and imperial bureaucracy bypassing the Cabinet, and managing to achieve a Parliamentary majority, as a result of informal Entente agreements with the French. The background to this situation is developed in what follows.

7. Pioneer imperial activist Cecil Rhodes (whose deeds were commemorated in the name Rhodesia, now re-named Zimbabwe) made a fortune in mining; see HH Ch2 for some extended background.

8. HH p26ff; an Oxford-educated civil servant, life-long friend of Asquith, High Commissioner for South Africa; by 1914 he was a key civil servant in the Colonial Office.

9. Lord Nathaniel Rothschild, banker and financier in the arms industry; multiple HH references.

10. Reginal Brett, Lord Esher was a key activist in the Committee of Imperial Defence; many HH references.

11. HH p70ff; the Entente Cordiale was signed on April 8 1904 as a mutual agreement between England and France, setting up a procedure for resolving colonial issues in Africa, primarily relating to Egypt and Morocco. Basically it was about exchange of information on matters of common concern, but was in no sense a 'treaty'.

12. cf HH p89ff; using contacts via the Entente process, the issue was resolved via the Hague, in the interest of cultivating French links with Russia.

13. cf HH p205ff; Raymond Poincare was the French Prime Minister from 1912; he was from Lorraine and strongly anti-German. Alexander Isvolsky had been Russian Foreign Secretary up to 1910; he subsequently became Ambassador to France, and in this context influenced via the French press the replacement of Caillaux by Poincare as Prime Minister. Caillaux had been friendly to Germany and had negotaiated the peaceful settlement of the earlier Agadir dispute. Isvolsky was in effect an agent of the secret British imperial elite group.

14. Balfour was the Tory leader, and Asquith was the Liberal leader and Prime Minister; he was later succeeded by Lloyd George in 1916, in the wartime coalition government.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999