Ireland and World War 1

Implications of the Larne and Howth Gun-runnings

Some aspects of British imperial strategy in 1904-14 relating to Germany and the war threat, suggesting a need for further research; Roy H W Johnston 18/12/2012.

(comments to


I have been interested in Home Rule ideas as they developed during the period 1912-14 in the context of my attempts to understand the role of Partition in the Irish national situation. I am particularly interested in the role of the Larne gun-running as a key event in wrecking the Home Rule process. The Howth gun-running followed.

My father Joe Johnston was from Castlecaulfield in Tyrone and the family were one of the many Presbyterian supporters of all-Ireland Home Rule at the time. He wrote a book (published in 1913) supportive of the process, in an attempt to counter the UVF armed resistance trend; his 'Civil War in Ulster?'(4) was re-published by UCD Press in 1998. He was convinced that the Germans were deliberately misled into thinking that the British were not interested in joining a war on the continent, being concerned with the threat of civil war on their home ground, as evidenced by the Irish gun-running from Germany...

It has also been suggested that the British imperial strategists were concerned about the role of the Germans in Africa, and in fact wanted them defeated in a European war. So they managed to deceive them, to the extent that they felt they could attack France via Belgium, avoiding the French frontier fortifications. This gave the British the chance to come in, with the political status of being the 'defender of small nations', and take the Germans by surprise, generating the 'home for Christmas' expectation.

This begs the question: were the Larne and Howth gun-runnings elements in a British imperial strategic deception?

I picked up hints of the foregoing via my father (1890-1972) and have wondered if this is pure conjecture, or if it has any roots in actual WW1 history. We have seen evidence since that the British imperial strategists are masters of the art of strategic deception (eg the Calais alternative to the Normandy landings).

The fate of India after British withdrawal is a repeat on a massive scale of the model which was pioneered in Ireland. Is this fortuitous, or a reflection of long-standing imperial strategy?

Current researches

I have been in correspondence with Jerome Aan de Wiel in UCC(1) in a process of exploration of the Irish links with the origins of WW1. I am interested in the context of the current series of centenary events, the current one being the Ulster Covenant and the processes that led via the Blenheim conference to the Larne gun-running.

I feel the coming centenary events should all be looked at critically, in order to get a better understanding of history, rather than simply as commemorations.

I have since seen some of the work of Keith Jeffery(2), in particular the Sir Henry Wilson biography material. In the chapter 'politics, the Irish Question and war' it emerges that Wilson was very active in the context of the Curragh 'mutiny' and supportive of the UVF project.

There is great detail up to the end of March 1914, and then the narrative jumps to Sarajevo at the end of June, after which Wilson prioritises organising the BEF for the expected transfer to the continent, a process which he had been planning earlier.

There is however no mention of the April landing of guns at Larne (from Austria via Hamburg, according to de Wiel), nor the post Sarajevo landing of guns at Howth, also from Hamburg, organised by Childers. This would seem to confirm my father's impression that the Larne and Howth events were such as to convey an impression to the Germans of British concern with Ireland rather than with the impending continental war.

So it is difficult to avoid taking seriously the hypothesis that both gun-runnings were part of a planned deception, especially as Wilson had been actively promoting the importance of the BEF role in the impending war, and the advantage to be gained by taking the Germans by surprise.

Could it be that the Wilson record between March 1914 and July has been kept on the secret list? He must have been aware of the Larne event.

I have seen the Jeffery book based on the Wilson correspondence 1918-22(3), and had a quick scan of the Irish references in the index. The last reference includes '...either govern Ireland or come out and lose your empire....' .

Wilson's assassination was on Collins' orders, and took place after the Treaty. There are many features of the process of origin of the Irish State we could perhaps have avoided, had the original Home Rule process gone through without arms, This was the objective of my father's 1913 book 'Civil War in Ulster?'(4) and it seems it did represent the political aspirations of the family. My grandfather John Johnston was a tenant of Lord Charlemont, near Castlecaulfield. There is an outline of his career and the family background via my introduction to the 1998 UCD Press edition.

My current concern is with the need to highlight the role of the Larne gun-running. Prior to it, Connolly and Pearse. it would appear. were prioritising the opportunities presented by Home Rule. Did Larne have conniving support from Wilson?

A Testable Hypothesis?

I am not in a position currently to develop a narrative argument with detailed references, but there is enough in the foregoing, I suggest, to support the suggestion that there was an Imperial General Staff strategic plan to use the Irish situation as a deception, in the interests of the perceived need to put a stop to German imperial plans for Africa.

Asquith colluded with the aid of Childers, and Balfour, Bonar Law and Carson colluded with the aid of Crawford. It could be added also that the gun was introduced to Ireland intentionally to wreck an emergent process of all-Ireland nation-building within the projected Home Rule process, and this could credibly have been an important by-product of Wilson's plan.

It could also be argued that embedded in the latter was the intent to crush any national uprising aiming at retpublican independence, and kill the leadership. Could that have motivated Collins' post-Treaty decision to 'forget' the Wilson assassination plan?

There is enough here to suggest that all Centenary events should be subject to serious critical analysis, making use of the best critical historical scholarship. Was the ratio of the volumes of the Larne and Howth gun-runnings itself a Wilson strategic decision? Larne enough to make Partition inevitable, and the smaller Howth event just enough to feed a suicidal Rising? The Howth cargo was about 10% of Larne.

I have put this together as a challenge to historians, and incidentally may I thank Brian Walker for his Sept 27 Irish Times article reminding us that Larne introduced the gun to 20thC Irish Home Rule politics. I had made the same point myself on Sept 22 in Belfast, in discussions subsequent to a paper at the Covenant seminar, in the Linen Hall Library.

Roy H W Johnston 18/12/2012.



I have some notes on the Aan de Wiel and Jeffery books, with references to what I see as supportive evidence for the above. I give these notes below; they suggest further work.

Jerome aan de Wiel on 'The Irish Factor 1889-1919: Ireland's Strategic and Diplomatic Importance for Foreign Powers'; Irish Academic Press 2008.

NB in this I am not quoting, as the content is extensive; I am trying to abstract the essence as I see it; I may be open to corrections. RJ 27/09/2012.

p3 The Entente Cordiale between Britain and France in April 1904 was responsible for the traditional link with France for Irish national movement support being cut, resulting in the latter tending to turn to Germany.

p14 A German navy squadron of 11 ships in June 1902 made an extensive survey of all Irish ports, taking soundings etc. This at the time was noted as significant by the French but was ignored by the British, whose attention was still on the Boers.

p25 There is much reference to the importance of the Childers 1903 book 'The Riddle of the Sands' in the context of the increasing concern about the German threat.

p26 Wilson is noted as having travelled extensively in Belgium and France, being a good French speaker, surveying potential battlefields relevant to a German invasion, in the early 1900s; he conferred with Foch in 1909.

p27 There is a reference to the UVF being set up in January 1913, leading to the Crawford mission to bring in guns via Germany from Austria. The UVF was supported by leading Tories and Army officers, including Wilson.

p29 Wilson in contact with the King promoting refusal of Army officer-corps to be used against armed UVF. The background to the 'Curragh mutiny' had the support of the Imperial General Staff. In the same context on p30 it is noted that Lenin, in exile in Switzerland, was aware of the Curragh mutiny, and interpreted it as a threatened coup by the Army and Irish landowners. The crisis subsided and Asquith made a few cabinet changes, taking over the war office himself, but the echoes were taken seriously in Paris and in Petersburg, throwing doubt on Britain as a potential ally. On p32 there is reference to the landing of the some 20,000 guns, from Germany and Austria, at Larne on April 25 1914. On p33 it is noted that the Times on April 1 published the news that the 'Fanny' was at sea with arms for Ireland. The French were surprised that the Royal Navy had not intercepted; they had ample opportunity. In July the Ulster crisis dominated the European media.

p45ff In the German chapter there are many suggestions that the Irish issue was diverting British attention from the incipient continental conflict; Ireland was seen as 'England's Poland' by the German press (p51). On p60 there is a reference to an initial legal importation of some guns from Germany, as well as Carson being on holiday and meeting socially with the Kaiser. Carson was a member of an Anglo-German committee. There is much reference to German espionage interests in Ireland, and on p69ff detailed accounts of Crawford's movements in Germany and Austria in setting up the Larne gun-running.

p75ff we have Childers and the Howth gun-running on July 26, followed by the Bachelor's Walk massacre; this conveyed to the Germans that the civil war in Ireland was about to start. Kuhlmann for the German Embassy in London had reported on the UVF scene in July, this being confirmed by Margot Asquith. There is on p76 a suggestion that the war with Germany was seen as a release from the problem of civil war in Ireland, and Redmond and Carson were both supportive. This was confirmed at a secret meeting between Asquith, Carson and Bonar Law (p77). On p79-80 we have the account to the Aug 3 Commons debate, when Redmond pledges support, and Erskine Childers is on the terrace with his wife, about a week subsequent to the Howth gun-running, and after the Italian Embassy had reported intelligence that the Germans were convinced the British would not intervene due to the Irish situation. So when war was declared on Aug 4, it was a surprise to the Germans, and the British expected a quick victory and to be 'home by Christmas', thanks to Wilson having the BEF ready to go.

It did not turn out that way, the British army having seriously under-estimated German military skill, but this is another story!


2. Keith Jeffery on 'Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: a Political Soldier'; OUP 2006.

pp 2-4 born 1864 at Currygrane near Mostrim (Edgeworthstown) Co Longford; landed gentry family who came with William III in 1690; they regard themselves as superior to the many 'mere planter' Wilsons who came circa 1615. Estate was 1200 acres; they also owned Frescati House in Blackrock as their Dublin house. They were seen as 'good landlords' and were not associaed with events in Land League time. They came between the 'strong farmers' and the 'big-house' Ascendancy. They were highly regarded by Sean MacEoin the 1920s IRA leader who was a neighbour. Wilson spoke French; was home-educated by a French governess. There is much material on the Protestant 19thC response to the rising tide of 'Catholic nationalist' opinion and related Home Rule movement.

Ch 7 p107; Politics, the Irish Question and War; this is a key source:

p109 As DMO (Director of Military Operations) Wilson in 1912 was promoting the need for conscription on the continental pattern, and was critical of the current voluntary and localised Territorial system. He clearly had in mind the need for military operations on the continent in the coming war. The previous chapter 6 'Preparing for War' is dedicated to Wilson's persistent pressure for an expeditionary force in support of France, in the event of the increasingly likely Franco-German war rooted in inter-imperial rivalry in Africa, which was becoming apparent from 1905 and earlier.

p111 The Wilson family had links with both Northern and Southern Unionist interests, in the Home Rule (=Rome Rule) threat situation.

p112 Following the 1910 election Asquith was in a position to pass the Parliament Act limiting the ability of the Lords to block legislation, sharpening the Home Rule threat. Wilson responded with support for the emerging UVF and advocacy of armed resistance.

p113 Bonar Law takes over the Tory leadership in 1911, giving personal support to a monster protest meeting in Belfast in April 1912; Wilson's brother Jemmy was also in the platform.

p115 Bonar Law in Sept 1912 at Blenheim openly called for armed resistance in Ulster to Home Rule, with Wilson's explicit approval. The signing of the Covenant took place at this time also. Home Rule Bill passed in the Commons in January 1913. In March the Ulster plans were discussed with Bonar Law, in a deputation which included Jemmy; the plan included arming 25,000 UVF, who had been training. Wilson approved this.

p116 French as CIGS in Sept 1913 interacted with the King exploring the implications of an order to move troops against Ulster, subsequently conferring with Wilson.

p117 Wilson argues the need to obey the King rather than Parliament in the event of the latter being influenced by 'disloyal' Irish nationalists. Wilson contacts Lord Stamfordham the King's secretary and gathers that about half of the officer corps would resign if the Army were ordered to put down an Ulster rising.

The interesting thing about the rest of this chapter is that while the Ulster threat and its implications are dealt with in detail, including the background to the Currage 'mutiny', there is no mention of Crawford and the April 1914 Larne gun-running, or Childers and Howth guns in July, post Sarajevo. While all this Ulster crisis is being stirred up, Wilson is also in contact with the French reassuring them of British support, and detailed British Expeditionary Force planning continues.


3. Keith Jeffery (ed); The Military Correspondence of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson 1918-1922; Bodley Head 1985.

This book is clearly a source for analysis of the emergent Irish independence movement. (It would be great if there were to be found a similar analysis of Wilson's correspondence in 1912-1914. Does this perhaps exist?) There is no reference to Childers in the index; there are several to Collins, and I give some of them here:

28/06/1921 to Sackville-West: '...was Eddie Derby... in Dublin arranging for Valera (sic) to come over!... (with) Michael Collins, and any other murderers... will have a comfortable jouirney both ways...'.

12/07/1921 to Rawlinson: '...I simply cannot write what I think about inviting Valera over... we started the truce, so-called, in Ireland yesterday at 12 midday...' (goes on the list the military resources, suggesting Collins alone knows what will happen next)

16/12/1921 to Cavan: '...I have great hopes that Valera will beat Michael Collins and fling the foul agreement in Lloyd George's face. If that is not done, I see no alternative to civil war...'

04/01/1922 to Allenby: '...Valera has made Lloyd George a prisoner... I keep hoping... that Valera will defeat Collins and throw the infamous Agreement back into Lloyd George's face...'.

06/02/1922 to Harington: '...Michael Collins has laid claim to three-quarters of the Six Counties... once more we are on the verge of civil war. Michael of course would be backed by Lloyd George and no doubt by all the other 'miseries' in his Cabinet...' (This continues with a comparison with 1914 needing further study; no names mentioned.)

15/02/1922 to Rawlinson: '...Ireland has gone steadily worser... none of us can now see a way out of it except by the loss of Ireland and the proclaiming of a republic there, in which case we lose our Empire, or by the reconquest of the whole place... either govern Ireland or lose your Empire...' (The rest of the letter relates to Egypt and India etc. This is the last letter in the series; he was assassinated on the orders of Collins; it is said that Collins post-Treaty simply forgot to rescind the order.)


Keith Jeffery on Ireland and WW1

This book, published in 2000, gives a good analysis of how the war as it progressed was seen in Ireland, and how this attitude changed as a consequence of 1916. There is however little analysis of the role of Sir Henry Wilson; he gets a passing mention in a comment on 1916. There is a reference to the 'Curragh Incident' in April 1914, but no reference either to how this related to the Larne or Howth gun-runnings. So the potential role of Ireland in the strategic plans of the Imperial General Staff, despite these hints is not developed in this book, though this is remedied in the first book mentioned above, which was published later. in 2006. So there does appear to be a trend into exploring in more depth the role of Ireland in the context of the European and global imperial system rivalries.

4. I have edited a screen-friendly version of 'Civil War in Ulster?' by Joseph Johnston (SB&W 1913), based on the 1998 UCD Press edition with my introduction and preface by Tom Garvin, at


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