In 1914, with war raging in Europe, Sir Roger Casement, a retired Irish born diplomat of the British Consular Service, with a distinguished record of service in Africa and South America, traveled to Germany, on behalf of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with an audacious plan to persuade captured British soldiers of the Irish Regiments, to form a brigade of fighters to sail with him to Ireland, armed by the German Kaiser, to wage war against the British Crown alongside a German invasion force, or alternatively to play a decisive role in the planned Rising against British rule in Ireland.
He traveled from America where he had been raising funds for the Brotherhood from the American Irish and where he had made arrangements, through the German Embassy, to travel in secret across the Atlantic, across Sweden and down through Denmark by train, to Berlin.
He arrived in Berlin on the 31st October 1914 and was quickly introduced to the German Secretary for State for Foreign Affairs and immediately entered into negotiations for the making of suitable arrangements to enable him to recruit their Irish prisoners and to to form an Irish Brigade.
By this time Germany had captured some 25,000 British soldiers on the battlefield. They were held, with French and Russian prisoners, in over 100 prisoner of war camps across the length and breadth of Germany and amongst them were some 2500 soldiers of various Irish Regiments including The Munster’s, The Leinsters, the Irish Guards, The Royal Dublin Fusiliers, The Connaught Regiment, The Royal Irish Rifles and the South Irish Horse. Regiments exclusively raised in the south of Ireland and whose soldiers were overwhelmingly of the catholic faith.
The arrangements made with the German Foreign Secretary required over two thousand of the Irish soldiers to be moved from their respective prison camps across Germany to a single prison camp located near the old cathedral town of Limburg, about 60 miles south east of Cologne. Sir Roger arranged for priests, sympathetic to the cause, to be sent amongst them. By Christmas 1914 the movement of the Irish prisoners of war to Limburg was complete.
Many if not most of the assembled prisoners were regular soldiers rather than war volunteers, but even so they would have been nationalists or at least have been sympathetic to Irish nationalism and supporters of home rule for Ireland. Indeed there would have been amongst their number a few of Redmond’s nationalists, men who would have joined the British Army when their Home Rule leader, John Redmond called upon his supporters to do so at a speech made in the Wicklow village of Woodenbridge in September 1914. Following that speech over 50,000 Irishmen had enlisted.
But there were also some English soldiers serving in the Irish Regiments and Sir Roger, upon identifying them as English wrote to his German superiors asking for sixty six identified English to be removed from the Limburg camp on the ground that “they are Englishmen pure and simple, or wholly pro-English and therefore hostile to the effort to form an Irish Brigade. Their removal will have a salutary affect as they have been terrorising the well-disposed among the Irish soldiers”
And this was so arranged. For the Irish soldiers were there for a very special and exclusive reason. But even so, they quickly made it clear that they did want or seek any special treatment or better treatment than other captured British and allied prisoners of war, including French and Russian prisoners, also held at Limburg. Senior NCO’s from the various regiments got together and sent a blunt message to the camp commandant making it plain that in addition to being Irish Catholics they enjoyed the honour of being British soldiers.
They would have known who Sir Roger Casement was for he was already a notable figure in Irish nationalist politics and had a substantial International reputation arising from his humanitarian work in Africa and South America on behalf of the British Government.
But he was not well received by the gathered soldiers who were assembled to hear his recruitment pitch. He was booed by the men. There were cat calls such as “how much are the Germans paying you?” At one stage there was an attempted assault upon him. The audacious plan was not going well.
Formal recruitment interviews took place between January and May 1915. Groups of soldiers would be marched to a hut in the Russian section of the prison camp and asked why they would not join the Brigade. Most declined to join. The most successful of the interviews were conducted by Joseph Plunket who had been sent from Ireland to assist Sir Roger, travelling through France Spain, Italy and Switzerland on an American, and therefore neutral passport and arriving in Germany in mid April 1915. “Most successful” is perhaps putting it much more strongly than it deserves. From the approximately 2200 Irish catholic soldiers assembled by the Germans, Sir Roger and his assistant managed to recruit only 55 men, that is just 2.5%. It was Plunket who authored the text of the Oath that each of the 55 men they recruited was required to take. The rest of the Irish declined the invitation. A measure perhaps of how the association with the United Kingdom was viewed and valued prior to the Rising and the executions
Among those recruited were two Sgt Majors, three Sgts, six corporals and forty-four private soldiers. Some of them can be seen in this photograph wearing the specially designed uniforms for the Brigade made in hunting green. They were drawn from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, The Irish Guards, the Connaught Rangers, The Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Irish Rifles.
They had not succeeded in recruiting any officers and Sir Roger asked his American backers to send him a suitable officer to command the men he had recruited. They sent him Robert Monteith, an ex-British Army corporal who had served with the Royal Horse Artillery, with some distinction, in India and South Africa. Monteith took over command of the fifty five men of the Irish Brigade and supervised their training, assisted by a number of German instructors provided by the German Imperial Army.
They were a motley lot. Now numbering 56, they were moved out of Limburg camp and taken to Zossen, near Berlin. There were numerous reports of indiscipline and drunkenness and a fight broke out between Irish and German soldiers after a football match, which was only calmed down by the firing of a revolver. But there is little doubt that had they ever landed in Ireland they would have given a good account of themselves. They were experienced fighting soldiers and it is common for such units to experience indiscipline and heavy drinking.
By now German plans for an invasion of Ireland had been abandoned and the Irish Brigade considered joining with the German Army to fight against the British in Egypt or Turkey but such plans petered out and nothing came of them.
When news of the impending Easter Rising in 1916 finally came through, Sir Roger decided that the Irish Brigade should not participate. He feared they would be wasted in a futile and premature rebellion and that without German physical assistance in the way of officers, and training staff, mortars and artillery then it was doomed to fail.that it would be a hopeless enterprise. He was not afraid to commit men to combat and face death alongside them, but unlike Pearse he was not looking for a blood sacrifice, he wanted a successful rebellion, victory and power. And he knew that without German boots on the ground that it would be hopeless slaughter. He would not waste the lives of his men.
In the event Sir Roger Casement took only two Irishmen of the Brigade with him when he left Germany for the Rising. One was Monteith the ex-corporal from the Royal Horse Artillery and the other Private Bailey from the Royal Irish Rifles. They travelled in a German submarine which planned to rendezvous with a merchant ship, the Aud, manned by German sailors from the Reichkriegmarine and loaded with arms and ammunition for the Rising.
They arrived off the coast of County Kerry on the night of 21st April 1916, the eve of the Rising. The merchant ship Aud was not there and Sir Roger went ashore in a small canvas and wood rowing boat that capsized in the choppy sea before they reached the beach at Banna Strand. Within hours he was arrested by the Royal Irish Constabulary, his feet still wet from the sea, taken to the Tower of London and within four months had been tried for High Treason and executed by hanging in Pentonville Prison. Private Bailey of the Royal Irish Rifles was also captured within hours of the landing. He turned Kings Evidence and provided British Intelligence with the full details of the treasonable activities of Sir Roger and the Brigade. Shortly afterwards he re-joined the British Army and returned to the war. Monteith evaded capture and got clean away. He would eventually write a notable book on his adventures with Sir Roger.
As Monteith had been sent to Germany to become the Brigade commanding officer and had therefore never been a prisoner of war then it is the case that only one single soldier of the Irish Brigade landed in Ireland. And he, before the day was up, had turned Kings Evidence and within another three months had re-joined the British Army.
By any measure the whole audacious idea to raise an Irish Brigade had been a complete disaster and a complete failure. It was politically misjudged, militarily misjudged, an example of organised incompetence. It was never tested in battle and the whole enterprise was in the end a bit of a farce
Those left behind in Germany without leadership or direction and with the dream of a fighting Irish Brigade now turned to dust found themselves unwanted by the Germans and shifted from pillar to post as they faded into history. Some of them petitioned the Germans to be reinstated as ordinary British prisoners of war. For the rest, their clothes became ragged and they were billeted with Russian prisoners of war and suffered the same indignities as did the Russians with poor food, working as labourers in nearby farms and fields. There were widespread reports of in discipline, theft, burglary, drunkenness, insolence and breach of prisoner regulations. At the end of the war in November 1918 they were given German passports, false names and told to fend for themselves. Some of them made it home to Ireland and somewhat surprisingly suffered no substantial detriment for their sojourn with treason. Not a single soldier was tried for treason or faced court martial for what they had done. The world was tired of war and death.