John French, 1st Earl of Ypres - Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces - Ireland and Easter Rising

Ireland and Easter Rising

After discussions in February and March 1916 with Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell – who did not believe press talk of an armed Irish uprising but wanted more troops as a deterrent - Friend (Commander-in-Chief, Ireland) and Wimborne (Lord Lieutenant) French said that he could spare only a single cavalry brigade as reinforcements, and later offered an extra reserve infantry brigade, although in the event Friend declined (7 April) to make formal application for the brigade to be sent. French thought little more could be done unless the government changed its assessment of the threat.

French's term of office saw the suppression of the Irish uprising in 1916, which briefly coincided with a German invasion scare. An intelligence report on 21 April warned of collaboration between the Irish and the Germans, causing French to mutter “I don’t believe a word of it”. French received news of the Easter Rising at noon on 24 April 1916 (Easter Monday), and at once sent two infantry brigades to Ireland and put other formations on standby – the Admiralty warned that the German fleet was out. Woken at 4am on 25 April with the news that the Germans were shelling Lowestoft, French ordered the commanders of the two Home Defence Armies to prepare for action and ordered two divisions in the Midlands to be prepared to move to the coast. Later that day he was informed that Macready had been deputed to handle the War Office’s side of the Irish uprising. French rejected Kitchener’s suggestion that he go to Ireland that very evening and take personal command, a decision with which the Prime Minister concurred (despite their previous antagonism, French recorded that Kitchener “expressed no annoyance at my visit to the PM!”). The military authorities reported from Dublin that they had the situation well in hand.

On the evening of 26 April, told that the government had decided to send out a new general to Ireland, French selected Maxwell (who had been military governor of Pretoria) from a shortlist of two. French had already told Asquith that he had ordered the 60th Division to be ready to move, but would not send it without the concurrence of the General Staff.

On the 27 April French visited Robertson who agreed with him that to send more troops to Ireland would be “playing the German game”. However, the next day after visits from Midleton (on instructions from Asquith) and Carson French agreed to send three extra battalions, as well as the cavalry brigade from Aldershot which Maxwell now requested. The rebellion was crushed by 29 April. On 3 May Asquith recorded his concerns that the shooting of rebels might antagonise Irish opinion, but French, despite having been advised by John Redmond that Sinn Fein had little support outside Dublin and that the Army should not use more than minimal force, passed on these concerns with the caveat that he would not interfere with Maxwell’s actions. In the opinion of one biographer French’s views had not moved on since his hanging of the Cape Colony Boers, and he bears some responsibility for the shootings.

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