A RELEVANT BLAST FROM THE PAST – WAR PROPAGANDA IN IRELAND 1918

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 6 mins.)

Propaganda is employed in wars and finds its most widescale application through the mass media. The belligerents want their own populations to support their war effort and to have other states support them.

IRISH REPORTING ON THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church infamously mirrored the propaganda of their corresponding religious officials in the Spanish State in backing the fascist-military uprising against the elected Popular Front Government in 1936.

Irish newspapers and radio reporting on the whole followed the line of the Church hierarchy. The resulting conflict gave the Spanish state the greatest number of known mass graves in Europe and anywhere in the world, in fact, outside of Cambodia.

Clipping from Irish Press, not a fascist sympathising editorial line, November 1936 (Image sourced: Irish Newspaper Archives, Irish Press)

The Catholic hierarchy declared the fascist-military to be fighting a religious crusade against “Godless communism”, repeated propaganda of the fascist side, denounced real and imagined crimes of the Republican side.

They denied or ignored news of crimes of the fascists, which occurred from the first days and for years after Franco’s victory, in the course of which they denounced even priests who spoke out about the fascist crimes.

Whether the Spanish Republican Government had its own propaganda (I’m sure it did) or whether all its supporters were squeaky clean or not is besides the point. The overwhelmingly pro-fascist forces propaganda affected us in Ireland and most of it was fallacious.

Even the Irish Press, paper of De Valera who had banned the Blueshirts earlier: …. “These idealistic young men also saw their participation in the Spanish Civil War as helping to solve political divisions in Ireland and ultimately Irish unity. Interviewed in Dublin prior to his departure for Spain, Capt. P. Quinn from county Kilkenny, made the following statement: I believe that if an Irish Brigade succeed in reaching Spain, and there fights against Communism and all its terrors ….”

This had a practical effect in Ireland at the time and later, assisting religious and other fascists to attack socialists, communists and other progressives.

It helped create the atmosphere in which alternative writers were censored and hounded and the Irish State could actually expel an Irish citizen – Jimmy Grailton – for the crime of being a socialist community activist.

In turn, this anti-socialist, anti-communist atmosphere created a poisonous environment for social progress, whether championed by revolutionaries or social democrats.

It also helped create a wall shielding the ongoing endemic mental and physical – including sexual — abuse of women and children which seemed impermeable to control or even criticism for decades.

BRITISH WWI PROPAGANDA

The British imperial cant of “defence of small nations” or of “defending civilisation” in its war against Germany during WW1 while simultaneously suppressing the 1916 Rising and repressing many peoples around the world is well known.

The media related invented German atrocities, gave one-sided reporting, censored or demonised alternative views (I know, beginning to sound familiar).

That is the general, well-established picture. However, I’d like to focus on a specific incident and how it was treated: the sinking by German submarine (U-Boat) of the Howth fishing trawlers St. Michan and Geraldine on 31st of March 1918, with the loss of five Irish lives.

A Howth fishing vessel in past years
(Photo sourced: Internet)

No question of who’s in the wrong there, you’d think. The Irish unionist media (admittedly under war powers control) jumped to accuse the German Uboat crew of a “Howth atrocity”, an “Act of Murder” and that they “Shelled without warning”1.

I am grateful to Phillip O’Connor for his exploration of the incident) in his Road to Independence (2016) [Howth Free Press] on the involvement of Howth, Sutton and Baldoyle communities in the struggle for independence and social progress (and his source on the incident, Seán T. Rickard’s MA).

WAR CONTEXT OF INCIDENT

WWI was fought on land, air (even then) and sea. The British Navy was the most powerful in the world and imposed a naval blockade on Germany, bottling up the latter’s navy but also preventing supplies of any kind entering by sea. Unusually, the blockade included foods.

Germany took the position that Britain was trying to starve the German population and responded with its submarines attacking UK shipping which at the time included Ireland’s.

The British responded by concealing guns on merchant ships so that a German submarine surfacing and demanding surrender could in turn by sunk by the merchant ship in question. Indeed the British used fishing boats as mine-sweepers and even armed some too.

This had the effect of encouraging German Uboat captains on occasion to sink merchant ships without warning rather than run the risk of being sunk themselves.

However the U90, the submarine in question concerning the Irish trawlers in March 1918, appeared not to have been doing that and O’Connor quotes the case of the Greek ship SS Salaminia, of which the entire crew had been given time to get into lifeboats before being sunk.

Indeed, the eight captain and crew of the Michan all got into their “punt” and were picked up alive by a British Navy patrol. Tragically, the Geraldine had no additional boat, having set some of its crew ashore on Lambay Island to gather whelk for long-line hook-baiting.

Whether Captain Jess of the U90 believed the Geraldine was being defiant, playing for time or anything else is not known but his Uboat sank the vessel and there were no survivors.

The dominant newspapers in Ireland at the time condemned the German Uboat along the lines outlined above but also went further to make political capital out of it against the Republican movement.

They – and politicians they quoted – used the incident to attack Irish Republicanism, one going so far as to refer sarcastically to the Republicans’ “gallant allies”, lifting the quotation from the 1916 Proclamation of Independence.

There were rules of war agreed at the Hague Convention of 1907. Attacks on civilians are ruled as a war crime by the Geneva Convention but that was not composed and agreed until 1949.

However, its applicability to all the situations of conflict at sea were not codified until much later and, even then, are not binding on the signatories2.

It needs also to be noted that violations of humanitarian regulations and laws by most states have been documented during their wars with other states and in suppressing uprisings. The British did arm merchant ships during WW1 and also used them in a mine-sweeping capacity.

Looks like a drawing of the sinking RMS Leinster produced for a newspaper of the time (image sourced: https://www.postalmuseum.org/blog/the-centenary-of-the-sinking-of-rms-leinster/)

Also the Leinster, for example, sunk by German Uboat torpedoes on 10th October the same year as the Howth fishing boats, was carrying military personnel and armament and therefore in war terms a legitimate target.3

However, it is difficult to see how the fishing boats could be suspected of being armed merchantmen or even as ships supplying Britain and therefore equal to any ships attacked for breaching the Royal Navy blockade of Germany.

I am grateful to O’Connor for supplying me with the reference4 to the UK’s war-time restrictions obliging fishermen to ply their trade at 15 miles or further from its main ports, which included Dún Laoghaire and Dublin and therefore affected the Howth fishing fleet.

The U90’s captain may have suspected the British were using them as “spotters” for submarines in the area but even so, it is difficult to justify sinking without verifying radio equipment on board and especially without a dinghy to take the crew to safety ….!

German UC-1 class submarine surfaced with crew (Photo sourced: Internet)

In that respect it seems the U90 might have been in violation of agreed measures for the protection of civilians at sea in time of war by destroying civilian fishing vessels.

On the question of warning, although there were no survivors of the Geraldine, the available evidence is that the Captain of the U90 did warn before sinking shipping and had done so in a number of cases including another fishing boat on the same day.

But all was grist to the British war propaganda media and even, especially in the case of Ireland, to its colonial purposes in attacking its main anti-colonial opponents of the time, Irish Republicans.

Of course too, left unmentioned was the fact that the UK was attacking German civilians through blockading food imports5 and threatening and impounding any blockade-breaking ships (except those of the USA6).

Blockades and sanctions have cost many lives over the years – the UK blockaded the Spanish Republic during the Anti-Fascist War which did not impede Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy hugely supplying arms, aircraft and men to the military-fascist troops.

The USA imposed sanctions on Cuba for decades and Iraq for some years; in the latter case, by 1996 an estimated half million children had died as a result, a figure justified by Madeleine Albright, then USA Ambassador to the UN7.

Israel is permanently blockading Gaza in Palestine by land, air and sea – Egypt is participating too with its control over one gate. NATO sanctioned Russia which is now retaliating with some measures also.

Interestingly, O’Connor records that British war propaganda had little effect in 1918 on majority Irish opinion and even the Howth fishermen’s representative condemned the UK Admiralty for the mortal danger in obliging fishermen to ply their trade beyond 15 miles from shore8.

The UK General Election results in Ireland six weeks later would be a convincing illustration of how the vast majority of the population was thinking.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1It would be interesting to know whether it entered the heads of any editors that the British military had bombarded the city centre of Dublin with a number of land and sea-born artillery pieces just two years earlier, without any attempt of warning to the civilian population whatsoever.

2https://casebook.icrc.org/law/naval-warfare

3The Wikipedia entry on the sinking of the the Leinster, while acknowledging the nearly 500 military personnel on board, does not common on this negation of the ship’s civilian status. It does not mention the gun mounted on it either, which is noted in this record https://www.rmsleinster.com/sinking/sinking.htm

4See Appendix for details on this (thanks to Phillip O’Connor).

5The 1994 San Remo Manual states:

102. The declaration or establishment of a blockade is prohibited if:
a) it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying it other objects essential for its survival.

103. If the civilian population of the blockaded territory is inadequately provided with food and other objects essential for its survival, the blockading party must provide for free passage of such foodstuffs and other essential supplies.

6Vide O’Connor The Road to Independence (2016) [Howth Free Press]

7https://www.newsweek.com/watch-madeleine-albright-saying-iraqi-kids-deaths-worth-it-resurfaces-1691193

8The Road to Independence (2016) [Howth Free Press], p.52.

SOURCES

The Road to Independence (2016) [Howth Free Press]

British naval blockade of Germany: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockade_of_Germany#:~:text=The%20British%2C%20with%20their%20overwhelming,to%20be%20a%20war%20zone%2C

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Conventions

Merchant shipping in wartime: https://casebook.icrc.org/glossary/merchant-shipping

https://casebook.icrc.org/law/naval-warfare

Sinking of the Leinster: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Leinster
https://www.rmsleinster.com/sinking/sinking.htm

APPENDIX

   To regulate the security risk of fishing around Ireland during the war the Admiralty thought it necessary to divide the coasts into security zones. These zones had various levels of regulation and protection. Areas were either licensed by special permit, which allowed fishermen to fish these areas under restriction or were simply designated as areas where fishing was prohibited. Orders directly issued by the Admiralty were passed on to the fishermen through the D.A.T.I. via Notices to Mariners (NA G/12 (1917) & G/20/5 (1918). 

Fishing was generally prohibited several miles from headlands, as it was a favourite spot for lurking U-boats. It was also prohibited around minefields, which were used to protect the coast and divert traffic into safer zones for escorts. It was also prohibited around naval bases and near convoy meeting points. And traditionally it was always prohibited in sea-lanes where there was heavy sea traffic. It was prohibited in many areas between sunset and sunrise, (a term still used in modern Rules Of the Road) and also known as “dark hours”. If any security measure presented itself, fishing could also be prohibited at short notice for whatever reason by word of mouth on the local naval authority shoreside or naval authority at sea. The Admiralty also had the right to commandeer vessels and/or cargo space also at short notice. The Admiralty later ordered that if the fishermen sighted enemy submarines they were to stop their fishing activity and go immediately to inform the closest naval authority whether at sea or ashore. This made fishing more difficult, costly and dangerous and particularly annoying to Irish fishermen with national sentiments.

The Admiralty even warned that a failure to comply might lead them to be fired on by naval vessels. Immediately affecting Howth fishermen was the prohibition of fishing within fifteen miles of Kingstown. This area roughly to the NW of Kingstown and roughly a few miles off Howth Head was a favourite bait procurement ground for Howth fishermen but also fell within range of most of their local fishing grounds.

     In March 1917 the following rules affected fishermen fishing the East coast of Ireland but in particular Howth fishermen were as follows:

All decked and motorboats fishing anywhere between Ballywalter, Co. Down, and Howth, or anywhere between Wicklow Head and Loop Head, must carry official permits to fish. Between Ballywalter, the Isle of Man, and Howth, such boats may fish by day and by night at any distance from land within the limits of their permits.

They are forbidden to be stopped in or to pass during dark hours through waters where no fishing is allowed.

Moored nets may be left out at night, provided that the head ropes are kept five feet or more below the surface.

(Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland. Notice to Fishermen. Effective 1 March 1917. Wt.-865. 250. 2/17)

     Later rules came into effect in 1918 for the locality, one of which was fishing could only be conducted within daylight hours in this area.

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