(Editors Note: I first published this at the beginning of 2012. For March, I thought it was a good story to bring back up and republish. Enjoy!)
The Irish and the British will always have issues because the British never remember, and the Irish never forget.
It’s a hot button issue in Ireland.
At the time, and now to an extent, many feel that the over 5,000 Irishmen who left Ireland to fight against Nazi Germany in World War II were and are criminals, or deserters.
They left the Irish Army, leaving Ireland who was neutral, to fight to stop the Nazi’s in World War II.
Today, there is a possibility they may be pardoned.
The Starvation Orders were the orders to blacklist those 5,000 troops upon their return. They could not get jobs, welfare, pensions or any assistance what so ever, some of them made a go at it. Others left the country yet again. Whats more the orders extended beyond just the individuals, but their families as well. It’s how my own family ended up in America.
Five thousand Irish soldiers who swapped uniforms to fight for the British against Hitler went on to suffer years of persecution. They were formally dismissed from the Irish army, stripped of all pay and pension rights, and prevented from finding work by being banned for seven years from any employment paid for by state or government funds.
One of them, 92-year-old Phil Farrington, took part in the D-Day landings and helped liberate the German death camp at Bergen-Belsen – but he wears his medals in secret. Even to this day, he has nightmares that he will be arrested by the authorities and imprisoned for his wartime service.
“They would come and get me, yes they would,” he said in a frail voice at his home in the docks area of Dublin.
And his 25-year-old grandson, Patrick, confirmed: “I see the fear in him even today, even after 65 years.”
Mr Farrington’s fears are not groundless.
The fact that these individuals would be punished upon their return may seem…baffling. In America, certainly, this seems odd. But Ireland had only recently won it’s freedom, and many felt that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thus they hoped that Germany would beat Britain. Further the list of grievances and atrocities against Britain were long, as are Irish memories. By comparison, here in America those individuals would have been lumped with what we call the Greatest Generation, those who sacrificed greatly to halt a war that was encompassing much of the world. The Irish were no more pro-Nazi than the Swiss or the Swedes. They were, however, decidedly anti-British. “Neither King nor Kaiser” ring any bells? It was the slogan of the Irish Citizens Army during the 1916 uprising.
To the Irish point, five thousand troops was nearly half of their defense force of the time. It would be similar to half of the US military force suddenly up and walking away to join, say, the Israeli Defense Force. Furthermore as many hardliners (rightly) point out, how would have Britain reacted had British troops deserted to fight for Irish freedom? The answer is the most would have faced a firing squad upon return or capture. Compunding the issue is the view that the soldiers deserted their country that they had pledged to defend when, at the time, when there was a significant possibility that they were joining an army that may have been planning an invasion of their homeland.
A common historical story regarding the Irish in the war comes from Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill reportedly enjoyed a good joke. According to Dennis Kelly, one of Churchill’s former literary assistants, the following was one of his boss’s favorite stories, one that ‘he used to adore telling’: ‘British bomber over Berlin, caught in the searchlights, flak coming up, one engine on fire, rear-gunner wounded, Irish pilot mutters, “Thank God Dev kept us out of this bloody war.”
But many Irish citizens who served in the war did not volunteer at all. Those in British forces at the outbreak of war in 1939 had little choice about the matter, short of desertion (British figures suggest that as many as 5,000 did desert during the war and returned to Ireland). Others who had been working in Britain for two or more years had the choice of returning to Ireland in 1939 or becoming eligible for conscription. Many in this category stayed in Britain and thus, in effect, volunteered.
But the actions by Ireland are not uncommon, even if they do seem odd by American standards. To this day in Holland there are elderly people on reduced pension benefits as punishment for war time collaboration – the Irish treatment of deserters is not therefore without precedent.
However since those years, Germany and Austria have pardoned their army deserters in recent years so there is also precedent for doing this.
I am not sure there are any right answers to this. Irishman have fought wars for other countries for years. Some embrace it, some reject it. My own family has protected one country or another for over six generations.
What I do think, however, is that we need to move past these things. It’s time, it’s over. It’s time to work our way forward, and let these bygones be bygones. We all know now the atrocities that were acted by all parties involved both British and German.
I just don’t think it will happen in my time.