The First World War ranks as one of the most horrific conflicts in mankind’s history.
However, by 1916, a certain acceptance, or, perhaps more accurately, a numbness, had set in with respect to the War.
Battle lines along the great Western Front ground into a massive bloody stalemate.
The great shocks such as the introduction of poison gas as a weapon of mass destruction in the spring of 1915, failed to break that stalemate.
Millions of men remained bogged down in filthy, bloody trenches. Pitched battles were only able to move the lines a couple of kilometres in either one direction or the other.
In 1916, there were two events which brought new shocks to an increasingly war-weary Great Britain and Canada.
The first was the great fire which leveled the Canadian Parliament buildings on Feb. 3rd, 1916. The exact cause of the massive blaze remains a mystery. Some people concluded that the fire was likely caused by a careless smoker. Others felt that the fire was a terrorist act by an enemy alien, intent on wiping out the national centre of government.
With the high emotions of wartime, the second explanation had more public support than the first. Consequently, many felt that Canada had been the victim of a surprise attack by the enemy on home soil.
The Irish Uprising was also unexpected, despite many decades of turmoil over ‘home rule’ for Ireland. While Irish autonomy had almost been achieved when the War broke out, many powerful Irish nationalists agreed that the issue could be postponed until peace was restored. Many hoped that support for the War effort would strengthen the case for Irish independence.
However, ardent nationalists increasingly disagreed.
They saw no need to shed more Irish blood in a war for the British Empire, particularly as the War became more bloody and futile.
They also rightly predicted that an ideal time to strike would be while the British government had its attention riveted on the War. The element of surprise would be increased by acting during a traditional time of religious observance and peace – Eastertime. Hence the violent Irish Uprising commenced on April 24th (Easter Monday), 1916.
The rebels failed to gather the widespread public support they had been expecting.
Nevertheless, they still caught the British Army badly off guard. They were able to seize the central part of Dublin with a relatively small number of insurgents. They were then able to hold on for several days as the British scrambled to organize a counter-attack.
Finally, by April 29th, the British army was able to crush the Uprising, largely by the heavy shelling of the rebel-held areas of the city. The rebels also became agreeable to an end of the fighting, in order to prevent more loss of civilian life.
For some time, it was hard for the people of Canada to figure out what was actually happening.
For propaganda reasons, the British Army kept claiming that they were on top of the situation, while the ongoing fighting proved that was not true. However, despite the lack of candour by the authorities, opinion in Red Deer as well as across Canada and in many parts of Ireland, was that the rebels had stabbed the Empire “in the back” in a most treasonous way.
The British authorities therefore felt emboldened to act decisively and brutally after the ceasefire.
Large numbers of suspects were arrested. Rebel leaders were executed, even if they had been badly wounded in the fighting.
The harsh, if not unexpected, backlash created a counter-backlash in public opinion. ‘Traitors’ increasingly were viewed as ‘martyrs’ to an ancient cause, particularly in Ireland, but also amongst a number of Irish Canadians and Irish sympathizers.
Reaction in Canada remained muted, as strict press control prevented any expressions of sympathy for Irish republicanism.
Red Deer and other Alberta newspapers wrote long editorials about the “perfidy” and treason of the Uprising.
However, in Ireland itself, the push for independence became more radical and passionate after the First World War was over. Home rule was finally established in 1922. That was followed by a bitter Irish civil war as the consequences of independence were thrashed out.
The ‘loss of Ireland’ was one of the first indications that the vast British Empire was beginning to crack and collapse.