Duty and Disloyalty

Despite seemingly clear-cut, the fear of invasion throughout British history has rarely existed in total isolation from other anxieties.  This is reflected by the porous nature of Edwardian fiction of invasion and future war.  Sitting on the boundary of early science-fiction, of ‘Boy’s Own’ adventures and spy-scare espionage tales, thematically separating such narratives is often difficult.  The process is also arguably unnecessary, or at least not essential, as these varying subgenres enjoy such commonality of themes that they are better assessed together than apart.

This caveat provides researchers of invasion-scare fiction (such as myself) justification for straying slightly from their remit.  One case in point is the short story The North Afire, a picture of what may be by W D Newton.  A journalist and editor who additionally wrote the pacifistic invasion narrative War, Newton penned this short story in 1914 in response to the growing political impasse over Ulster’s position in the movement for Irish Home Rule.  In the context of the recent Ulster Covenant and the ever-improving military effectiveness of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, Newton feared the prospect of British soldiers having to paradoxically coerce Ulster into an independent Ireland.  The North Afire plays out his nightmare scenario, in which British troops are forced to intervene after the UVF attempt to form a provisional provincial government.  Capturing the unhappy futility of such a conflict, the UVF officer Stackpoole’s stoicism is suitably ‘British’ in its understatement, “What a damned ironic tangle we are all in”.[1]

Ulster Volunteers gather at Craigavon, March 1914

Though relatively well-written and executed, the real significance of The North Afire is not its literary quality, but its relation to the ‘Curragh mutiny’ in March of the same year.  In the wake of governmental orders to increase troop numbers in Belfast, widespread officer discontent at the prospect of coercion led the Commander in Chief in Ireland Sir Arthur Paget to secure verbal concession from the War Office that, should officers feel unable to obey orders but unwilling to accept dismissal, they could “disappear” for the duration of such operations.[2]  In the event, sixty officers of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade then at the Curragh army base resigned their commissions rather than face the possibility of leading operations in Ulster. Initially refusing to accept these resignations, the War Secretary Jack Seely further erred by promising in writing that the army would never be harnessed to force through Home Rule in Ulster, a concession the Cabinet quickly cancelled, leading to numerous ministerial resignations.  [3]

1st Dorsets en route to Holywood Barracks, Belfast, March 1914

Rightly dismissing the ‘erroneous’ title of mutiny, Ian Beckett describes the Curragh incident as “one of the very few occasions in modern times when the British army could be said openly to be challenging civil supremacy over the military in peacetime”.[4]  The events highlighted that any future operation in Ulster might threaten the unity of the army’s officer corps.  In The North Afire, Newton forecasts such a split upon outbreak of rebellion, where half of the army refuse to follow orders and join the ranks of the paramilitaries.  This schism is represented through two officers and friends, Loudoun and Stackpoole.  For the former, who has not resigned his commission, orders, however unpalatable, must be obeyed, “To me a soldier is a soldier…not a politician.”[5]  By contrast, the Ulsterman Stackpoole interprets his orders as fundamentally disloyal.  As his sister April appeals to Loudon, “for us duty means the Union”.[6]  While a compromise is eventually reached between Belfast and Westminster, it comes too late for the two officers in question, as Loudoun shoots Stackpoole as he attempts to trigger a bomb.

As one review in The Athenaeum asserts, the most concerted criticism in Newton’s tragedy is directed at “parliamentary loquacity”, or governmental incompetence.[7]  Rather than effectively managing the crisis, “the Government had started weathercock whirlings, as is the way with governments with whom the whole essence of existence is the expending of wind”.[8]  In his last speech in the Lords, Lord Roberts decried the dilemma facing soldiers between enforcing legal authority and fulfilling their sense of duty, and stressed the importance of conscience, “an innate sense of right and wrong, which neither reason nor man-made laws can affect.”[9] For Roberts, as for Newton, poor governance had forced officers to make extremely difficult judgement calls.  This dynamic highlights not only the often complex relationship between civil and military authority, but the importance of the abstract ‘duty’ for Edwardian Unionists in the debate over Irish Home Rule.

[1] W. Newton, The North Afire: a picture of what may be, (London, 1914), p86.

[2] D. Powell, The Edwardian Crisis, Britain 1901-1914, (London, 1996), p150.

[3] G. Searle, A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (Oxford, 2004), p431-432.

[4] I. Beckett, ed, The Army and the Curragh Incident 1914, (London, 1986), p1.  This edited collection of primary sources is the best account of the incident.

[5] The North Afire, p9.

[6] The North Afire, p10.

[7] ‘The North Afire’, The Athenaeum, (May, 1914), p740.

[8] The North Afire, p142.

[9] Lord Roberts, in R. J. Q. Adams, Field Marshal Earl Roberts: Army and Empire, in J. A. Thompson and A. Mejia, eds, Edwardian Conservatism: Five Studies in Adaptation, (London, 1988), p71.

Images: ‘Ulster Calm in Crisis’, Daily Mirror, (March 23rd 1914), p10-11.

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