The Pope of Peace Part III

In Part Three of the series on Pope Benedict XV I examine John Redmond and The Pope’s Peace Efforts of 1915.

Just before he was elected Pope, Benedict wrote to a colleague: “I would regret if any parish priest should take sides for one or other belligerent.” But Redmondite Ireland and its parish priests did not take this attitude.

Redmond had the active support of the Catholic Hierarchy and the clergy at the outset for his war on Germany. Bishop McHugh had declared that “the sympathy of our people one and all is with the arms of England” and he described Germany as “a Power that would set at nought the very foundations upon which civilisation rests.” (Irish Catholic, 15 August 1914.)

In August 1914, Pastoral Letters were read out at masses across the country urging prayers for British military success. The Independent ran a story on the 29th September headlined, ‘The Loyalty of Ireland – Cardinal Logue and the War’ which attributed to the head of the Irish Church, on his return from the Papal Conclave held after the death of Pope Pius X, the view that “there was no more loyal country than Ireland.” The Independent also quoted the Cardinal as saying that “Irishmen throughout the world would stand by the Empire in the crisis, and were prepared to fight shoulder to shoulder, petty animosities being forgotten.” (Cited in Church, State and Nation in Ireland, 1898-1921, p.310.)

Archbishop Walsh maintained a diplomatic silence in the face of these statements and the clerical war mongering of the parish priests heard on Redmondite recruiting platforms – as did Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick. O’Dwyer, the Party’s strongest critic in the past, had held his tongue since the Home Rule Bill and had ceased his attacks on the Home Rule/Liberal alliance.

As we saw Redmondite Ireland actively assisted in Italy’s enticement into the war by sending a strong delegation to Paris to put on a show of Catholic solidarity as the Italian government signed up to the allied crusade. It did this to communicate the impression to Catholic Italy, on the eve of its announcement of hostilities, that the government in France, that had once boasted it had “put out the lights of heaven,” had now returned to the old faith with France’s participation in the blood-sacrifice at the front.

Here is a view, written in 1940, of the France the Redmondites pretended to be Catholic for the purposes of luring the Italians into the war: “… it is no exaggeration to say that in 1914 France occupied in Europe a position as the champion of militant atheism very comparable to that Soviet Russia has occupied during the last twenty years… there can be no doubt of the implacable hostility of the politicians who gained control of France after the Dreyfus case. France came to symbolize the political forces of anti-religion just as Russia does in our own time. Even the persecution of the Church by the Nazi Government in Germany in recent years has not been accompanied by such a clearly avowed attention of destroying Christianity as was openly proclaimed by successive French governments during the pontificate of Pius X.”

That view, surprisingly, is from an impeccable Redmondite, Denis Gwynn, who joined the British Army under Redmondite enthusiasm and fought at the Western front until invalided out in 1917.

Pat Maloney drew my attention to Gwynn’s 1940 book, The Vatican and the War in Europe. And interesting it is indeed. In 1914 Gwynn saw the war in Redmondite terms, as a war for small nations, for Irish Home Rule, for Catholic Belgium etc. But looking at it in 1940 he seems to have a different view – a view much closer to Benedict’s – although he does not say that explicitly.

Books written in the late 1930s are often the most enlightening about the Great War. From that vantage point, after the fog of propaganda had cleared and a true picture of the consequences of the decisions of 1914 and later are clear for the European landscape, understanding is at its fullest.

But since then understanding has receded as the propaganda of the second great war has filled the history books and has become common understanding in Ireland courtesy of the collapse of its independent mind.

Anyone looking at the Great War in the late 1930s/1940 should have a different appreciation of it than in 1914 (or indeed 2005). By this time the terrible consequences of it were apparent, as Europe looked forward to another round of hostilities, after the war to end all wars had not done so. And after the evil of Prussianism had been destroyed, and half Europe with it, to create the greater evils of Bolshevism and the Nazis – both of whom now bore down on Europe.

The introduction of Gwynn’s book is, in effect, a repudiation of Redmondism in its implicit agreement with Pope Benedict that the prolongation of the war led to the disasters of 1917 and 1918 “a catastrophe for European civilisation.” Gwynn does not say as much, but he states Benedict’s view and does not challenge it. How could he, looking at Europe in 1940.
But who was most up for fighting the war to a finish, no matter what the consequences in 1917? Not the Germans, Austrians of Turks but the British and John Redmond.

In May 1915, just as Italy entered the allied ranks, the war began to swing in Germany’s favour. The Entente believed that Germany had given its best effort in the early months of the war, that in the Spring of 1915 numbers would tell against her, and that she would be quickly collapse in the face of the vast forces that were arrayed on her borders – particularly the “Russian steamroller”. But through the conducting of skilful defence in the West and transferring extra forces to the East the Germans launched a huge counter-attack on the advancing Tsarist forces in Galicia, breaking through the centre of the Russian lines. By the end of June practically all of Galicia was liberated and German forces took Warsaw in early August.

At the same time it was becoming clear that the British landings in the Dardanelles had been a failure and the much-heralded Italian offensive that was supposed to make all the difference had been stopped a few miles into Austrian territory.

Around this time the Vatican began to take the initiative in proposing peace talks between the combatants. This was an opportune time since it should have become clear to both sides in the conflict that there were no quick victories to be had and they would have now to sacrifice large amounts of men and materials to gain a result.

In August 1915 the Vatican called on Irish bishops to support the Pope’s peace projects by requesting that the Irish Party MPs bring pressure on the British Government to consent to the opening up of negotiations for peace. This led to a conflict between Redmond and the Bishop of Limerick over the Pope’s plea for a negotiated peace. It is mentioned in H.C. O’Neill’s History Of The War (a Liberal Imperialist account) in the context of the German offers for peace which were made after the fall of Warsaw:

“There were… about this time appeals by the Pope and the Roman Catholic dignitaries. The wording of the Pope’s letter deserves to be recorded. ‘It is our firm determination to devote every activity to the reconciliation of the peoples now engaged in this fratricidal struggle. Today, on the sad anniversary of the outbreak of this tremendous conflict, there issues from our heart an earnest prayer for the cessation of the war. It must not be said that this conflict cannot be settled without armed violence. Put away mutual desire for destruction and reflect that nations do not die; if humiliated and oppressed, they prepare to retaliate by transmitting from generation to generation hatred and the desire for revenge. Why should not a direct or indirect exchange of views be initiated in an endeavour, if possible, to arrange aspirations so that all should be contented? This is our cry for peace, and we invite all the friends of peace to unite with us in our desire to terminate this war and reestablished the empire of right, resolving henceforth to solve differences not by the sword, but by equity and justice’…

Uncritical observers and nervous people in the Allied and neutral nations were liable to realise more impressively from all these different peace suggestions the one main fact that it was the Allies who were against peace at the moment. Thus, when an Irish Roman Catholic Bishop appealed to Mr Redmond to help in furthering the cause of peace, Mr Redmond could only reply that the moment was inopportune.” (p.441.)
A ‘Letter From The Bishop Of Limerick’ appeared in the Freeman’s Journal of 12 August 1915:

“Dear Mr Redmond – the appeal which Our Holy Father the Pope has addressed to the belligerents in this awful war, which is devastating the world, will be read with the sympathy and backed up by the moral support of millions of the best of the human race… But amongst them all, none will receive this solemn appeal with deeper gratitude and reverence than our own Irish people, and for that reason I venture to address you, whose responsibilities at this moment are so heavy, and beg of you to throw the weight of your influence strongly on the side of peace.

It is not easy to see what objection any of the belligerents can take to the proposal of the Pope. He does not ask any of them to make any concession, to undergo any humiliation, or to alter one jot of what it considers to be it’s just claims. He simply asks them, with the experience of the woe of the year that has just closed, to confer, either directly with one another, or through some neutral, and see if it is possible to find terms, or even an approach to terms, on which they might put an end to this disastrous war.

Unfortunately, one voice of passion has been raised already, without, we may hope due consideration, to make the shocking and unquestioned statement that to talk of peace at the present moment is immoral. There was never a more cruel and heartless untruth…
Our Holy Father speaks words of sober truth and reason, and the impartial judgement of neutral nations, and much more of history, will utterly condemn those who refuse to hear him.

At a crisis such as this where is the wisdom of repeating, like a parrot-cry, that no proposals for peace can be entertained until Germany is beaten to her knees? Delenda est Carthago is very fine, if you were sure of being able to do it. But is there a competent man in England at this moment who was confident to being able to crush Germany? Or to crush her at a cost that would be less ruinous than defeat? It may or may not be desirable to annihilate German power; but that is not the question now, but is it practicable? Proud and arrogant talk gives no help, and revolts the consciences of men; and people who set out to smash Germany should ask themselves whether the defeat of Russia, and the weakening of France, and the state of things at the Dardanelles, have not recently somewhat altered the conditions of the problem.

A few months ago they counted with confidence on the triumphant pedigree of the Russian ‘steamroller’. That machine is not now quite so efficient. Then great hopes were placed in the accession of the Balkan States to the side of the Allies. The turn of events in Poland would probably show them the merits of the other side, and altogether he should be a sanguine man who still counts on an overwhelming victory for England.

It is time to look facts in the face, whether we like them or not. There is no use in shutting one’s eyes, and, in blind conceit, rushing to one’s ruin… The prolongation of this war for one hour beyond what is absolutely necessary is a crime against God, and humanity, and the judgement of neutral nations, and still more of posterity, will be pronounced heavily against any government that now refuses to entertain the proposals which are made in the name of religion, by one who is perfectly impartial, and has no interest to serve but the well-being of all the nations. But over and above these general considerations of religion and humanity, the vital interests of our own country call clamorously for peace. Therefore, we may hope that you will use your influence to get a fair hearing for the noble and Christ-like proposal of the Pope. In England some people have been complaining of his silence. Now that he has spoken we may hope that they will show deference to his words. But, whatever they may say or do in England, we Irish Catholics have no excuse for disregarding the appeal of Our Holy Father. Our duty and our highest interests are on his side in this movement for peace, and, therefore, I should hope that you will bring your great influence to bear on the English Government and press it to give his proposal a fair and reasonable consideration.

Assuredly you have a right to be heard. You have given them help beyond price. We may hope that when you speak on behalf of the Supreme Head of our Church, and for the vital interests of your country, they will give heed to your words.
Before this disastrous war, by your wise and upright statesmanship, you deserved well of your country, and brought her to the very threshold of Home Rule. It may be in God’s providence that you, a Catholic Irishman, are destined to render her, and the whole world, a still greater service by leading the English Government to take the first step at the word of the Pope towards the re-establishment of peace on earth.

I am, yours faithfully in Xt., E.T., Bishop of Limerick.”

With the fall of the Liberal Government in May 1915 and its replacement with a Unionist-dominated coalition Bishop O’Dwyer felt justified to resume his opposition to Redmond.
After a mob attacked Irish emigrants boarding ships in Liverpool O’Dwyer wrote to the Limerick Leader, posing questions that were not supposed to be asked in Redmondite Ireland – questions that would have been very dangerous for anyone but a Bishop to ask. O’Dwyer wrote: “What have they or their forebears ever got from England that they should die for her? Mr Redmond will say: ‘A Home Rule Act is on the Statute Book. But any intelligent Irishman will say: ‘A simulacrum of Home Rule with an express notice that it is never to come into operation.’ This war may be just or unjust, but any fair-minded man would admit that it is England’s war, not Ireland’s.” (Cited in David W.Miller, Church, State And Nation In Ireland, 1898-1921, p.317.)

O’Dwyer’s letter was suppressed by the Dublin papers. It was the only way it could have been handled. O’Dwyer, or the papers printing the letter, could have been prosecuted under the Defence Of The Realm Act. But such a prosecution, of a Catholic bishop, would have proved disastrous. So the Bishop’s letter was suppressed and, in response, distributed in leaflet form around the country.

Archbishop Walsh and O’Dwyer were the more Vatican orientated members of the Hierarchy. As such they took into account the international interests of Catholicism to a greater extent than the warmongering nationalist clergy in Ireland who threw in their lot with Redmond.

Brian Murphy’s recently published work; The Catholic Bulletin and Republican Ireland has described how this Irish division took effect in Rome. Monsignors O’Riordain and O’Hagan at the Irish College in Rome had worked to secure recognition of the separate identity of Irish church interests from English political and clerical influence, which had been felt to be exercised detrimentally to Irish interests in the past. Both had been Home Rulers before the war but had become suspicious of British intentions both with regard to Ireland and its wider war aims in 1914. O’Riordain and O’Hagan had to initially counter the influence of the new English Cardinal Gasquet, who had publicly defended Britain’s conduct of war on the Boers a decade earlier. Then they had to deal with Sir Henry Howard, who arrived in Rome in January 1915 as Envoy Extraordinary of the British Embassy to mount a diplomatic assault at the Vatican. Use was made of the Catholic Bulletin in this resistance.

Brian Murphy concludes: “… two conflicting voices representing Irish interests were to be heard at the Vatican: that of Redmond, committed to the War and content to cooperate with the English Mission; and that of Bishop O’Dwyer, ably assisted by O’Riordain and O’Hagan, who was suspicious of England’s war aims, and who was totally opposed to the English Mission. The Catholic Bulletin resolutely supported and endorsed the latter view.” (p.212)

In a real sense then Imperial Ireland was resisted by independent Ireland at the Vatican and in the Catholic Bulletin prior to the Rising in 1916.

Here is ‘Mr. Redmond’s Reply’ to the ‘Bishop of Limerick’s Letter’ to the Irish Leader on the Pope’s plea for a peace conference as given in the Freeman’s Journal:

“Dear Lord Bishop – I have received your Lordship’s letter, and I need not say I have read it with the utmost care.

In reply, I must respectfully say that, to the best of my judgement, the course of action you suggest to me would not be calculated to promote the cause of peace. Nor do I think that I would be justified in endeavouring to bring pressure to bear upon the Government to enter into any negotiations for peace at a time when the German powers, who have been the oppressors in this war, show no sign of any disposition to repay the wrongs they have inflicted upon Belgium and our other allies – Very Truly Yours, J.E.Redmond.” (Freeman’s Journal, 13 August, 1915.)

That must be the most discourteous reply ever made by an Irish leader to a Catholic Bishop.

There was nothing odd about Germany wanting peace at this of all moments – at the time of its greatest success in the war. It was not the aggressor in the war and had secured its defence by a military ability that the Entente had not bargained for.

But it knew that from here on only a long and wasteful war of attrition could defeat it. It wanted to secure a peace at this point to prevent further loss of life and the inevitable political and economic destruction that a fight to the finish would end up in across Europe. So it supported the Vatican’s efforts in getting for a negotiated settlement.

As H.C.O’Neill noted, for Redmond, “the moment was inopportune.” The Redmondites saw the Pope’s appeal for peace as “inopportune” because they believed the British Empire, mainly in the shape of the Royal Navy, had the strategic ascendancy over Germany, and it was vital that the “war for small nations” would be won without compromise. With the Entente forces stopped by strong German defensive positions in the west and the “Russian Steamroller” halted in the east the main hope of defeating Germany fell to the British blockade.

Since the very moment when England started to think about destroying Germany its main weapon was understood to be the blockade. Even with the British intervention in a Continental war, the greatest weapon which England’s possessed was seen to be the Royal Navy and its ability to shut off Germany from its markets and its food supply. To suggest that the blockade was a mere act of retaliation designed to facilitate neutral shipping was completely false, in view of the signals which emanated from the British Admiralty and anti-German propagandists in the period prior to the Great War.

Once the Allies stopped the Germans at the battle of the Marne, four years of trench warfare ensued. Although the Germans launched the most effective offensives of the war, they were always strategically on the defensive and the possibility of a negotiated settlement lay entirely with the Allies. But the British Cabinet never for a moment contemplated a negotiated settlement, despite all the losses in men and materials they suffered and the fact that they did not seem to be making any territorial progress. They coldly calculated that the Allies could suffer heavier losses than the Germans and still win so long as they had a better rate of attrition proportionate to population than the Germans. England believed that, in the long run, the Royal Navy would do its work on Germany if the line could be held for long enough on land.

The Royal Navy blockade of Germany was the decisive factor in Germany’s defeat – after the allies had failed to get the better of her in the field. It proved to be totally effective in cutting off Germany’s imports of food and material, and led to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that brought America into the war and tightened the noose around the Germany.

Most readers will be under the impression that the Great War finished in November 1918, and they will be totally unaware that the Allies continued the war against Germany for another five months. There are not many history books that refer to the fact that there was a naval blockade in place against Germany until April 1919 to secure German compliance to Allied terms. It was maintained for eight months after the official ending of the war – resulting in the starvation of more than half a million civilians, mostly children, in order to turn Germany’s conditional surrender at the Armistice into an unconditional one in July 1919.

C.J.O’Donnell, the Irishman who had served the British Empire, made the following comment about blockading in The Irish Future With The Lordship Of The World,: “Infinitely the most inhuman act of war is the blockade, which avowedly is not aimed at soldiers or sailors, but at the aged and the child, the babe and the woman. In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church inflicted the major excommunication on any general who blockaded a town before he had given full opportunity for the withdrawal of women and children. In those uncivilized days there was such a thing as ‘the truce of God’.” (, p.220.) But even though Pope Benedict XV condemned the Allied “blockade which hems two Empires and condemns millions of innocents to famine” Redmond and his Party continued to support it for as long as it took for Germany to be destroyed.

The Redmondites viewed Germany’s various peace initiatives in 1915 as being a sign of underlying weakness brought about by Royal Navy blockade – which was going to ultimately starve the Germans into submission. And three more years of slaughter, and millions of deaths, on the Western front and elsewhere, did not shake them in the belief that it was all worth it to achieve Germany’s destruction.

It is of great historical significance that the Pope tried to get the Great War called off in 1915 and England and the Irish Redmondites, for reasons of wanting to destroy Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, rejected his overtures.

Stephen McKenna, an English Liberal, writing in 1921 honestly described the implications of the British decision to prolong the war in 1915:

“When the belligerents took stock before settling down to the trench-warfare winter campaign of 1916-17, all must have felt that the war had reached its climax. The general exhaustion was so great that, even if hostilities had ceased, every country would have been crippled; if hostilities continued, they would continue on a scale of unlimited effort in which no reserve of strength would any longer be husbanded. Set free on her eastern frontier, Germany must mass all her resources in one last effort to break through the western line; the Allies must hold out till the attempt had spent itself and then strike one last blow at a worn enemy; Germany must in turn prevent the allies from holding out by cutting their sea communications. If unrestricted submarine warfare ranged America on the side of the allies, it must have been felt that either the war would be over before any effective help could be given or else that, in the final, hopeless, death-grapple, a few million soldiers more or less would not substantially change the degree or character of Germany’s defeat.

Many of those who meditated on the war from its climax in 1916 to its end in the Versailles conference may wonder whether they did wisely in execrating and howling down anyone who shewed the courage to advocate peace before the sphere of war underwent its last desperate expansion. The government stood by its policy of a ‘knock-out blow’; the knock-out blow has been dealt. Is anyone the better for it? The fire-eaters who proclaimed that anything less than the unconditional surrender of Germany would entail another German war within their generation now proclaim with no more doubt or qualification that Germany is preparing her revenge… The added two years of war, then, have not brought such security as Rome enjoyed at the destruction of Carthage; the added bitterness of those two years, on the other hand, has made more difficult any goodwill and any common effort to substitute a sane and better system of International relationship.

Worst of all are the worldwide economic depression and political unrest for which the protraction of the war was responsible. Had negotiations been opened in 1916, the Russian revolution and its consequences might well have been averted; Germany, Austria and Turkey might have been left with stable governments and yet with enough experience of modern warfare to discourage any taste for further adventures; and Italy, France and Great Britain – in that order – might have been saved from insolvency. The war, if ended at that time, would have ended without American help; and peace would have been concluded without American intervention. This last result might by now be a matter for regret if thereby the world had been cheated of the equitable and permanent peace, such as President Wilson sought to impose on the militarist party of the Versailles Conference; but it would perhaps have been better for the terms to be drawn by M. Clemenceau and Mr Lloyd George on Carthaginian lines than for the world to be tantalized by a glimpse of statesmanship that revealed the universal spirit and then to be fobbed off with a compromise which embraced even the good faith of England.” (While I Remember, pp. 171-3.)

This was written in 1921 before the effects of the Great War had become clear. Who can honestly disagree with this analysis – that if peace had been concluded in 1915, 1916 or 1917 the world would have been a much better place than it subsequently turned out to be?
Unlike the Vatican Redmondite Ireland did not want a negotiated peace in 1915, 1916 or 1917. It had began to see things as the British Imperialists of the “new Rome” saw them and wanted to enhance national hatreds and escalate and widen the war so that Germany could be destroyed like the original Rome had seen off Carthage.

Redmond was quite prepared to go against the Pope and treat his Bishop in Limerick with contempt in pursuit of this policy of no compromise, to fight to a finish. But the consequences for Europe of this policy were nothing short of catastrophic. (To be continued)