Fighting Irish: The 199th Battalion, Irish Canadians, in the First World War

The Duchess of Connaught's Own Irish Canadian Rangers [199th Battalion CEF]. Photograph courtesy Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022670
The Duchess of Connaught’s Own Irish Canadian Rangers [199th Battalion CEF]. Photograph courtesy Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022670
Yesterday, we dug up a great image of a recruiting poster for the 199th Battalion (Irish Canadians) in honour of Saint Patrick’s Day. After finding it, and looking through our own archive to see what else we had, I started to think more about the battalion and where it came from. The 199th Battalion is possibly one of the least know of those recruited in Quebec. It has no descendant unit and I’m not entirely sure where its surviving records are kept. Yet, the 199th represents an important note not only about Montreal’s Irish community, but also the choices facing the Irish in Canada as a whole during this period. Would Canada’s Irish fight with the King and the British Empire, or would they follow their compatriots in Ireland, many of whom refused to fight a war for what they regarded as their colonial occupier? 

On the outbreak of war the man who would go on to raise the 199th Battalion, Henry J. Trihey, was one of 12 members of the Irish community in Montreal to establish a militia group, the 55th Regiment Irish Rangers, that would serve at home in Canada for the protection of the country. The regiment would also supply a company of men to the 60th Battalion CEF, which fought in France with the 3rd Division. In Ireland also the Home Rule campaign was suspended for the duration of the war, and the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond would, encourage Irish citizens to enlist and serve with the British Army, in the hopes that this would further the cause for Home Rule after the conflict was over.

By 1916, the situation in Ireland was quickly devolving, as casualties mounted and the people of Ireland grew increasingly dissatisfied with their involvement in the war. Britain’s own conscription crisis in 1915 resulted in the act not being brought at all into Ireland, for fear of sparking a civil war, and in the United States  Irish patriotic organisations expressed disgust for Redmond and the Irish Parliamentarians, even going so far as to state their support for Germany. The Irish community in Canada watched these events through the dailies, and the 55th Regiment organisers began to plan for an overseas battalion.

The 199th Battalion would begin recruitment on 24 April 1916, the same day as the rebellion of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, later known as the Easter Rising. The battalion could be seen as many things, a statement from the Irish Canadian community about their loyalty to their new country and the British Crown, or an effort by the Canadian government to boost Irish recruitment, which was at the time gauged to be low. In any event the 199th promised its recruits a warm community of their fellow Irish men and a chance to get to France to fight the Germans. Battalion recruiters travelled all around Eastern Canada trying to raise men to fill their ranks, but even those efforts failed to achieve a full battalion of     1000 men by the time the 199th shipped out to England in November 1916.

In June of 1916, the Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, would announce that the 199th Battalion was going overseas as a single unit, meaning it would not be broken up. But, in a move that disappointed the battalion and greatly angered the Irish community at home, the battalion was absorbed in to the Canadian reserves, despite resistance from Lt. Colonel Trihey, who resigned his commission in protest. The decision, despite the aspersions cast by some members of the community who thought it directed specifically at the Irish, was part of the recent army policy enforced in 1917, which instead of creating an under strength 5th Division to go to France broke up the most recently raised battalions from Canada and sent them to reinforce those already on the Continent.

Members of the 199th were scattered across the CEF and Trihey returned to Montreal to take up a bitter press campaign against the Canadian government, citing the broken promise of Sam Hughes. The regiment remained part of the Canadian Militia until it was finally disbanded in the 1930s; sadly, the 199th never fought in France.

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