With the attentions of most of the populace firmly set on the struggles in Europe and beyond, hard-line Irish nationalists hoped to secure freedom for Ireland from the British Empire. Before the war, the Irish situation had almost precipitated a crisis within the British Army in what became known as the Curragh affair. Both Nationalist and Loyalist had formed paramilitary wings with a view to defend their political positions with force if necessary. The third Home Rule bill was introduced by the Liberal government in Westminster who relied heavily on the support of the Irish MP's in the Commons. In early 1914, orders were received which required the army in Ireland to prepare to enforce the Home Rule provisions on the Loyalists. It was this incident that led the Curragh 'mutiny', in which many Army officers resigned rather than carry out their orders. The outbreak of war caused the suspension of the Home Rule bill, delaying the enactment until after the campaign in France was successfully concluded, widely expected to be in 1915.
It is this backdrop that led to the events of Easter 1916 and the baptism of fire of the 2/7th Notts and Derbys, not on the muddy battlefields of France but on the streets of the second city of the Empire.
The outbreak of war on the continent saw some in Ireland look to Germany as saviour of the Irish Nationalist cause. Amongst the more prominent was Sir Roger Casement, formerly a British consul and now a founding member of the nationalist Irish Volunteers. Casement was already in America when war was declared and forged links with the German leadership via Count Von Bernstoff, the most influential German diplomat in New York. For most of 1915, Casement was in Germany attempting to get the German High Command to commit arms and military instructors to Ireland to train the Irish volunteers to overthrow British rule.
For the most part Casement was unsuccessful, the best he managed to arrange was a shipment of 25,000 captured Russian rifles and 1 million rounds of ammunition from Germany to Ireland in a disguised freighter. This all came to naught as the ship was intercepted off the Irish coast by the Royal Navy and the cargo lost when the ship was scuttled while under escort to harbour. Casement himself was captured following a beach landing from a German U-Boat (U-19). At his trial he claimed he was in Ireland to try and prevent the uprising but he was found guilty of treason and hanged on 3 August 1916 at Pentonville prison.
For the Germans, the rising in Ireland was an almost risk-free operation. The arms supplied were second rate equipment and the rising would undoubtedly divert British troops from the Western Front which it succeeded in doing.
It is thought that Casement was not fully aware of the precise plan for the uprising until near the actual date and may not have been aware that the plan was not one hatched by the Irish Volunteers but by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret nationalist organisation under the control of young leaders committed to the establishment of an independent Ireland. This faction had infiltrated the leadership of the Irish Volunteer movement and intended to use the planned Easter assembly of the Volunteers as a springboard to rebellion.
When the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood revealed their plans to the leader of the Irish Volunteers he refused to support them and took adverts out in the Newspapers cancelling the assembly, an action which probably damaged the chances of success irreparably. This caused the postponement of the rising until Easter Monday weakening the strength of the rebels further.
On the morning of 24 April 1916, to the surprise of many Dubliners, Irish Volunteers assembled at pre-arranged assembly points across the city and around noon set out to occupy strategic locations around the city chosen for the command of the major routes through Dublin their control provided.
The Proclamation of Independence was read out on the steps of the General Post Office by Patrick Pearse to the assembled crowd before him, where it was met with stony silence. Behind him work began to fortify the building against the inevitable response from the authorities.
The initial response was muted as there were few troops on hand in Dublin itself. However, late on the afternoon of Easter Monday, orders were given to Major General Sandbach of the 59th Division to send two divisions to Ireland immediately and consequently the 178th (2nd North Midland) Division entrained for Liverpool on the morning on the 25 April where it sailed to Kingstown although some men had to be left behind including the Lewis gun section due to lack of space aboard the steamship 'Ulster'.
The rushed move had left many of the Robin Hoods with no idea to their location, some believing they were entering France. Arriving with minimal ammunition, the columns were issued with further stocks and with the Robin Hoods at the head began the march toward Dublin.
Captain Frederick Dietrichsen, Adjutant of the Battalion, knew precisely where he was. As he marched with the column he was reunited with his wife and children who had moved to Dublin following the Zeppelin raids on London. With 'C' Company leading the way, residents came out to support the soldiers and warn them of the rebels' location near Mount Street Bridge.
The column continued to advance with 'C' Company (Captain Frank Pragnell) in the lead accompanied by the C.O., Lt Colonel Fane, followed by 'A' Company (Captain Wright), 'B' Company (Captain Hanson) with the reserve, 'D' Company (Captain Cooper) bringing up the rear. 'C' Company advanced in a box formation, with the front platoon in line and the following platoons advancing along the pavement in column, the intention being that they could cover any side streets and clear house if required.
At about 1225, the leading platoon came under fire from the defenders of 25 Northumberland Road. The defenders were Lieutenant Michael Malone (3rd Volunteer Battalion) and James Grace, a deserter from the Territorial Force in Canada. Further down the road, more volunteers waited the column in Clanwilliam House, which commanded Mount Street Bridge and initially, the school house further along Northumberland Road. All these buildings had been prepared for resistance with barricades on the lower floors.
The firing by Malone and Grace was to be the signal to the other defenders to engage the advancing troops and after a short pause, they began to lay down harassing fire on the troops now taking shelter behind the little cover available. Among the first to fall was Captain Dietrichsen, most likely by the fire of Malone and Grace. Soon, other officers were falling as the volunteers picked them out from their vantage points on the upper floors. The loss of the officers caused great confusion amongst the raw Robin Hoods, some of whom had only been in uniform for three months and most had never been under fire before.
As the fire slackened off slightly, Colonel Fane sent Captain Pragnell and 'C' Company to the right towards the nearby Balls Bridge with the intention of outflanking number 25. This was unsuccessful and Captain Pragnell was soon wounded along with all the other officers of 'C' Company, including 2nd Lieutenant William Hawken who was killed. Company Sergeant Major H. Towlson took command of the remaining men and took up positions overlooking the enemy positions from where covering fire was maintained. For his actions, CSM Towlson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The confusion mounted as the inexperienced troops and officers struggled to pinpoint the enemy positions and a number of houses were stormed at bayonet point without success. It was whilst trying to storm number 25 Northumberland Road that 2nd Lieutenant Hawken was killed and others of his party wounded as Malone and Grace continued to hold their position firmly. Soon after 3pm, another attempt to storm the house was undertaken with the use of mills bombs and guncotton brought up from the nearby Elm Park bombing school. The official history describes how this second attempt was spearheaded by Corporal H Hutchinson and Private J Booth who attached the guncotton slabs to the door handle (for this action both were promoted and mentioned in the official dispatches).
Malone and Grace were in the process and retreating from the house when the door was blown in. Grace dived into the cellar and took cover, escaping the grenades thrown in after him. Malone, however, was not as lucky and was shot dead as he descended the stairs. Between them, Malone and Grace had held the battalion at bay for some 5 hours and inflicted heavy casualties amongst the troops.
With number 25 taken, the battalion was now faced with fire coming from the direction of the school buildings further down Northumberland road and from Clanwilliam House across the bridge. Plans were made for the supporting 'D' company to attack the school with bombs while 'A' company, under Captain Wright assaulted from the rear. However, owing to the losses sustained including the wounding of Lt Colonel Fane who had been struck in the arm by a bullet, it was deemed necessary to wait for reinforcement from the 2/8th Battalion. At around 6pm, the 2/8th scaled the wall surrounding the school buildings and stormed the school itself. It was joined in this by Captain Cooper and two platoons of 'D' company who had worked their way through the houses on Northumberland road. This was an unexpected turn of events as no orders had been issued for this to occur but the reinforcements soon made themselves useful by taking up positions to engage Clanwilliam house across the canal. The school was found to be empty of rebels and was assumed to have been abandoned in the nick of time but it may have been the fire from Clanwilliam House and other buildings across the canal that was mistakenly identified as coming from the school.
Colonel Oates of the 2/8th battalion hastily outlined a plan to rush across the bridge and storm Clanwilliam house having received orders that a flanking move was not permitted. The plan seemed to be rather basic and similar to those that had ended with such heavy casualties for the 2/7th throughout the day. However, the taking of the school and number 25 had reduced the effectiveness of the rebels' positions and they were now subjected to harassing fire from numerous directions across the canal.
A combined force of attackers stormed across Mount Street Bridge, throwing mills bombs into the windows of Clanwilliam House and breaking through the lower windows. The shower of mills bombs had the unintended consequence of igniting the gas supply to the houses and soon both Clanwilliam house and the adjoining house were ablaze. The defenders of these houses escaped for the most part although the battalion history reports that 3 were killed by the storming parties. Again, the defenders caused numerous casualties amongst the attacking Foresters.
With their objective achieved and the Mount Street bridge captured the two sister battalions posted guards and settled in for the night with the intention of continuing towards Dublin castle in the morning. However, due to the losses sustained, it was ordered that the Robin Hoods along with the 2/8th hand over to troops of the 176th (Staffordshire) Brigade and retire to positions back down the road up which they had marched the day before.
In the following days the rebellion was defeated and the ringleaders captured for the most part. The Robin Hoods played little further part in these operations, instead providing guard detachments around the city, albeit not without some sniper fire which fortunately caused no further casualties.
The Robin Hoods suffered greatly at the hands of a small but well-prepared rebel force. Around 80 casualties were suffered, some 10% of the battalion strength present; 3 officers and 13 men were killed (listed below), with some 8 officers and 78 men wounded.
Along with the above killed, twelve men were so seriously wounded that they were discharged from the Army due to their physical incapacity. As Dublin was considered 'Home service' the men killed or discharged through wounds earned no medals as only overseas service qualified a man. The twelve men discharged due to wounds did qualify for a Silver War Badge which was intended to show that they had 'done their bit' for King and Country.
Following the quelling of Uprising, the Robin Hoods spent a number of months in the Irish countryside as the 59th Division continued training for the Western Front.