During the first world war all of Ireland was within the United Kingdom.

In C. S. Lewis's autobiographical book Surprised by Joy he says that as an Irishman (from Belfast) he was exempt from conscription during the first world war.

(He joined the army and was wounded in combat, and many of his schoolmates were killed.)

I am guessing that attempts to conscript Irishmen at that time might have been resisted with widespread violence, but that's just a guess.

Why were they exempt?

2 Answers 2


Legally they were exempt because The Military Service Act (1916) applied to men "ordinarily resident in Great Britain" not men "ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom"

But practically, it would have taken more men to supress the inevitable uprising than they would have recruited. John Dillon MP said:

If you had passed a Military Service Bill for Ireland, it would have taken 150,000 men and three months' hard fighting to have dealt with it.

The Easter Risings made it clear things were very unstable in Ireland, and they didn't want to make things worse. The backlash that followed their later attempt to apply conscription to Ireland (The Conscription Crisis of 1918) shows their first decision was correct.

This exchange in the House of Commons in 1918 between the Prime Minister and two Irish MPs shows the mood of the time:

§ The PRIME MINISTER [...]Therefore, we propose to extend the Military Service Act to Ireland under the same conditions as in Great Britain. As there is no machinery in existence, and no register has yet been completed in Ireland, it may take some weeks before actual enrolment begins.

§ Mr. FLAVIN It will never begin. Ireland will not have it at any price.

§ The PRIME MINISTER But there must be no delay.

§ Mr. FLAVIN You come across, and try to take them.

§ The PRIME MINISTER As soon as arrangements are complete, the Government will, by Order in Council, put the: Act into immediate operation —

§ Mr. WILLIAM O'BRIEN That is a declaration of war against Ireland


Traditionally, there had been no conscription in Ireland, at least not after the 17th century. Irish did serve in the British army, but only as volunteers. As an occupying country, Britain did not want to 1) antagonize and 2) train Irish soldiers who would be not loyal to them. Irish volunteers, on the other hand, served with pride so they were self-selected for their loyalty.

In 1918, Britain did consider (for the first time) conscripting Irishmen. But by that time 1) the war was nearly over and 2) the Irish independence movement had gotten underway.

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    Using "occupying country" and "England" is rather pejorative in the 19th and 20th century United Kingdom: there were probably fewer Englishmen and women in Ireland at the time than there were Irishmen and women in England. And the government of the UK in 1917 was headed by a Welshman (his successor was a Canadian)
    – Henry
    Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 11:09
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    @Henry "England expects that every man will do his duty..." just 100 years before. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 13:05
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    @Henry It might be pejorative but it is no less true. To wit, the Irish rebelled about once in a generation. This fact alone should raise suspicions that Ireland was not on the same footing as Scotland or Wales in practice, as opposed to according to laws made in Westminster. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 14:39
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    @FelixGoldberg: I'd say more than about "once in a generation." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_uprisings
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 8:28

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