This Curragh Incident, which caused intense and prolonged excitement in March 1914, and nearly upset the Asquith Government, had more than momentary importance in connection with the Ulster Movement. It proved to demonstration the intense sympathy with the loyalist cause that pervaded the Army. That sympathy was not, as Radical politicians like Mr. John Ward believed, an aristocratic sentiment only to be found in the mess-rooms of smart cavalry regiments. It existed in all branches of the Service, and among the rank and file as well as the commissioned ranks. Sir Arthur Paget’s telegram reporting to the War Office the feeling in the 5th and 16th Lancers, said, “Fear men will refuse to move." The men had not the same facility as the officers in making their sentiments known at headquarters, but their sympathies were the same.
The Government had no excuse for being ignorant of this feeling in the Army. It had been a matter of notoriety for a long time. Its existence and its danger had been reported by Lord Wolseley to the Duke of Cambridge, back in the old days of Gladstonian Home Rule, in a letter that had been since published. In July 1913 The Times gave the warning in a leading article that “the crisis, the approach of which Ministers affect to treat with unconcern, is already causing uneasiness and apprehension in the public Services, and especially in the Army.... It is notorious that some officers have already begun to speak of sending in their papers.” Lord Roberts had uttered a significant warning in the House of Lords not long before the incident at the Curragh. Colonel Seely himself had been made aware of it in the previous December when he signed a War Office Memorandum on the subject; and, indeed, no officer could fail to be aware of it who had ever been quartered in Ireland.
Nor was it surprising that this sympathy should manifest itself. No one is quicker to appreciate the difference between loyalty and disloyalty than the soldier. There were few regiments in the Army that had not learnt by experience that the King’s uniform was constantly insulted in Nationalist Ireland, and as invariably welcomed and honoured in Ulster. In the vote of censure debate on the 19th of March Mr. Cave quoted an Irish newspaper, which had described the British Army as “the most immoral and degraded force in Europe,” and warned Irishmen that, by joining it, all they would get was “a red coat, a dishonoured name, a besmirched character.” On the other hand, the very troops who were sent North from the Curragh against the advice of Sir Arthur Paget, to provoke “the Ulsterites to shed the first blood,” had, as the Commander-in-Chief reported, “everywhere a good reception."
The welcoming cheers at Holywood and Carrickfergus and Armagh were probably a pleasant novelty to men fresh from the Curragh or Fermoy. Even in Belfast itself the contrast was brought home to troops quartered in Victoria Barracks, all of whom were well aware that on the death of a comrade his coffin would have to be borne by a roundabout route to the cemetery, to avoid the Nationalist quarter of the city where a military funeral would be exposed to insult.