On the other hand, no sooner was the Military Service Act on the Statute-book than the Government began to recede from Mr. Bonar Law’s declaration that they would at all costs enforce it in Ireland. They intimated that if voluntary recruiting improved it might be possible to dispense with compulsion. But although Mr. Shortt—who succeeded Mr. Duke as Chief Secretary in May, at the same time as Lord Wimborne was replaced in the Lord-Lieutenancy by Field-Marshal Lord French—complained on the 29th of July that the Nationalists had given no help to the Government in obtaining voluntary recruits in Ireland, and, “instead of taking Sinn Fein by the throat, had tried to go one better," the compulsory powers of the Military Service Act remained a dead letter.
The fact was that the Nationalists had followed up their fierce opposition to the Bill by raising a still more fierce agitation in Ireland against conscription. In this they joined hands with Sinn Fein, and the whole weight of the Catholic Church was thrown into the same scale. From the altars of that Church the thunderbolts of ecclesiastical anathema were loosed against the Government, and—what was more effective—against any who should obey the call to arms. The Government gave way before the violence of the storm, and the lesson to be learnt from their defeat was not thrown away on the rebel party in Ireland. There was, naturally, widespread indignation in England at the spectacle of the youth of Ireland taking its ease at home and earning extravagantly high war-time wages while middle-aged bread-winners in England were compulsorily called to the colours; but the marvellously easy-going disposition of Englishmen submitted to the injustice with no more than a legitimate grumble.
In June 1918, while this agitation against conscription was at its height, the hostility of the Nationalists took a new turn. A manifesto, intended as a justification of their resistance to conscription, was issued in the form of a letter to Mr. Wilson, President of the United States, signed by Mr. Dillon, Mr. Devlin, Mr. William O’Brien, Mr. Healy, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and some others, including leaders of Sinn Fein. It was a remarkable document, the authorship of which was popularly attributed to Mr. T.M. Healy. If it ever came under the eye of Mr. Wilson, a man of literary taste and judgment, it must have afforded him a momentary diversion from the cares of his exalted office. A longer experience than his of diplomatic correspondence would fail to produce from the pigeon-holes of all the Chanceries a rival to this extraordinary composition, the ill-arranged paragraphs of which formed an inextricable jumble of irrelevant material, in which bad logic, bad history, and barren invective were confusedly intermingled in a torrent of turgid rhetoric. The extent of its range may be judged from the fact that Shakespeare’s allusions to Joan of Arc were not deemed too remote from the subject of conscription in Ireland during