THOUSANDS of volunteers from around the world – reportedly including serving British soldiers who have gone absent without leave – are said to be making their way to Ukraine to join the battle against the Russian invaders.
Like many, I’m torn between admiration for their undoubted courage, and apprehension that they may not have thought it through properly and will end up regretting their decision when they find themselves amid the bullets and bombs.
Why are they ready to risk their lives for a foreign country? Some are undoubtedly gung-ho adventurers who feel ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ at the prospect of action, like the airman in W B Yeats’s poem? Others will simply be concerned humanitarians offering skills that may be useful to a beleaguered people facing a ruthless onslaught.
Only they know the full reasons for wanting to join up. However, I think we can be sure that, although some will have military or medical expertise, most won’t be acting as mercenaries, the so-called ‘dogs of war’ interested only in making money.
Today’s would-be warriors are following a thread going back centuries by fighting in other people’s conflicts for the sake of principles or ideology.
Perhaps most famously in the modern era, around 4,000 British volunteers went into battle against Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), most joining the communist-backed International Brigades. As well as soldiers, workers and trade unionists, they included intellectuals, writers, politicians and poets.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, many pilots from the then-neutral United States volunteered for service with the RAF, forming three Eagle Squadrons. They saw action against the Luftwaffe before being absorbed into the US Eighth Air Force after America entered the war in December 1941.
On the other side of the coin, later in the war thousands of men from Nazi-occupied countries – including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Ukraine – voluntarily joined the Waffen-SS to fight against the Soviets on the Eastern Front, in what they saw as a crusade against Bolshevism. In 1945, with the Third Reich crumbling, the Germans even recruited a small ‘Free Corps’ of British soldiers from prisoner of war camps, but they never went into battle.
For British subjects, it has long been illegal under the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 to take up arms against a state with which Britain is technically at peace. Right now, that still includes Russia.
However, the law, whose penalties include fines or imprisonment, has never been enforced in any meaningful way and is unlikely to rebound on those civilians who are reportedly heading to Ukraine .
By contrast, serving British soldiers, who have been specifically banned by the Government from joining the conflict, will almost certainly be court-martialled if they return home.
But they are unlikely to suffer the oppressive punishment that was meted out in Eire (now the Irish Republic) to its own errant fighting men in a similar situation 77 years ago.
After the outbreak of war in 1939, around 6,000 Irish Army soldiers absconded to the UK. Some did it for better pay in the munitions factories, but – with their homeland remaining neutral – around 4,500 joined the British Army in the struggle against Hitler.
They fought bravely and well (the first man on to the beach when my father’s unit landed in Normandy on D-Day in June 1944 was Irish) and many laid down their lives.
But when the survivors returned home in 1945 after the end of the war in Europe – or ‘The Emergency’ as it was known in Eire – they were branded deserters by Eamon de Valera’s government and shamefully vilified.
De Valera, it will be remembered, was the man who, following Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker in April 1945, delivered a message of condolence to the German ambassador in Dublin.
Most of the returned Irish soldiers were dismissed in disgrace from the army, and stripped of gratuity rights. And, in an act of particular vindictiveness, they were also denied unemployment benefit and banned for seven years from taking any job paid for by the State. To ensure this sanction was enforced, a blacklist of the miscreants was circulated among public service departments.
It was only in 2012 that Ireland pardoned the soldiers and apologised for the disgraceful treatment they had suffered. By then, most were dead.
The Irish government belatedly acknowledged the value of them having fought with the allies against Hitler. It went without saying that had the Germans conquered the UK, Eire’s neutrality would not have saved it from Nazi occupation.
Despite the long history of volunteers joining conflicts, the question of foreigners fighting in Ukraine remains fraught with unknowns.
For instance, what will happen to non-Ukrainian recruits who are captured by the Russians? Will they be recognised as legitimate combatants and treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions – to which both countries are signatories – or will they be branded mercenaries? Russia has already warned that fighters it regards as mercenaries will face criminal charges.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence is said to be worried that if serving British soldiers are found fighting on the front line, Putin will claim that this country has entered the conflict. In an already volatile international situation, that would inevitably add more fuel to the flames.