The Irish King of Karelia
Within the history of the First World War, early Twentieth Century Europe and to a lesser extent the Creation of the Irish Free State and the Northern Ireland Government, there were many individual narrations of quite ordinary men and women who lived out extraordinary lives almost beneath the radar of the official record of the time, but whose personal experience and achievement informs us more of the confusion of the times and the courage of the people who lived through it more than a thousand reports. Such a man was Philip James Woods born into a Unionist family with a strong Imperialist ethos on the 23rd of September 1880 who was almost to create an Independent Karelian Irish Republic in North Russia towards the end of the First World War, was to serve as the sole Independent in the Stormont Assembly from 1923 to1929, who was to run an Institute for Political Secretaries in London during the 1930s, employing one William Joyce (aka Lord Haw Haw) as one of his tutors, and who was to die peacefully of a heart attack on the 12th of September 1961, just before his eighty-first birthday.
The story of this remarkable man is told in a delightful and wonderful entitled "The King of Karelia - Col P.J. Woods and the British Intervention in North Russia 1918-1919 A History And A Memoir" written by Nick Baron and just published by Francis Boutle Publishers. The book is in two main parts. In the first the author brings us from Woods's birth in Sandy Row, through his involvement in the Boer War, the Ulster Gun Running, the Battle of the Somme, his Mission to Karelia to defend the territory against the Germans, the Bolsheviks, the White Finns, the White Russians (and whoever else might show up), through to his return to Ulster and involvement in politics there, where he championed the cause of the ex-servicemen, through to his life in England in the 1930s and onward. The second part consists of Woods's own memoir of the Karelian Campaign.
This book is not just a meal, it is a feast of multitudinous courses, each one more fascinating and intriguing than the one before. Here, in a nutshell we have the total political, social, religious, military confusion that was the Europe of the early Twentieth Century. The author is wonderfully skilful in navigating these confusions for the reader and this is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book, more particularly when discussing the internal politics of the officer's mess in the Ulster Regiments and the situation Woods found when he arrives in Karelia.
While the first part of the book is informative, the second part takes on a life of its own and the man whose life is described in great detail in the History becomes alive in the second. The objective narration becomes alive with the human touches of the personal memoir and is not without a sense of humour more especially when the British Officer tries to persuade his raw Karelian recruits to have a haircut. Equally powerful is Woods's ingenuity in creating a Regimental Badge of a Shamrock from the green felt of a billiard table and thus giving his makeshift soldiers a sense of military identity.
"The King of Karelia" is an important addition to our understanding of the history of Ulster at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and one man's success in avoiding the political polarisation that was endemic of the times.
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