OLIVER'S ARMY

CHAPTER FOUR

 

John Bull's Other Island

The Road to Partition

 

‘The moment the very name of
Ireland is mentioned,
the English seem to bid adieu to
common feeling, common prudence and common sense,
and to act with the barbarity of tyrants,
and the fatuity of idiots.’

Sydney Smith, from Letters of
Peter Plymley
, 1807.

 

In the early days of the 20th century, the British establishment still believed they were ruling the most powerful nation and empire in the world. But they were also aware that threats to their power existed both at home and abroad. Across the Atlantic, the US was out producing Britain in manufactured goods. Closer to home, Germany was doing the same - but also threatened to dominate Europe and even menace parts of the Empire. Within Britain militant women were starting their struggle for the vote and a labour movement, that not only sought to unionise workers but also looked towards new forms of social organisation like socialism and communism, was emerging. And within the Empire there were demands for more democratic forms of government and the threat of colonial revolts.

When cracks had started appearing in the Roman Empire, its rulers had often given vent to periods of panic, paranoia and back-stabbing. Now in Britain, the establishment became bitterly divided about how to cope with threats to their rule, especially those occurring in parts of empire. Some believed that, before a revolt could break out, it was better to concede a measure of self rule - but ensure that those who came to power would remain attached to Britain and allow for her continued economic domination. Others were totally opposed to any form of conciliation and thought that the Empire must be held by force of arms and at any cost.

In 1912 the Liberal Government in Britain, who favoured giving the Irish a measure of autonomy, put forward a Home Rule for Ireland Bill. At that time Ireland was not divided and the country as a whole was part of the United Kingdom - governed directly from Westminster and with Irish MPs sitting in the House of Commons. The Gaelic and literary revival in Ireland had revitalised nationalist spirits after a century of countless evictions, re-occurring famine, continuing emigration and the suppression of separatist movements like the Fenians. It was against this backdrop that, in Britain’s first colony, the Irish people would wage the first liberation struggle of the modern age.

Both of Britain’s ruling parties, the Liberals and the Tories, had toyed with the concept of Home Rule for Ireland in the past. Then the Tories, with Randolph Churchill in the lead, had turned against it - at first mainly as an opportunistic way to defeat the Liberals. In order to do so, however, they forged an alliance with strongly imperialist elements within the establishment, who were totally against Home Rule because they thought this would signal the start of the break-up of the Empire. This view then came to dominate Tory policy on Ireland and the party was described as ‘Unionist’ - which was then added to their name.

Two previous Liberal Home Rule bills had been defeated in the House of Commons, the first in 1886 had been outvoted in the Commons and the second in 1893 had passed through the Commons, only to be thrown out by the House of Lords. Now for their third attempt, the Liberals had linked up with Irish Nationalist and Labour MPs to give them a majority in parliament and they had already taken steps to curb the power of the Lords.

 

 

Unionists’ Illegal Army

After the defeat of the United Irishmen and the imposition of the Act of Union in 1801, the descendants of the settlers in the north of Ireland had faced an historic choice:

  1. Should they continue to make common cause with the native Irish and oppose English rule?
  2. Or should they revert to the role of Britain's loyal garrison and economically join in with the expanding Empire?

The failure of Robert Emmet’s insurrection in 1803 had crushed the spirit of the radicals, pushing many onto the latter course. The British authorities encouraged this by promising, in what was becoming the most industrialised part of Ireland, the extension of privileges to all Protestants. Presbyterians and Dissenters were welcomed into an ‘Orange society’, though it was not till the second half of the century that they joined in substantial numbers. But gradually the north-east of the country once again became the bridgehead of British rule in Ireland.

The Tory & Unionist Party now saw that this situation in the north of Ireland gave them a chance to defeat the Liberal Government by ‘playing the Orange card’. They launched a vociferous opposition campaign against Home Rule and persuaded Sir Edward Carson, a Dublin barrister, to lead this battle. Many Ulster landowners and industrialists were already strongly against any break from empire and they quickly joined the opposition. Carson threatened armed resistance to Home Rule, but the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, stood his ground saying: ‘The British people, just and generous by nature, are not going to be frightened out of doing a just thing by the language of intimidation.’

An illegal private army, called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), was then raised by unionists in the north of Ireland. This force was trained and armed with weapons shipped in from Germany, while most of the British authorities turned a blind eye. The opposition to Home Rule, both political and military, was instigated and supported by prominent people in Britain like Lord Milner:

Milner helped in England to assemble military help and munitions for the UVF, and he cooperated with a group called the British League for the Support of Ulster and the Union, which was enrolling volunteers to go to Ulster to join the UVF if it came to fighting. He also tried to establish an organisation which could paralyse the government’s action before it reached Ulster, muster public support in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere for the Ulster unionists, and secretly collect money from wealthy acquaintances to help arm and equip the UVF. Waldorf Astor and Rudyard Kipling subscribed £30,000 each to this secret fund, Lord Rothschild, Lord Iveagh and the Duke of Bedford £10,000 each . [1]

The UVF was used to threaten armed resistance to the Home Rule Bill and officers resigned from the British Army to help organise it. Many received commissions in this illegal paramilitary organisation: ‘To the chief command, on the advice of the eighty-year-old Lord Roberts of Kandahar, was appointed an Englishman, Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson, K.C.B., veteran of the Afghan, Waziri, Tirah, Zhob and Kunnan campaigns, who on 14th August 1900 had led his Indian troops to the storming and looting of Peking.’ [2]

Lord Milner wrote to Carson offering support and advice: ‘I don’t think the Government are serious in their advances. I think they are just passing the time. If they are serious, there must very soon, certainly in less than a year, be what would technically be a ‘rebellion’ in Ulster. It would be a disaster of the first magnitude if that ‘rebellion’, which would really be the uprising of unshakeable principle and devoted patriotism - of loyalty to the Empire and the Flag - were to fail! But it must fail unless we can paralyse the arm which might be raised to strike you.’

Carson, who claimed he had the support of the officer corps in the British Army, said: ‘I tell the government that we have pledges and promises from some of the greatest generals in the army who have given their word that, when the time comes, if it is necessary, they will come and help us keep the old flag flying.’ [3] Carson was backed by the Conservative leader, Bonar Law, who told a rally of supporters: ‘I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.’ F. E. Smith, the Tory spokesman on Ireland, told another unionist rally that Home Rule was ‘One of those supreme issues of conscience to which the ordinary landmarks of permissible resistance to technical law are submerged.’

Some Tories were willing to take this to its logical conclusion. Lord Winterton later recalled that he had been ‘among many young Conservative MPs who were ready to support Ulster in a physical sense and took effective means to that end ... I formed what would now be described as a Commando which was ready to give physical assistance to Northern Ireland and the Ulster Volunteers if the need arose.’ [4] Carson, emboldened by this establishment support, boasted about the UVF’s open defiance of the Liberal Government, saying ‘Drilling is illegal, the volunteers are illegal, and the government know they are illegal, and the government dare not interfere with what is illegal.’

1: Divided Ulster,
by Liam de Paor,
Penguin Special 1970.

2: Ibid - Divided Ulster,
by Liam de Paor.

3: The History of Partition (1912-1925),
by D. Gwynn.

4: Orders of the Day,
by Lord Winterton,
London 1953.

 

 

Establishment Pressure

Although subjected to considerable pressure the Liberals appeared to stand firm. The partition of Ireland was being raised in some quarters and Asquith held views strongly opposed to this. He said: ‘You can no more split Ireland into two parts than you can split England or Scotland into parts. Ireland is a nation; not two nations, but one nation. There are few cases in history, and, as a student of history in a humble way, I myself know of none, of a nationality at once so distinct, so persistent, and so assimilative as the Irish.’ [5]

King George V then added to the pressure on the Liberals, informing Asquith that army officers might not stay loyal to the government:

The king became involved in the private negotiations, his influence in practice being used on the unionists’ behalf, since he too spoke of the need for avoiding (which in effect meant yielding to the threat of) civil war. His concern was expressed especially for the officers of the army, on whose Tory sympathies too great a strain would be placed if they were asked to take action against the landed gentry of Ulster, who were at the head of their private army. Of ‘our soldiers’, he wrote to Asquith privately in September, the day after Carson had claimed the support of ‘some of the greatest generals in the army’, that:

... by birth, religion and environment they may have strong feelings on the Irish question; outside influences may be brought to bear on them; they see distinguished retired officers already organising local forces in Ulster; they hear rumours of officers on the active list throwing up their commissions to join this force. [6]

Previously, in 1907 when Prince of Wales, George V had attacked the Labour leader, Keir Hardie, for visiting India. In a private letter to Cabinet Minister, John Morely, the future King wrote: ‘I also fear his visit may cause trouble in the future. I am confident that if he really does become a danger in the country, that you will take steps to put a stop to his evil doings. [7]

Hardie now supported the Liberals over Home Rule and said the king was now precipitating the most serious constitutional crisis since Stuart times. He added: ‘King George is not a statesman. Born in the ranks of the working class, his most likely fate would have been that of a street-corner loafer. He is being made the tool of reactionary classes to break the power of democracy.’

5: Hansard
vol. xxxix col. 787.

6: Divided Ulster,
by Liam de Paor,
Penguin Special 1970.

7: Daily Record,
10th Aug. 2000.

 

 

The Officers’ Mutiny

The Liberal Government ordered a mobilisation of the armed forces; the intention was to send massive reinforcement of soldiers into Ulster to face the UVF and pacify the situation. Towards the middle of March 1914, the War Office in London ordered General Sir Arthur Paget, the Officer Commander-in-Chief for Ireland, to move British troops, based at the Curragh Camp near Dublin, to the north. Instead, Paget summoned his senior officers to a meeting in Dublin - among them was Brigadier General Hubert de la Poer Gough, the commander of the Third Cavalry Brigade . Paget then addressed the assembly: ‘Into their astonished ears he now poured a rambling disquisition, the gist of it being that troops were to be moved into Ulster, and that the whole Province might soon be in a blaze. He had warned “those swine” in the Government that they were playing with fire, but they would not listen. [8]

Later that same day, the War Office received the following telegram from General Paget:

OFFICER COMMANDING 5TH LANCERS
STATES THAT ALL OFFICERS, EXCEPT TWO
AND ONE DOUBTFUL, ARE RESIGNING THEIR
COMMISSIONS TODAY. I MUCH FEAR SAME
CONDITIONS IN THE 16TH LANCERS. FEAR
MEN WILL REFUSE TO MOVE.
REGRET TO REPORT BRIGADIER-GENERAL
GOUGH AND FIFTY-SEVEN OFFICERS 3RD
CAVALRY BRIGADE PREFER TO ACCEPT
DISMISSAL IF ORDERED NORTH.

Unionist opposition in England had already been alerted to the Government’s orders to move the troops. Two days previously, Sir John French, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had returned from a Cabinet Committee meeting and told General Wilson ‘That the Government proposed “to spray troops all over Ulster as if it were a Pontypool coal strike”. ... Wilson reported every word, first to Bonar Law that afternoon, and then to Sir Edward Carson, Lord Milner and Sir Lysander Jameson that night at dinner.’ [9]

The pressure on the Liberal Government intensified. Milner talked about ‘saving the Empire’ and urged the National Service League to spread disaffection among Army officers. General Wilson promised to do the same within the War Office and he called on Bonar Law to ‘back Hubert [Gough].’ Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India, warned of serious consequences in India, ‘unless the government makes peace with the army.’ Under this onslaught, the Liberal Government backed down and countermanded the order for troops to move to the north.

On March 25th 1914, Brigadier-General Hubert Gough made the following statement: ‘I got a signed guarantee [from the government] that in no circumstances shall we be used to force Home Rule on the Ulster people. If it came to civil war, I would fight for Ulster rather than against her.’ [10] A month later 35,000 rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition for the UVF were landed openly on the Ulster coast.

8: The Damnable Question,
by George Dangerfield,
Constable London 1977.

9: Ibid - The Damnable Question,
by George Dangerfield.

10: Daily Telegraph,
25th March 1914.

 

 

Appeal to Soldiers

Some officers were dismayed by the actions of those who had refused to obey the Government’s orders. As Major-General Sir Charles Fergusson indicated in a letter to his brother: ‘Logically, if we officers refuse to fight against our friends, are we prepared to accept the same argument from our men when they are called on to fight their friends in labour disputes etc!...’ [11] In the House of Commons some Labour MPs, including ex-soldier John Ward, questioned the loyalty of the Army:

‘We have here and now unquestionably to decide whether we are going to maintain the discipline of the army as a neutral force ... or whether for the future this House, when elected by the people, must go to a committee of officers and ask that military junta whether this is a subject that will be allowed to be put into execution ...’ Ward went on to read a syndicalist manifesto addressed to British troops:

‘Often you are called upon to fire on unarmed and defenceless crowds of men and women. You are asked to do so in order that your own flesh and blood may be bought and sold cheap that others may be rich. We therefore ask you now to resolve that from this day forward you will never fire a shot against your own class, that you will follow the example of the generals and other officers in Ireland who have refused to take risks against their class interests.’

The Labour MP for Derby, J. H. Thomas of the Railway Servants’ Union, said that if the Tories’ doctrine held good, his duty would be to tell the railwaymen to spend the union’s half-million of capital on arms and ammunition . [12]

The issue was also taken up by working class organisations in Ireland. The Parliamentary Committee of the Irish Trade Union Congress issued a Manifesto to the Workers of Ireland: ‘As Irish workers we are not concerned with the officers of the British Army taking the line that they have, nor are we concerned because of the effect their actions may have upon Britain’s Army; but we claim that what the officer may do in pursuance of his political and sectarian convictions, so, too, may the private in pursuance of his; and if today British Generals and other Staff Officers refuse to fight against the privileged class to which they belong so, too, must the Private Soldier be allowed to exercise his convictions against shooting down his brothers and sisters of the working-class when they are fighting for their rights...’ [13]

In fact, most of the ordinary soldiers in the British Army were apolitical. Many, like Bandsman F. C. Wynne stationed in Dublin with the 1st East Surrey Regiment, were bemused by their officers’ actions. Wynne later said: ‘The British soldier in those days was incredibly out of touch with public affairs and appallingly ignorant of political matters. No one, to my knowledge, except the officers perhaps, had any thought of looking at orders through political glasses and there was never any question of disobeying orders in the minds of the rank and file.’ [14]

A few years previously the Liberal government had used armed troops against striking workers in industrial disputes in Tonypandy, Llanelly and Liverpool. Fred Bowers, an unemployed building worker from Liverpool, wrote an appeal to soldiers:

Don’t Shoot
Men! Comrades! Brothers!
You are in the army.
So are we. You, in the great army of destruction. We, in the Industrial, or Army of Construction.

We work at mine, mill, forge, factory or dock, producing and transporting all the goods, clothing and foodstuffs etc. which make it possible for people to live.

You are Working Men’s Sons.

When we go on strike to better Our lot, which is the lot also of your Fathers and Mothers and Brothers and Sisters, You are called upon by your officers to MURDER US.

DON’T DO IT

In 1911, this statement was printed in James Connolly’s paper The Irish Worker and was subsequently repeated by trade union organiser Tom Mann in speeches. Guy Bowman reprinted it in the first issue of the Syndicalist and railway worker Fred Crowsley had it printed and distributed as a leaflet at his own expense. While the officer mutineers at the Curragh were treated like heroes in establishment circles, Mann was arrested and tried under the Incitement to Mutiny Act and sentenced to six months in Strangeways jail. Bowman and Crowsley were also arrested and jailed.

11: The Army and the Curragh Incident,
edited by Ian F. W. Beckett,
Bodley Head for the Army Records Society 1986.

12: The Cause of Ireland - From the United Irishmen to Partition,
by Liz Curtis,
Beyond the Pale Publications 1994.

13: The Orange and the Green,
by Clifford King,
Four Square 1967.

14: The Army and the Curragh Incident,
edited by Ian F. W. Beckett,
Bodley Head for the Army Records Society 1986.

 

 

Shell Shock

The Liberal Government had continued with their policy of conciliation towards Ireland and during September 1914 the Third Home Rule Bill was given royal ascent. Then the 1st World War, a conflict over trade and empire between Europe’s strongest nations, intervened - and Home Rule was put in abeyance. Across Ireland about 150,000 men enlisted in the British Army, to join the 70,000 Irish soldiers already serving - some 35,000 were destined never to return. Unionists in the north were urged to fight by Sir Edward Carson, telling them it would help stop Home Rule, and the UVF was incorporated into the British Army as the 36th Ulster Division. Elsewhere in Ireland men were persuaded to fight by the leader of the Irish Party at Westminster, John Redmond, who told them this could guarantee Home Rule. George Gilmore told how he had seen in Belfast a recruiting poster which said ‘Fight Catholic Austria’. He carefully removed it, then took it to Dublin where he pasted it up again, next to another recruitment poster which said ‘Save Catholic Belgium’.

By the end of 1915, the 10th and 16th Irish Divisions and the 36th Ulster Division had joined other British Army units in the conflict. Many were to die in the great battles, like the Somme or at Gallipoli. The High Command, however, felt that not all soldiers showed enough spirit for their sacrificial task and decided examples should be made. From 1914 to 1918, over 300 soldiers in the British Army were executed by firing squads of fellow soldiers after courts-martial - thousands of others had similar convictions for desertion and cowardice commuted to terms of imprisonment. Most of these cases resulted from what was to become known as ‘shell shock’. They represented the tip of the iceberg, as soldiers succumbed to this condition in unprecedented numbers. One commander tied shell shock cases to the barbed wire protecting the trenches, to ‘install backbone’ and act as a warning to others.

Harry MacDonald, a soldier in the West Yorkshire Regiment, was in the front line at the Somme in 1916. Earlier, he had served at Gallipoli before being sent home with frostbite. At home his pregnant wife became ill and MacDonald, now recovered, requested compassionate leave. When this was refused he went absent but was quickly caught and posted to the front in France. At the Somme, MacDonald was buried alive by earth when an enemy shell exploded near him. Suffering mental stress from his experiences and worried about his wife and unborn child he reported sick, but met with an unsympathetic attitude from the army medical staff.

Afterwards, Harry MacDonald slipped away from the front and was absent without leave for a month before being arrested by the Military Police at Boulogne. After a court-martial, he was shot by a firing squad of fellow soldiers at Louvencourt on 4th November 1916. In 1917, the Labour MP Philip Snowden raised in the House of Commons the case of MacDonald's widow, who, because of the manner of the soldier’s death, had not received any pension. Snowden’s appeal was turned down by the Government.

 

 

Shot at Dawn

When the records of MacDonald’s trial were released by the Public Records Office for public scrutiny in late 1993, a sheet of paper was found written by a senior British officer: ‘I recommend that the sentence [shot at dawn] be carried out. I don’t think that the fact that a shell burst near a man should be admitted as an excuse for desertion.’ That statement was written and signed by General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, who two years previously had been a ringleader of the Curragh Mutiny. After his promotion to General, Gough had been given command of the Fifth Army in France, where he quickly gained a reputation for arrogance and bad management. This contributed to the high casualty rate among his soldiers and Gough was finally disgraced when his depleted and demoralised troops were broken by a German offensive in early 1918.

Under the regulations of the Army Act, over 3,000 men in Britain’s armed forces were sentenced to death during the 1st World War. Many sentences were commuted to terms of imprisonment, but over 300 soldiers were ‘shot at dawn’.[15] Averaged out, they amounted to more than one execution per week for the duration of the conflict. However, many of the executions occurred before and during the large scale attacks, when men were ordered ‘over the top’ to almost certain death.

Twenty-six of those shot were from Irish regiments and others executed were recruited or conscripted from the Irish community in Britain. Patrick J. Downey from Limerick volunteered for ‘the great adventure’, joining the 10th Division, which fought at Gallipoli and suffered heavy losses while landing at Sulva Bay. Downey, a 19-year-old private in the 6th Leinster Regiment, could not adjust to life at the front and was given 84 days of Field Punishment Number 1. When Downey’s cap, which he had to wear while tied in an X formation to a gun carriage wheel, fell into the freezing mud near his tented camp, the soldier was ordered by an officer to put the sodden cap back on his head. After twice refusing, Downey was charged with ‘disobedience’ and hauled before a Field General Court Martial, which sentenced him to death. Senior officers, worried about ‘the conditions of discipline in the Battalion’, approved the death sentence and Downey was executed by a firing squad near the Greek port of Salonika in December 1915.

Four of the executed soldiers, J. McCracken, J. Templeton, J. Crozier and G. Hanna were serving with the 36th Ulster Division. Major Frank Percy Crozier, a non-related namesake, had personally recruited James Crozier, assuring his worried mother that he would look after her boy. At the front, during a harsh winter, the soldier, feeling unwell, left his post without telling anyone and walked to a field hospital. For being absent without leave the 18 year-old soldier was court-martialled and sentenced to death. The night before the execution, the young soldier was plied with drinks by his friends. At dawn the next morning, mercifully drunk, he was carried to the execution spot, tied to the post, then blindfolded and shot.

F. P. Crozier, who had by then been promoted to Colonel, recommended that the death sentence be carried out. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to get the boy’s death recorded as a battle casualty. Many years after the war, the now Brigadier-General Crozier wrote about the many unofficial killings of fellow soldiers carried out by officers and NCOs. He told how he ordered his troops to machine-gun allied Portuguese soldiers who were fleeing the Germans. Crozier also described shooting a young British officer who had broken and ran: ‘Never can I forget the agonised expression on that British youngster’s face as he ran in terror.’ In his book, candidly called The Men I Killed, Crozier tried to explain his actions : ‘ Oh, I know you will ask why I killed that British subaltern. The answer is more obvious than easy. My duty was to hold the line at all costs. To England the cost was very little. To Colonel Blimp in his club and Mrs Blimp in her boudoir the cost was nothing. To me? Even if the effort did mean murder, the line had to be held.’ [16]

15: Details in Shot at Dawn,
by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes,
Wharncliffe Publishing Ltd 1989.

16: The Men I Killed,
by F. P. Crozier,
Michael Joseph 1937.

 

 

War Propaganda

During the war an anti-German mood, fuelled by Government propaganda, swept across Britain. So strong was this feeling that the British royals were advised to change their names. In 1917, King George V issued a proclamation declaring ‘that he and all the other descendants of Queen Victoria were changing their German surnames - be they Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Battenberg, Saxony, or Hesse - to Windsor.’ [17] Anti-German feelings were also whipped up among soldiers. Crozier, in another book called A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, wrote about the training of his battalion for the 1st World War. Describing the British soldier as ‘A kindly fellow’ he then added ‘it is necessary to corrode his mentality’. Crozier continued:

I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over 1,000 men ... Blood lust is taught for the purpose of war, in bayonet fighting itself and by doping their minds with all propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women, the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell, all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’ which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the make-up of even the meek and mild ... The Christian churches are the finest ‘blood lust’ creators which we have, and of them we must make full use . [18]

From an Anglo / Irish military family, Crozier had first seen action against the Boers in South Africa and then with the West African Frontier Force in Northern Nigeria. He then left the military for a few years, but returned to Ireland in 1912 to offer his services to the Ulster Volunteer Force. He was given command of a Special Service Section (‘shock troops’) of this illegal unionist army, and was then transferred, with other UVF men, into the British Army to fight in the 1st World War.

After the war Crozier spent some time in Lithuania training their army to fight against the Bolsheviks, before returning to Ireland to command the infamous British ‘Auxiliary’ forces. British troops were also used directly in Winston Churchill’s ‘undeclared war’ against Bolshevism. In protest, the Daily Herald published a poem by Osbert Sitwell mocking Churchill:

I think, myself,
That my new war
Is one of the nicest we’ve had;
It is not a war really,
It is only training for the next one,
And saves the expense of Army Manoeuvres,
Besides, we have not declared war;
We are merely restoring order -
As the Germans did in Belgium,
And as I hope to do later
In Ireland ... [19]

17: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to British Royalty,
by Richard Buskin,
Alpha Books 1998.

18: A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land,
by F. P. Crozier,
Cape 1930.

19: Daily Herald,
22nd July 1919.

 

 

War in Ireland

In 1916, British Army firing squads had also been busy in Ireland after frustrated nationalists in Dublin had rebelled against British rule. Martial law was declared, the Easter Rising was crushed and military courts-martial sentenced 15 of the leaders, including Pearse and Connolly, to be shot. Many of the other prisoners were deported to Britain and confined in special prison camps.

In 1918, after the end of the 1st World War, there was a general election in Britain and Ireland. Sinn Féin won by a landslide in Ireland and started to set up a republican administration - which was banned by the British. Many of the new Sinn Féin MPs were arrested and jailed and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a campaign of armed resistance.

Republicans knew they could not defeat Britain’s forces in battle, but set out to make the country un-governable instead. Michael Collins, using information from a network of agents inside the colonial administration, directed a ruthless and highly efficient campaign of guerrilla warfare - that proved difficult for the British forces to defeat. As the conflict attracted international attention Britain realised that it was in danger of losing the propaganda battle, especially after the ‘Great War’ which they had claimed to fight for ‘the rights of small nations.’ So, Britain refused to recognise the conflict as a war and, in an attempt to criminalise the freedom struggle, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was increasingly used as the front-line force - with British soldiers, except in areas of high IRA activity, kept in the background.

The Irish Constabulary had been initiated by Sir Robert Peel in the early part of the 19th century and in 1867 Queen Victoria had granted that the prefix ‘Royal’ be added to the name in recognition of the part the force had played in suppressing the Fenian movement:

For the Irish Constabulary, the Fenian uprising brought them unparalleled fame ... In Adam’s Police Encyclopaedia the author had this to say: “On Friday, September 6, 1867, at the Constabulary Depot in Phoenix Park, in the presence of the Lord Lieutenant, the Marchioness (afterwards Duchess) of Abercorn attached with her own hands the medals, which were specially struck for the occasion, upon the breasts of those who had specially distinguished themselves. In addition to a medal some were given a sum of money, or a chevron”.

... Her majesty was “graciously pleased to command” that the force “be hereafter called the Royal Irish Constabulary” and “that they shall be entitled to have the harp and crown as badges of the force”.[20]

The RIC were recruited from areas outside of the populace they patrolled and they had more than double the numbers of personnel for the density of population than any police force in England. Operating from fortifications and under strict central control, the RIC were an armed coercive force furnishing the public face of colonial authority:

The RIC was from its outset to be controlled by Irish Protestants. It was responsible to the Irish authorities in Dublin who were Protestants or Anglo-Irish. Presumed to be the RIC’s chief challengers were Irish nationalists - mostly (though eventually not exclusively) Catholic - that is, not criminals but political militants. By making control of Irish nationalism a police rather than a military affair, officials in Dublin and London could relegate the nationalists to the category of mere ‘bandits’. The challenge to state security could thus be understated. The use of ‘bandits’ to describe insurgents so long as they were a matter for the police, became conventional in many British colonies which adopted the RIC model...[21]

20: The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach,
Anvil Books 1974.

21: Ethnic Soldiers,
by Cynthia H Enloe,
Penguin Books 1980.

 

 

Repression and Killings

In 1910, F. M. Bussy wrote about incidents he had witnessed: ‘In Dublin I have seen the police smash the heads of the people and kick women and girls on the side-walks of the principal street ... I saw the Royal Irish Constabulary, a body under the control of the British Cabinet, at Glenbeigh, assist at the atrocious ceremony of pouring petroleum on the thatched roofs of peasant homesteads and setting light to it ...’ Bussy continued:

I saw buckshot poured into women and striplings at Belmullet, and I inspected a triangular cut in the clothing of a young maiden who had been transfixed to the ground by a policeman’s bayonet and that entered her body through the back ... An old woman and a mere girl were done to death, and a posse of lads were peppered in the backs with lead at Belmullet, because they had gathered to jeer a demonstration by the armed forces of the British Crown to coerce people, in actual want of food, to pay ‘poor rates’...[22]

Later, David Neligan, who worked for Michael Collins inside the RIC, described the hierarchy of the force in his book The Spy in the Castle: ‘The top brass was reserved for English or Irish Protestants and Freemasons.’ He then described the RIC Manual: ‘In one of the first pages we were informed that membership of any secret society was forbidden, excepting the society of Freemasons.’

Now, with the IRA proving difficult to find, the RIC was used as an offensive force to cow the Irish population. Commanded by Major-General H. M. Tudor, the force had a hierarchy staffed by commissioned officers, many of whom, like Tudor, came directly from the army. Counter-insurgency operations were increased and on 20th March 1920, a unit of RIC men sealed off the streets surrounding the house of Cork’s Lord Mayor, Tomás MacCurtáin. After smashing down his door, some policemen held his wife at gunpoint, while others dashed upstairs and shot MacCurtáin dead. The inquest recorded the following verdict:

We find that the late Alderman Thomas MacCurtain, Lord Mayor of Cork, died from shock and haemorrhage caused by bullet wounds; that he was wilfully murdered under circumstances of the most callous brutality; that the murder was organised and carried out by the Royal Irish Constabulary, officially directed by the British Government; and we return a verdict of wilful murder against David Lloyd George, prime minister of England; Lord French, lord lieutenant of Ireland; Ian Macphearson, late chief secretary for Ireland; Acting Inspector-General Smith of the Royal Irish Constabulary; Divisional Inspector Clayton of the Royal Irish Constabulary; District Inspector Swanzy, and some unknown members of the Royal Irish Constabulary . [23]

Terence MacSwiney, who succeeded MacCurtáin as Cork’s Lord Mayor, was arrested by British soldiers and sentenced to two years for possessing documents ‘likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty.’ Transported to Britain, MacSwiney died in Brixton prison after a hunger strike lasting 74 days.

22: The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach,
Anvil Books 1974.

23: Ibid - The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach.

 

 

Ruthless Men

The Irish population became increasingly hostile to the British presence and non-cooperation, coupled with small acts of sabotage, took place on a daily basis. Ireland became an armed camp and Dublin and other cities were patrolled by troops with fixed bayonets. Many of the soldiers had fought in the ‘Great War’ and some said that service in Ireland caused greater stress than life in the trenches. But within the RIC there were signs of even greater strain, both from moral pressure and the armed IRA attacks - which had caused heavy police casualties (400 RIC men had been killed by the end of 1921, compared to 160 soldiers). So the British Government decided to augment them with units of more ruthless men.

At this time Europe was full of demobbed soldiers and many men who had served at the front were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences. In Germany, many of these disillusioned veterans were recruited into the anti-revolutionary Freikorps (Free Corps):

There was no doubt a ruthlessness, a feeling of desperation, about some of these men who were unable to formulate effective political goals and who rightly or wrongly thought themselves abandoned by the nation whose cause they championed. The suppression of revolution in Berlin or Munich was accompanied by brutal murders, and such murders continued even after the Free Corps had been disbanded, most often committed by former members of the corps. ... The 324 political assassinations committed by the political Right between 1919 and 1923 (as against twenty-two committed by the extreme Left) were, for the most part, executed by former soldiers at the command of their one-time officers…[24]

The ‘new men’ of the Free Corps saw themselves as continuing the comradeship established among the fighting men at the front. One member, Ernst von Salomon, wrote that: ‘We were cut off from the world of bourgeois norms ... the bonds were broken and we were freed ... We were a band of fighters drunk with all the passion of the world; full of lust, exultant in action.’

Veterans were recruited into the Free Corps by their former officers, and used by them to help crush the political Left. After a failed uprising in Berlin, revolutionary leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were tracked down and captured by the Free Corps. They were taken to the headquarters of the Cavalry Guards Division, then murdered by officers. Many Free Corps members later became the shock troops for the Nazi Party, which was led by an ex-corporal veteran of the 1st World War - Adolf Hitler.

24: Fallen Soldiers - Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars,
by George L Mosse,
Oxford University Press 1990.

 

 

The Black and Tans

In 1922, on the anniversary of Armistice Day in London, 25,000 unemployed 1st World War veterans marched past the Cenotaph in remembrance of the dead. To protest about their own plight, many pinned pawn tickets beside their medals. Ex-soldier George Coppard recalled: ‘Lloyd George and company had been full of big talk about making the country fit for heroes to live in, but it was just so much hot air. No practical steps were taken to rehabilitate the broad mass of de-mobbed men’.

Because the politicians’ promises to the fighting men had not materialised, the veterans were left to cope on their own. As Coppard explained: ‘I joined the queues for jobs as messengers, window cleaners and scullions ... Single men picked up twenty-nine shillings per week unemployment pay as a special concession, but there was no jobs for the “heroes” who haunted the billiard halls as I did. The government never kept their promises.’

Like the Free Corps in Germany, many British veterans were recruited by their establishment and were then sent to Ireland in an attempt to crush Irish nationalists. Ex-officers joined an elite force called the Auxiliaries, commanded by F. P. Crozier, while ex-rank and file soldiers, desperate for work and adventure, were signed-up and sent to Ireland as the Black and Tans.

In his book Out of the Lion’s Paw Constantine Fitzgibbon described this infamous unit: ‘The Black and Tans derived their nickname from the hounds of the Limerick hunt which are that colour: they were dressed in uniform, some wearing the black jackets of the RIC over the khaki trousers of the British soldier, others vice versa. This sartorial inelegance was symptomatic of the whole corps which was neither a military force - it was not subject to army discipline - nor a police force in any meaningful sense.’ Fitzgibbon continued:

All over Europe, in 1920, there were young men who had gone straight from school into the trenches and who knew no life save that of soldiers. This pathetic human débris from a most terrible war provided the men who marched on Rome with Mussolini, fought on the German frontiers with the Freikorps and later became the nucleus of the Nazi Party, served on both sides in the Russian Civil War. In Britain some of them joined the Black and Tans, created to supplement the dwindling forces of the RIC, while a number of their officers joined a somewhat more formidable force, the Auxiliaries, intended to terrorise more selectively and effectively . [25]

25: Out of the Lion’s Paw - Ireland wins her Freedom,
by Constantine Fitzgibbon,
Macdonald and Co Ltd 1969.

 

 

State Terrorism

The Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, once recruited, were shipped to Ireland and billeted in RIC barracks - to provide a cutting-edge for repressive operations. The RIC Divisional Commissioner for Munster, Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth, called his men to a meeting at the Listowel police barracks and told them that the British Government had instructed him to implement a new policy, which he enthusiastically outlined:

  • I am getting 7,000 police from England.
  • If a police barracks is burned, the best house in the locality is to be commandeered.
  • The police are to lie in ambush and to shoot suspects.
  • The more you shoot the better I will like you ... No policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man.
  • Hunger strikers will be allowed to die in jail - the more the merrier.
  • We want your assistance in carrying out this scheme and wiping out Sinn Féin.[26]

Some policemen were against the presence of the Black and Tans and this new aggressive policy. About 500 RIC men tendered their resignations and some walked out after incidents in their barracks. Daniel Francis Crowley, who served in the RIC from 1914 to 1920, explained what happened at the Listowel barracks after Commissioner Smyth had given his men their new orders:

Sergeant Sullivan spoke immediately and said that they could tell Colonel Smyth must be an Englishman by his talk, and that they would not obey such orders; and he took off his coat and cap and belt and laid them on the table. Colonel Smyth and the Inspector, O’Shea, ordered him to be arrested for causing dissatisfaction in the force, but nineteen of them stood up and said if a man touched him, the room would run red with blood. The soldiers whom Colonel Smyth had with him came in, but the constables got their loaded rifles off the racks, and Colonel Smyth and the soldiers went back to Cork. The very next day they [the RIC men] all put on civilian clothes and left the barracks . [27]

Many of those resigning were intimidated, threatened and some were even whipped by the Black and Tans. Crowley, who resigned ‘because of the misgovernment of the English in Ireland’, fled the country under Black and Tan threats after his friend Constable Fahey was shot by them.

Despite the disaffection within the RIC the ‘new policy’ was quickly put into operation and aggressive actions were launched against people, and ‘martial law’ declared in areas, thought to be sympathetic to the IRA and Sinn Féin:

Perhaps the biggest single act of vandalism committed in Ireland by British forces, including the police, took place on 11-12 December 1920, when Cork city’s centre was sacked and burned ... Cork, of course, was only one of many areas to suffer under the policies which motivated police and military excesses. Florence O’Donoghue noted that in ‘one month these “forces of law and order” had burned and partially destroyed twenty-four towns; in one week they had shot up and sacked Balbriggan, Ennistymon, Mallow, Miltown-Malbay, Lahinch and Trim...’ [28]

F. P. Crozier had attempted to exercise some control over his Auxiliaries by arresting some and suspending others for committing atrocities and looting. But he found them reinstated behind his back, after some suspended men had gone to London and threatened the politicians with revealing the truth about incidents like the burning of Cork. Crozier, feeling he could not carry on, resigned - and so disgusted was he with Westminster’s sanctioning of atrocities that he later became a pacifist and actively supported, in the 1930s, the work of the Peace Pledge Union in Britain. The ‘unofficial’ - but officially organised and blessed - State terrorism of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries did spread fear, but in the end only hardened nationalist sentiment and increased IRA support.

26: The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach,
Anvil Books 1974.

27: Ibid - The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach.

28: Ibid - The Irish Police - from earliest times to the present day,
by Séamus Breathnach.

 

 

Rebel Ex-Soldiers

During Victorian times, as more and more soldiers had been required to conquer and subdue for the ever expanding Empire, many had came from previously colonised peoples - including the Welsh, Scottish and Irish: ‘The historian Macaulay, speaking of the pay of the British soldier ... wrote that “it does not attract the English youth in sufficient numbers; and it is found necessary to supply the deficiency by enlisting largely from among the poorer population of Munster and Connaught”.’ [29] Most of the British Army’s Irish regiments were named after their unit’s catchment areas, like the Connaught Rangers, the Munster Regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers and the Leinster Regiment etc.

In 1882 James Connolly, who had been born and raised in Edinburgh by working class Irish parents, followed his brother John into the British Army. While poverty played a part in his enlistment, the Fenians had also established a tradition among those from nationalist backgrounds of joining the army to ‘learn the use of arms’:

When ... James Connolly joined the first battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment at the age of fourteen, he was committing no act of apostasy, but following the customs of his day. The regiment counted as an Irish one. The uniform was dark green and the badge an Irish harp surmounted with a crown. ... The battalion was moved to Cork in July 1882, and it was thus as a raw militiaman that Connolly first set eyes on Ireland, where he was to remain for nearly seven years.[30]

Later, as a civilian, Connolly returned to Ireland and became a workers’ leader, organising trade unions in Dublin and Belfast. Connolly became a leading radical voice and in 1914 he prophetically warned against the dangers of the proposed partition of Ireland: ‘Such a scheme would destroy the Labour movement by disrupting it. It would perpetuate in a form aggravated in evil the discords now prevalent, and help the Home Rule and Orange capitalists and clerics to keep their rallying cries before the public as the political watchwords of the day.’

Connolly also put his military knowledge to good use when forming a workers militia and, in 1916, Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, which served ‘neither King nor Kaiser’, merged with the Irish Volunteers on the streets of Dublin for the Easter Rising. Connolly was especially feared because he had inserted radical socialism firmly into Irish politics. So, after being taken prisoner and already badly wounded, he was taken from a hospital bed, tied to a chair as he could not stand, and shot by a British Army firing squad.

A year before Connolly was executed, seventeen-year-old Tom Barry joined the British Army in 1915 ‘To see what war was like, to get a gun, to see new countries and to feel a grown man.’ [31] In May 1916 he was serving with the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force:

One evening I strolled down to the orderly tent outside which war communiques were displayed. These were usually scanned in a casual manner ... But this evening there was a ‘special communique’ headed ‘REBELLION IN DUBLIN.’ It told of the shelling of the Dublin GPO and Liberty Hall, of hundreds of rebels killed, thousands arrested and leaders being executed. ... I read this notice three or four times and now thirty-two years later I can recall it almost word for word . [32]

Those events in faraway Dublin awoke in Barry a sense of Irish nationalism and forced him to question his allegiance to the British Army in which he served. But it was not till the end of the Great War, after serving in Egypt, Palestine, Italy and France that he managed to get back to his native Cork in early 1919. There he joined the IRA and became one of their most ruthless and successful commanders. In charge of the West Cork Flying Column, Tom Barry fought a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the RIC, Black and Tans, Auxiliaries and the British Army - especially Major Percival and his Essex Regiment soldiers.

29: Mutiny for the Cause,
by Sam Pollock,
Leo Cooper Ltd 1969.

30: The Life and Times of James Connolly,
by C. Desmond Greaves,
Lawrence & Wishart 1976.

31: Guerrilla Days In Ireland,
by Tom Barry,
Anvil Books 1962.

32: Ibid - Guerrilla Days In Ireland,
by Tom Barry.

 

 

Irish Soldiers’ Mutiny

In India in 1920, the 1st Battalion of the Connaught Rangers were serving at Wellington Barracks at Jullundur in the Punjab. Most men of this Irish regiment were 1st World War veterans and, like Barry four years previously, some became disturbed by accounts of the Anglo / Irish conflict back home. The activities of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries, reported by family and friends, were especially resented. These feelings came to a head when a number of the troops refused to ‘soldier on’ till the Black and Tans were removed from Ireland.

The colonel called a parade and made an emotional appeal to his soldiers, recounting the many battle honours won by the regiment, who were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’. At the end of his speech Private Joseph Hawes stepped forward from the ranks and spoke: ‘All the honours on the Colours of the Connaught Rangers are for England. There is none for Ireland, but there is going to be one today, and it will be the greatest honour of all.’

To ensure that their protest would be noticed, the men took control of their barracks. The Union Jack was lowered and an Irish tricolour, made from cloth some soldiers purchased from the local bazaar, was flown instead - the first time the flag of the Irish Republic had been raised abroad. It was just over a year since the Amritsar massacre and some of the men were sympathetic to the Indian independence movement. They felt that they were being used to do in India what other British forces were doing in Ireland.

The Connaught Rangers’ mutiny was put down when the men were surrounded by other army units, arrested and then court-martialled. During the trial Sergeant Woods from England, who had joined in with the men, was asked why events in Ireland should have affected him. Woods, who had won the DCM in France, replied, ‘These boys fought for England with me, and I was ready to fight for Ireland with them.’

On 2nd November 1920, 22 year-old Private James Daly, who had led an unsuccessful assault on the armoury at Solon in which two of his comrades had been killed, was shot by an army firing squad. Sixty other soldiers received long periods of penal servitude; some were savagely beaten by NCOs of the Military Provost Staff Corps while in military prison in India. Handcuffed and in leg-irons, they were then sent by train to the coast, to await a ship to England where they would complete their sentences. As they boarded a troopship, ‘A curious crowd of both Indians and Europeans watched their embarkation from the quay side, and to these the men of The Rangers addressed ironic shouts of “Freedom for small nations?” and “See what you get for fighting for England!”’[33]

Two years after the mutiny the Connaught Rangers and most other British Army regiments recruited from within the area of the new Irish Free State were disbanded. Joseph Hawes, who was one of those imprisoned, had witnessed the actions of the Black and Tans in Ireland. He later said: ‘When I joined the British Army in 1914, they told us we were going out to fight for the liberation of small nations. But when the war was over, and I went home to Ireland, I found that, so far as one small nation was concerned - my own - these were just words.’ [34]

33: Mutiny for the Cause,
by Sam Pollock,
Leo Cooper Ltd 1969.

34: Ibid - Mutiny for the Cause,
by Sam Pollock.

 

 

The Irish Tragedy

Before 1914, the armies of the European nations had carved out and held their separate empires, using their superior military technology against native peoples. During the ‘Great War’ of 1914 to 1918, with its mud, trenches, machine guns and artillery bombardments, they used their modern weaponry to slaughter each other. British generals showed no less relish in ordering their own men to their deaths as they had when massacring the Dervishes at the battle of Omdurman, less than two decades before. The competition between the rival empires was the main motivating factor in the rush into war. The German military had thought Britain’s armed forces must be in disarray, because of reports from German spies about the Home Rule situation and the officers’ mutiny at the Curragh.

In Scotland, the workers’ leader John MacLean had been jailed for his opposition to the ‘Great War’. In 1920, MacLean wrote and published The Irish Tragedy: Scotland’s Disgrace, a pamphlet opposed to British rule in Ireland:

Right through the [great] war the British Government justified its prosecution of the war on the grounds that it was a war of ‘democracy’ against Prussianism, and that the war would guarantee the rights of small nations if the Allies won.

... But to let Ireland have independence is a different story. Despite Ireland’s wonderful unity and solidarity on the issue of separation from Britain, the Coalition Government violently persists in keeping hold on Erin ... To any right-thinking person Britain’s retention of Ireland is the world’s most startling instance of a ‘dictatorship by terrorists’, as Britain rules Ireland against Irish wishes with policemen armed with bombs and a huge army...

Democracy in Britain means rule by a clear majority vote ... How did Ireland vote at the General Election in 1918? Sinn Feiners and Redmondites polled 1,211,516 votes or 79.3% of the total votes; the Unionists polled 271,455 or 17.8%; and the Independents and Labourists polled 45,939 or 2.9%. Obviously, the vote shows that by 4 to 1 the people in Ireland wish to look after their own affairs.

... This Irish decision was re-affirmed in January, 1920, at the Municipal Elections, when 95%of the townships outside Ulster fell into the hands of the Republicans under a system of Proportional Representation. Even Derry and Lurgan in Ulster were taken from the Unionists, and in Lisburn, Dungannon, and Cookstown the Carsonites have only a bare majority. Britain has obviously no excuse for the flooding of Ireland with troops, and it must be British Labour’s bounden duty to see that these soldiers, mainly boys of 18, be withdrawn and let the Irish settle their own affairs.

The Government defends its persistent policy of retaining Ireland by alleging that it is its sacred duty to protect the Orange Protestants, who would have a rough time of it if the Irish Catholics held full sway in an Irish Republic. This line of argument was good bluff in 1914, but cannot hold water today with clear-headed people, who are nimble-witted enough to put two and two together.

Just remember Britain’s excuse for entry into the war. Was it not to defend poor little Belgium against Germany? ... But everyone ought to know that the Belgians are Catholics and the Prussians Protestants. Does anyone really believe that Britain fought the greatest world war to protect Catholics against Protestants on the Continent, and now is preparing to turn the Emerald Isle red with Catholic blood to protect Protestants?

Sir Henry Wilson, Field Marshall, in the middle of May, 1920, blew the gaff on the Belgian bluff at the Union Jack Club when he blurted out in indiscreet military fashion that Britain entered the war to save her own skin. For saying the same, in other words of course, I was sentenced to three years and then five years penal servitude.

... Sir Henry is perfectly right in saying that Britain entered the war for selfish ends - the preservation of British capitalist predominance in the world. May not the same reason explain the stubborn insistence that Ireland shall not get independence? I think it does. Britain murdered men to steal Egypt because of the Suez Canal, and is going to keep Egypt, although no Ulster exists there...

During 1919 and the early months of 1920, 66 of the Irish MPs elected in 1918 were sent to prison after farces of a trial or without a trial at all. Only 7 escaped prison by leaving Ireland shortly after their election in 1918 ... there is no crime the Government has not incited the police and the soldiers to perpetuate in this war to the knife with Ireland. Since May, 1916, till December, 1919, the Government in Ireland has been responsible for 59 murders, 2,084 deportations, 575 armed assaults on unarmed civilians, 14,153 raids on private houses, 5,041 arrests, 2,038 sentences, 369 proclamations and suppressions, 53 suppressions of papers, 506 courts-martial ...[35]

John MacLean was jailed five times for his socialist and anti-war activities. He was appointed as Bolshevik Consul in Glasgow and had a Moscow street named after him.

35: MacLean’s pamphlet was republished in late1973
by the Troops Out Movement,
with an introduction by Harry McShane
and a postscript by Aly Renwick.

 

 

Ireland’s English Problem

During the war in Ireland, interested spectators throughout the world, including nationalists in many other parts of empire, were looking on. When it became clear that the guerrilla tactics of the IRA were proving effective, the British Government’s answer was to parley with Irish politicians, arrange a truce and seek to gain at the conference table what they had failed to win in the field:

Lloyd George’s offer was made without any conditions this time - earlier offers had demanded the surrender of arms first. He was seriously interested in making peace; he was wary of his army chiefs, who insisted they would need one hundred thousand men, at a cost of £1000 million, to achieve victory in Ireland. The vicious activities of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries were hardening attitudes among the Irish, and sickening the British public; nothing but stalemate seemed to lie ahead . [36]

The talks continued for two months, during which Lloyd George cunningly made promises that would not be kept: ‘Lloyd George had assured Craig that a Boundary Commission would leave Unionists with the lion’s share of Ulster, while giving the Irish delegation very much the opposite impression; they believed that a plebiscite would be held in the northern counties, leading to ultimate unity.’ [37] Then, under Lloyd George’s threat of ‘immediate and terrible war’, the treaty was signed by the Irish delegates.

In Ireland, a bitter civil war erupted between the now-divided nationalists. The British Government had cajoled the new Free State Government to move against the anti-treaty factions and given them support, including guns, to help them do so. Lord Birkenhead, one of the British signatories of the treaty, later commented: ‘If there are to be struggles and fisticuffs, then in the first place it ought to be Irish blood and Irish fisticuffs that are expended ... I would much rather hear Mr Michael Collins called a traitor by Mr de Valera than hear myself called a traitor by anyone else.’ [38]

While Westminster politicians congratulated themselves, the partition of Ireland was consolidated and a British-backed Northern Ireland established. During the conflict Catholic workers had been forcibly expelled from Belfast’s shipyards and now, as partition became a reality, many nationalist were burned out of their homes and thousands fled across the new border as refugees. The deceit, threats and violence that established and maintained the new 6-county statelet would leave a tragic legacy for the future - which would explode into mayhem and violence again half-a-century later.

For the British establishment, the outcome represented a good compromise between their contesting policies of indirect and direct imperialism - a neo-colonial Free State solution in the South, while in the North direct rule continued. For the Irish people, north and south, it was a disaster. The successful campaign that had forestalled home rule had led in turn to the Easter Rising, the Anglo / Irish war, the tragic Irish Civil War and now partition.

Just as today, when we see unionists trying to halt – and even reverse – the Irish Peace Process, we should remember that this form of reaction springs not only from the north of Ireland, but is also deeply embedded within sections of the British establishment. In his book, Divided Ulster, the Irish historian Liam de Paor indicated where the main opposition to any form of Irish freedom had come from during the early part of the last century:

The real energy that fired the resistance to the breaking of the union did not come from the people of Ulster. Lord Randolph Churchill was not an Ulsterman; Carson was not an Ulsterman; Lord Milner was not an Ulsterman; Lord Roberts was not an Ulsterman; General Sir George Richardson was not an Ulsterman; General Hubert Gough was not an Ulsterman. The defiance of the English parliament that defeated home rule, brought the United Kingdom to the brink of civil war and Ireland beyond the brink, and partitioned Ireland was that of the officers and gentlemen of the English ruling class.[39]

The British ruling class shot British ex-soldier James Connolly and the other captured leaders of the Easter Rising - for daring to oppose their rule in Ireland. At the same time, British soldiers at the front in France, including four men from the 36th Ulster Division, were shot for not showing sufficient appetite for the horrendous trench warfare. First World War veteran James Daly was shot in India for questioning the use of the Black and Tans in Ireland. The officer class, on the other hand, could get away with treason - most officers who mutinied at the Curragh were subsequently promoted within the army. Also, the British establishment, who recruited and organised the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries and authorised their campaign of state-terrorism in Ireland, were getting away with murder.

Britain, a relatively small country, had built and held its empire not just by superior technology and force of arms - but also by the tactics of divide and rule. This same strategy, which allowed a few to hold power over so many, was used again to ensure that British rule would continue in a part of Ireland:

The English unionists were prepared to go to considerable lengths to maintain the colonial union, but once they realised (as they did from the 1880s onwards) that the small Irish Catholic middle class, using the Catholic masses of the people, could probably force a modification of the ascendancy settlement in Ireland, they looked for a base from which to counter-attack, to that part of Ireland where colonisation had been most successful and where the greatest accumulation of wealth, through industrialisation, had occurred. They ‘played the Orange card’, and worked to widen the division in the community which resulted from different religious and cultural traditions. [40]

This helped forestall the right of the Irish people to national self-determination. Also, Home Rule for Ireland, the democratic policy of an elected British Government, was stopped by an open rebellion - fomented by the gentlemen of the establishment - backed by a mutiny of the officer class in the British Army and the threat of armed resistance from the illegal unionist army, the UVF. The result: rebellion, colonial conflict and civil war - ended in Partition, which deepened the divisions among the Irish working class - helping the ruling elites, in Britain and the two parts of Ireland, perpetuate their dominance. It also ensured that Ireland’s English problem would continue.

36: The Irish Civil War - An Illustrated History,
by Helen Litton,
Wolfhound Press 1995.

37: Ibid - The Irish Civil War - An Illustrated History,
by Helen Litton.

38: Ibid - The Irish Civil War - An Illustrated History,
by Helen Litton.

39: Divided Ulster,
by Liam de Paor,
Penguin Special 1970.

40: Ibid - Divided Ulster,
by Liam de Paor.

 

 

......................© 2004 Aly Renwick / TOM....................

 

Now read chapter five of Oliver’s Army
Striking Back – At The Empire
Britain’s Colonial Wars Since 1945