When the First World War – a conflict over trade, territory and empire between Europe’s strongest nations – broke out, Ireland was a united country, but ruled by Britain as a part of the United Kingdom. At this time there were some 70,000 Irish soldiers serving in the British Army. At Westminster, the Liberal Government put their Home Rule bill for Ireland in abeyance, as the establishment concentrated all their efforts on the war with Germany. Desperate to increase their armed forces with Irish recruits they sent separate promises to the two different sections of the Irish population.
Unionists in the north were urged to fight by Sir Edward Carson, telling them it would help stop Home Rule – and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) was incorporated into the British Army as the 36th Ulster Division. Elsewhere in Ireland Nationalists were persuaded to fight by the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, John Redmond, who told them this could guarantee Home Rule.
Recruitment posters in Ireland were cynically tailored for each community. George Gilmore, who was a protestant republican and socialist activist, 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.’
Across Ireland about 150,000 men enlisted in the British Army, to join the other Irish soldiers already serving – some 35,000 were destined never to return. 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.
At the end of the First World War, Europe was full of demobbed veterans who had served at the front and many of these men were left traumatised and brutalised by their experiences. In London in 1922, on the anniversary of Armistice Day, 25,000 unemployed First 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.’
In Germany, some similar 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…’
[Fallen Soldiers – Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars, by George L Mosse, Oxford University Press 1990].
These veteran ‘new men’ saw themselves as continuing the comradeship established among the fighting men at the front. It was mainly their former officers, who now used these veterans to help crush the political Left, who had recruited them into the Freikorps. 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.’
After a failed uprising in Berlin, revolutionary leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were tracked down and captured by the Freikorps. They were taken to the headquarters of the Cavalry Guards Division, and then murdered by some of the officers. Many Freikorps members later became the shock troops for the Nazi Party, which was led by an ex-corporal veteran of the First World War – Adolf Hitler.
War in Ireland
In 1916, British Army firing squads had 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.
After 1918, in India and Ireland, the mass of the population had become increasingly hostile to British rule. [For details of India see The First World War and the Amritsar Massacre at: http://veteransforpeace.org.uk/2014/amritsar-massacre/]
After the end of the First World War, there was a general election in Britain and Ireland. The Sinn Féin party won by a landslide in Ireland and started to set up a republican administration. This was banned by the British and many of the new Sinn Féin MPs were arrested and jailed.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) then began a campaign of armed resistance. Republicans, however, 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’ in 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. 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 – and they were the prototype for the militia style of police used throughout the Empire:
‘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…’
[Ethnic Soldiers, by Cynthia H Enloe, Penguin Books 1980].
In Ireland 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.
The Black and Tans
The British Government then decided to augment the RIC with units of more ruthless men. So, like with the Freikorps in Germany, many British unemployed veterans were recruited by their establishment and were then trained and sent to Ireland in an attempt to crush Irish nationalists. Ex-officers joined an elite force called the Auxiliaries, 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 debris 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.’
[Out of the Lion’s Paw – Ireland wins her Freedom, by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Macdonald and Co Ltd 1969].
The Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans, once recruited and trained, 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.
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.’
[The Irish Police by Séamus Breathnact, Anvil Books 1974].
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 the Irish 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…’
[The Irish Police by Séamus Breathnact, Anvil Books 1974].
The Connaught Rangers 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 of the British Army were First World War veterans and 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 the mutineers, 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 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.’
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. To ensure that their protest would be noticed, the men took control of their barracks. Some wore Sinn Féin rosettes on their army uniforms and the Union Jack was lowered and an Irish tricolour, made from cloth some soldiers had purchased from the local bazaar, was flown instead. The first time the flag of the Irish Republic had been raised abroad.
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.’
Sixty-one men were convicted of mutiny and fourteen were sentenced to death – only one was executed, however. 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. The sixty other soldiers received long terms of penal servitude. Some were savagely beaten by NCOs of the Military Provost Staff Corps while in military prison in India. Then, handcuffed and in leg-irons, they were sent by train to the coast, to await a ship to England where they were expected to 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”!’
[Mutiny for the Cause, by Sam Pollock, Leo Cooper Ltd 1969].
For the British authorities, the policy of using the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries was killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand it rid British society of a possible source of trouble – disaffected veterans – and on the other, pitched them into direct conflict with another more pressing problem – the rebellious Irish. Their aggressive actions in Ireland, however, had greatly increased IRA support, rather than lessoning it. In the end these units were pulled out of Ireland in ignominy as the war ended in stalemate and compromise.
Britain was forced to withdraw from most of Ireland, but held on to six of the nine counties of Ulster – by partitioning Ireland and creating Northern Ireland. In which, after 1969, several new decades of ‘The Troubles’ were to reoccur. The use of the Auxiliaries and the Black and Tans in Ireland was an early example, in the modern age, of an imperial powers using special units, outside of the usual command structure, in an attempt to intimidate a population. Foolishly, rather than learn the lesson from Ireland – that oppression often breeds resistance – this practice, of using special units to carry out state terrorism, would be used more and more in future conflicts.
In June 1922, the Connaught Rangers and three other Irish British Army regiments, recruited from areas that were now part of the new Irish Free State, were disbanded. The mutineers were released from jail a year later.
Joseph Hawes, a Connaught Rangers veteran, who was one of those imprisoned for mutiny, 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.’