From Cromwell’s time to the start of the 19th century Britain’s rulers had sent their armed forces to fight in 10 wars against European rivals. The seven-year-war of 1756-63, which ended with the Treaty of Paris, was the world’s first global conflict with battles raging across Europe and many other parts of the world. The war saw Britain established as the principal colonial power, after seizing territory in Canada, America, India, West Africa and the West Indies from the French and taking Florida, Manila, Havana and Minorca from Spain.

The quest for empire, undertaken through state power and force of arms, went on apace. During Queen Victoria’s long reign, from 1837 to 1901, the British Army carried out the following campaigns abroad:

Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837. Capture of Aden, 1838. First Afghan War, 1838-42. Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48. Opium Wars in China, 1839-42. War in the Levant, 1840. War in Afghanistan, 1842. Conquest of Sind, India, 1843. Gwalior War, India, 1843. First Sikh War, India, 1845-6. Operations in South Africa, 1846-52. North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54. Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9. Second Burmese War, 1852. Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854. War with Persia, 1856-7. North-West Frontier of India, 1858-67. Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60. Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4. Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861. Ambela Expedition, 1863. Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5. Bhutan Expedition, 1865. Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868. Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870. Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874. Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6. Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877. North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9. Second Afghan War, 1878. Third Afghan War, 1879. Zulu War, 1879. North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4. Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1. Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882. Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5. Third Burmese War, 1885. Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885. End of the Nile Campaign, 1885. North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92. Operations in India, 1888-94. Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895. Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896. Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8. Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8. North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8. Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1.

Besides these conflicts, the Crimean War, 1853-6; the Indian Mutiny, 1857-8; and the Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the British Army in major warfare during this period. Troops also continued to be active in Ireland, especially during the Famine, the Young Ireland revolt of 1848 and the Fenian Rising of 1867.

Besides Britain, other western countries had also carved out colonial empires, but in the rest of (landlocked) Europe the primary role for most national armies was to provide a defence from any external threat. Conventional warfare was therefore the normal function, with colonial duty, entailing more irregular forms of warfare, tagged on. In island Britain, however, the main defensive role fell to the navy, leaving the army relatively free to concentrate on the task of conquest and subjugation overseas.

While the foot soldiers in the armed forces came from the poor and colonised, the officer corps, produced by the public school system, ensured the perpetuation of the status quo. In the 1870s the British Army’s primary role as a colonial force was affirmed in the Cardwell reforms, which strengthened the links between the officer corps and the government. It also brought new procedures, which improved logistics and helped to ensure the attainment of modern arms and equipment.

The linked-battalion system would see one of a regiment’s battalions away on Imperial duty while the second unit remained in Britain. This allowed flexibility for individual corps to develop their own techniques and procedures for waging colonial warfare. It also ensured there was, throughout the army, a shared experience of such methods. The second battalion, stationed in the UK, was handily available to use a refined version of this type of warfare against any protests, or actions, by the deprived back home.

The army’s history as a paid regular force can be traced back to Cromwell’s time, but its enduring character was forged, and its hierarchy strengthened, during the Victorian colonial wars. It was then that the British Army acquired its contemporary reputation among the armies of the major powers of the world as a ‘counter-insurgency’ force.

Little Englanders

Frank Percy Crozier CB, CMG, DSO, who was born in 1879, was, on both sides of his family, descended from officer-class soldiers who had a long record of service in Britain’s imperial forces. After schooling at Wellington College Crozier tried to follow this tradition, but his attempts to obtain a regular commission failed on medical grounds. So instead, he tried his luck abroad in the British Empire as a colonial adventurer and mercenary.

As a little boy it is possible that Crozier would have read ‘Pictures for Little Englanders,’ which was a Victorian book for young children. Under a sketch of Kitchener the soldier and Kipling the writer, the following lines were written:

Men of different trades and sizes
Here you see before your eyses;
Lanky sword and stumpy pen,
Doing useful things for men;
When the Empire wants a stitch-in-her
Send for Kipling and for Kitchener.

In the last years of Victoria’s reign England did send for Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the ‘great warrior hero’ of Khartoum and the battle of Omdurman, who was then dispatched to South Africa. This time to deal with the Boers, who were mainly farmers with a active knowledge of the land, which they were utilising to wage a successful campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British. To break this enemy and stop supplies reaching them, Kitchener ordered the Boer homesteads to be burnt and the women and children, with some old men, were then herded into guarded camps to ‘concentrate and control’ them.

Like the concentration camps that were to appear later in various parts of the world, over 60,000 non-combatant Boers ended up in conditions that an Australian reporter called: ‘the criminal neglect of the simple laws of sanitation’. By the end of the war 27,927 Boer detainees had died – 4,177 were women and 22,074 were children, under sixteen.

In 1898 Frank Crozier had gone to Ceylon to become a tea planter, but he hurried to South Africa on the outbreak of the war there. He enlisted as an NCO in Thornycroft’s Mounted Infantry in Natal, but shortly afterwards obtained a commission in the Manchester Regiment and fought against the Boers in battles like Spion Kop and the relief of Ladysmith. From 1902 to 1905 Crozier served with the West African Frontier Force in northern Nigeria, and then in 1905-6 he was in Zululand. Six years later he came back to the UK in response to an appeal by some right-wing elements in the British establishment to ‘help Ulster’.

In 1912, the Liberal Government at Westminster had put forward a third Home Rule for Ireland Bill. At that time Ireland was not divided and the country as a whole was part of the United Kingdom. The Liberals had introduced two other Irish Home Rule bills in the past, which were both defeated – but this one was thought to have a better chance.

The Tories, however, viciously attacked it, because they thought it would weaken the Empire – and they also saw it as an opportunity to defeat the Liberals and evict them from office. The Tories then formed an anti-Home Rule alliance with right-wing elements in the British establishment, who were prepared to instigate and use violence to get their way. A prominent member was 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’. [Divided Ulster, by Liam de Paor, Penguin Special 1970].

Like Kitchener, Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson KCB was another ‘great warrior hero’, who on 14th August 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, had led his Indian troops to the storming and looting of Peking. A veteran of the Afghan, Waziri, Tirah, Zhob and Kunnan campaigns, Richardson was now appointed commander of the UVF, which was threatening ‘armed resistance’ to stop Home Rule.

From Belfast to the Somme

The Liberal Government then ordered British Army units, stationed at the Curragh Camp in the south of Ireland, to move north and face down the UVF threat. However, in what became known as the ‘Curragh Mutiny’, some senior British Army officers held a secret meeting in Dublin and refused to obey. General Sir Arthur Paget, the British Commander-in-Chief for Ireland, sent a telegram to the War Office in London:

‘… 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’.

The Liberals were so shaken by the scope and force of this officer-class revolt that they eventually backed down. Shorty afterwards Richardson, and other UVF commanders, oversaw an illicit consignment of 35,000 rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition, which were openly landed on the Ulster coast. These arms were shipped across from Germany, where observers thought that the UK was about to tear itself apart – and that this might therefore be an opportune time to engage in a European inter-imperialist war.

The Home Rule bill was then put in abeyance as Europe entered into the conflagration that would become known as the ‘Great War’. Earlier, during the Home Rule crisis, Lord Milner and his friends had also issued an appeal to serving army officers that they should resign their commissions in the British Army and go to Ulster to organize and command the UVF. When he heard the call, Crozier moved to Belfast and offered his services to the UVF. He was then given command of a Special Service Section – the ‘shock troops’ of this illegal Unionist army.

Crozier remembered: ‘sleeping with a pistol under my pillow guarding contraband mines, weapons and ammunition’. His mind, however, had doubts, as he later recollected:

‘We of Carson’s army have been the victims of an ill-defined objective. Was it to be Dublin Castle, a battle against British soldiers, or nationalist Irishmen, or a bit of both? Who could tell? Who could guess? We were merely hired mercenaries, paid to do as we were bid.’ [A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, by Frank P. Crozier, Cape 1930].

When he was transferred, along with the other UVF men, into the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army to fight in WW1, Crozier’s dilemma was lifted:

‘It is August (1914). The sky is clear, with not a cloud to be seen. The world war is on us, mobilisation has begun. The Atlantic rolls on to the rugged rocks of Antrim as it has always done, despite the pending upheaval and the worried thoughts in the minds of men and women. I find … that the Belfast brigade of the Ulster Division is complete. My West Belfast irregulars have become the 9th battalion Royal Irish Rifles … Now all is changed within a flash. Ireland is united against a common foe. Our task is manifest, our duty clear. “Allons,” is our cry’.

Unionists in the north were urged to fight by Sir Edward Carson, telling them it would help stop Home Rule and, 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 that said ‘Fight Catholic Austria’. He carefully removed it and then took it to Dublin where he pasted it up again, next to another recruitment poster, which said ‘Save Catholic Belgium’.

In recruitment drives for ‘the great adventure’ much was made of ‘the rights of small nations,’ which required ‘saving from the Hun’. Across Ireland, about 150,000 men enlisted in the British Army – to join the 70,000 Irish soldiers already serving. 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.

India, which was then ruled by Britain, also provided great support for the UK during WW1. The then undivided country contributed 1,105,000 personnel to serve under the British flag. Indian soldiers fought in France, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Aden, East Africa, Gallipoli and Salonika. They were awarded 9,200 decorations, including 11 VCs, and over 60,000 of them died in the fighting. Indians at home bought War Bonds and sent 170,000 animals and 3,700,000 tons of stores and supplies for the war effort.

Propaganda & War

In Britain there had always been a fair amount of admiration for the German people and their culture and literature. That began to change in the late Victorian period, especially after the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–71. Seeing Germany as an increasingly powerful imperial rival, negative comments about the country now began to appear in Britain. By the early 20th century anti-German feeling was being stirred-up in papers like the ‘Daily Mail’, who in one story bid their readers to refuse service from Austrian or German waiters at restaurants – because they might be spies.

After WW1 started the Allied Powers quickly produced propaganda depicting the Germans as ‘Huns’ – capable of infinite cruelty and violence – and an anti-German mood, fuelled by Government propaganda, swept across Britain. This led to some riots, with assaults on suspected Germans and the looting of shops and stores owned by people with German-sounding names. Even pets were not exempt, with the English Kennel Club renaming the German Shepherd breed of dog, the ‘Alsatian’.

Rudyard Kipling, the great raconteur and supporter of empire, helped this anti-German feeling. In the first year of the war his poem ‘All That We Have And Are’ was published in The Times:

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!

Kipling’s son John had poor eyesight and his father pulled a few strings to get him a commission in the Irish Guards. In 1915, Second-Lieutenant John Kipling was killed during an assault on the German front line at Chalk-Pit Wood. Later, Kipling wrote these bleak lines on behalf of his son:

If any question why we died,
tell them, because our fathers lied.

But this, due to personal sorrow, was the only lapse in Kipling’s support for the war. Kipling later wrote: ‘There are only two divisions in the world, human beings and Germans’.

As the war progressed this anti-German mood became so strong that, ironically, the British royal family were affected – and advisors strongly counselled them to change their surnames. Consequently, in 1917, King George V issued a proclamation declaring that he and all the other descendants of Queen Victoria were changing their [German] names – be they Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Battenberg, Saxony, or Hesse – to Windsor.

A more intensive anti-German mood was whipped up among the soldiers going to fight ‘the Hun’. Crozier, in his book called ‘A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land’, wrote about the training of his battalion for the WW1. 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’.

No doubt with God on their side, it was then transit to France and the War. Crozier described the first casualty his unit experienced: ‘I see our first man hit. He is a boy of nineteen years of age. A bit of stray high-explosive shell gets him in the leg. It was almost an accident, for had he left me five seconds earlier he would have missed it. White, calm, uncomplaining, he calls for a cigarette and is carried off on a stretcher by four stalwart veterans of the Rifle Brigade. He is never to return, for amputation follows. Such is war. Constant training for a whole year and then just one day in the line! This is attrition!’

Crozier then told of the experience of him and his ‘West Belfast irregulars’ manning the front-line trenches: ‘We go in to the trenches for four days, while the weather becomes atrocious. It is notorious that French trenches are seldom good and these are no exceptions. Because there is no revetting, walls of fire and communication trenches fall in, so-called dugouts collapse, and telephone wires connecting companies and brigade become non-effective, consequent on the landslide. The men are up to their waists in mud and water. Rats drown and rations cannot be got up’.

As time went on and he rapidly moved on up the command structure, Crozier also described his experience of an attempted advance, or ‘big push,’ on the Somme:

‘Suddenly the air is rent with deafening thunder; never has such man-made noise been heard before! The hour has struck! 7.30 a.m. has arrived. The first wave goes over, “carrying the creeping barrage on its back” … At last our minute, our own minute arrives. I get up from the ground and whistle. The others rise. We move off, with steady pace … I glance to the right through a gap in the trees. I see the 10th Rifles plodding on and then my eyes are riveted on a sight I shall never see again. It is the 32nd division at its best. I see rows upon rows of British soldiers lying dead, dying or wounded, in no man’s land. Here and there I see an officer urging on his followers. Occasionally I can see the hands thrown up and then a body flops to the ground. The bursting shells and smoke make visibility poor, but I see enough to convince me Thiepval village is still held, for it is now 8 a.m. and by 7.45 a.m. it should have fallen to allow of our passage forward on its flank …

My upper lip is stiff, my jaws are set. We proceed. Again I look southward from a different angle and perceive heaped up masses of British corpses suspended on the German wire in front of the Thiepval stronghold, while live men rush forward in orderly procession to swell the weight of numbers in the spider’s web. Will the last available and previously detailed man soon appear to do his futile duty unto death on the altar of sacrifice?

We march on – I lose sight of the 10th Rifles and the human corn-stalks, falling before the Reaper. My pace unconsciously quickens, for I am less heavily burdened than the men behind me, and at last I see the light of day through the telescopic-like avenue which has been cut for our approach. We are nearing the fringe of the wood and the old fire trench. Shells burst at the rate of six a minute on this trench junction, for we have been marching above Elgin Avenue and alongside it.

My adjutant, close behind me, tells me I am fifty yards in front of the head of the column. I slacken my pace and they close up to me. “Now for it,” I say …, “it’s like sitting back for an enormous fence.” My blood is up and I am literally seeing red. Still the shells burst at the head of Elgin, plomp, plomp – it is “good-bye,” I think, as there is no way round. “This way to eternity,” shouts a wag behind. Thirty yards ahead now, still a shell – plomp – a splinter flies past my shoulder, and embeds itself in the leg of a leading man behind. He falls and crawls out of the way, nothing must stop the forward march of the column. “Lucky bastard,” says one of his pals, “you’re well out of it, Jimmy, good luck to you, give them our love, see you later”, and so the banter continues. It’s the only way. The blood swells in my veins. God is merciful, and it almost seems as though he chloroforms us on these occasions.’ [A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, by F. P. Crozier, Cape 1930].

The ordinary soldiers often called any front-line commanders, who aggressively pursued the war, ‘thrusters’ or ‘war-dogs’. Crozier quickly gained this reputation, for ordering actions like raids on the German trenches:

‘All raids are very much alike. Each man knows his part. As we only require one prisoner on each occasion, and as more are a nuisance, all other enemy soldiers encountered must be put to death. What are our weapons? The pistol, the rifle, the bullet, the bayonet, knuckle-dusters, hook knives with which to rip up, daggers for the heart, butchers’ knives for the throat, the bomb for random work, once the prisoner has been extracted and bags of ammonal thrown into the dugouts, served up with time fuses, to blow whole companies to smithereens. Tear gas bombs to cause temporary blindness, egg bombs charged with deadly poison to pulverise the lungs and stop the breathing complete the outfit. We moderns are extraordinarily unkind to each other in war – and in peace!

On each raid one prisoner is brought back, while many Germans die, our losses being nil. These three successful raids, on the top of the Thiepval epic, stimulate the battalion to such an extent as to place it on the very topmost rung of the war-ladder. Prisoners, trophies and blood are the only true producers of that strange wild mentality which is necessary for war’.

At least Crozier was honest about events and did not try to conceal what was happening. He was also ready to depict those occasions, often during a big push, when desperate situations, like those on the Somme, threatened to escalate into mutiny:

‘… A strong rabble of tired, hungry, and thirsty stragglers approach me from the east. I go out to meet them. “Where are you going?” I ask.

One says one thing, one another. They are force marched to the water reserve, given a drink and hunted back to fight. Another more formidable party cuts across to the south. They mean business. They are damned if they are going to stay, it’s all up. A young sprinting subaltern heads them off. They push by him. He draws his revolver and threatens them. They take no notice. He fires. Down drops a British soldier at his feet. The effect is instantaneous. They turn back to the assistance of their comrades in distress.

It is now late afternoon. Most of my officers are dead and wounded. I send for twelve more who have been held in reserve, to swell the corpse roll. Other reinforcements arrive only to be thrown into the melting pot for a similar result. The Germans launch an overwhelming counter-attack which proves successful. They win-to suffer later. At 10 p.m. the curtain rings down on hell. The cost? Enormous. I have seventy men left, all told, out of seven hundred’. [A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, by F. P. Crozier, Cape 1930].

Keeping Men Fighting – by Punishments & Executions

To secure instant obedience for an order like going over the top – even when that meant an immediate wound or death – the Top Brass insured that the training and indoctrinations of the soldiers was hard and extensive. During the war, however, the High Command frequently felt that not all soldiers were showing enough spirit for their sacrificial task and decided further punishments 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. [Further details in: Shot at Dawn, by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes, Wharncliffe Publishing Ltd 1989].

Most of these cases resulted from what was to become known as ‘shell shock’ and one commander tied men suffering from this condition 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, serving in the front line at the Somme in 1916 was a typical example.

Earlier, MacDonald had served at Gallipoli before being sent home with frostbite. At home, now recovered, his pregnant wife became ill and he 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, but 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 the now General Sir Hubert de la Poer Gough, who two years previously had been the ringleader of the Curragh Mutiny in Ireland. 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.

Twenty-six of the soldiers shot at dawn 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, during which he was tied in an X formation to a gun carriage wheel.

When Downey’s cap 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. Frank Percy Crozier, a non-related namesake, had personally recruited James Crozier in Belfast, 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, his friends plied the young soldier with drinks:

‘James Crozier’s guards wanted him to walk the short distance to a small garden where the firing party was waiting. The young rifleman was too drunk to move, and he had to be carried out into the open space. By now he was practically unconscious. Bound with ropes, he was attached to the execution post. His battalion formed up on the open road close to the garden. Screened by a wall, they wouldn’t see the execution but would hear the shots. Crozier’s namesake Frank Percy Crozier, the man who recruited him and promised his mother he’d watch out for her son, was now preparing to watch him die. Frank Crozier later recalled how the prisoner was secured to a stake 10 yards from the firing squad. “There are hooks on the post; we always do things thoroughly in the Rifles. He is hooked on like dead meat in a butcher’s shop. His eyes are bandaged – not that it really matters, for he is already blind.” Then James Crozier was shot. “A volley rings out – a nervous volley it is true, yet a volley. Before the fatal shots are fired I had called the battalion to attention. There is a pause, I wait. I see the medical officer examining the victim. He makes a sign, the subaltern strides forward, a single shot rings out. Life is now extinct.” The firing squad, made up of men from his own regiment, shot wide, so James Crozier was killed by a bullet fired by a junior officer. After the shooting, as Frank Crozier recalled, life resumed as normal. “We march back to breakfast while the men of a certain company pay the last tribute at the graveside of an unfortunate comrade. This is war”.’ [Stephen Walker, Belfast Telegraph, 25th October, 2007].

Frank Crozier, who had by then been promoted to Colonel, recommended that the death sentence be carried out. But afterwards, he then tried, unsuccessfully, to get James Crozier’s death recorded as a battle casualty.

Frank Crozier also told about a time when, on separate occasions, an officer and a rank-and-file soldier had both gone AWOL from the front. When found and detained, the officer was pardoned and sent back to his unit to serve on, while the ordinary soldier was tried, sentenced and shot at dawn. Crozier clearly felt that both should have been dwelt with in the same way.

Both volunteer and conscript soldiers found themselves in the front line. For rank-and-file squaddies on low pay, conditions were unsanitary, the food paltry and they were kept in line by harsh punishments – and the threat of something worse if they dared to protest. This abuse, combined with the brutal fighting, provoked numerous uprisings by fed-up foot soldiers and Crozier commented on the soldiers who injured themselves to get away from the fighting:

‘Evidently men in other places have taken to blowing off their fingers to escape service in the line, as all self-inflicted “accidental” wounds of any sort are to be made the subject of legal proceedings against the wounded. Our sergeant-major, an excellent soldier, throws a bit of brass into a brazier. It is a detonator! It explodes and inflicts damage on his hand! He goes to hospital, is tried by court martial and reduced to the rank of sergeant. Returning at once, I make him acting sergeant-major, which is not the same, though the best I can do, as, although he receives the pay of a sergeant-major, he will lose his rank and pay if wounded. His family will suffer. War is stern. The innocent as well as the guilty must suffer’. [A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, by F. P. Crozier, Cape 1930].

Many of the shot at dawn executions occurred just before a ‘big push’, to help ensure the remaining soldiers would obey the order to ‘go over the top’. After the war, Crozier tried to explain his attitude about the WW1 executions:

‘I should be very sorry to command the finest army in the world on active service without the power behind me which the fear of execution brings … Those who wish to abolish the death sentence for cowardice and desertion in war should aim at a higher mark and strive to abolish war itself. The one is the product of the other.’ [A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land, by F. P. Crozier, Cape 1930].

The Wars – after the War to End all Wars

After the end of WW1 many European countries were left ruined and in turmoil, with armed clashes breaking out between right and left political factions. In Britain, army units were rushed to Liverpool and Glasgow in 1919 to curb industrial protests and tanks and troops were deployed at key points across both cities. British soldiers were also used in Winston Churchill’s ‘undeclared war’ against the Russian Bolsheviks.

Frank Crozier spent some time in Lithuania training their army to fight against the communists. Osbert Sitwell, who had also served in the trenches in France, had a poem published in ‘The Daily Herald’ mocking Churchill by suggesting he had these imagined thoughts:

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…
[Daily Herald, 22nd July 1919].

In Ireland and India the mass of the populations were becoming increasingly hostile to British rule. Many Indians had expected positive moves towards ‘self-governing institutions’ as a reward for the men and money they had supplied for Britain’s war effort. Instead, new repressive measures were introduced and in 1919, five months after the end of the ‘Great War’, outraged people across India joined mass protests against the coercive Rowlatt Act, which brought in internment without trial and introduced no-jury courts for political trials.

In the city of Amritsar British troops entered the Jallianwala Bagh, a garden enclosed by high walls, and started firing into the mass of Indian people who were taking part in a peaceful protest meeting. The order to fire was given by WW1 veteran, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, and his men continued shooting for over ten minutes, firing 1,650 rounds directly into the crowd. Many of the heavy bullets passed through the bodies of their first victims to claim others beyond. When the firing had ceased thousands of men, women and children lay dead or wounded. Brigadier-General Dyer later said that: ‘For me the battlefield of France or Amritsar is the same’.

After the end of WW1 there were general elections in Britain and Ireland. The Sinn Féin party won by a landslide in Ireland and started to set up a republican administration, but 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. So, they 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 started to attract 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 British Government then decided to augment the RIC with units of more ruthless men, Subsequently, many unemployed WW1 veterans in Britain were recruited by their establishment, re-trained, and then 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 – where they became known as the infamous ‘Black and Tans’.

These units were billeted in RIC barracks and were expected to provide a cutting-edge for forthcoming 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’.

WW1 war-dog Frank Crozier was now back in Ireland and in July 1920 he was made the commander of the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Crozier and his men guarded Kevin Barry before his execution, but, as the RIC ‘new policy’ was quickly put into operation, Crozier stared to become disillusioned. Especially after Martial law was declared in areas thought to be sympathetic to the IRA and Sinn Féin.

Because then, with the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in the lead, the armed forces again took up a counter-insurgency role and launched a campaign of aggressive actions against the Irish people in those areas:

‘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 ‘unofficial’ – but officially organised and directed – state terrorism of the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries did spread fear, but in the end only hardened Irish nationalist sentiment and increased IRA support.

Another unintended consequence happened in 1920, when soldiers in the Connaught Rangers mutinied while serving in India. Most men of this Irish regiment of the British Army were WW1 veterans and some became disturbed by accounts of the Anglo / Irish conflict back home – especially about the activities of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. Some soldiers said they did not want to do in India what ‘the Tans’ were doing in Ireland and 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.

Frank Crozier also became increasingly opposed to what he regarded as unlawful activities by some of his men and he attempted to exercise some control over his Auxiliaries – by arresting some and suspending others for committing atrocities and looting. In February 1921 he dismissed 21 of his Auxiliaries after they had taken part in the raids on Trim and Drumcondra. His superior, Henry Hugh Tudor, the head of the RIC, then ordered the 21 Auxiliaries to be reinstated and Crozier resigned in protest.

Crozier, now in civvy street, found it difficult to find employment in his line of work and he turned to politics, running as the Labour Party candidate for Portsmouth Central in the 1923 general election. When he lost Crozier then tried writing and lecturing to earn a living. Crozier told how, in WW1, he’d ordered his troops to machine-gun allied Portuguese soldiers who were fleeing the Germans. He also wrote about the many other unofficial killings carried out by him, or other officers and NCOs.

Crozier said that the rank-and-file soldier: ‘seldom oversteps the mark of barbaric propriety in France, save occasionally to kill prisoners he cannot be bothered to escort back to his lines’. He then described how he himself had shot 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 a book, candidly called ‘The Men I Killed’, Crozier tried to explain that action:

‘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’. [The Men I Killed, by F. P. Crozier, Michael Joseph 1937].

The establishment did not like crozier’s descriptions of the ‘Great War’, mainly because he did not obscure the reality of the conflict, or throw a cloak of honour and glory over it. So attempts were made to discredit him and these increased in the 1930s after Crozier, like Siegfried Sassoon, had joined the Peace Pledge Union.

Frank Crozier went on to become an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and supported the League of Nations Union, which wanted a permanent peace agreement among countries based on the provision of a means to settle disputes, ensure mutual/collective defence and the observance of international treaties.

In August 1937 Crozier died suddenly and ‘The Times’ rejected two brief tributes sent to them from the Peace Pledge Union. Instead they printed an obituary described as ‘ungenerous’ by his widow, which stated: ‘General Crozier, making no allowances for “political expediency”, proved difficult in a series of trying situations and resigned over a question of discipline’.

What ‘The Times’ could not stomach was that one of their war-dog heroes not only wanted to tell the truth, but also now, had turned to peace. After all, from an establishment point of view, Frank Percy Crozier had an unblemished war record – as the ‘Time Magazine’ pointed out:

‘In 1914 he joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers with the rank of Captain. During the next five years he won the D.S.O., C.M.G., C.B., Croix de Guerre with palm, was mentioned seven times in despatches, left the War a Brigadier’.

Crozier’s journey from war-dog to peacenik had been long and torturous. He had believed in war, but turned against it when he saw others use it for gain, or power. And, based on what he had seen and done in war, it was a measured belief in peace he ended up with. It is a journey many others who have served have taken since, including members of Veterans For Peace today.

Frank Percy Crozier had served most of his life as a mercenary and regular soldier in the service of his country. Before his death he explained what his life as a warrior for Britain and the Empire had taught him:

‘It is perfectly clear to me, that in the future, if a rumour of war is ever hushed or noised around, the peoples of the world must all rise up and say “No,” with no uncertain voice …

My own experience of war, which is a prolonged one, is that anything may happen in it, from the very highest kinds of chivalry and sacrifice to the very lowest form of barbaric debasement …
Many people were happy in the outbreak of 1914 – I was one of them. I am now chastened, as I have seen the suffering.

I shall, of course, fight again if I have to, in defence of my country; but I advise other and wiser methods than war for the settling of disputes.

I knew, in 1914, that I must either get on or get under. Dug-out officers, more particularly senior ones, welcomed war. To them came power and pay without any danger … Munition makers and caterers, clothiers and countless other people welcomed war. There will always be some who put profit before patriotism.
Youth sprang to the call but, thank God, British youth always will, if guided. Let us guide our youth to the hard battle of peace’.

Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.

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  1. David Marchesi says:

    a very fine article, and I look forward to reading Aly Renwick’s “Gangrene”. The Great War was the “greatest moral bankruptcy in history”, as a veteran described it, and the role of the Establishment in “sleepwalking” into it and, perhaps even more, in prolonging it must never be forgotten. We are faced today by a sophisticated, ruthless and quite shameful campaign by the same Establishment (essentially) in favour of militarism and the UK’s God-given right to invade overseas coiuntries.
    This variety of brainwashing is all the more pernicious as “virtual reality” seems to challenge the imagination of the young ,whilst the pedlars of “toxic masculinity” try to ensure that the very simple question of killing strangers is overlooked.
    Mr Renwick shows with brilliance how the Empire undermined morality (“Thou shalt not kill”) and how low individuals could be made to stoop.
    Recommend for a follow-up to this article.Essential to understand the class nature of the question of war and peace. (see “The Internationale”)

  2. Norman Scarth says:

    I am a veteran of the Arctic Convoys of WW2, & the sinking of the Scharnhorst. My service did not save me from many years of persecution as a result of my exposure of the corruption which (as I discovered late in life) is rampant in the British courts. They are run by Quislings – AS IS THE NATION! As is the British Legion!
    Which is why I am disturbed that the VfP wreath which is to be laid has red poppies included with the white ones. It is pandering to the RBL & their glorification of the ‘Heroism’ of war.
    And to the millions who have been brainwashed into thinking they MUST wear a red poppy. VfP should be pushing them to wear white ones!
    As some of you will know, at the age of 86 I belatedly accepted that Britain is not a safe place for anyone who tells the truth, &, to escape more persecution, fled the land of my birth for safety in Ireland.
    The RBL CLAIMS to support ALL ex-servicemen. Over the years, I have sought help from them. They have spat in my face! ‘Help for Heroes’? There has been none for me!
    As your piece makes all too clear, there is savagery & butchery in war, but very little ‘Heroism’! That accolade should be reserved for life-boat crews, firefighters & the like.

    1. Ben Griffin says:

      HI Norman

      Good to hear from you.

      We have laid a wreath of all white in the past.

      Members felt that they were not against the original purpose of the red poppy or others wearing it.

      The issue is with the RBL rather than the flower.

      We also think that having a few red poppies on our wreath makes it harder for people to complain about the white ones or remove our wreath from the Cenotaph.

      All the best


  3. Former Sapper Smiffy says:

    Never again. The only creatures that win a war are the banks and other profiteers.

  4. Chris Blevins says:

    Excellent read..Thanks very much…I learned quite a bit that I didn`t know.

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