Brute force and ig­no­rance

Paul O’Brien’s mil­i­tary knowl­edge shines through in his ac­count of the RIC Aux­il­iaries, but his book still leaves too many gaps Havoc: The Aux­il­iaries in Ireland’s War of In­de­pen­dence

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Diar­maid Fer­riter

By Paul O’Brien Collins Press, ¤19.99

Sur­pris­ingly lit­tle is known about the aux­il­iary divi­sion of the Royal Ir­ish Con­stab­u­lary, which played a piv­otal role in com­bat­ing the IRA dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence. It might seem mean-spir­ited to as­sert that this re­mains the case even with this book, but we are still left in the dark about too many things re­lat­ing to the force and its op­er­a­tions – and on the fi­nal page of Havoc we are told that “lit­tle is still known of this force”.

The in­for­ma­tion and ev­i­dence to fuel the hun­gry re­searcher are seem­ingly not avail­able to the ex­tent that a com­pre­hen­sive and lay­ered ac­count of the force can be com­posed. Havoc trum­pets the claim that it draws on “archival ma­te­rial from the bloody an­nals of Bri­tish im­pe­rial pol­icy”, but a pal­try amount of archival ma­te­rial is used here. Of the al­most 300 foot­notes in the book, fewer than 20 re­late to Bri­tish archives; al­most as much re­liance is placed on a web­site, theaux­il­iaries.com, about which no in­for­ma­tion is pro­vided in re­la­tion to prove­nance, con­text or au­thor­ship; it is just re­ferred to as “re­cent re­search”.

To his credit, how­ever, Paul O’Brien, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about mil­i­tary strat­egy dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary pe­riod, makes ef­fec­tive use of Bureau of Mil­i­tary His­tory state­ments from IRA veter­ans, House of Com­mons de­bates, mil­i­tary mem­oirs, and af­ter-ac­tion re­ports by se­nior Bri­tish of­fi­cers, to pro­vide wit­ness ac­counts of the im­pact of the Aux­il­iaries.

These ac­counts are re­lied on too un­crit­i­cally, but the de­tailed re­con­struc­tions of in­di­vid­ual am­bushes and at­tacks are well done, honed by O’Brien’s ex­pe­ri­ence in mil­i­tary his­tory. He knows a lot about guns and mu­ni­tions and other mil­i­tary equip­ment, and about the de­gree to which the Aux­il­iaries used what was then con­sid­ered cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy, such as cam­era equip­ment.

At the Rath­coole am­bush in Cork in June 1921, which re­sulted in the killing of two Aux­il­iaries and the wound­ing of 14, with no repub­li­can ca­su­al­ties, the IRA’s force, led by Paddy Byrne, “con­sisted of 140 men di­vided into 10 sec­tions in which he had 61 ri­fle men, 50 armed with shot­guns, a Hotchkiss ma­chine-gun team of three and 14 armed en­gi­neers who were in charge of the seven land­mines. Four bat­tal­ion staff of­fi­cers, six sig­nallers and two medics com­pleted the strike force . . . They had en­tered the fight with 40 rounds of .303 per ri­fle and 250 rounds for the Hotchkiss ma­chine gun”.

Blood­lust

Such at­tacks are a cen­tral part of the nar­ra­tive, with all their at­ten­dant vi­cious­ness, and the re­venge and blood­lust they gave rise to. One Aux­il­iary vic­tim of the Kilmicheal am­bush in Novem­ber 1920, dur­ing which 17 Aux­il­iaries were killed, had “a large com­pound frac­ture of the skull through which the brains pro­truded, this be­ing in­flicted af­ter death by an axe or some sim­i­lar heavy weapon”.

Raised from among de­mo­bilised of­fi­cers of the Bri­tish army, the Aux­il­iaries were re­cruited from July 1920 in re­sponse to an es­ca­la­tion of con­flict in Ireland. It has been com­mon to ap­ply the la­bel Black and Tans to them, but the aux­il­iary divi­sion was a dif­fer­ent group. Although both were there to re­in­force the RIC, the divi­sion was a much smaller group, in­tended to be an elite cadre, or strike force, and was only nom­i­nally un­der RIC com­mand.

The Aux­il­iaries were not “guns for hire” and never num­bered more than 2,263, be­ing well paid at £7 a week. A re­cruit­ing ad­ver­tise­ment sought “ex-of­fi­cers with first class record . . . Courage, dis­cre­tion, tact and judge­ment re­quired”.

Cen­tral to its cre­ation was Win­ston Churchill, sec­re­tary of state for war, and it was a force, sug­gests O’Brien, that was “cre­ated and man­aged by politi­cians”. It re­ported di­rectly to Hugh Tu­dor, po­lice ad­viser to Dublin Cas­tle, who in­sisted it would “take the war” to the IRA and make Ireland “an ap­pro­pri­ate hell for those whose trade is ag­i­ta­tion”.

A mea­sure of the frus­tra­tions this book gives rise to is the as­ser­tion that “re­cent re­search re­veals that 10 per cent of the Aux­il­iaries were Ir­ish but the num­ber could be con­sid­er­ably higher”. Surely this is the kind of de­tail that re­quires much more prob­ing.

What com­pro­mised the divi­sion, aside from drunk­en­ness and in­dis­ci­pline, was the lack of co-or­di­na­tion be­tween the RIC, the Bri­tish army and the di­rec­torate of in­tel­li­gence in Lon­don. This grad­u­ally im­proved, and some of the Aux­il­iaries op­er­ated in plain­clothes, work­ing with an RIC in­tel­li­gence cell, which also saw them tar­get­ing high-value in­di­vid­u­als.

But the divi­sion was al­ways un­der­mined by the type of war­fare be­ing waged in Ireland. Aux­il­iaries were frus­trated “if they could not iden­tify a per­son as be­ing a civil­ian or com­bat­ant”, and their lust for re­venge grew, as seen in Gal­way, where Pat and Harry Lough­nane, had their hands tied and were teth­ered to the rear of a lorry, dragged for miles and then ex­e­cuted.

In re­count­ing these de­tails O’Brien, is dis­pas­sion­ate and sim­ply lays the de­tails bare: of Harry, “noth­ing re­mained of his face ex­cept his chin and lips and the skull was en­tirely blown away”. No Aux­il­iaries were ever charged.

Un­of­fi­cial vi­o­lent reprisals were fre­quently raised in the House of Com­mons – “One must do the best one can” was one re­sponse of Ha­mar Green­wood, the chief sec­re­tary for Ireland – but the at­ten­dant pub­lic­ity was dam­ag­ing. As Sir John Si­mons wrote to the Times, Bri­tish as­ser­tions of the rights of small na­tions were “nau­se­at­ing cant” given the “de­plorable ex­cesses” of the Aux­il­iaries.

That cant was surely at its ut­most when prime min­is­ter David Lloyd Ge­orge as­serted that when his­tory came to be writ­ten, “the gen­eral record of pa­tience and for­bear­ance dis­played by the sorely tried po­lice, by the Aux­il­iaries as well as the or­di­nary con­stab­u­lary, will com­mend not the con­dem­na­tion but the ad­mi­ra­tion of pos­ter­ity”.

In con­trast, CB Thomp­son, the mil­i­tary ad­viser to the Labour Com­mis­sion to Ireland in Jan­uary 1921, re­served his most damn­ing crit­i­cism for the Aux­il­iaries; the gov­ern­ment had, he con­cluded “lib­er­ated forces which it is not at present able to dom­i­nate”.

The burn­ing of Cork in De­cem­ber 1920 saw 40 busi­ness premises and 300 houses de­stroyed, but it is not made clear where the divi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­ity lay be­tween the Black and Tans and the Aux­il­iaries.

Many of those in­volved were, ac­cord­ing to one Aux­il­iary, “sod­den with drink for some time”; as Nevil Macready, gen­eral of­fi­cer com­mand­ing in Ireland, saw it, the Aux­il­iaries “treat the mar­tial law ar­eas as a spe­cial game pre­serve for their amuse­ment”. As ex-mil­i­tary, they were un­suited to po­lice du­ties, and they “fell be­tween two stools, that of the po­lice for ad­min­is­tra­tive pur­poses and the army for op­er­a­tional rea­sons”.

Although, us­ing stealth and sur­prise, they be­gan to get re­sults, they also cut many cor­ners. Tu­dor strug­gled to con­trol them, and although he dis­missed more than 50 of them “in many cases a blind eye was turned” to loot­ing and mur­der.

At the Clon­fin am­bush in Long­ford in Fe­bru­ary 1921, led by Seán Mac Eoin of the IRA, three Aux­il­iaries were killed and 10 were wounded, another re­minder that the IRA was chill­ing in its tar­get­ing and that mines were timed with pre­ci­sion.

Ur­ban bat­tles and pin­point as­sas­si­na­tions also saw high ca­su­alty rates; two Aux­il­iaries were shot from be­hind in Dublin in June 1921 while shop­ping on Grafton Street. An es­ti­mated 60 Aux­il­iaries were killed dur­ing the War of In­de­pen­dence, but there is a lam­en­ta­ble lack of de­tail about those who we are told “died of sui­cide or nat­u­ral causes”.

Dis­band­ment

The dis­band­ment of the divi­sion be­gan in Jan­uary 1922. This was not the end of the mil­i­tary road for many of them, and there is an in­ter­est­ing chap­ter on the afterlives of some, in­clud­ing Ger­ard Ty­nan O’Ma­hony, who went on to serve in the Mid­dle East and later be­came man­ager of The Ir­ish Times; Jo­ce­lyn Lee Hardy, who be­came a well-re­garded nov­el­ist; and Ed­win Bar­rows, who be­came, of all things, na­tional sec­re­tary of the New Zealand Fruit and Pro­duce As­so­ci­a­tion. Al­most 160 for­mer Aux­il­iaries served in the Pales­tine gen­darmerie.

With his fo­cus on covert ac­tions, snatch op­er­a­tions and as­sas­si­na­tions of high-value tar­gets, O’Brien makes the case for the aux­il­iary divi­sion as the “20th cen­tury’s first anti-ter­ror­ist unit”, which is a claim his­to­ri­ans of var­i­ous other, and ear­lier, con­flicts might con­test.

A cen­tral theme is that align­ing with the RIC in­stead of the mil­i­tary hin­dered its op­er­a­tional ca­pac­ity. With won­der­ful un­der­state­ment, Joe Law­less, an IRA mem­ber, char­ac­terised them as “sea­soned and tough fight­ers and the par­tic­u­lar form of or­gan­i­sa­tion was suf­fi­ciently loose in its dis­ci­plinary code to al­low full scope to in­di­vid­ual ini­tia­tive”.

Frank Crozier, who had com­manded the divi­sion un­til Fe­bru­ary 1921, strug­gled to find another of­fi­cial post; iron­i­cally, he even ap­plied to the Ir­ish Free State gov­ern­ment for a po­si­tion “in the main­te­nance of law and or­der in any ca­pac­ity”. Wisely, the gov­ern­ment did not take him up on his of­fer.

What com­pro­mised the divi­sion, aside from drunk­en­ness and in­dis­ci­pline, was the lack of co-or­di­na­tion be­tween the RIC, the Bri­tish army and the di­rec­torate of in­tel­li­gence in Lon­don

Diar­maid Fer­riter, an Ir­ish Times colum­nist, is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Ir­ish his­tory at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin and au­thor of A Na­tion and Not a Rab­ble: The Ir­ish Rev­o­lu­tion, 1913-23 ( Pro­file)

RIC Aux­il­iaries: from the “bloody an­nals of Bri­tish im­pe­rial pol­icy”

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