The Curragh Crisis, March 1914
Dr Conor Mulvagh reflects on 'the gravest breakdown of governmental control over the British armed forces in the twentieth century'
This article was originally published on the RTÉ website of Radio 1's 'The History Show' (http://www.rte.ie/radio1/the-history-show/)
War in Europe and rebellion in Ireland have eclipsed and distorted the importance of many events during the Home Rule and Ulster crises of 1912-14. It is in the interests of very few to remember the events that occurred between Dublin, London, and the Curragh Camp in the second half of March 1914. It was an embarrassment to the Liberal government, a narrowly avoided disaster for the British Army, a threat to the goals of Irish nationalists and, despite their role in exacerbating it, something not to be remembered by Ulster unionists and their allies in Britain.
To summarise the events, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Ireland, Sir Arthur Paget returned from briefings on the military reinforcement of Ulster which had been held in London on the week ending 20 March 1914. He summoned seven senior officers to his office at Parkgate Street in Dublin that Friday and briefed them on the negotiations which he had attended in London. Fearing the seizure of arms from military bases in Ulster, the government had resolved to increase the military presence in the province by sending reinforcements north. In a radical departure from normal military procedure, officers domiciled or born in the province of Ulster were to be allowed to ‘disappear’ for the duration of any operations. Meanwhile, other officers who did not wish to participate for conscientious reasons would be dismissed from the army.
Although the action proposed was merely a troop movement, there was a substantive fear among officers that they would be called upon to suppress or even engage in armed combat with the Ulster Volunteer Force when they moved into Ulster. The idea of initiating a civil war with loyal subjects of the King was a moral impossibility for some soldiers. Of the seven officers who met with Paget that Friday, Brigadier General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, had the most extreme reaction to the situation put before him. Upon consulting with his own officers, Gough reported to Paget that the vast majority of his officers would opt to resign rather than carry out operations in Ulster. In total, sixty of the seventy officers in Gough’s brigade sided with him and were prepared to resign their commissions rather than engage in military operations in Ulster.
What happened next transformed the Curragh crisis into a much more serious affair. Gough and other officers were summoned to the War Office in London and, instead of receiving a reprimand for their actions, Gough and his party managed to secure written assurances signed by the Secretary of State for War (J.E.B. Seely) and initialled by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (Lord John French) and the Adjutant-General and Aide-de-Camp to the King (Sir John Spencer Ewart) that the officers would not be sent on military operations into Ulster. The document, which Gough took away with him from the meeting, was later repudiated by the Prime Minister.
In the debacle that ensured, Seely, French, and Ewart all resigned from their respective posts. Five months out from the First World War, Britain was without a secretary of state for war and Asquith himself took over the portfolio, an action which required him to stand for re-election. This was a formality given that he was unopposed in East Fife but it was nonetheless a serious matter for a Prime Minster at the middle of a crisis of this scale. Although both civil war in Ulster and mutiny at the Curragh were averted, the whole affair exacerbated an already grave crisis in Ireland and, in Europe, it made questionable the reliability of the British army just prior to the outbreak of the First World War.
For a long time, there was a broad consensus amongst historians that the best word to describe the events that occurred in the Curragh Camp between 20 and 23 March 1914 as an ‘incident’. While the word is accurate, it perhaps masks the gravity of what was undoubtedly a crisis for both the British military and the British government on the eve of the First World War. Both at the time and subsequently, the ‘incident’ at the Curragh has popularly been referred to as a ‘mutiny’. However, this is not strictly true as a mutiny is defined by the refusal to obey an order. At the Curragh, no order was given, instead officers threatened to mutiny if they were compelled to carry out undesirable orders in Ulster. As such, the term conspiracy might well describe the actions of the officers involved, as they conspired to undermine the discipline and impartiality of the crown forces. However, the bungling of civil authorities and military superiors means that the blame cannot be placed squarely at the feet of Gough and his ‘mutineers’.
From an unionist perspective, the ‘mutiny’ at the Curragh was seen as a legitimate response to the actions of the Liberal government. Since the Parliament Act of 1911, the Commons had the power to veto the Lords on ordinary legislation, with the upper house only entitled to delay legislation other than money bills. The third Home Rule bill was the first piece of legislation to be forced through the Lords under the Parliament Act and, as such, many who opposed the Liberal Government saw their actions as being in contravention to the spirit of the British constitution. Given the choice of terms to describe what happened in the second half of March 1914, the ‘Curragh crisis’ is thus increasingly used by historians who wish to avoid the inaccuracies of ‘mutiny’ without settling for the insipidness of ‘incident’.
Impact in Ireland
In Ireland, the Curragh crisis was received very differently in unionist and nationalist circles but the eventual response from both sides was the same: they armed. Although it should be stressed that the majority of officers in Ireland did not openly side with Gough, the army could no longer be relied upon to carry out operations in Ulster. This other side of the army in Ireland is epitomised in retellings of the event by the figure of Major General Sir Charles Fergusson, who came to be seen as the antithesis to Gough. As commander of the 5th Infantry Division, Fergusson believed he had an absolute duty to put aside any personal sympathy he had for the unionists of Ulster and to obey all orders as the only way to avoid rebellion and anarchy both in Ireland and the Empire as a whole.
For the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Curragh crisis signalled that the military were on their side. Unionists would not willingly take up arms against fellow defenders of the union. Therefore, when the UVF engaged in a massive importation of arms and ammunition at Larne and elsewhere on the night of 24-25 April 1914, they did so safe in the knowledge that the government no longer had confidence in the army to move against them. Given the complicity of the Royal Irish Constabulary in the Larne gun running, the message was clear: Ulster’s arms were pointed directly at their nationalist rivals.
In the wake of Curragh and Larne, a sense of panic gripped nationalist Ireland. Eoin MacNeill’s Irish Volunteers saw a surge in their numbers, with 1,000 new recruits signing up every week during this period. By the summer of 1914, the Irish Volunteers stood at a strength of 160,000. With little faith left in the government, the police, or the military to safeguard the implementation of Home Rule in the face of unionist threat, the Irish Volunteers resolved to arm themselves. They were nowhere near as well financed or armed as their unionist counterparts but, by the end of July 1914, Ireland’s two opposing volunteer forced were armed and they both did so in the belief that the Curragh crisis justified their actions.
Impact for the British Army
The Curragh crisis is often viewed as a formative event in Irish history but its wider significance is often forgotten. For the British Army, five months away from entering the trenches, this was an astonishing departure from centuries’ old traditions of discipline and respect for the authority of the civil government. Taking an opposing viewpoint on this, the actions of the soldiers involved was incredibly reckless. It signalled the depth of politicisation in the British army on the Irish question and it gave further legitimacy to the Ulster Volunteers and their stand against the rule of law.
Impact for the British Government
Presaging a debate that would absorb the British cabinet during the Irish War of Independence, the British government played a very dangerous game during 1914 when they began using the military to do the work of the police. In 1919-21, Lloyd George desperately tried to limit the use of the military in dealing with violence that he felt could be dealt with as a policing issue. In 1914, however, Asquith and his government allowed the Ulster situation to escalate to a point where the Royal Irish Constabulary would simply not have been capable of supressing the dissent of the Ulster Volunteers had they risen up against Home Rule. As such, the use of troops in Ulster was contemplated. From Gough’s perspective, he and the ‘mutineers’ were making a last-ditch effort to avoid the first civil war to have blotted the three kingdoms since the 1640s.
That the British cabinet handled the affair disastrously is beyond question; whether or not their actions could have resulted in civil war remains something of a ‘what if’. The actions of Gough and his allies in the Curragh certainly underline the gravity of the situation in the spring of 1914 and show the indecision of the government and the politicised nature of the military. Combined, these factors placed Ireland and Britain on dangerous ground just months before the outbreak of the First World War.
Impact in the wider world: Germany and preparations for war
The Irish situation was closely watched by German military planners for a period before the outbreak of the First World War. In a previous episode of The History Show on RTÉ Radio, Jerome aan de Weil discussed how the unfolding situation in Ireland impacted upon Germany’s decision making processes at this critical time in international relations. Of all the events occurring in Ireland in 1914, events at the Curragh in March had arguably the greatest impact in Berlin. Combined with the unionist and nationalist gun-runnings of April and July, the Curragh crisis was a key destabilising factor in persuading military strategists in Berlin that Ireland was on the cusp of civil conflict and that Britain would likely be distracted upon the outbreak of a European war.
‘Mutiny’ in context
Despite never having materialised into an all-out crisis, the events at Dublin, London and the Curragh in late March 1914 remain arguably the gravest breakdown of governmental control over the British armed forces in the twentieth century. That a mutiny was averted is secondary to the fact that a Rubicon had been crossed. Officers had taken the decision that they would refuse obey orders they deemed to be morally and politically repugnant. Following the Curragh crisis, the British government no longer had the power to use the military as they saw fit in implementing laws and policy on the British Isles. The key distinction between this and other mutinies in the British armed forces is that it involved officers rather than enlisted men. Furthermore, the officers in question included ones of such a high rank as to make their actual and threatened actions extremely serious.
Even in the modern day, the mutiny of troops in the British Army is not unknown. The most recent incident occurred in Kenya in February 2013 when sixteen privates and junior NCOs of the Yorkshire regiment staged a sit-down protest. This modern example is perhaps not directly comparable given that the mutinies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often involved loss of life either during the mutiny through violence or subsequently through executions. Nonetheless, the example of 2013 underlines the fact that refusal to obey orders is not merely a historical topic in a professional and modern army like Britain’s.
Among the most notable actual British mutinies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were those by Indian sepoys in 1857 and 1915 (for two very different reasons), munity at Étaples in 1917 over conditions behind the lines of the western front, and the mutiny among Connaught Rangers in India over British policy in Ireland in 1920. However, the threat of mutiny at the Curragh in 1914 did not involve privates and NCOs, it involved a Brigadier General and his immediate subordinates. This is the key distinction.
Even after the dust had settled at the Curragh, an entire division of cavalry could no longer be counted on to carry out orders in Ireland five months before they were sent to war in Europe and six months before Ireland was granted Home Rule by statute. Ireland never stood so close to conflict in the immediate prelude to the 1916 Rising as it did in the tense months between the end of March and the end of July 1914.
Ian F.W. Beckett (ed.), The Army and the Curragh Incident (London, 1986)
Ronan Fanning, Fatal path: British government and Irish revolution 1910–22 (London, 2013)
James Fergusson, The Curragh incident (London, 1964)
A.P. Ryan, Mutiny at the Curragh (London, 1956)