It took seven months of carnage to make the British government shift from demanding unconditional surrender by the IRA, to negotiating a truce with the very same 'murder gang'. The leaders they once demanded be handed over for punishment, turned out to be the very men on the other side of the table.
On the evening of Friday 8 July 1921, a large motor car was driven fast around the corner from Nassau Street, Dublin, heading down Dawson Street.
Even though the vehicle was a British Army Crossley Staff Car, it appeared to have no escort. Seated in the back of the car was General Nevil Macready, Commander of British troops in Ireland. He had an appointment to keep.
The driver braked when he saw the crowds milling around the entrance to the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's residence halfway down the street.
The people of Dublin knew something big was afoot.
The car slowed to a crawl, the crowd parted. The car pulled up at the doors of the Lord Mayor’s residence, the people pressed forward as General Macready got out. It's not recorded what he felt when the crowds began cheering. Rather absurdly, as a precaution, he was carrying a pistol, his "trusty automatic" but not in a holster on his belt as might be expected but stuffed into a side pocket of his tunic.
Four members of the Dáil/Sinn Féin Cabinet were already in the Dining Room, just off the stone-flagged hallway, waiting for him. Eamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha, Robert Barton and Eamon Duggan. They had the terms of a Truce to agree. They knew already that the British government, army and police had agreed to one, what had to be done now was agree the details.
So, what had changed? Until a few weeks before, even the streets near the Mansion House had echoed with gunfire.
A BRITISH VICTORY IN SIX WEEKS? SIX MONTHS? NINE MONTHS?
Seven months earlier, there had been talk of peace. If not peace by Christmas, then certainly soon after.
What happened instead was, by the standard of the War of Independence, carnage. At least half of all casualties in the War of Independence between January 1919 and July 1921, were suffered in those first months of 1921. British Army losses alone doubled over those of the previous six months. More than 700 civilians were killed between January and July 1921.
In those first months of 1921 the British Army generals and government would see-saw from aggressive confidence in imminent victory, to private doubts that anything like a victory could ever be achieved. At Christmas, the generals spoke of victory in six weeks. Then, under pressure of events, that timeline shifted slowly out, to perhaps victory by May, then by autumn.
The same generals would voice increasing doubts to each other and to their political masters about the prospects of a purely military victory – then complain bitterly that the truce came just as the IRA was on the verge of defeat.
The IRA would find itself at the sharp end of improved British tactics and weaponry, increasingly hemmed in by losses of men killed and captured, ammunition dwindling, and the British Intelligence service in Dublin inexorably rolling up hideouts and arms dumps. Between one Thursday and Sunday in June, Michael Collins counted six times he came within minutes of arrest.
And, in the background there was the new administration in Dublin Castle, pursuing a negotiated end to the conflict, to the point where both police and army believed they were being actively undermined by the civilians, that by making and maintaining secret contacts with the Dáil government, officials in the Castle were stacking the deck of cards against them.
Under-Secretary Andy Cope, hand-picked by Lloyd George to make contact with the insurgents, was on several occasions accused of treason by his own side, for allegedly passing information about the military and police campaigns to Michael Collins. IRA GHQ Documents referencing contacts with Cope were recovered several times in Intelligence raids. Police officers complained that Cope was protecting the republican leadership from arrest. But his political cover was impregnable.
It has been argued that the actual shooting war was not as important as the intelligence war, and that the British had shown their long-term determination to negotiate an end to the conflict by the appointment of the new high-powered administration in Dublin Castle in mid-1920.
But the war did matter. It mattered that there were men like Tom Barry, Dan Breen, Sean MacEoin and others out in the hills, to prosecute that war.
A military victory would have taken Ireland off the front pages of the world, and allowed the British to dictate harsh terms to the republicans. But that victory stayed out of reach. And in the end, the British government would conclude that to win, they would have to commit such resources, and descend to tactics that no country claiming to be civilised, could ever justify.
And as they contemplated the kind of measures they would have to resort to to win, they knew that the measures they were already using, and not winning, were carried on front pages of newspapers across the world. Every headline degraded Britain’s standing with allies like the United States and France, and with its dominions in the Commonwealth.
Anger among the British people themselves at what was being done in their name was escalating too. In March, Prime Minister Lloyd George himself was warned by his own constituency organisation, that his very parliamentary seat of Caernarfon was under threat, such was the public mood.
The task of waging the war fell disproportionately on Dublin and the southern counties of Limerick, Tipperary, and above all, Cork. The British acknowledged this when they unofficially dubbed the southern counties as 'the war zone'. IRA officers in Cork, like Tom Barry, railed against the undue burden they bore in the southwest, when barely a shot was fired in some other counties.
The British Army never changed its official view of the IRA as a band of murderers, counterjumpers, and brigands. After-action reports would routinely refer to the soldiers or police being fired on by 'civilians'.
Unofficially, they knew what they were up against, and made sure that those tasked with the job of fighting, knew too.
"The rebels use a considerable amount of cunning both in their raids and ambushes"
The highest compliment paid to their opponents was the setting up in late 1920 of a school of warfare in the Curragh Camp, where officers and NCOs from army and police units first had to undergo training courses.
The focus of this training showed clearly how the conflict had resolved into a shifting pattern of ambushes, counter-ambushes and raids, on every level of intensity and scale.
The words used in the new training represented the distilled wisdom of those who had already been in action: "The tactics employed by the rebels are those of ambush. These ambushes are dependent on secrecy, which is easily obtainable owing to the fact that they are dressed as civilians and move among a population of sympathisers similarly attired.
"These ambushes are dependent for their success on surprise and fire effect at close range ... the rebels having small stomach for fighting at close quarters or suffering heavy casualties... The rebels use a considerable amount of cunning both in their raids and ambushes, and have a well-organised system of Intelligence, which works easily owing to the fact that the population are sympathetic".
The trainers obsessed on an accumulation of detail, from how much kit each soldier should carry (as little as possible, speed and agility being prized), right down to where the commanding officer sat in the convoy. (Never up front. The Auxiliary patrol at Kilmichael was doomed the moment the commanding officer, seated beside the driver in the lead vehicle, was the very first casualty. In that case, no one lived to pass on the lesson), to the required distance between vehicles in a convoy, (300 yards), to the need for soldiers and police to counter the rebels' "cunning" with their own.
Armed with their new knowledge of the IRA tactics, the soldiers and policemen fanned out across the country, into barracks and police stations. Their leaders backed up the words with action. By early 1921, British defence plants building armoured vehicles for deployment to the British Empire's military commitments worldwide, were receiving orders that Ireland was to take priority. No longer would the security forces be relying on the clapped-out residue of the Great War.
January into February had seen the IRA in Cork stumble from one failed ambush to another: At Dripsey, Mourne Abbey and Clonmult, the IRA lost men killed outright, taken prisoner, sometimes allegedly killed after surrendering. (Clonmult, the IRA's heaviest individual defeat to date, was some times called 'Kilmichael in reverse'.)
Each time they also lost precious weapons and ammunition, but hardest to bear was the loss of experienced fighters, men who by their very presence in a Brigade or Flying Column inspired other, fainter hearts.
Yet at Clonbannin and Crossbarry, the IRA in Cork showed increasing confidence and reach; Clonbannin has been described by one American military historian as "probably the worst outright British Army defeat of the war"; Sean Moylan led a combined Cork/Kerry column in ambushing troops that had themselves set out to ambush the IRA. A convoy of armoured vehicles was wrecked, the British admitted ten casualties, including a full Brigadier-General; the IRA claimed they killed 13 and wounded 15 more.
Crossbarry (see previous blog) was regarded by the British as the closest they came in the entire conflict to conventional, open warfare. Led by Tom Barry, a Flying Column of 100 Volunteers fought its way out of an attempted encirclement by over 300 British troops and Auxiliaries.
Sean MacEoin in Clonfin, Co Longford, ambushed and destroyed an Auxiliary patrol, killing four, wounding eight, and then, unlike Barry at Kilmichael (see previous blog) the year before, spared the survivors, tended to their wounds, and sent them back to their base. We have the Auxiliaries' own account of the ambush, as several of them testified in MacEoin's favour at his trial by court-martial months later.
At Headfort railway junction, the Kerry IRA claimed to have killed 20 soldiers, the British admitted seven dead and 12 wounded.
ONE STEP FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
Events in Mayo near the end of the war, showed exactly how the British could not build war-winning momentum. At Kilmeena in late May, dismayed IRA would-be ambushers watched the RIC execute a textbook manoeuvre to turn the tables on them, resulting in the deaths of five volunteers. The RIC officer commanding the convoy was decorated by his superiors, delighted that the new training seemed at last to be paying off.
That good feeling lasted two weeks.
On 2 June the West Mayo Flying Column, under Michael Kilroy, pulled off a successful ambush at Carrowkennedy near Westport. Seven RIC officers, including Black and Tans, were killed or fatally wounded, with no casualties in the Column.
The action yielded a huge arsenal of weaponry that meant the Column had, in one action, multiplied its own firepower. The men of the Column later posed for one of the war's most iconic photographs, to show off their new weapons.
The New York Times reported on its front page on 24 March, that the previous five days alone had seen 65 deaths and 67 woundings, IRA, army, police and civilians.
PRISONERS AS HUMAN SHIELDS
In Dublin, the rate of ambushes increased, across the city and county. There were 67 attacks on British forces in Dublin in April, 93 in June. British troops and police took to forcing IRA prisoners on to their trucks during patrols. One IRA officer claimed years later, that as a prisoner in Arbour Hill, he was taken out and used as a human shield three times. The Auxiliaries even defiantly showed off the practice for the newsreels and press photographers. The use of 'hostages' to deter ambushes made front page news across the world.
Despite setbacks, the British were making progress. More efficient use of troops to sweep and 'drive' the countryside was uncovering precious and near-irreplaceable weapons and ammunition, the experience gained in ambushes was being recycled into new and more effective tactics.
The intelligence war in Dublin was also yielding results. Reorganised under Colonel Ormonde Winter, the security services were raiding the hideouts of senior IRA officers like Collins and Mulcahy, flushing out some of Collins's most valuable spies, and making arrests. Winter set up a system to comb captured documents for evidence and clues to tactics and strategy (While observing how fortunate it was that "the Irish had an irresistible habit of keeping records").
Given the conflicting signals about their progress in the war, it's understandable that the British government's hard line on a truce persisted right into the summer. The belief persisted that military success would allow the opening of the two new parliaments, north and south, envisaged under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act. The Northern Parliament was certain to open; victory, or at least a decisive advantage opened up over the IRA, would drive the establishment of the southern equivalent.
The elections were scheduled for late May. This gave the military men a new horizon to aim for.
The results of the elections saw a unionist majority elected in the north, and a Sinn Féin surge in the south. The difference being, that while the unionists were determined to make their parliament work. Sinn Féin had no intention of taking their seats, so the southern parliament was dead on arrival.
By early June, British political resolve appeared to be hardening. On 2 June, the cabinet secretly agreed that if Sinn Féin had not agreed by 12 July to take their seats in the southern parliament, then the 26 counties would be ruled under martial law as a Crown Colony, ie. not as part of the United Kingdom. An extra 18 army battalions would be sent to Ireland.
Commanding General Nevil Macready had already presented a plan to the cabinet that would have moved the conflict to a new level.
It's a measure of how far the British Army felt that control of Ireland was slipping from them, that the proposals they put forward to regain that control were the stuff of a dystopian nightmare: The country was to effectively become an open-air prison, the ports would be closed, the 26 counties would be swept with army and police on the ground, RAF in the air (now cleared to carry out ground-attack missions for the first time in the conflict), and the Royal Navy by sea. With planned support from the Royal Engineers and the Service Corps, the operation would have been very close to a conventional war.
"I do not believe ... that any amount of repression is likely to solve the difficulty in this country"
General Macready estimated that perhaps 100 republicans a week would be executed, if martial law were to be declared.
The view was forming that success would only be secured by such an escalation, but the generals were beset by doubts: Did the British establishment understand what martial law meant? Would the British government and establishment stand behind the security forces, as executions and reprisals escalated? Given its commitments worldwide, could the British Armed Forces afford to mount and sustain such an effort? Once it was (inevitably) scaled back, would not the conflict simply erupt again?
Major Bernard Law Montgomery spoke for many officers as they contemplated an escalation: ‘... if we had gone on we could probably have squashed the rebellion as a temporary measure, but it would have broken out again like an ulcer the moment we removed the troops ...'
The Commanding General Nevil Macready blew hot and cold on the chances of victory, but he stood over his conviction that no military solution alone could win this conflict. In a letter to Henry Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (the commander of the British Armed Forces), in February, he had said: "I do not believe ... that any amount of repression is likely to solve the difficulty in this country, nor do I believe that the killing off of Michael Collins and say fifty of his next best men will improve matters to any appreciable degree ...
"... practically the whole manhood under the age of twenty-five of the country, except Ulster, are ... fanatically patriotic ... and unless you can kill the whole blooming lot, I do not myself believe that any amount of martial law will bring an improvement …"
The army commanders in Ireland all had a vested interest in defending their progress in the war. Then along came a soldier of impeccable credentials and connections, with no vested interests. His appalled verdict was relayed straight to the heart of government.
"The British Army is besieged..."
Colonel Sir Hugh Elles was the highly decorated first commander of the Royal Tank Corps in the Great War. By 1921, he was overseeing the training of the next generation of tank crews for the British Army.
On what he thought would be a routine visit to troops in Ireland in the early summer of 1921, he was clearly unprepared for the reality of the situation of the British Army. On his return from Ireland, he wrote a scorching memorandum that went straight to the cabinet:
"The British Army is besieged ... officers must move not only armed and in bodies, but with their revolvers very handy; in motor cars they carry them actually in their hands ... troops sleep in defended barracks – behind barbed wire..."
"One thing is abundantly clear: That to proceed on the present system of impotent defensive, and without martial law rigorously exploited, is useless. If you pour in more troops on the present lines, you are simply throwing good money after bad. Four divisions now are besieged in driblets over, say one-third of the country; six divisions would be besieged in exactly the same way over half the country ... it seems highly improbable that an autumn campaign would finish the trouble".
General Macready reported to the cabinet his belief that the Aamy as deployed in Ireland would, for its own sake, have to be relieved and replaced by October 1921, certainly before the winter. He knew that such a massive redeployment was beyond the army, given its commitments worldwide. He also would not guarantee success by that date, regardless of reinforcements.
The general had cover for his blunt remarks. His military commander, Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General staff, endorsed every word of Macready’s report.
The mood of foreboding among the generals in the early summer of 1921 persisted even in the face of mounting evidence of the problems the IRA was having in continuing the fight. Sifting through intercepted correspondence between IRA GHQ and officers in the field, British Intelligence Chief Ormonde Winter saw with his own eyes the warnings from Brigade and Flying Column commanders that some of the best units were so short of weapons and ammunition, that they would soon cease to function.
And in late May, came the single biggest stroke of luck the British enjoyed in the whole war, the disastrous IRA operation to burn the Custom House in Dublin (see previous blog). The operation gave Eamon de Valera the global publicity coup he wanted, at the cost of serious damage to the Dublin IRA’s capacity to wage war, with five Volunteers killed, over 70 taken prisoner, and a huge haul of weapons captured.
"I may tell you that the escape of Thursday was nothing to the four or five escapes I have had since"
The losses in men and weaponry incurred by the Dublin IRA could not have happened at a worse time. By June, the frequency of British raids on Michael Collins’ most secret hideouts, yielding arrests and vital documents, and missing the man himself by minutes each time, showed that British Intelligence Chief Ormonde de Winter was close behind him.
How long could his luck last?. Even Collins himself seemed spooked.
A few days after the Custom House raid, and the latest of his hideouts being discovered, he wrote to de Valera:
"I may tell you that the escape of Thursday was nothing to the four or five escapes I have had since.....they ran me very close for quite a good while on Sunday evening".
The irony is, Collins, more than anyone in the IRA, knew that in the context of the Big Picture, the armed conflict could soon be over, if the intensive contacts between the Sinn Fein government and the British achieved an understanding, and an agreement to talks on a peace settlement.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the War of Independence was that British strategy ran on two tracks, separate and seemingly contradictory; the military and police campaign to bring down the IRA and all its leaders, and the plan by the civilian administration to end the war by bringing the Dáil government and Sinn Fein into negotiations on a final settlement, once Northern Ireland had been established in law and in fact. Collins was being hunted by one arm, and wooed by the other.
The situation in Dublin Castle was perhaps best summed up by the Republican activist Maire Comerford, to Uinseann MacEoin for his book, ‘Survivors’.
"From ….1920, when (Andy) Cope was appointed (Assistant) Undersecretary for Ireland, Collins was in touch directly with the Castle. There was a hot line between them....so while the Upper Yard was having its dealings with Collins, the Lower Yard was having dealings of another sort. It was after him with the murder gang".
RISEN FROM THE GRAVE: DEMANDS FOR A TRUCE
The idea of a ceasefire or a truce had been buried for months after Archbishop Clune’s failed peace initiative in December. British politicians and Army men could not bring themselves to contemplate such a thing, as it would confer on the IRA a status as one side in a legitimate war, when the entire campaign was conducted on the premise that it was a gang of murderers, no more.
And yet, in the spring, there it was again, risen from the scrapheap. Francis Crozier, former Commander of the Auxiliaries, and Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, were floating the idea again.
Prime Minister Lloyd George made his Coalition Cabinet confront the issue head-on. In mid-May the government Ministers sat around the Cabinet table and held a vote: Truce or no Truce. The outnumbered Liberals voted in favour, the Conservative Ministers against. No Truce.
"we are willing to acknowledge that we are defeated ... we are willing to withdraw our whole establishment"
Then the administration in the Castle made its move.
Joint Under-Secretary John Anderson used an intermediary to use an intermediary, to reach de Valera. At the end of May, he asked the American Consul in Ireland, Frederick Dumont, to approach Patrick Moylett, Sinn Féin’s go-between to Lloyd George in late 1920. De Valera agreed to let Moylett hear the British proposals for direct talks.
Sir Alfred Cope met Moylett in Dublin Castle. Events dictated plain speaking. Niceties and appearances were set aside. He said that he himself was technically outranked by the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary, but as Lloyd George’s personal envoy, he was making his move.
‘I am here to make peace’.
Cope’s language depicted an administration ready to admit defeat, and looking for a way out.
"We are willing to acknowledge that we are defeated ... we are willing to withdraw our whole establishment, from the lowest policeman to the highest judge".
Moylett took Cope’s words back to de Valera. Contact had been made.
JAN SMUTS: A RARE BEAST MAKES HIS MOVE
One of the unlikeliest, and perhaps one of the most decisive interventions in those weeks, was made by the South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts was that rare beast, a man who had fought the British in the Boer Wars, then served as a General in the British Army in the Great War. He also had excellent contacts with Lloyd George, and indirectly, with de Valera too.
He was by coincidence in London for a Commonwealth Conference. The damage being done to Britain’s standing in the Commonwealth by the conduct of the war convinced him that Britain had to negotiate.
De Valera told Smuts there had to be a truce before negotiations could be contemplated. Smuts took this straight to Lloyd George, along with his own observation that the successful establishment of the Northern Ireland Parliament gave the British Prime Minister the cover to begin talks with Sinn Féin.
THE KING'S SPEECH BREAKS THE DEADLOCK
Moreover, Smuts proposed that the speech to be given by King George V in Belfast to open the Northern Ireland Parliament on 22 June, be used to send a message to Sinn Féin. The King readily agreed, and the speech was drafted.
These are the key words from that speech: "I speak from a full heart when I pray that my coming to Ireland today may prove to be the first step towards the end of strife amongst her people, whatever their race or creed. In that hope I appeal to all Irishmen to pause, to stretch out the hand of forbearance and conciliation, to forgive and forget, and to join in making for the land they love a new era of peace, contentment and goodwill".
How far had the tectonic plates shifted?
Use this measure. Almost exactly six months earlier, in a speech in the Westminster House of Commons, the same King used these words, to attack: "the campaign of violence and outrage by which a small section of my subjects seek to sever Ireland from the Empire".
Two days after the speech was delivered, Lloyd George, his political flanks now protected, extended an invitation to de Valera to talks. At Smuts’ urging, Lloyd George agreed to de Valera’s condition that there be a formal truce.
On that July evening, before he called for his car and driver to head to the Mansion House, General Macready was careful to consult with his senior police and army officers around the country, to get their agreement to the terms that he would agree with Eamon de Valera a few hours later, that would lead to a ceasefire on 11 July.
Perhaps, as he was being driven to the meeting at the Mansion House, it might have occurred to the general that the terms of the ceasefire were almost exactly the terms that Archbishop Clune had vainly sought from the British government in his bid for peace, seven months before: That there be a formal truce, thereby recognising the IRA as a combatant force, not a criminal gang; IRA Volunteers and Dáil TDs to be safe from arrest or execution; no surrender of IRA weapons as a precondition.
There would be no formal document signed, to appease the many policemen, soldiers, and politicians who were outraged that it had come to this. But, as was pointed out to him by his own people later, General Macready’s very presence in the Mansion House Dining Room, across from Eamon de Valera, had imbued the truce with force.
His thoughts would certainly have already turned to the practicalities of both sides agreeing and sticking to the terms. He would remember how, three years earlier, as the clock ticked towards 11am on 11 November to mark the Armistice to end the Great War, those last hours were marked with chaos and confusion, and men fought and died with literally seconds to go until the appointed hour of peace.
And so it would be in Ireland. The delay in declaring the ceasefire was to allow both sides get the word out to all their scattered units. The announcement on the Friday evening took most combatants by surprise. Tom Barry had to be shown a newspaper report of the truce terms, before he would believe it.
Some IRA units didn’t get the word and would fight beyond noon on the 11th.
Those four days saw some of the most controversial events of the entire war, events that divide historians to this day. Events that disgusted volunteers, soldiers, and policemen alike. Ominously, in the light of what later happened, the message to IRA units announcing the ceasefire did not contain orders or instructions as to how to behave in the days before the truce came into effect.
The war, for now, was over, even if, as many on both sides believed, it was a pause rather than an end.
For the IRA, it brought an end to the relentless pressure from the British army and police, a chance to regroup, rearm, and rethink. But peace brings its own pressure. Winston Churchill had shrewdly predicted, long before the truce, that the IRA would have great difficulty in returning to war, should the truce last six months or so.
The next six months would see his prediction tested.
To be continued...