A Book review by Jack Lane.

Book review: “A hard local war – the British Army and the Guerilla war in Cork 1919-1921” by William Sheehan.

The War of Independence – the simple soldier’s view

The blurb claims the military “were in fact winning the fight in Cork” and that “this book successfully challenges the received wisdom of the events and the outcome of the War of Independence.” Did the British military win the war then? You can be winning a football match and still lose the game. But there is only one outcome of a war or a game – a winner and a loser. If the British military were winning why was there any Truce and an unconditional Truce to boot? The British military certainly believed they did not win the war that ended like this and this is shown clearly in this book. If they were winning why did they not actually win? Or did they win without realizing it? Were Lloyd George, Churchill, Chamberlain, and Birkenhead who had just organized the winning of a World War so idiotic that they grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory in Ireland? These are the questions his thesis raises but does not answer. He does not even seem to realize that his thesis poses these questions.

The author is clearly fascinated by, and immersed in, British military history. His approach is to look at various British Army accounts of the war in Ireland and lo and behold they do not agree with the accepted Irish narrative of the war! Like all Generals and soldiers the British military were certain they could have won this war if they were allowed to do so. But all sorts of people and problems got in their way – as always happen to military men who lose wars. Sheehan is surprised that the British sources on the war have not been highlighted before but then finds there are not that many and those that exist tend to skip over that period. “It can be argued that the lessons of Ireland were not institutionalized in the British Army.” (p.174). He seems surprised but what self-respecting army wants to dwell on lost wars.

He quotes many military people who believed they were winning, about to win and could win. But not all were like that. Macready is sometimes quoted as saying it could be done in 4 months. But his argument was more nuanced. He said if it was not done in 4 months the war was lost. That puts a very different complexion on the matter, but why would it be won or lost in 4 months? Greenwood reckoned that it would take years. And again it begs the question why so long if the military were winning?

The daddy of all those who wanted and believed in a military solution was Sir Henry Wilson. And he had a plan for a drastic version of martial law to do it which he outlined clearly in May 1921 and had it approved and it was to come into force in mid-July. It was essentially to allow nothing to move in Ireland – beginning with bicycles – without military authority. He was serious. It was to be the Boer war solution with knobs on and if implemented it would no doubt ensure military success. And Wilson did not lack the will or the courage or the means to carry it out. But Wilson, unlike Mr. Sheehan, did not have the ‘simple soldier’s’ view of these matters as he was in a real situation. He was forced to change his mind and being the type of man he was he recorded why in his diary in June reporting on a talk he had had with the Secretary of State for War, Laming Worthington- Evans:

I told him that, unless we had England entirely on our side, I would strongly advise that we should not attempt martial law in all its severity because I was sure it would not succeed, and failure meant disaster. If the soldiers knew that England was solid behind them they would go on until they won out; on the other hand if they found this was not the case then we should have disaster. I have developed this thesis over and over again to Lloyd George, Bonar, Austen, Winston and others, and I never made so much impression on anybody as I did to-night on Worthy.”

If there was not sufficient support in Britain there certainly was not sufficient support in Ireland! If wishes were horses we would all go for a ride. But how could the British military win if they did not have the support and therefore the actual means to do it? But Mr. Sheehan says they were winning and seems to believe they could have won and if so he must know something Sir Henry Wilson did not! Perhaps he will tell us in his next book.

The basic fact was that British Government administration had become inoperable in Ireland.There was never going to be a Stalingrad but that was not the crucible fact.

The essential military problem was that they were faced with a war that had unique public support such that they had never encountered elsewhere in the world.  This support was regularly tested and expressed in 4 elections, the General Election of 1918, the County council elections in early 1920, the municipal elections later in 1920 and the extraordinary result of the election of May 1921 when Sinn Fein won every single elective seat in the 26 counties. None of these are mentioned by Mr. Sheehan. Only the military world exists for him. No war has ever had so many elections during it and the support for ‘the insurgents’ increased every time. To Lloyd George and the British Government that election result of May 1921 of overwhelming, absolutely total, support for Sinn Fein made all the successes claimed by the military look pathetic and all promises of future victory even more pathetic and problematic. At this point, the penny had dropped for Lloyd George and even for Sir Henry Wilson but does not yet seem to have dropped for Mr. Sheehan.

What was it all about?

The Irish quite simply wanted political independence which meant that the result of a British election be accepted. That is as clear and as obvious as anything could be. Accepting the result was surely not too much to ask for and the real issue is why the result was not accepted by the mother of Parliaments? It was especially difficult for people to understand this just after at least 10 million people including up to 50,000 Irishmen had died for the freedom of small nations. These are total on-issues for Sheehan.

It is amazing to see Mr. Sheehan wondering why the British did not implement a ‘hearts and minds’ policy in Ireland. They did. His own book, every line of it, is a detailed testimony to the fact that they tried by every means available to them to change the hearts and minds of the people. But the people did not want either changed. They wanted what they had voted for and what thousands believed they had died for – the freedom of small nations. The British war in Ireland was about changing hearts and minds. What else are wars for? How strange that someone who describes himself as a military historian does not seem to appreciate this most basic purpose of the military anywhere. He does not appreciate the most glaring facts, in fact the subject matter, of his own book!

Being immersed in British military history and its myths he creates a conundrum for himself when he tries to figure out why another type of ‘hearts and minds’ policy was not applied by implementing all necessary reforms to remove grievances and thereby undermine the enemy’s war effort. He says: “But this was not an option open to the British in 1921 for the simple reason that most of these reforms had already been implemented. Nationalist control of local government had been established in 1898, the police force was largely Catholic and nationalist and Home Rule had been on the statute book since 1914 and its implementation was expected at the end of the First World War. Catholics occupied the majority of local government posts in Ireland and their numbers in the more senior posts had been steadily raising. Ireland had experienced an economic boom during the First World War. It is difficult to see how a hearts and minds campaign similar to one carried out in Malaya in the 1950s could have been constructed.” (p.172).

It is incredible that anyone could write this with a straight face. He just cannot see the whole point of national political independence which was not about just about reforms and eliminating economic and social grievances and providing jobs for Catholics. It was a considered and convinced moral statement by a people determined to run their own political life and the rejection of anyone else’s right to do so. It was not exactly a unique demand then or since. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this issue has almost dominated world politics since. How anyone with a modicum of understanding of Irish history, or any history, could write the above is beyond belief.

If ever there was a case of military blindness this is it. I can understand why Mr Sheehan will not find any satisfactory answer to why the Irish acted as they did in 1919-21 in any of his researches in British Military archives and sources but as he comes from the heart of North Cork and as he dedicates his book to his namesake grandfather who was in the IRA during the War of Independence (and to his father) I must assume he never asked either of them or any of his other relatives or neighbors what the war was about. I am simply baffled.

Was the IRA losing?

To make his case about the military actually winning he quotes Collins and Mulcahy downplaying the military successes of the IRA during the war but in the context of the Treaty debate this was self justification for acceptance of the Treaty. He quotes Mulcahy: “..we have not been able to drive the enemy from anything but from a fairly good-sized police barracks. We have not that power.” (p.19).

Mulcahy had to belittle and denigrate such matters as the successful organization of a government on a war footing for 3 years, all the military successes such as Kilmichael, Crossbarry, Clonbanin, to name just some local ones (as the war in Cork is the subject) the running of an alternative Court System etc. For instance, Dublin Castle on 18 May 1921 reported higher casualties that week than at any time since the Rising.

Sheehan makes great play of improvements in the British military strategies during the war but that is only to be expected. Every army has to learn and adapt but so did the IRA and that is the nature of war. Wars escalate.

For example, in terms of acquiring arms which is a pretty crucial aspect of any war the IRA official returns for October 1921 from all 4 Divisions gave a total of 3,295 rifles, 15,160 shotguns, 1,228 automatics and 4,683 revolvers. While this does not compare with British resources there are a few things to bear in mind. This is obviously an underestimate as not all weapons would be ‘declared’ in a truce situation but the important fact is that this was an increase from zero in just a few years – or rather an increase from the number of hurleys that they had to begin with. And if the British were developing their skills in intelligence and with airplanes and aerial photography etc. that Sheehan describes in some detail the IRA were also developing new skills such as the naval skill that led to the capture of the Admiralty ship ‘The Upnor’ and its contents in Cork harbour on 30th March 1922 which netted 1,500 rifles, 55 Lewis guns, 6 maxim guns, 3 Vickers guns, 500,000 rounds of .303 ammuition,1,000 revolvers, 1,000 .455 automatic pistols, (all with appropriate ammunition), 3,000 hand grenades and a quantity of rifle grenade throwers. All were immediately distributed by 146 lorries throughout the Cork area. This does not look like the actions of an army on the run in Cork. There is no game, or war, that two can’t play.

Sheehan gives the capture of Sean Moylan as an indication of British success. But he should have mentioned that his comrades carried out a very successful ambush at Ratncoole shortly afterwards and showed no sign whatever of letting up without him. An interesting footnote on that ambush was the account that was given by the British Officer in charge, Lieutenant Crossey, to the subsequent enquiry. He claimed that they had been subject to a massive assault by about 300 attackers and painted a picture of a Zulu-like attack but suffering no casualties or losses on his side. That is how unreliable these sources can be but which Sheehan seems to use uncritically.

Nuancing reprisals

The British military effort was a campaign of terror and the most typical example of this was the campaign of reprisals. Mr. Sheehan indeed “challenges the received wisdom of the events” in this connection. These reprisals were so unacceptable that the Auxiliaries own O/C, Frank Crozier, resigned his position in protest and said that “the whole cabinet should have been marched to the Tower in company with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and there shot, on account of what they permitted to be done in the Kings name and by the authority of his uniform in Ireland.” The future leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, crossed the floor of the House of Commons in protest – they were even too much for him. King George V complained personally to Macready about it and implored him to stop it saying that “ in punishing the guilty we are inflicting punishment no less severe upon the innocent.” Several other prominent people including the Archbishop of Canterbury protested.

But Sheehan approaches the issue with much more equanimity than these people. He has discovered that reprisals have been misrepresented. “Nevertheless, these events do not speak for themselves and therefore need to be located and understood within and in relation to the character of the period. This allows a more nuanced analysis…. they can be considered an almost primitive struggle for the possession of public space, and an occasion for the control of local women.” (p.24). And, believe it or not “Reprisals were uncontested by the local populations of Fermoy, Mallow, Bandon and Cobh, the residents merely seeking shelter from the storm.” (p.37). In Cork city the aftermath of a conflict between residents and troops is described as “the evening’s entertainment over, the civilians began to disperse.” (p.17). And “in policing the soldiers and civilians the RIC were often at the receiving end from both communities” (p.38). The army were a community just like the local residents! He goes on to lay great store on alcohol consumption, the fact apparently that these things happened after the soldiers’ payday, local looting, etc., as major factors. In fact, it all seems to have been great fun.

Strangely, for all his detailing and research on some reprisals, the biggest reprisal of the lot (following on those in 95 other towns) – the burning of Cork – is not analyzed at all and given only a passing reference with the wrong date and with an effort to shift the from those responsible for it – the military. Less attention than even Peter Hart gave it. Maybe Greenwood was right after all when he claimed that it was the people of Cork may burned their own city.

Winning and losing

Reading Sheehan’s description of British military successes in Ireland reads like a report of last year’s All-Ireland final where all the losing side’s scores and tactics are emphasized, explained, highlighted and admired but the final score is ignored. For example, “the myth of Crossbarry” is described in such a way that the outcome is almost unclear!

The fact that increasing pressure on the IRA meant they were failing is an illusion. The fact is that the pressure was increasing but so were the IRA successes. Sheehan seems to have too linear a mind to appreciate this and can’t get his head round it. But it is a fact that becomes obvious to any objective observer. For example a recent thesis concludes: “The IRA faced its greatest pressure from government forces in late-1920 and the first six months of 1921. In this same period, it achieved its greatest military and propaganda victories. These successes were the combined results of GHQ policy and local initiative. IRA leaders played a role in planning attacks in Dublin, while the institution of flying columns provided the weapon that inflicted the greatest wounds on the police and British army in the countryside. The Irish Bulletin provided an increasingly effective republican mouthpiece, no longer shying away from the violent side of the movement……..In forcing the government to the negotiating table, the IRA won a concession that many had considered unimaginable. As late as December 1919, the New York Times warned republicans that ‘nothing could be more hopeless than taking on the British army.’ The IRA did this with a considerable measure of success.” (Tactics, politics, and propaganda in the Irish war of Independence, 1917-21, by Mike Rast, Georgia State University, May, 2011)

But there is no doubt who felt they had won and who had lost the war when the unconditional Truce was declared in July 1921. There may be runners up in sport but not in war. There are many teams that nearly won a match and many armies that nearly won a war but as any farmer will tell you, nearly never bulled a cow.

Jack Lane