This month sees the centenary of the interment of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. This auspicious event, which took place on the second-ever Armistice Day, was, by all accounts, one of the great public spectacles in modern British history. Vast crowds of people, numbering in their hundreds of thousands, lined the route and stood in silence as the gun carriage carrying the unidentified serviceman wound its way through the ancient London streets. Many of those watching the procession had lost loved ones during the Great War and for them, and millions of others across Britain and the wider empire, the Warrior represented lost sons, brothers, husbands and comrades. Shortly before arriving at the Abbey, the cortège paused in Whitehall so that George V could unveil the newly permanent Cenotaph, a simple but towering memorial to the absent dead designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The laying to rest of one of the fallen among kings and princes in the great parish church of the empire seemed to confer profound meaning on the war. It also supported the consoling idea that the dead had given their lives in defence of honour, freedom and civilisation. For the millions still in mourning across the United Kingdom, it was reassuring to believe that the war had been worth fighting and worth winning and that their lost loved ones had not died in vain. This point was very clearly reinforced by the blunt, three-word inscription on the side of the Cenotaph, ‘The Glorious Dead’. The dead had been honourable, self-sacrificing and chivalrous, while their main battlefield adversaries – the Germans – had been ruthless, malevolent and wantonly destructive.
Popular attitudes regarding the meaning of the conflict have shifted a great deal since the 1920s, but our perception of those who died hasn’t really changed much at all and remains quite simplistic. In common with a lot of historians of the Great War, public and otherwise, I had hoped that the recent centenaries might lead to a popular re-imagining and re-appraisal of the conflict, but I don’t think in Britain we arrived at any particularly fresh critical understanding. One key reason for this was the persistent focus on the dead at the expense of other groups who were affected by the terrible violence of the war. Servicemen who survived combat but were psychologically traumatised or physically disabled, or both, received very little attention in commemorative ceremonies, centenary-related projects, or media representations of the war. Perhaps most glaringly, the bereaved themselves, with some notable exceptions, were written out of the commemorative narrative during the centenaries. On a more positive note, there was a good deal of new focus on the racial, ethnic and religious diversity of the men who served in the British forces during the war. David Olusoga’s fascinating book, The World’s War, published just as the centenaries began in August 2014, highlighted the degree to which the engine of war drew in millions of people from across Africa and Asia. South Asian soldiers received particular attention, with no fewer than four books on the Indian experience of the war published in 2018 alone. And just last year, Labour MP David Lammy presented a moving Channel Four documentary that exposed the way in which black soldiers and auxiliaries who died while serving with the British forces in Africa were consciously treated differently to their white ‘comrades’. These projects have introduced new characters to the public story of the ‘war to end all wars’ and greatly enriched our understanding of this devastating clash of empires. And yet these formerly forgotten groups of soldiers are now remembered and represented in much the same way as the servicemen of the Great War have always been remembered: either as victims to be pitied or heroes to be admired for their endurance and self-sacrifice. This rather two-dimensional ‘heroic victim’ view of the dead is complicated by the stories of the British veterans of the Great War who fought and died in Ireland in 1920 and 1921. These men continue to be almost entirely overlooked in British popular memory, but their experiences challenge the conventional narrative of the war dead and shed light on the human complexity of those honoured in Britain each November.
The cycle of violence known as the Irish War of Independence began on 21 January 1919 when Sinn Féin’s secessionist parliament met in Dublin for the first time and republican volunteers killed two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Tipperary. The conflict escalated into a full-scale guerrilla war in the spring of the following year when paramilitary forces were deployed from Britain to reinforce the now seriously demoralised RIC and respond to the Irish Republican Army’s increasingly aggressive military campaign. These irregulars initially wore a mix of dark green Irish constabulary and khaki army uniforms and became known as the Black and Tans. About 10,000 of them were recruited between January of 1920 and the end of the war the following summer. A further escalation occurred in July 1920 with the deployment of a force known as the Auxiliary Division, which ultimately numbered some 5,000 men. The Auxiliaries were exclusively composed of ex-officers who operated in highly-mobile and heavily-armed units and wore distinctive Tam O’Shanter caps in the style of Scottish regiments of the British Army. In addition to these two paramilitary groups, the British campaign drew on units of the regular army, which were increasingly used in operations (and targeted by the IRA) in the last year of the conflict. The violence of the war intensified after the introduction of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act in August 1920; by the beginning of the following month, dozens of combatants and civilians were being killed each week as both the IRA and Crown forces stepped up their operations across the island.
Although there were Irishmen in both the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary Division, the great majority of those who served in these paramilitary formations were British, hailing mostly from England and Scotland. Importantly, in the context of British commemorative culture, virtually all of them were veterans of the Great War and many had served with distinction on the Western Front and elsewhere. Most of the regular army personnel stationed in Ireland during the war were also British, often serving in distinctively English or Scottish regiments, and many of these regulars had seen extensive active service between 1914 and 1918. Just under 200 British army officers and other ranks were killed by the IRA in 1920 and 1921. A further 180 British-born members of the paramilitary police forces were killed by republicans during the same period. Virtually all of the latter were veterans of the world war and they often had distinguished records of service. The men who served in the Auxiliary Division alone had received over 633 awards for gallantry during the Great War, including three Victoria Crosses. Many of them, then, would have easily conformed to the popular vision of the war hero by the standards of the time, and indeed by the standards of our own time.
The men killed in a particularly violent episode that took place a century ago this month highlight the direct connection between the Great War and post-war paramilitary violence in Ireland. On the morning of Sunday 21 November 1920, IRA gunmen shot dead 14 officers and ex-officers, and one civilian landlord, in boarding houses and hotels in different parts of central Dublin. Most of the dead men had been serving in some capacity with the Crown forces, but although they had been targeted as spies, only about half were working for British intelligence. All but one of the thirteen former or serving officers killed on the day had been deployed overseas during the world war and several bore obvious scars or disabilities sustained while on active service. One of them, Capt. Leonard Price, the London-born son of a stockbroker, was twice mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross for gallantry under fire while serving on the Western Front before being posted to Dublin for intelligence work in June 1920. In response to the killings of Price and his comrades, members of the Auxiliary Division and the RIC descended on a Gaelic football match being played at Croke Park in north Dublin that afternoon. They began firing on the crowd, ultimately shooting about sixty unarmed civilians, fourteen of whom were killed or mortally wounded, including Mick Hogan, a Tipperary player after whom the Hogan Stand is named. At some stage later in the day, two senior IRA officers and a civilian were summarily executed while in custody at Dublin Castle. The killings at Croke Park naturally evoked outrage among the nationalist population in Ireland while the assassinations of serving officers, some of whom were still wearing their pyjamas when they were shot, caused an outcry across the water in Britain. On 26 November, just two weeks after the Unknown Warrior had been solemnly laid to rest, there was another major military funeral procession in London for nine of the officers shot in Dublin. Six of the dead were carried to Westminster Abbey, while the other three, being Catholic, were taken a short distance further to Westminster Cathedral. Price and his dead comrades were lauded in the press for their gallantry and distinguished service while their killers in the IRA were denounced as the ‘Murder Gang’.
And yet although the killings of the officers on the morning of Bloody Sunday aroused widespread sympathy, much of the British commentary on the conduct of the forces of the Crown from the autumn of 1920 onward was deeply critical. A good deal of this criticism, which was mostly aired in the press and in the course of parliamentary debates, focused on the Crown Forces’ now open policy of ‘reprisals’ for IRA operations. Two months before Bloody Sunday, on the night of 21 September 1920, for example, a group of Auxiliaries and Black and Tans killed two unarmed civilians, set fire to numerous homes and wrecked a local creamery and hosiery factory at Balbriggan in north county Dublin. The ‘sack of Balbriggan’ was by no means the first or the worst incident of British paramilitaries killing unarmed civilians during the war, but it evoked a particularly negative popular reaction in Britain. Prominent journalists, clergymen and politicians, representing a curiously diverse variety of political opinion, condemned the events at Balbriggan and the men who had committed them in the strongest terms, and condemnation of British military policy continued over the following months. Importantly, both The Times and The Manchester Guardian made direct comparisons between the actions of the Crown forces in Ireland and those of German soldiers in Belgium and France in 1914. Former prime minister and Liberal MP Herbert Asquith echoed this view in the Commons, as did the Labour MP and former party leader, Arthur Henderson. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, a pillar of the British establishment and a major figure in the House of Lords, was also notably outspoken in his condemnation of the policy of reprisals.
The Dead of the Irish Revolution, a ground-breaking new book by Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, provides details on over 2,800 combatant and civilian deaths related to the struggle for independence in Ireland between the Easter Rising in April 1916 and the truce that ended hostilities in July 1921. The painstaking research the authors have carried out sheds new and often sobering light on the nature and extent of the violence that took place in Ireland both during and after the world war. Importantly, it highlights not only the intensity of republican violence, about which a great deal is already known, but also the sheer extent of the killing and destruction of property perpetrated by the forces of the British state. It seems clear, as O’Halpin observes in the introduction, that from early 1920 ‘the British government embarked on a policy of indiscriminate brutalisation of nationalist Ireland’. That process of brutalisation was spear-headed by British veterans of the Great War who had often served gallantly on the Western Front and elsewhere.
That such violence and intimidation – unleashed within the United Kingdom and in the name of the Crown – caused alarm in Britain should not surprise us. The criticism of the conduct of the Crown forces voiced by British commentators in 1920 and 1921 was directly informed by the strong sense that the recently-ended world war had been a righteous conflict in which the British had engaged in a moral crusade against the German enemy. The killing of thousands of unarmed civilians by invading German soldiers in Belgium and northern-France in 1914 greatly enhanced the British case for war in the minds of popular commentators and ordinary civilians. When British civilians fell victim to German military aggression in the U-boat campaigns and airship raids that began in 1915 and continued for the rest of the war, this crusading fervour was further reinforced. Ultimately, over three-quarters of a million British and Irish servicemen lost their lives in the conflict, but the bereaved found comfort in the notion that these extraordinary sacrifices had been redeemed by victory in a just war. The violence wreaked on the civilian population by British paramilitaries and regulars in Ireland in the years after the Armistice caused such discomfort in Britain partly because it undermined that consoling narrative. In an impassioned intervention during a debate on reprisals in the Commons in October 1920, Joseph Kenworthy, naval officer, war veteran and Liberal MP had the following to say:
In Germany the excesses in Belgium were excused in the Reichstag by stories of the Belgians firing from their houses on the brave German troops … The same defence is being made by the Government today for this system of burnings in Ireland. If we do not condemn it, we shall be as guilty as the German people, and worse. This House may not condemn it, but I hope the people outside will. If not, then Germany will have won the War. The Prussian spirit will have entered into us. The Prussian spirit at last will be triumphant, and the 800,000, the flower of our race, who lie buried in a score of battle-fronts will really have died in vain … and Germany has won and we have lost. That is the tragic, wicked part of it.Hansard, Commons Debates, 20 October 1920, col. 962.
Those who fell in the Ypres Salient, the Somme valley and the other hallowed battlegrounds of the Great War are revered in British culture. Their stories are still told, their graves still visited, and the conflict in which they were killed remains the focus of intense popular interest. The Irish War of Independence, by contrast, has no place in British popular culture and its dead are not remembered. In a sense, this is perfectly understandable; the vast multitude who died between 1914 and 1918 are certainly more sympathetic than the few hundred who were later killed in a sordid fight to suppress a popular independence movement. Yet these men’s experiences in Ireland and the campaign they conducted there remind us of the valuable truths that our ancestors were rarely two-dimensional heroes or villains and that soldiers are invariably both perpetrators as well as victims of violence. Traditional commemorative culture doesn’t allow us to acknowledge such complexities but considering them may help us better understand the generation of the First World War.
Edward Madigan is Senior Lecturer in Public History at Royal Holloway University of London and co-editor of Historians for History.