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Generals and their Masters

Ronan Fanning

Ground Truths: British Army Operations in the Irish War of Independence, by WH Kautt, Irish Academic Press, 352 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-0716532200

This is the first volume of the official four-volume historical record prepared by the British army’s Irish Command in 1922 (entitled The Record of the Rebellion in Ireland, 1919-1921 and the part played by the Army in dealing with it) edited and copiously annotated by Prof WH Kautt, who is a military historian at the US Army Staff College.

It was among the more sensitive records subjected to extended closure despite the “Thirty-Year Rule” introduced by the British government in 1966 and was not finally released by the National Archives of the United Kingdom until 2001. Professional and amateur historians alike will no longer have to read it in Kew and will be indebted to Prof Kautt for having made so easily accessible such a fascinating contemporary snapshot of British military thinking during the Irish War of Independence.

The book is not without its faults. The device of inserting detailed explanatory notes in grey boxes throughout the text is cumbersome and breaks up the flow of the narrative. The notes, moreover, are sometimes factually flawed, most notably that which advises us that Augustine Birrell disbanded the Secret Service in Ireland in 1917 despite the immediately preceding note having accurately recorded that he ceased to be chief secretary for Ireland in 1916. Nor has the author been well served by his copy editor. The most egregious error is that “morale” is rendered as “moral” throughout and, unsurprisingly given the subject matter, it is a word that occurs with infuriating frequency. The publisher deserves warm praise, on the other hand, for the cover, which features a stunning photograph from 1920 of three tin-helmeted Tommies and their officer looking down the Liffey from a vantage point among the statuary on the roof of the Four Courts.

The great strength of the book is what it reveals of the frustrations and inhibitions that British commanders suffered not from the actions of the IRA but at the hands of their own political masters. Prof Kautt argues persuasively that, “although the struggle between the IRA, the British army and the RIC was frighteningly violent, the true battleground lay in the realm of information”. The Irish War of Independence, like all guerrilla wars, was above all “a war of perception” and, “in a war largely over perception, what people believed happened was often more important than the kinetic truth”.

In effect, the British army could not “win the war” in any military sense because their “mission was not to defeat the IRA, but rather to prevent them installing a revolutionary government. The army’s mission was not to defeat Sinn Fein, but to assist in the establishment of what is now called ‘stability’ and to maintain it.” Although Prof Kautt's grasp of political history is sometimes tenuous – most alarmingly when he asserts that “the Irish Free State’s status in 1922 remained similar to what had been promised in September 1914” – he identifies a central paradox of the war: that, “in a strange way, the army and RIC were fighting to stabilise Ireland long enough to grant some form of independence, while the rebels’ war was over the form that independence would take”. This explains why “this history serves as a codified record of what [the British army] did and why” and, simultaneously, as “an explanation of how the ‘loss of Ireland’ was not the army’s fault”.

Hence the plaintive recognition, even when the British were escalating the war in the autumn of 1920, that it was never suggested “that any military action could finally pacify the country or solve the Irish problem. All that was claimed was that, given sufficient powers and numbers, the Crown forces could in course of time produce a situation in which a political solution might be offered with reasonable chance of acceptance”. Other examples of the inhibitions crippling British army operations litter the earlier chapters. One was the lapse of “weeks and sometimes months” before the legal advisers in Dublin Castle reviewed “the cases of arrested men against whom there appeared to be evidence of an offence for which they might be tried”. This had the effect of sustaining “an outcry ... against the prolonged detention of men without trial or internment, and odium attached to military commanders for ordering the arrest of individuals, if judged in the light of their subsequent release, for no reason”. Another was the impossibility of getting witnesses to give evidence against arrested men, with the consequence that “rebel propaganda was able to make capital out of the fact that large numbers of men had been arrested and not brought to trial”. Yet another was what the army saw as the government’s weakness in releasing the IRA hunger strikers in April 1920 “followed very soon ... by an order from the Government cancelling the powers granted in January to Competent Military Authorities to arrest rebel leaders for presumed complicity in outrages committed in their district”. In effect, this marked the collapse the strategy of conferring powers on the Competent Military Authorities “without incurring the odium that would attach to a Military Governor enforcing Martial Law”.

The British army's insurmountable problems were well summarised in the following cri de coeur.

There was no objective for operations; there was no defined theatre of war, since non-combatants and loyal persons were intermingled with rebels in every district; there was no ‘Front Line’ or ‘No Man's Land’, and the only secure base for any body of troops was inside its own barrack walls. The troops were, in fact, living inside the enemy's lines, where their every movement was known as soon as begun, and was in many cases betrayed even before that. No means of communication were safe except by armoured cars; telegraphs, post offices and railways were almost entirely staffed by men and women who were either confessedly rebels or else intimidated into aiding and abetting them. The rebels, on the other hand, had almost everything in their favour. They were indistinguishable from harmless civilians until they had fired, and consequently they had little difficulty in carrying out ruses upon sentries and small bodies of troops ...
Neither did the more ambitious projects of the of the I.R.A., such as attacks on small detachments of troops or police, require any great skill in the operation, or courage in the execution. The principle (sic) military difficulty in beating an enemy in detail is the successful and secret concentration of superior forces at the given time and place. To the rebels, having no uniform and being able to move into a locality without molestation in twos or threes, there was no difficulty in assembling in force in houses adjoining their objective or in positions of ambush near a road.

The account of the war’s final phase from which this quotation is drawn opens with the remarkable declaration that from December 1920 until July 1921 “there was no further change of policy”. From a military perspective, perhaps, but from a political perspective all had changed utterly. The enactment of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 paved the way for the establishment of Northern Ireland as a separate political entity and that in turn opened the door for Lloyd George’s government to negotiate with Sinn Féin without imperilling its parliamentary majority. King George V formally opened the Northern Ireland parliament on June 22nd, 1921 when the bald entry from the army's account of the cessation of active operations is pregnant with frustration. “On the same day during the search of a house at Blackrock, just outside Dublin, seditious literature had been found and the only male on the premises had, therefore, been arrested. This man proved to be De Valera. On the following day, by the order of the Government, he was released.” The momentum towards peace thereafter proved irresistible.

The British army’s reaction to the truce of July 11th, 1921 which marked the end of the war epitomised its frustration and sense of outrage at the political inhibitions hampering its conduct. This found expression in a profound distaste for the term truce which, when it appears other than in formal sub-titles, is frequently given quotation marks. Gen Jeudwine, the GOC commanding the 5th Division based in the Curragh, went so far as to proscribe its use in a letter to his brigade commanders on the grounds that “this word is generally understood as applicable to an armistice between recognized belligerents”; his preference was that “the statement of terms should be referred to as the ‘Agreement’ and its effects as a ‘suspension of activities’”.The army’s distaste for the term, writes Prof Kautt, stemmed from the fact that a formal truce “gave de facto and, one could argue, de jure legitimacy recognition to the IRA, since one can only conduct a formal truce with an equal”. This was why the authors of The Rebellion in Ireland saw the truce as “an illogical compact. On the one hand, the Crown forces agreed to refrain from action for the suppression of outrage, and, on the other hand, the rebels agreed to desist from acts which under any circumstances were crimes”. Any circumstances, that is, other than that state of war which the British had consistently denied existed and which underpinned their refusal to accord the IRA the status of belligerents. The truce undermined that fiction because, again in the words of The Rebellion in Ireland, “the not unnatural result was that not only the rebels themselves, but the Press and a large section of the public came to look upon any outrage committed by the rebels before the agreement as a legitimate act, or at least one to be condoned”. Henry Kissinger, writing decades later about the American war in Vietnam, addressed what he described as “one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war” more succinctly: “the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” And so it was in Ireland.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at UCD and the author of Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 (London: 2013, Faber & Faber) which was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards non-fiction book of the year.