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David Leeson

Dear Dublin Review of Books,

Thank you for publishing John Borgonovo’s review of my book, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, in your Summer 2012 issue. I am very gratified by the continuing interest in my work, a year after its publication. And I would also like to thank Dr Borgonovo for the complimentary things he says about my book: it’s not every day that one’s work is described as “important” and “significant”.

I was disappointed, however, to find a number of errors in Borgonovo’s review. The most significant of these concern the police unit involved in the burning of Cork on 11 December 1920—the notorious K Company of the Royal Irish Constabulary’s Auxiliary Division.

In my book, I argue that violent police reprisals like the burning of Cork were the result of numerous causes. (Indeed, it takes me most of a page to list these causes, at the beginning of my conclusion, on p 223) But Borgonovo disagrees, arguing that reprisals “cannot be adequately explained by theories of police anger at government betrayal, social isolation or challenges to masculinity”. Instead, he argues that reprisals were “an active government policy, an opinion Leeson does not share”.

To show just how wrong I am, Borgonovo cites cases in which police (“usually Auxiliary Cadets”) “descended into lawbreaking and bloodshed almost instantly on their deployment in Ireland”. The most important of these examples is K Company. Borgonovo says that this “new Auxiliary Cadet company” was “formally activated on December 2nd, 1920”, and also notes that “reckless and criminal behaviour was clearly apparent during its first week on duty”. He then goes on to describe this company’s reckless and criminal behaviour at some length: after the burning of Cork, for example, the company was transferred out of the city to Dunmanway, where one of its cadets “shot dead an elderly priest and a mentally disabled male”. “This all occurred within the company’s first eight weeks of service,” he points out. “The easiest explanation then for their lawlessness,” he concludes, “is that they were instructed to use any means required to regain control of the situation.”

There is just one problem with this example: while K Company was a new company, the majority of its cadets were not new recruits. In their book The Burning of Cork ‑ which Borgonovo references in his review ‑ Gerry White and Brendan O’Shea describe how this unit was created. In the words of the former commandant of the Auxiliary Division, Brigadier-General FP Crozier: “I formed the company in November by taking a platoon from each of three other companies without warning the company commanders (so that they should not ‘pack’ their ‘duds’ into the company).” After explaining why the new company had only three platoons, instead of four, Crozier goes on to say: “The men were not ‘new men’ as they had all served together in other companies elsewhere.” (pp 65-6)

Nor is this an obscure, little known fact. In his book The British Campaign in Ireland 1919-1921, published in 1975, Charles Townshend describes the formation of K Company in some detail, on p 210: “while the company had only lately been formed when it was sent to Cork (a week later),” he concludes, “much of its personnel came from comparatively well-established companies.”

Not all of these men were veterans, of course. Ernest McCall’s book Tudor’s Toughs can provide us with additional information about the cadets of K Company, taken from the Auxiliary Division’s own register. The only man who is known to have taken part in the burning of Cork, Temporary Cadet C.F.L. Schulze, had enlisted in the division on 29 November 1920, and was promoted to section leader on 3 December. Later, in a letter to his mother, Schulze claimed that he “took perforce a reluctant part” in the reprisals on the night of 11 December.

But the man responsible for K Company’s most shocking crime, Temporary Cadet V.A. Hart, had enlisted in the division on 8 September, along with Temporary Cadet S.R. Chapman. According to McCall, both men had served together in F Company, stationed in Dublin, before being transferred to K Company. Sources agree that the two men were “particular friends”. On the night of 11 December, Cadet Chapman was fatally wounded in the grenade attack that precipitated the burning of Cork. Distraught over his friend’s death, Cadet Hart began drinking heavily. Four days later, near Dunmanway, after first threatening to shoot a resident magistrate, he murdered Canon Thomas Magner and Tadhg Crowley.

McCall discusses these murders on pp 93-4. I discuss them in my own book on p 204. But the most detailed and well-researched description of this case appears on pp 29-33 of Sean Enright’s recent book The Trial of Civilians by Military Courts: Ireland 1921. And Enright’s account confirms that this was a random act of bloody personal revenge by a man unbalanced by grief and drink.

Thus, the example of K Company does not prove what Borgonovo says it proves. At best, it proves nothing. At worst, it reinforces my own conclusions instead of undermining them. There is no evidence that these men “descended into lawbreaking and bloodshed almost instantly on their deployment in Ireland”. The worst of them, Cadet Hart, had been serving in Ireland for months ‑ plenty of time for a man to “deteriorate under stressful conditions”. What is more, there is no evidence that these men “were instructed to use any means required to regain control of the situation”. Cadet Schulze makes no mention of any such instructions in his letters home, which are reproduced in The Burning of Cork ‑ only that the men of his company were “very naturally” enraged after the ambush in which Cadet Chapman was killed, and took a “sweet revenge”. Schulze’s own feelings on the subject were conflicted, it seems. “Reprisals are necessary,” he concludes ‑ adding, somewhat incredibly, that “loyal Irishmen agree to that” ‑ “but there is a lot which should not be done, of course it is frequently unavoidable that the innocent suffer with the guilty.”

Borgonovo is right about one thing. I do not accept his claim that police reprisals in the War of Independence were simply the result of an “active government policy”. Government policy played an important part, and in my book I discuss the part it played. But the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were not Predator drones, and reprisals were not Hellfire missiles launched by operators thousands of kilometres away. The violence of the War of Independence was up-close and personal ‑ on both sides: and when men can see the faces and hear the pleas and screams of their victims, they need something more than government policy to motivate them to kill and burn. Even if Borgonovo was correct, his “active government policy” would not provide a sufficient explanation for reprisals like the burning of Cork, or atrocities like the murder of Canon Magner.

But I am not convinced that Borgonovo is correct. His argument that reprisals were the product of an “active government policy” is based on his analysis of a document that he claimed to have discovered in 2009. As David Fitzpatrick has pointed out, this document had in fact been discussed in the works of historians as far back as the 1970s. And in my opinion, Borgonovo and his co-author, Gabriel Doherty, have completely misunderstood this document’s meaning and significance. My critique of their claims has been accepted for publication by a scholarly journal, and will appear in due course. Until then, I would invite readers with an interest in this topic to read my book, and see if they think Borgonovo’s review has done its arguments justice.

Yours sincerely,

D.M. Leeson
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of History
Laurentian University/Université Laurentienne

Read John Borgonovo Dogs of War