Ireland’s Wars: The British Experience In The Easter Rising

Over the last number of weeks we have looked at the various garrisons and areas of operation for the rebels of the Easter Rising, and part of that process has been an examination of British responses and troop movements against those same garrisons and areas of operations. But we have not really looked at the larger picture for the British in any firm way, but we will rectify that in this entry.

The reality of what was occurring in Dublin on Easter Monday took a while to become readily apparent. We will remember that the heads of the British political administration had been actively discussing harsher measures to be taken against nationalist groups as late as the day before Easter Monday, but the final decision has been deferred: on that Monday, much of that administration, along with much of the army’s officers, took advantage of the holiday to go to the Fairyhouse races, while the GOC of the Irish Command, General Lovick Friend, was in London. Thus, the British position in Dublin was somewhat undermanned as the rebellion began, when Matthew Nathan first heard gunfire outside of Dublin Castle. Of the two and a half thousand British soldiers usually stationed in the various Dublin barracks, only 400 or so were in any way battle ready by the time it became obvious a rebellion was underway.

The Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army thus took most of the initiative, but would quickly lose it through their own sedentary strategy. The British soldiers in the four main barracks – Richmond, Marlborough, Portobello and Royal – had as their first objective the securing of Dublin Castle, while some smaller units investigated the reported disturbances, leading to events like the ambush of the Lancers on Sackville Street. These movements brought a flurry of encounters, most notably the fighting at the South Dublin Union, but soldiers were able to reach Dublin Castle and insure that it was not in any serious peril before turning their eyes to the rebels ensconced in City Hall.

Elsewhere, vital points were seized that would prove critical in the days ahead, such as Trinity College, from where such pressure would be put on the headquarters garrison, and Amiens Street Station, towards which troops would be able to advance into the city from the north-east, where rebel forces were slim to non-existent. By Monday night, the British military response was well under way, as General Lowe took command of the situation (Friend would still be the nominal commander, returning to Dublin on Tuesday, but Lowe maintained operational command until later in the week); troops from Ulster arrived at Amiens Station, from the Curragh at Kingsbridge and artillery was sent for from Athlone, while reinforcements began to be moved from the other side of the Irish Sea.

Lowe had some catching up to do, having little idea of the numbers he was up against, and his strategy (such as we can discern, as no written records from his end have survived) reflected that. It called for the British to establish  line of communications from Kingsbridge to Trinity College, and from there to surround and isolate the rebel garrisons, rather than to assault them directly at that early stage, with an emphasis to be on the encirclement of the headquarters garrison on Sackville Street.

The entire affair was, of course, humiliating for the British, but Lowe demonstrated some patience in this approach that undoubtedly avoided unnecessary bloodshed, leaving aside the disaster that soon unfolded at Mount Street Bridge, where patience deserted the commander. Lowe was at least doing something: the civil administration was paralysed, with Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimbourne, allegedly knocking back copious amounts of alcohol as he did so, sending out numerous dramatic missives from his residence in the Phoenix Park, and later declaring martial law – a decision that would provoke much historical debate. Rumours persisted of risings in other parts of Ireland, not helped by iffy communications, and part of the reason why the rebellion lasted the full week may be attributed to the reluctance of British officers to commit too many soldiers from the west, lest army headquarters in the Curragh become exposed to attack.

As we have seen, Lowe’s plan bore dividends within a few days. The approaches to Dublin were guarded from all directions, and pathways into the city secured, through to Trinity College splitting the rebels down the river, then up Capel Street to split the 1st Battalion from headquarters and from Amiens Street across to Parnell Square. Escape routes to the north were closed off, and the balance of power in terms of men employed soon tipped widely in favour of the British. The various rebel units couldn’t go on the offensive in any way, and in several cases were obligated to contract their positions. Unable to support one another the rebel garrisons ended up fighting individual battles separately, in the case of places like Jacobs Biscuit Factory, no battles at all. The impact of artillery, from the Liffey, from positions close to Trinity College and from the quays, soon made itself felt.

On Friday, the newly appointed military governor of Ireland arrived. General John Maxwell has appeared in this series before, owing to his command in Egypt during the First World War, but had previously served as a staff officer in Ireland. This, combined with his own reputation and his availability – the best generals were naturally engaged on the western front – gave him the opportunity. Others were considered, most notably Sir Ian Hamilton, he of the Gallipoli campaign, but it was felt that the deaths of so many Irish in that disaster would lead to him being too unpopular. If that was the rationale, Maxwell would soon make a mockery of it.

Maxwell left operational issues to Lowe, though his initial orders endorsed and encouraged what was occurring in the city centre, when he indicated he would have no issue with the destruction of any and all buildings held by rebel forces, or preventing active bombardment of their positions. His more critical impact was his declaration that only unconditional surrender would be acceptable, not that the British government would probably have accepted anything less in the circumstances.

It was only in the final part of the week that Lowe had troops being more pro-active, in the attacks on the 1st Battalion’s area from the east, with mixed results. Aside from that the ending of the battle bore testament to Lowe’s restraint: the fighting had mostly petered out for most of the rebels still engaged on Friday and Sunday, with the Volunteers and Citizen Army remaining a threat in being, but largely contained. The focus on the headquarters garrison in terms of artillery employed and troops used to cordon off that area also proved a worthwhile decision: many pf the other garrisons could possibly have fought on for some days, or at least inflicted many casualties in being neutralised, but the surrender of the headquarters garrison, after being bombed out of the GPO and restricted to Moore Street, led soon to the surrender of the other battalions.

The British strategy in dealing with the Easter Rising in Dublin was not a stroke of genius by any means, but was a largely unspectacular but effective use of military resources to insure that the rebellion did not spread further out of British control beyond the events of Easter Monday. Lowe’s approach had its flaws, as the men who fell at Mount Street Bridge or attacking towards Reilly’s Pub demonstrated, but the rebellion in Dublin had been crushed in a week. Arguably it could have been done faster, if Lowe had committed to attacks on the garrisons, but the cost in lives would have been large, something Lowe presumably learned after the experience of the Foresters.

The battle in Dublin was over, but even if the vast majority of it took place in that city the Easter Rising was a national affair, with Volunteers engaged in several different areas. The remainder of my “coverage” of the Easter Rising will largely focus on these events outside of the capital, starting with the 5th Battalion of the Dublin Volunteers, based to the north, who would employ tactics that foreshadowed some of the fighting to come in the War of Independence.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.


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