Ireland’s Wars: The Black And Tans

1920 was the year that the Irish War of Independence truly became the conflict that it is popularly remembered as. It was to be a year of ambush and reprisal, of atrocities and war crimes, all in pursuit of an Ireland freed, or an Ireland remaining inside the United Kingdom. Central to this escalation of the conflict were the two new branches of the “Crown Forces” that were introduced to Ireland that year, and in this entry we will discuss the first.

The ending of World War One created a lot of problems, and both the victors and the losers shared a very awkward one: the millions of men who had spent years in uniform fighting, killing and dying, who were now coming home. Those men were returning to homes and countries that had, in many cases, changed radically, whether it was on a social or political level. Work was hard to come by, and many of them struggled to resume their place in a society that had little use for men whose skills were primarily military. Those suffering from PTSD had additional issues reintegrating after the mass demobilisations, as the “Lost Generation” adapted to the new post-war realities.

The issues were more acute in the various new entities that had sprung to life in the wake of the now collapsed German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. There unemployed soldiers too often found themselves becoming the armed wing of political movements, whether it was from a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary perspective. This contributed to the large scale instability that flooded central and eastern Europe in the post-war years, and served as a precursor to the rise of fascism.

But even the victorious nations, that lacked the internal instability of the new Germany or Russia, still had to deal with the very thorny question of what to do with their millions of demobilised veterans. In Britain, David Lloyd George and his cabinet saw some of the first-hand after effects, with dissatisfaction over the workings of demobilisation, subsequent spikes in unemployment and ex-soldiers being involved in various kinds of small-scale violence and crime. As the conflict in Ireland developed, Lloyd George saw the opportunity to turn a problem into an advantage.

The RIC, in the latter half of 1919, was in bits. I won’t rehash the point again to a great degree, but it suffices to say that the British police in Ireland were hard-pressed, under resourced, suffering from poor morale and clearly not the entity they needed to be to keep control of Ireland. They were crying out for help, those that were still inclined to perform their jobs dutifully. It took a while – too long really – for the British government to answer that call. When they did, it was through those “demobbed” soldiers.

The Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve was officially formed in late 1919, beginning recruitment in Great Britain at the same time. The move was opposed by some, like the RIC Inspector-General Joseph Byrne, who felt the influx of soldiers would make for a disastrous mix, but he was silenced after being removed from his office in late 1919. As the name would indicate, the Reservists were earmarked to be a back-up and force multiplier for the RIC.

Recruitment campaigns warned of a dangerous task ahead of any takers in Ireland, but, bit by bit, the Reserve began to become a more and more popular resort for unemployed former soldiers. The oft-repeated story that the unit was recruited primarily from British prisons is a myth: the Reservists were still becoming members of the police force, something impossible if you had a criminal record (though it is true that, after the conflict was over, two former members of the Reserves would be convicted for murder and hanged). Recruitment increased when RIC pay was improved, and by the end of the War of Independence, nearly 10’000 men had been inducted into the Reserve, though only 7’000 of them would end up serving in Ireland.

Those men received three months of fairly rudimentary training in police work before being shipped to Ireland.  Being realistic, standard police work was not what they were being recruited for. The influx was a welcome one for many in the RIC and the Dublin administration, but the slipshod nature of what was occurring almost immediately created problems that had not been adequately prepared for. The most obvious example was inevitable supply difficulties, especially in terms of clothing. Until much later in 1920 their weren’t enough full RIC uniforms available for every recruit, and so they had to improvise. The Reservists were issued with amalgamations, usually British Army trousers that were khaki, and dark blue RIC or British police tunics and caps. The contrasting colours were certainly noticeable. Christopher O’Sullivan, writing for the Limerick Post newspaper in March 1920, might have been the first to coin the nickname the Reservists became much better known as, comparing their colours to the Beagle dogs of the Scarteen fox hunters: Black and Tan.

That term is as loaded as it gets in Irish popular remembrance. The very conflict where it was coined is still sometimes known as “the Tan War” in parts, probably the most famous ballad to come out of the period is “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” and even today “Tan” remains a pejorative word in Ireland, typically applied to someone from England. That signifies clearly that the “Black and Tans” were an important part of the conflict, and so they were.

There were other notable aspects of the Black and Tans that also garnered immediate attention. Of course they were pre-dominantly English, Protestant and tended to be shorter than the average RIC constable (a consequence of an urban lower class upbringing), all things that were far outside the experience of many of the Irish in rural areas now being patrolled by the Reservists. The IRA was able, very quickly, to paint “the Tans” as a more outward sign of foreign occupation. Their behavior did the rest.

For the British they were the escalation that many on their side had been asking for, there to fight the counter-insurgency war that commanders had been afraid to fight in 1919. For the Irish, they were war criminals, a force of men brought to Ireland to undertake a course of  mayhem, burnings, reprisals and assassinations. As has often been pointed out since, some of what was laid at the feet of the Black and Tans was actually undertaken by the Auxiliaries, who I will discuss in greater detail when we come to their founding. But the Black and Tans were undoubtedly at the heart of many of the War of Independence’s most controversial moments.

As Reservists, the Black and Tans’ nominal job was to undertake the more basic tasks of the RIC – sentry duty, escort duty for government officials, crowd control – freeing up the longer-term RIC to engage the issue of the IRA and “the Republic” more vigorously. In reality, their duties in Ireland would go beyond that, and into the realms of true counter-insurgency. Right from the start, discipline would be a problem. It remains debatable to what degree this was accepted, and even encouraged, by officers on the ground and those further up the chain. It seems obvious that many fully meant to employ the Black and Tans less as a police reserve, and more of an instrument of terror, to try and recoup the losses that the RIC had taken in 1919. I will discuss some individual cases of this in time, but it suffices to say that the Black and Tans signified the beginning of a militarisation of the Irish police, and it is rare in history that such a course has not resulted in undue amounts of violence, especially against undeserving civilian targets.

The Black and Tans had the job of attempting to push back the gains of the IRA, but even while they were being deployed the IRA were initiating a new part of their general offensive against British authority. In the next entry I will discuss an example of this offensive, as the war against the RIC was kicked up a notch.

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

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Black And Tans

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