The War of Independence was a conflict of rural and urban ambushes, of house and barracks burnings, of intimidation, hunger strikes and assassination. But it was also a war where other, nominally non-deadly, methods of political violence were employed. In this entry, I want to discuss one of those methods and one of those operations, where the IRA tried something new to make their point. It is an incident that I have mentioned in passing before, but having looked into the matter in greater detail, I find an elaboration irresistible.
General Cuthbert Lucas was an English military officer who had served in the Boer War, at Gallipoli and the Somme, rising in rank to become a divisional commander by the time the Great War was over. In late 1919 he was appointed to the command of the 16th Infantry Brigade, then based in Fermoy, taking up his position in November, not too long after the Fermoy ambush where a British soldier had been killed. It was a tense and nervous time: the locals had not forgotten the violence that the inhabitants of the barracks had inflicted on the town after that ambush, and with the war getting increasingly bloody, those same inhabitants were obviously feeling more nervous than ever with their position in Ireland. Lucas’ task, to maintain internal discipline and assist in the wider war effort, while trying to maintain cordial civil-military relations, was not an enviable one.
One of the things Lucas would do to relax in such circumstances was angling, with local waterways providing plenty of opportunity. Unfortunately for him, his penchant for the activity was well-noticed by elements of the IRA, that took a keen interest in Lucas, for obvious reason. Liam Lynch, commander of Cork’s No. 2 Brigade, thought the General a tempting target, not for assassination, but for capture. Aside from a desire to demonstrate the growing power and reach of the IRA, the nominal reason for this approach was the suggestion that a prisoner exchange could be arranged with the British for Lucas, with Lynch wanting to gain the freedom of Michael FitzGerald, one of the men who had taken part in the Fermoy ambush, and the only one to be arrested in the aftermath.
On the 26th June, as Lucas and two Colonel’s, an Engineer named Danford and an Artilleryman named Tyrell, fished along the banks of the Cork Blackwater, the IRA closed in, now making good on their lengthy observations of Lucas’ habits and knowledge that he was now hopelessly isolated. In truth, Lucas and the others were acting foolishly, unarmed and accompanied only by a single batman, seemingly careless of the reality of what was taking place in Ireland at the time. Lynch was not one to draw back from such an operation. That evening, as Lucas and the others returned from their angling towards a lodge that was their temporary residence, Lynch and a few of his senior brigade officers waylaid the trio. The batman, unimportant, was restrained and left behind, as the IRA bundled the three officers into their own car and another they had borrowed for the occasion, driving off in the direction of Mallow.
At that point, things almost fell apart from the IRA. Collaborating secretly by speaking Arabic, a result of a shared tour in Egypt, Lucas and Danford attacked their captors even as they were being driven away, and a brutal scuffle broke out, with Lucas coming close to turning Lynch’s own gun on the IRA commander. Danford was wounded in this exchange, but the officers were eventually subdued. At a loss for what to so, it was decided to leave Tyrell behind to care for the wounded Danford, while the IRA left with just Lucas in tow. One might wonder why Lynch did not end their lives rather than let them go free, but the whole point of the exercise was to arrange an exchange, something that the British would never permit if blood had been shed in the set-up. Danford would survive.
The goal now was to get Lucas out of the area, before the inevitable British response. When the barracks at Fermoy was made aware of what had happened that night, every available soldier was soon thrown into a search operation. Aircraft from the still nascent RAF were soon employed, at the urging of an apocalyptic Winston Churchill, who ignored warnings that such escalation could actually endanger Lucas. Angry regulars visited more destruction on Fermoy, much as they had before, with shops and buildings damaged or looted, and local residents the subject of intense harassment. A reported chant was “We want our fucking General back”. Numerous arrests were made, mostly of innocent bystanders: one was the son of the woman who owned the lodge Lucas had been staying at, in the vain home such imprisonment could get her to reveal information.
But by then it was too late. Over the next few days, Lucas was moved rapidly from point to point. In the course of the next month he would spend time in over 15 locations, split between Cork, Limerick and Clare. It was the West Limerick Brigade, with Tomas Malone involved in transport, that kept Lucas in custody for much of this time, the arrangement made beforehand by contact between Lynch and their O/C Sean Finn, before Michael Brennan of the East Clare Brigade took over the job.
Much has been made of Lucas’ treatment during this confinement, which by all accounts was extremely pleasant for the time and place. The General was kept fed, and allowed liberal opportunities for exercise, which included games of croquet and, on one memorable day, his assistance given to getting the hay in from a farm he was being held at, allegedly at his own request. He was kept supplied with copious amounts of whiskey, and engaged his captors in card games, which he invariably won. The biggest complaint Lucas would later make about the experience was boredom, insisting that he was treated in a gentlemanly fashion by the IRA.
Perhaps the only serious problem Lucas experienced was a lack of contact with his wife, Joan, based in England and heavily pregnant. At first the news of her husband’s fate was kept from her for fear of the baby’s health, but the truth could not be hidden forever. Mrs Lucas gave birth on the 1st of July, when her husband was being held in West Limerick. The IRA took pity on the man, and made arrangements for his wife to send letters to him, made possible due to sympathetic postal workers in Limerick who agreed to supply the correspondence to the IRA. The two would exchange several letters during his confinement, in which Lucas would learn of the birth of his son and would assure his worried wife that he was being treated well.
Naturally, the event made a lot of international headlines, and was a major source of embarrassment for Westminster. There was no way to spin the kidnapping of a general, or their inability to get him back. A ballad to the tune of “The Blarney Roses”, dubbed “Can Anybody Tell Me Where Did General Lucas Go?” became momentarily popular, and may have been used to taunt the Fermoy soldiers mentioned above. But despite this, there was never any inkling that the proposed prisoner exchange was ever even informally discussed between the two sides, a consequence of the constant need to move Lucas, and the fear that any contact would immediately bring raids in the area the contact had come from.
In the end, the trouble of keeping Lucas, both in terms of the manpower employed who could not be used on more pro-active tasks, the safehouses occupied and the expense of maintaining his whiskey supply, told. With seemingly no possibility of a prisoner exchange – Michael FitzGerald would die on hunger strike in October 1920 – and not wanting to risk the wrath of public opinion by disposing of Lucas, the IRA holding the General, now in Herbertstown in Limerick, decided enough was enough. The guard holding him was relaxed enough that Lucas was able to “escape”, doing so on the 30th of July. He made his way to Pallasgreen RIC station where he made his identity known to the authorities.
If the story had stopped there the whole event would have been notable enough, but there were further developments of much more serious consequence. The morning after his escape, Lucas joined a group of soldiers carrying military mail, travelling by lorry and with a motorcycle lead, intending to return to Fermoy at the soonest opportunity. Barely twenty minutes after leaving, they had just travelled past the small village of Oola, near Limerick’s border with Tipperary, when they were forced to come to a grinding halt. The road was barricaded. Suddenly shots rang out.
Independent of anything that the IRA units in Cork, Limerick or Clare had done, IRA men from Tipperary, including Dan Breen and Sean Treacy, had arranged to ambush what they thought would only be a British military dispatch rider, but which turned out to both be that and a lorry load of troops. Though they knew about Lucas’ situation, they had no idea until after the shooting that he was present at the scene of the ambush. The motorcycle rider was killed in the first volley of fire, and another soldier in the lorry killed as the ambush escalated. Several other British soldiers were wounded, but survived. Lucas himself, grabbing a pistol and firing back, was grazed in the face. For ten minutes the two sides fired back and forth: having not expected the amount of soldiers they faced, the IRA quickly decided to retreat, especially when other British military and RIC neared the scene. Lucas survived, and would continue on his way. British regulars wold later run amok in Tipperary Town as revenge for the deaths of their comrades.
Still, there was more drama to unfold. Lucas’ account of what had happened, and his positive apprisal of how he had been treated by the IRA, caused further embarrassment to the British government, that was forced to deal with one of their senior army officers essentially praising what they were otherwise trying to treat as a largely lawless bunch of criminals. The General further refused to outline where he had been kept when imprisoned, or to try and identify those involved, allegedly having given his word of honour to his captors that he would not do so. He stuck to this despite the threat of a court martial. He would soon return home to his wife and newborn son. He would remain in the army until 1932, and died in 1958.
The entire affair was a PR disaster for the British from start to finish. A senior General commanding one of their brigades had placed himself in harms way by not giving adequate consideration for security. The IRA had been able to demonstrate their own effectiveness by capturing him so easily, and evading all efforts to retrieve him. Worse, the IRA were able to cultivate an image of being honourable jailers, treating with respect a high-ranking “prisoner-of-war”, and were even able to add a nice romantic sheen to the story through their facilitation of communication between Lucas and his wife. And, at the very end of it all, the British had suffered another ambush and another two soldiers killed.
But it is also notable for the sheer civility of it. Only a few months after what occurred, it would be unthinkable for a senior British general acting as Lucas did not to be targetted for assassination, or for any member of the Crown Forces who fell into IRA hands to be treated as well. It is a rare but fascinating moment in the history of the War of Independence, when the violence that marked the conflict seemed to temporarily recede. The like of it would be rare in the future.
From Cork we now go abroad, to have a look at one of the “named” Irish units of the British military. The Connacht Rangers were one of the most famous regiments of the United Kingdom, who had just emerged from the slaughter of the First World War in a badly reduced state. Stationed in India, some of its membership would now provide one of the War of Independence’s most infamous flashpoints.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.
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