Ireland’s Wars: The 1920 British Counter-Offensive

Not too long ago we briefly discussed the starkly divided approaches of the British political leadership when it came to the Irish conflict. The opposing camps – those who wanted to enact harsher military-driven policies, and those who preferred to find some conciliation with the nationalists – were unable to come with a firm direction. In this entry I wanted to discuss the military situation in Ireland from the British perspective, and how their war effort was progressing from those Summer 1920 discussions at the higher tables.

The Crown Forces now consisted of a sizable amount of regular military situated throughout the country, but particularly concentrated in Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Dublin; the pre-existing RIC for all of its weaknesses; the RIC reservists, aka the Black and Tans; the RIC Auxiliaries; and the special Ulster-based organisations. A significant problem, that was not fully appreciated by political leadership at the time but certainly was by those on the ground, was unity of command. Too often military and police were operating separately or at cross purposes, and Dublin Castle was unable, or unwilling, to offer direction to the degree that was needed. John French, derided by many around him as a shadow of his former self, was increasingly occupying a symbolic role, with Hamar Greenwood the main civilian player in government. But in many ways his role was detached from the situation on the ground.

The goal of the British war effort was still to defeat the rebel forces, who were frequently couched in the language of criminality, as opposed to military. There had been a relative flood of soldiers and reservist/auxiliary police into Ireland, but finding the best way to utilise that flood was the issue. Crown Forces’ ability to project their power was compromised by several factors.

A major transport boycott consistently undermined the British military position in Ireland during this time, with train unions and dock workers routinely refusing to move British war material or British troops. Such things were a combination of republican sentiment, pressure from the IRA/Dail and anti-British sentiment from left-wing unions (the British authorities often referred to the strikes as being a result of “Bolshevism” as much as republicanism). They did not completely cripple British ability to move, but they did force the administration to rely to a greater extent on the roads than they may otherwise have done. Water-based transport, for example, became extremely difficult to carry out if dock-workers would not load ships.

Emphasis on road transport exposed British deficiencies in vehicles, both in terms of troop transports and in terms of offensive warfare. Beginning in the second half of 1920 more and more vehicles began to enter Ireland for the use of the military and police, with the most memorable probably being the Peerless armoured car, whose single or twin machine gun armament made it extremely formidable when engaged in combat. But it, along with many of the other vehicles employed by the Crown Forces, were suited to only the better roads, and not to the country lanes and mud-tracks that so much of the War of Independence was fought besides.

In bad weather – and it being Ireland, bad weather was never far away – the Peerless and other vehicles would not get too far in the countryside. There were also a few tanks deployed to Ireland, whose limited maneuverability and difficulty with certain terrain made them essentially useless, despite their guns. Over abundance of firepower has never been a major deciding factoring guerrilla warfare anyway, and there was a recurring issue over the availability of engineers to maintain the vehicles. Sometimes the trucks given to the military or RIC were not entirely fit for purpose: many units were forced to perform ad-hoc “up-armouring” on their own transports as the reality of ambushes became clear. But, it can’t be denied that the availability of such vehicles helped, at least from a morale perspective.

Beginning in the Autumn of 1920, the British attempted to project force more, using key urban centres as nodal points from which patrols in force were sent into the surrounding countryside. We have covered some of the outcomes of these tactics already, with the IRA finding targets with those patrols that followed predictable and repeated routes, and who exposed themselves to danger by not travelling in enough force. The extent of British ability to utilise vehicles also pushed the IRA into practicing more counter-mobility operations to impede their enemies’ progress, by cutting trenches through roads or felling trees, anything that could slow down or frustrate the military or the police.

But it is clear that the British approach, dubbed as an Autumn counter-offensive by some, bore dividends of a sort. For much of 1920 up to that point the British had essentially surrendered huge parts of Ireland to republican control, but now they were back, even if it was frequently quite temporary. Surprise raids became common-place. There was a massive increase in the amount of confirmed or suspected IRA members being arrested, and an increase in the number killed. The “Restoration of Order in Ireland” Act helped with all of this, as it was easier to detain and convict suspects than it had been before. The abolition of coroner’s courts also gave Crown Forces greater leeway in pursuing their objectives, as they had less legal consequences to worry about. British presence in rebel-heavy areas was thus increased, and their control over large swaths of the country where IRA activity was not as pronounced were further solidified.

As a result of a flood of Crown Forces in their areas of operation, many Volunteers were obliged to go on the run. The British undoubtedly viewed such such expediencies from the IRA as a victory of sorts, but it was a double-edged sword: many of the men forced on the run had no other option but to coalesce with others, which naturally caused the formation of more flying column units, or the expansion of others. In essence, the Crown Forces created a number of more dangerous enemies in the pursuit of a wider clutch.

And of course there were other negatives as well. RIC and military casualties also increased as engagements became more frequent: many of them still had no adequate training to deal with warfare characterised by ambush, and they still did not hold the initiative when it came to the military engagements that defined the conflict. For every IRA Volunteer arrested or killed, there was the possibility of negative press and international condemnation, arenas that were more important for the overall struggle than many realised. The strangulation of county councils could not deflect from the fact that Dail courts and republican police still ruled significant parts of Ireland. And control of areas like Kildare or Louth was all very well, but “control” of territory has never been the key indicator of success in the fighting of a counter-insurgency war.

And no number of IRA men killed or captured could undo the self-inflicted wounds of reprisals, which remained, aside from ambushes and assassination, the major activity of the war from a military perspective. They remained an impromptu enough affair at this point, driven more by anger at the deaths of comrades-in-arms and frustration with the reality of guerrilla war, and less by a cool, calculated decision to seek the attainment of military goals by means different to engagement with the enemy. So many towns, villages, creameries and farms had been wrecked or partially destroyed at this point, and many more were to come. The British could claim that reprisals cowed previously hostile towns and made it easier for them to do their jobs, but it is debatable how submissive the victims of reprisals really were in the aftermath.

For most of 1920, reprisals were only a semi-formal thing, often directed by the most senior officer on the scene, but an officer who had little fear of repercussion. Dublin Castle did not have any stated aversion to reprisals, but they stopped short of formally endorsing them at the same time. When reprisals took place, it was common practice for the official response to be one where the incident was downplayed dramatically, or was blamed on republican elements, or was denied altogether. At the same time, the political figures at the heart of the British war effort continually tried to steer the conversation back to accusations or murder and terrorism, and the idea that Crown Forces in the field were entitled to fight back in the best manner that they could.

Few in Ireland, the press or the House of Commons were fooled by the denials and the obfuscation. The dark joke from the period that has been repeated since is that everyone agreed that “there were no such things as reprisals, but they are having a very good effect”. The facade could not be upheld indefinitely. It was not until the end of the year that the government made the move to more formally recommend the policy of reprisal. In line with the official imposition of martial law in large parts of Munster, they became official doctrine in December, where units operating in the field were instructed to carry out actions of collective punishment on communities thought to be supporting the IRA.

What appears clear is that, whether members of the government really believed it or not, thy were perfectly happy to act as if the tide had been turned, and as if the conflict in Ireland would soon come to a speedy conclusion. The most remembered comment of this era is David Lloyd George’s exclamation, delivered in a speech on the 9th of November, that they “had murder by the throat” in Ireland. It was to prove the most painful of false dawns for Lloyd George and his government. By the end of November events in both the capital and in the countryside would show that, far from being in a position to bring an imminent end to the conflict in Ireland on favorable terms, the British were still vulnerable, and arguably more vulnerable than ever.

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

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1920 British Counter-Offensive

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Kilmichael | Never Felt Better

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