Ireland’s Wars: Kilmichael

I feel that it behooves me, at the start of this entry, to give a friendly word of warning. The topic of Kilmichael and what occurred there on the 28th November 1920 might be the most debated engagement of the entire revolutionary period, and it has been a debate that has been fractious to say the least. Just about every aspect of this ambush has some degree of dispute. Claims and counter-claims have led to some significant damage to various reputations, and it seems to be one of those topics that is in danger of engendering uncivilised discussion the moment it is brought up. What I write below has been done to the best of my ability and seeks to cast no aspersions on anyone’s character, whether they were one of the participants in the actual ambush, or someone who has written on it since. If I err, I can at least say that I err with honesty.

Based in Macroom, the detachment of the Auxiliaries designated to cover the area of West Cork from the summer of 1920 quickly gained a somewhat fearsome reputation from some quarters, even relative to the negative perception of that unit generally. That part of the countryside had been largely ceded to the IRA by that summer, with the outlying RIC barracks’ abandoned and even the military hesitant to embark on patrols, having lost several men already. In comparison, the “Auxies” were unleashed without some of the restraints placed on their military counterparts. Their penchant for raids at all hours of the day, the harassment and occasional shooting of the civilian population, and their role in reprisals all marked them out. Of course, in line with so much else about the area and the Kilmichael ambush, it is apropos to note that more positive remembrances of this Auxiliary unit also exist, that claim the more negative reports are exaggerations, and that this particular unit of the Auxiliaries was not all that unpopular. Regardless, it became of fixation of some in the Cork IRA to try and fight back against them, to fire the first shots in an escalating war and re-take some of the initiative lost in the British “counter-offensive”, and the man at the forefront of that effort was Tom Barry.

Of course we have been introduced to Barry already, for his part in the Toureen Ambush and his growing stature in the IRA. Very soon after that attack he was installed as the commander of the West Cork flying column, and it was this unit that Barry assembled at Clogher on the 21st November, with the purpose of enacting an ambush of an Auxiliary patrol in the area. Barry did so largely of his volition, and more than likely he was not doing so solely to combat the Crown Forces in the area, but also to prove his own republican credentials, still viewed with some doubt by other members of the West Cork Brigade. The column consisted of 36 men, and they were relatively well-armed for the time and place, with rifles, pistols and a few Mills Bombs.

Travelling the local roads on horseback with another Volunteer, Barry scouted out for the best ambush position, and found one in the hills around 8km’s south-west of Macroom, not far from the small village of Kilmichael. These hills were around the Macroom-Dunmanway road (outside of Barry’s brigade area), and this route was commonly used by the Auxiliary patrols that emanated from Macroom. A bend in the road would force vehicles to slow, and thus make them easier targets. The site had advantages and disadvantages for any attacker: it offered a commanding view of the road and had rocky terrain that could be used as cover, but the general area was not especially suitable for a withdrawal in the event that the IRA got into trouble and needed to evacuate quickly. Indeed, it has been claimed from some surviving documents, their authenticity disputed, that there was no planned ambush, and that the column just happened to be out on a march near the Kilmichael position when a target of opportunity came their way.

The column marched to the ambush site on foot, and was on site on the night of the 27th November. They stayed in-place over-night and past the morning of the 28th. It was a wet, miserable day. Barry split his forces into five distinct groups, four of them to the north of the road, and one to the south. On the far right, north of the road, Barry established his own command post behind a stone wall, which was loopholed for firing purposes. With him included, there were four men there. It should arguably have been more central in terms of the overall ambush area, and higher than its position near the road, but Barry may simply have wanted to be as close to the engagement as possible. Three sections were placed in a line from the CP going east to west, each situated about 35 metres apart, with around ten men each, in some cases doubling up lines to take advantage of the terrain. The last of these was split into two between either side of the road so that some men could serve both as a reserve, and as a guard against the Auxiliaries from potentially using the south of the road as a defensive point, and against the possibility of an additional vehicle. A few unarmed scouts were also spread out further away from the intended ambush site.

It was not until the later afternoon, after 4 PM, when a patrol of Auxiliaries approached, travelling west to east. They were contained inside two Crossley tenders, each of which had nine men each. Their overall commander was a Captain Francis Crake, a veteran of the trenches who had won a Military Cross in the Hundred Days. There have been claims that a civilian or a Volunteer dressed in a British Army uniform tricked the Auxiliaries into going down a the road to the ambush site, but there is no substantial evidence of this: the road in question was often used by the Crown Forces. Indeed, it was such adherence to this kind of routine than made them easier targets, and it remains somewhat astonishing that, nearly two years into the war, the Crown Forces had still not adequately learned this lesson.

At least one member of the ambush party – Barry says it was himself – stood in the road to slow the lorries down, and did so while wearing a military uniform. This has been identified as either a British Army uniform, or a more formal Volunteer uniform matched with a trench coat, and other claims have been made that multiple Volunteers were uniformed that day. Either way, the sight of this man, or men, was enough to get the Auxiliaries to slow down. The trucks were around 40 metres apart. Barry threw one of the Mills Bombs, and managed to get it inside the cabin of the leading truck, and it appears to have killed both the driver and Colonel Drake when it detonated. The trucks stopped, the Auxies dismounted and the ambush began in earnest.

The actual military engagement was simple enough, and has generally not inspired much in the way of examination. The important thing to note is that the nature of the fight seems to have been especially brutal, even by the standards of this kind of guerrilla war. The Crown Forces had been caught by surprise, and had to spend a critical bit of time getting out of their trucks before they could return fire adequately, while the rebels were well-placed close enough to the road that hitting the targets was not hard. The men in the first truck were cut-down totally within a few minutes, some perhaps with bayonets, and when this was done Barry led his CP Volunteers down the road to engage the rest of the enemy.

The western sections of the IRA were all the time engaging with the Auxiliaries, who were attempting to use a roadside ditch/laneway for cover after their lorry had gotten stuck while attempting to reverse. Things swung decisively in the IRA’s favour here when Barry and his men got involved, but it was still a terrible engagement. Things apparently reached the point of more hand-to-hand combat, with rifle butts employed, bayonets as well and revolvers fired at close range. By the end of it, 16 of the 18 Auxiliaries were dead or wounded fatally. Two of the Volunteers were dead, and one wounded fatally.

In terms of the military side of things, it appeared to be a nearly perfect ambush. The IRA had chosen their position well, with the British surprised to the point of extreme vulnerability. The death of Drake in the first moments was presumably also crucial. The Auxiliaries were caught with fire from both sides and were unable to escape, owing to the driverless lorry in front, and the inability of the one in the rear to turn, at least quickly. The men were unable to manouvre or find adequate cover quickly. On the other side, the IRA had cover, clear sight of their enemy, and enough firepower that they did not need to be immediately concerned about conserving ammunition. They also seemingly had the will to close with the enemy and fight in a very personal manner: in this Barry’s gung-ho leadership, and apparent pre-ambush exhortation that no quarter would be given, was probably crucial. But that last point also leads to the next topic.

We must at last consider the issue of the so-called “false surrender”. In Barry’s account drawn up some time after the event, a number of the Auxiliaries, in the later stage of the ambush, put up their hands and made to surrender. When Volunteers approached them to enact this, those Volunteers were suddenly shot down. Barry notes this as a point when he ordered his men to resume firing, and to not let-up until all of the enemy forces were dead, justifying this order as a consequence of he duplicity of the “false surrender”. This occurred to the point that a subsequent surrender attempt was ignored.

However, there are problems with this narrative. Another version of the ambush, allegedly written by Barry soon after it happened, makes no mention of the supposed surrender, and while there has been a fair bit of discussion on the legitimacy of this document, we can cut through some of the noise by just saying that it is not out of the realms of possibility that Barry did write it. The accounts of other Volunteers vary, with some mentioning the false surrender, and others not, and at least one participant doing both at different times.

The alternative view is that there was no false surrender, but a real one. Those who follow this thread invariably conclude that some of the Auxies did lay down their arms and give up, but were then killed, either in the moment of surrender, or after the fighting in its totality has ceased. The evidence to back this up is myriad, from the first-hand accounts that do not mention a surrender, to one that claims a prisoner was taken and shot, to the the suggestion from examination of the bodies that some men were killed while their hands were in the air. British sources in the aftermath went ever further, claiming that some of the dead Auxiliaries were set upon, before or after death, with axes, but there does not seem to be any hard evidence for this (one account claims such apparent injuries were caused by a herd of cattle trampling the bodies).

There are possibilities and explanations for many of the points made. The coroners report claimed several of the dead had been shot at point-blank range, but this could be explained by the apparent hand-to-hand fighting and the possibility of coup de grace shots to potentially already dead Auxiliaries. The surviving account from the Auxiliary side backs some of these assertions up (see below) but was related second-hand and came from a man with serious brain injuries, so cannot be considered reliable. Arguments against the possibility of the column summarily executing prisoners is that it was IRA policy to disarm and then release prisoners, and that Barry himself did this at other points in the war. Others will say that Barry went into the ambush intent on making a name for himself, and that only a massive slaughter could achieve this goal.

In my own readings about the Kilmichael ambush, I have found that the thoughts of W.H. Kautt, in his book Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion 1919-1921, to be compelling. He argues for a middle course between the twin extremes of “The Auxiliaries were duplicitous and deserved to be killed” and “The IRA murdered defenceless men after they surrendered”. He does this by pointing out that the Kilmichael battle-site consisted of a strung-out area of engagement, and that it is quite possible that some Auxiliaries did attempt a genuine surrender, only for some of their comrades still fighting elsewhere to shoot those attempting to take that surrender. The IRA, enraged at this seeming betrayal, from their perspective, reacted by aiming to kill all of the enemy forces that they could, and to accept no more surrenders. No subterfuge, no murder, just reactions in the midst of a firefight. I find Kautt’s suggestion compelling, and certainly far more likely than any villainy on the part of either side.

I often find that analysis of events from nearly a hundred years ago expects much in the way of logical thinking from the participants, as if the the bullets, bombs and blood shouldn’t impede perspective and rationality. Too many historians, in my view, discount the simple truth of “fog of war”, and how the events of a battlefield, and the vital decisions taken in seconds from a position of genuinely mortal danger, rarely correspond neatly to a narrative of heroes and villains. Moreover, the minute events of seconds as perceived at a time of great stress and adrenaline rush are difficult to remember with pinpoint accuracy even days after the event, let alone years and decades later in the case of some accounts. Being frank, I feel that much of the debate on these points has been fueled less by genuine historical truth-seeking and more by ideological slant.

But we must move on. Whatever had occurred exactly, Barry ordered arms to be collected, the bodies searched and the trucks burned once the fighting was finished. He also claims to have felt the need to parade his men, who were apparently stunned by the ferocity of what had taken place, and the blood that had been shed, in order to maintain military discipline. This done, the IRA retreated to the south.

By that night the British knew, from the fact that patrol became greatly overdue on its return, that something serious had happened, but it was not until the following day, once the winter darkness had passed, that the site was discovered. Only then was a detachment able to get to the Kilmichael site safely to investigate what had happened, and accounts relate their shock at the scale of the carnage, between the bodies that were piled up and the destroyed vehicles.

Yet, two members of the Auxiliaries survived the ambush, despite what Barry and other Volunteers at the scene thought. One was Cadet Henry Frederick Forde, who had been hit several times, once in the head, and was naturally presumed dead  by the Volunteers. Astonishingly he survived both his wounds and being left on the rain-soaked battlefield over night. He was picked up by the first Crown Forces at the scene and survived, but with a degree of impairment that he suffered for the rest of his life. It was his supposed account that fueled some of the British claims of atrocity, but it cannot be considered reliable. The other survivor was Cadet Cecil Guthrie, the driver of the second truck, who was able to escape the scene of the ambush, and headed roughly in the direction of Macroom seeking assistance. In a wet and miserable night he was spotted by local Volunteers, trailed and captured. Shortly after he was killed, and his body dumped in a local bog, from which it was recovered and buried properly in 1926.

There were reprisals in the aftermath, with homes and farms burnt, shots fired at civilians and other associated acts of semi-legitimised collective punishment, but even here there is dispute about how far such things went. For a time, the surviving IRA members dispersed from their column, and a number suffered from a period of ill-health, undoubtedly brought on by the stress of what had happened. Barry himself appears to have suffered something close to a heart-attack, or an acute stress reaction, in the aftermath, but recovered. The success of the ambush meant that his own republican leanings were now unquestionable, and he graduated to permanent command of the column, which would take the field again shortly enough, its exploits on that cold November afternoon making headlines the world over.

In many ways, Kilmichael was a watershed in the Irish War of Independence. Up until that ambush, the losses that the Crown Forces had taken in engagements had been relatively small, ones and twos when fatalities had been taken at all. The vast majority of those casualties had been Irish-born members of the RIC. British military regulars, and members of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries that had come from a military background had died in the kinds of quantities where their deaths could be dismissed in terms of an analysis of the effectiveness of the Irish rebel forces.

Kilmichael changed all of that. A group of ex-British servicemen, well-armed and with at least standard levels of training, had not only been successfully engaged by a force of the enemy, but had almost been wiped out to a man. The forces of “criminality” as the IRA were frequently deemed, would not have been capable of such act. One or two deaths in an ambush could be put down to lucky shots or the benefits of surprise. The deaths of soldiers in hotels or in boarding houses could be pegged as cowardly assassination. Kilmichael could not be called any of those things, not with a straight face. It was the moment when the IRA firmly and forever established itself as a military unit that could compete with what its enemy was able to throw at it. Even David Lloyd George was compelled to acknowledge this reality in cabinet meetings. The difference is critical when you consider the larger context: a criminal gang of murderers was not something many could contemplate negotiating with. An army was something a bit different. And this was all in line with the events of the previous week: more and more, the prospect of settling the issue in Ireland through talk rather than guns became more and more likely after November.

The war in Dublin and the war in the countryside had now, in the space of seven days, thrown up extraordinary blows against the Crown Forces. They would have a response, both in the short term and in the larger context of the overall war. The Crown Forces would be relatively restrained for a period, but nearly two weeks after the events of Kilmichael, the war’s most memorable reprisal, with the possible exception of Croke Park, would take place in Cork City.

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

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Kilmichael

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