I hope, in the preceding section of entries, that I have been able to give something approximating a comprehensive picture to the Irish War of Independence. The two-and-a-half year conflict is a strange middle-child in the Irish revolutionary period in many ways, lacking the explosiveness of 1916, and the long-term political impact of the Civil War. It was a war of many small-scale actions, most of which would barely have registered on the face of some of the other conflicts that I have covered in the course of this series. For some, it has no clear starting point, and even when it ended it was perceived as being just a pause. The war had no clear victor if everyone is being honest, and is often perceived merely as prelude to the events of the following two years. And yet, the War of Independence is critical in Irish history: the years when armed Irish nationalists were capable of fighting Britain to the point of a stalemate, and irrevocably claimed the right of self-government for the majority of the island. In summarising the war, I want to look at dividing into distinct phases where that is possible, before offering a tactical and strategic assessment of each side, and then ending on the key question of what the actual result of the war was.
I think that, for me, the War of Independence is best neatly divided into its three years. 1919 saw a low-level constabulary conflict, where the IRA focused on the RIC/DMP as its primary enemy, and where the British satisfied itself with using the same as its main response. 1920 immediately saw escalation, first in the coordinated campaign of targeting police infrastructure, a British response to place in Ireland counter-insurgency elements, the true beginnings of the bloodshed in Ulster, leading up to the big explosions of violence at the end of the year that each said something about the war in different arenas: in the intelligence communities of either side with Bloody Sunday, in the field with Kilmichael, and with the targeting of civilians in the burning of Cork City. 1921 was the apogee of the violence, where both sides, now firmly entrenched in the conflict, raised the stakes with operations of varying size and sophistication.
On the tactical level, we begin with the Irish side. The IRA’s first real war is one that can be difficult to assess, owing to vast disparity between the most active and the least active areas. Large parts of Leinster, the west of Ulster, Connacht and even parts of Munster saw little to no significant IRA activity, as local organisation faltered for whatever reason: lack of numbers, enhanced British presence, terrain not being suitable for guerrilla warfare, poor leadership. The Irish War of Independence is very often seen as a war fought in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Longford, Derry and Antrim and to a very real degree this is not an unfair thing to say. “The Republic” existed far more in some of those places than it did elsewhere, and this was often on the back of IRA activity being of a much higher proportion. It is them that we must focus on.
In them, the IRA performed as well as you could conceivably believe that they could. A gradual escalation of tactics, from piecemeal shootings of police through to barracks attacks through to larger-scale ambushes took place, and the IRA, in the field, was able to be a continual source of danger, frustration and often death to their enemy. While not uniform, the IRA showcased a capacity to learn from their mistakes and to adapt to changing circumstances, perhaps best exemplified by the formation and effectiveness of the flying column as the main avenue of attack. Where the IRA fell down was in the successful implementation of cross-unit operations, which never took place to the required degree, in its inability to make headway in the north, and in what we might call wasted effort: the amount of intended ambushes and attacks that never took place, for a variety of reasons.
From a strategic standpoint, the war can only be considered a major success for the IRA. At every stage, they were able to at least partially fulfill objectives: in 1919 they undercut and largely destroyed the authority of the RIC and the DMP; in 1920 they severely reduced the foothold that the Crown Forces had over swaths of the country, and incited that same enemy into reprisals against the civilian population; and in 1921 they were able to create the perception that they were capable of going toe-to-toe with the British as the conflict ramped up to its highest intensity, with the Custom House attack the best example. Throughout, the IRA and the Republic won the propaganda war, consistently pushing the British into actions, be they executions, reprisals or the flooding of Ireland with Black and Tans/Auxiliaries, that only served to make that same effort look bad in the eyes of the press and in the international community. The IRA were not militarily capable of defeating the Crown Forces, but they didn’t have to. Through their campaigns, they made the British look bad and made the war seem like enough of a difficult and unwinnable proposition that going to the negotiating table was a better option.
The British experience was different. Tactically, the British did learn much as the war continued, but it took a very long time for their counter-insurgency approach in Ireland to be viewed as in any way sufficient. The police force proved incapable of meeting the threat, the reserve and auxiliary divisions of the same were counter-productive in most respects and even the regular military was caught out by the IRA on multiple occasions. Too often Crown Forces fell victim of routine and lack of caution, and from an intelligence standpoint were badly beset at times, especially in the capital. Experience, a flooding of troops and new tactics like countryside sweeps were proving more effective in the dying days of the conflict, but the British and their forces were too often hampered in the field by problems elsewhere.
Those problems stemmed from the strategic level. The British approach to the war was a confused thing, with the highest levels of government and military divided on whether a war was worth fighting at all, and if it was to what level it should be pursued. Such vacillation meant that the IRA and the Republic were allowed to get a jump-start on the war throughout 1919, and later muddied the waters as various branches of the Crown Forces, and their intelligence services, ended up fighting almost separate wars against a common enemy. Choosing an active, conscious strategy of targeting the civilian population for collective punishment was a disastrous decision, and to the end of the war a lack of unity of command and firm direction from London meant that the IRA’s effort was made easier than it really should have been.
If we are to determine which side was the most impressive, from a military standpoint, there can only be one answer. The IRA started out as a badly armed, scattered force with little in the way of formal training. Through the course of the war, they found arms, they became far more cohesive from an organisational standpoint and they became something that could, bar the uniforms, be recognised as a potent military force. Some of their leaders, most notably men like Michael Collins and Tom Barry who separately epitomised the twin axis of counter-espionage and flying column that was so crucial to the IRA’s success, rose to the occasion magnificently: the British had no such equivalents. They failed in the war with their unprepared police, with their ill-suited counter-insurgency constabulary options and even with the regular troops to an extent. While they were helped by the sometimes incompetence of the enemy, the IRA emerged from the broken shell of the 1916 Volunteers into an army that was capable of fighting the British Army to a standstill.
For our last point, we must focus on the very tricky question of who won the Irish War of Independence. The complicated nature of the answer is one of the reasons that very sobriquet is often considered inappropriate, since no independence, at least not total independence, was won. To come to an answer, we must consider two things: what both sides wanted out of the conflict at the time that it had started, and what both sides wanted at the time of the truce. The Irish – that is, the forces of the Republic – wanted some form of self-government, and wanted it for the entire island if at all possible: that’s about as simple as I can make the complex array of motivations that existed for this side, which we can say existed with some degree of stability from January 1919 to July 1921. The British initially wanted to crush violent resistance and gain the ability to impose their own political solution on the island without needing to be unduly concerned with nationalist opinion: by the end they wanted the fighting to cease, for two self-governing states to come into existence on the island that they could at least heavily influence and for certain facilities to remain in their possession. As we will see in time, both sides got what they wanted to different degrees: in my opinion it is fair to say that the British got more, especially in the short term, while the Irish had to settle, after a degree of bloodletting, for a longer-term ability to shape their own destinies without resource to guns (at least for the 26 counties anyway). So, it was a stalemate then, but one that we can say the British were far happier with.
The death toll of the Irish War of Independence is a disputed thing, a topic difficult to get an agreed answer on owing to the nature of the conflict, where civilian and combatant were too often hard to differentiate. The IRA lost somewhere between 500 and 600 Volunteers killed, the Crown Forces over 700 (most of them being RIC of various hues). Roughly 750 civilians are adjudged to have been killed also, whether they were the victims of British reprisals or assassination by the IRA. A rough death toll of around 2’000 is generally accepted. In the course of Irish history, this seems like a small number – my go-to comparison remains the Siege of Clonmel, where as many men may have been killed in a few hours of fighting, and of course only a few years previously many times that number were being killed daily in Europe – but the impact of these deaths was disproportionate to their actual number. It was the nature of the deaths, through the suddenness of an ambush, the ruthlessness of an assassination, the cruelty of a reprisal, that made the impact. This war was one where a single death, say that of Kevin Barry, could be the equivalent of a battle in terms of its effect on the war or the future of the country. This was something that the Irish understood, and that the British failed to realise before it was too late.
The war was fought in a thousand places: in rolling fields, in country lanes, in urban back alleys, in sitting rooms, outside churches, in dockyards and moored boats and on British golf courses. From the moment the guns fired at Soloheadbeg all the way to the truce it was a multi-dimensional conflict: fought on land, sea and air, in mass meetings in America and in newspapers as far away as Japan. In July 1921 it seemed to some as if the affair was a prelude to the crowning moment of Ireland’s centuries old efforts to claim the status of a free sovereign nation. The next step was the negotiation of an agreement between the Ireland of the IRA and the Republic on one hand, and the British on the other. Those negotiations, the agreement they produced and the rancour and path to violence that resulted, are to come. The Irish revolutionary period was not yet at an end, and one more major bloodletting would be required before it could be said to have finished.
Ireland’s Wars will now take its customary break as we come to the end of one war and look to another. It should return in two weeks, where we will beging discussing the “truce period” and all that occured in there. As always, I want to thank all readers, commenters and subscribers for their time and attention as we continue this series, which I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.