Ireland’s Wars: The Opposing Forces And Initial Strategy Of The Conventional Civil War

The Irish Civil War had begun in earnest, with the pro-Treaty side securing Dublin and then clearing their enemies from outside of the capital as well. A week after the opening of hostilities saw things precariously in the balance across the country, with large concentrations of anti-Treaty forces in Munster and elsewhere, but the better armed and arguably better led National Army now moving to meet them. In this entry, I want to take the time to discuss how things stood for both sides at this moment, in terms of their forces, leadership, political direction and strategic thinking, as what is known as the “conventional” Civil War erupted across the country.

One of the most important things to consider from the military perspective is just how many men each side had to call upon. Given the mess of administration that the final weeks and months of the truce period had been, it is understandable that there is a degree of vagueness to the numbers that either the IRA or the National Army had in their ranks, further confused by the reality that not all of those men had actual guns. Provisional government estimates at the time of the Civil War’s beginning had anti-Treaty numbers at over 12’000, but with guns for only a bit more than half that number: nearly 10’000 men had sworn oaths to the National Army at the same juncture, but senior figures in that military thought only 8’000 of these could be considered effectives. Further, while the IRA was spread out through Ireland, the pro-Treaty side was heavily concentrated in Dublin. The pro-Treaty faction could also eventually call upon more specialised soldiers, such as engineers or “crack” units like the Dublin Guards, that the anti-Treaty side could not. There was also a not insignificant section of the IRA that identified itself as “Neutral” and refused to take either side, instead preaching peace and seeking a truce.

In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Dublin, the provisional government ramped up recruitment to the National Army quickly, and within a few weeks had thousands of more men signed up. Such a drive was helped by the uncertain economic situation, where employment in the military offered the possibility of reliable pay (and it was only a possibility), along with all of the other reasons that young men will join the army in times of war: learning a trade, alleviating boredom and the chance to embark on a romanticised adventure in uniform (not that every person in the National Army would have one of those). The success of the recruitment campaign paid dividends in terms of the number of soldiers the provisional government could employ, but many of these were barely trained before they were sent into the field, with consequential deficiencies in martial performance, along with plenty of ill-discipline and desertion throughout the course of the Civil War. More long-term, the swelling of the National Army produced an inevitable militaristic feel to the pro-Treaty faction that would result in something approximating a coup attempt two years later. British guns, artillery and other material of war also steadily continued to be transported to Ireland, giving the pro-Treaty side a fairly unassailable advantage in that respect, and a re-organisation of the command structure, along with the hiring of many British Army veterans for senior positions, would create the conditions for a series of largely independently-operating armies split down regional lines.

In terms of the physical position of those forces, things were still hazy in parts of the country but getting clearer every day. The pro-Treaty faction had clear control of Dublin and the immediate surrounding area, and clear control of a number of other urban centres and their surrounding areas all over the country, in the midlands, Connacht and Ulster. In Munster, they held a number of crucial barracks’ in Limerick City, most of Clare and parts of Tipperary. The anti-Treaty faction held the majority of Munster and most of its urban centres, including Cork City, Waterford City and half of the major positions in Limerick City. Outside of that the areas of their control were more nebulous, often confined to smaller towns, villages and the countryside in-between, but were quite extensive: in parts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway, pro-Treaty positions were nominally very isolated, in a sea of republican IRA control. This was counter-acted somewhat by the reality that most of the civilian population was on the pro-Treaty side, with consequential lack of support for anti-Treaty fighters in terms of supplies, hideouts or intelligence gathering.

The anti-Treaty position in the south has often been dubbed the “Munster Republic”. It’s unclear where this term first arose, and may be considered a bit of a post-dated label, at least in terms of its more large-scale use. There was never any such republic declared in-being, and it can be considered to more of an informal, almost affectionate, term used pre-dominantly by anti-Treaty personnel to refer to their general control of the Munster province, than any kind of claim at an actual political entity. The anti-Treaty faction considered themselves to be the Republic, that is the entity proclaimed in January 1919, merely continuing under the leadership of the IRA Executive. There was never any sort of republican government enacted in Munster. Moreover, the idea that this entity had a fixed line of defence, supposedly running in an arc from Limerick to Waterford, was mostly a fiction. The IRA lacked the men to hold such a line, and even when they were present they were not always a guarantee of a bulwark, with scores of Volunteers leaving this posts for Sunday mass every week.

In terms of structure, leadership and political direction, things were far more clear for one side than the other. The pro-Treaty martial forces were the National Army, constituted as the military of the provisional government, and the yet to be officially constituted Irish Free State. This was a entity led by a general staff based in Beggers Bush, with men like Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy at the top of the chain. Its political direction came from the cabinet of the provisional government, headed at the start of the Civil War by Arthur Griffith, with Collins also having a substantial political role, to the extent that some perceive the pro-Treaty faction as being a largely military-driven affair. But it certainly had defined military and civil elements for the most part, with both situated in Dublin.

Things were far messier on the anti-Treaty side, whose military was that of the Irish Republican Army as it was constituted after the Split. Nominally the IRA were being led by their Executive, which comprised a number of high-profile republicans, with Liam Lynch as the Chief-of-Staff. In reality Lynch held the closest position to overall command, with individual officers in the field carrying a great deal of authority in their local areas. In political terms there was precious little that the anti-Treaty side could present, with their most significant civil figures, like Eamon de Valera, largely marginalised by the military voices in the overall faction, and no legislature or cabinet formed to compete with that in Dublin. Sinn Fein as a political entity would largely collapse during the Civil War. The anti-Treaty side had no firm capital or centre of political gravity, beyond simply stating this as the majority of Munster. In essence, it was far easier for the average pro-Treaty soldier to know who he was getting his orders from, and who that person was getting their orders from, than it was for the corresponding Volunteer on the other side.

The situation was made worse by the larger number of captured officers early in the war, who were never adequately replaced. As such, other officers could find themselves in command of areas far larger than they had the ability to effectively lead, or units could be placed in the control of incompetent men. Inter-company or divisional rivalry within the anti-Treaty faction reared its head often, and a common thread of the conventional Civil War is a gradual collapse in anti-Treaty morale and, in many cases, discipline. The Executives also had issues with finance, consistently short of money, and taking what they needed from civilians in the forms of levies, or just outright looting, would increase hostility from the general population.

In strategic terms, things were also more clear for one side than they were for the other. The provisional government and its forces aimed for little less than the total military defeat of the anti-Treaty IRA, and having secured Dublin in the initial fighting would now move to fulfill that aim as quickly as possible. This would necessitate a large offensive movement into the south-west of the country, with one batch of forces to head into Wexford and then turn towards Waterford, and another going more directly to secure the midlands and Limerick, before the republican heartland in County Limerick, County Cork and Kerry would be squeezed from all possible directions, including the sea. National Army positions in those areas, or in Connacht and Ulster, would at worst hold out under anti-Treaty attack, or at best move to consolidate their control in the wider area. In all of this, the National Army aimed to make the best use of its number of armed men, its advantages in artillery, armour and sea-faring vehicles, as well as its capacity to remain mobile and on the offensive. Major urban centres would be hit first, the anti-Treaty factions ability to wage a conventional war would disintegrate and after that, well, that lay beyond the possibility of sight. Longer term, the provisional government had a clear goal of instituting the terms of the Treaty and bringing the Irish Free State into being.

The anti-Treaty side’s opposing strategy was, as it could only have been, much more fragmented and vague. Loose plans of coordinated attack east were made by some, but were never close to real fruition. The securing of urban centres and that “Munster Republic” were key objectives in the short-term, but the strategy to do so appears to have been little more than to try and hold in place and absorb the inevitable pro-Treaty attack. A lack of centralised leadership in this faction meant that individual companies were often operating without anything like higher direction, with no orders to advance, retreat or do anything other than continue existing. The sheer confusion of the the early days and weeks meant that it would not be until October that the IRA Executive was able to meet again, and even figureheads like Lynch did not aid matters, continuing to cling to the possibility of peace for a time, and then refusing to authorise offensive operations. A move to guerrilla warfare was not contemplated at this time, as the Executive IRA, insofar as it was constituted, wanted to maintain the perception that it was the true military authority of Ireland and capable of holding the territory that it had been able to gain during the truce period. Moreover, there may have been a genuine belief that the IRA was capable of going toe-to-toe with the men in the National Army, and winning, despite what had happened in Dublin and outside of it.

The anti-Treaty strategy was thus fatally shallow, reactive rather than pro-active, and overly optimistic about their chances of successfully engaging the provisional government on its own conventional terms. In terms of larger political goals, a defence of “the Republic” was now the only game in town, despite de Valera’s still desired “External Association”, but this remained as vague and nebulous a concept as it always had been. The failure to tie the anti-Treaty faction to a political entity, even just the face of one, was an error that showcased the lack of direction the IRA had, and betrayed Lynch as a man who seemed to believe in military action as an end in itself.

From here on in, we will dive more concretely into the Irish Civil War and its conventional phase. Most of the major incidents of this period occured in Munster, and we will get to that in time. But for the next few entries I want to talk about the fighting in what Michael Hopkinson dubbed “the localities”: those areas that lacked any major stand-out encounters between pro and anti-Treaty that might be worthy of their own specific battlestudy, as occurred in many parts of Munster, but still hosted more general campaigns and events that warrant further study. It will be a tour of the future Irish Free State in many ways, moving from the north of Dublin into Donegal, then Connacht, through the Midlands and then the south-west, as concurrent clashes erupted between the IRA and the National Army, that went a long way towards securing the majority of the country for the provisional government, long before the final assault on the Munster Republic. We will begin in County Louth, where the town of Drogheda was to be a serious flashpoint in the escalating conflict.

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

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1 Response to Ireland’s Wars: The Opposing Forces And Initial Strategy Of The Conventional Civil War

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

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