If Limerick, on the far left of the nominal republican line, was the lynchpin of the “Munster Republic”, then Waterford, on the far-right, must be considered to have held something close to a similar status. With Limerick in dispute, Waterford essentially constituted the second largest urban area under total IRA control, after Cork, and was a major part of anti-Treaty pretensions at both holding off an assault on the heartland of their cause from the east, and of more fanciful plans to be a launching off point for an attack into Leinster, at some point. Moreover, the city itself was in a very defendable position in the event of attack, located almost entirely south of then River Suir, and with plenty of IRA units not too far away. But if the National Army was able to take the city, they would have a huge advantage in any larger offensive into Munster, be it against the towns of Tipperary – including Liam Lynch’s designated HQ at Clonmel – or the really big prize of Cork City further to the south-west. Michael Collins knew the importance of Waterford City and made its capture a major priority soon after he took command of the pro-Treaty military: even as the fate of Limerick was being decided, plans were in motion to start rolling up the other side of the IRA line.
In many ways though, the battle for Waterford was decided before it had even started. The 200 or so anti-Treaty fighters who held the city, under the nominal control of Waterford Brigade O/C Pax Whelan, would be supplemented by additional Volunteers from Cork and Tipperary, but they were lacking in guns and ammunition. Fear of an assault on the city from the National Army, married to some degree to a resentful civilian population, meant that desertion was a constant issue, and there were legitimate concerns that members of the garrison would not open fire on their opponents at the critical moment. The republicans held several vital buildings in the city – the RIC barracks, the post office and the jail being three of the most important – and made efforts to mine likely landing areas on the south bank of the Suir, but there is a sense in most accounts that the task was beyond the anti-Treaty side in Waterford. Plans to enact a defensive line to the west of the city, perhaps in the expectation that the provisional government would cross the Suir away from the urban environment, were made, but the IRA lacked the manpower to institute them to the degree required. Absolutely critically, a hill on the north bank of the Suir, dubbed “Mount Mercy” in some accounts but better known locally as “Mount Misery”, was not held by the IRA.
On the other side, the man who was tasked with the taking of Waterford was one of the few pro-Treaty commanders who already had experience in fighting in urban conditions within Ireland. John T. Prout, now the commander of National Army forces in the south-west, was still based out of Kilkenny, and had seen his position become dangerously isolated in the early weeks of the Civil War with what had happened in Wexford, but would have a much freer hand to move after things were wrapped up there in the provisional governments favour. In the coming campaign he would rely heavily on the knowledge of Commandant Paddy Paul, the one-time Waterford Brigade leader who had been deposed when his pro-Treaty ideology did not line up with the rest of the unit. Collins had wanted additional forces from the Curragh and Tipperary to augment Prout’s expedition, but owing to deficiencies in command they would not arrive to help him in time.
So with around 500 men, Prout left Kilkenny on the 17th July. He made little secret of his departure, and he was criticised later for this. IRA units, some under Tom Breen, descended upon his line of advance after he had departed, thus cutting his avenue of supply and reinforcement. It was hoped by IRA leaders that these forces would be able to make an attack on Prout’s rear, but in the end these Volunteers would actually do very little in terms of aiding the defence of Waterford. Once their presence in the region was discovered by the pro-Treaty side they mostly dispersed, unwilling to risk a major engagement.
It took Prout longer than expected to get close to the city, held up by brief engagements at places like Ninemilehouse, but by the end of the 18th he was coming into the general area. The IRA remained wedded to the idea of defending only the south bank of the Suir, and this allowed Prout to place troops, and an 18 pounder gun, on the top of Mount Misery. From there he was able to shell the major anti-Treaty positions in the city, without fear of significant counter-fire. It was a remarkable blunder from the republicans, and largely sealed the fate of their defence before it had even started. As shells rained down on IRA positions, destroying morale faster than the buildings, National Army troops began to exchange fire with their opponents across the river.
On the 19th, elements of Prout’s force went across the river in small boats to the east, at Giles Quay. It was the kind of movement that should never have been able to succeed, and the fact that it did was probably testament more to the deficiencies of the defenders, who were not in position to repel the crossing, more than the military acumen of the attackers. There was no adequate defence in place in that part of the city. This advance force was able to move into the city without much impediment, and seize buildings near the railway bridge over the Suir. The IRA had raised this to prevent access, but they quickly lost control. Now it was an easy avenue into the city for the bulk of Prout’s force.
The provisional government General took his gun across the river quickly, and soon had it firing down the sights at the post office, whose garrison rapidly surrendered. Before Prout was even entering undertaking this assault, Waterford’s republican defenders were streaming out of it to the south and west, unwilling to maintain a defence that seemed hopeless (and they were probably correct). The barracks that had been held were fired, with an explosion of ordnance blotting the skyline with smoke (the IRA would later claim that pro-Treaty artillery had started the fires, but it appears they did not use incendiary shells). A few desultory exchanges of fire were all that stood in the National Army’s way as they crossed the Suir and marched into the city centre, with very limited instances of street fighting recorded.
Prout remained somewhat cautious, and it was not until the 21st that the totality of the city could be said to have been secured, with the republican abandonment of the city prison one of the last major acts of note. A few isolated garrisons of anti-Treaty fighters held out for a day, but were then overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the enemy or the use of the big gun. In all respects, artillery was critical. In the course of this fighting, two provisional government troops, and one Volunteer, were killed: if Collins had been told the cost of taking Waterford would be so low, it is unlikely he would have believed it at the beginning of the Civil War.
Elements of the IRA from outside Waterford had been on their way to the city at the time of its evacuation, but arrived too late to alter things, instead joining in the general withdrawal west, in the direction of Carrick-On-Suir and the various towns of South Tipperary. There was bitterness aplenty among the respective anti-treaty units, with Cork columns designated for the defence of the city accused of unnecessarily delaying their arrival in the area, or of being unhelpful when they did make it. It was the kind of parochial in-fighting that, if not entirely absent from the other side, was in no way as large a factor. Such things were yet another undercut to any anti-Treaty pretensions of being able to mount a conventional resistance to the National Army advance.
The Munster Republic was crumbling. Breached decisively with the fall of Limerick to Eoin O’Duffy’s command, it was now breached at the other end of its border, with National Army troops pouring through the gaps. Those troops to the north-west were soon to be fighting the war’s longest drawn out battle in the countryside of Limerick, but the forces that Prout was leading would have their own campaign to fight at the same time, with the aid of other units advancing from the north. The anti-Treaty side was rapidly running out of territory: the next major blow would fall as the provisional government moved into the south of Tipperary.
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