The conventional phase of the Irish Civil War is generally held to have taken place between the opening assault on the Four Courts on the 28th June and the order from Liam Lynch for the IRA still in being to abandon whatever positions they still held and form into columns, given on the 11th August. In those six or so weeks, the anti-Treaty faction had seen their efforts to hold territory undone at nearly every turn, by a relentless National Army advance. The republicans simply did not have the men, equipment, experience or attitude to fight that kind of war successfully. They were not a regular military force. What they were better at was guerrilla warfare, and that is what the Irish Civil War would now become, from the 11th August 1922, all the way to its accepted ending point in May of the following year. In this entry I want to take the time to give a brief outline of how things stood in mid-August of 1922 for both sides, ahead of the continuation of hostilities.
In terms of the situation in the ground, the provisional government had a great deal of what we can call apparent dominance. They controlled all of Ireland’s city’s and nearly all of its towns (a few isolated towns, especially in Western Connacht, were still in the anti-Treaty sides hands in the later stages of August). They controlled ports, railways, key transport links. They had military forces garrisoned in every part of the country, with substantial units especially in Munster following the fighting there. They had ever growing numbers of soldiers, armoured cars, artillery. They had the support of the majority of the press, the Church, and the mostly clandestine assistance of the British political leadership and military.
But in many ways, pro-Treaty dominance was shallow. They controlled urban areas, but huge parts of the Irish countryside lacked any kind of significant provisional government presence, with the National Army actively withdrawing from some towns and villages in parts of Connacht owing to a lack of men. This allowed the IRA to survive their conventional defeat and, as we will see, thrive to a certain extent in the following period of time. Control of transport options like the railways was impacted by inability to prevent them from being targetted by IRA units, as will also be seen soon. They had a greater number of men but, as was the case in the first few months of the war, many of these were barely trained, had no guns or uniforms and were very unsuited to fighting the kind of asymmetric war they were about to be asked to fight.
The anti-Treaty side had taken a significant beating during the conventional Civil War, but it was not a defeated entity. The strategy of holding ground had proved a sorry failure, but now republicans had an opportunity to fall back on the tactics that had seen them achieve so much during the War of Independence. The problem was the amount of men they had to do this with, which is hard to pin down: general estimates hold that the IRA had nearly 13’000 men at the start of the Civil War, and if true this number would have decreased sharply by August, with most of the reliable men and units in Munster still. But coming to a number of effectives is essentially impossible, as individual anti-Treaty units were of indeterminate size and not every man willing to be counted as a “die-hard” had the weapons to prove it. Ammunition and guns were in short supply, demoralisation was still an enormous problem and question marks about the leadership ability of the IRA’s officers and higher leadership remained. If they were going to succeed now, they needed a more concrete strategic direction.
But what was that direction, for both sides? For the provisional government, things remained more or less the same. Militarily, the aim was for the war to be brought to a winning position as soon as possible, through the destruction of the IRA as a fighting force. That meant seeking the enemy out and destroying him, but it would also mean reducing his supports one-by-one, through engagement with, and if necessary domination of, the civilian population. Politically, the provisional government aimed to establish itself as the sole legitimate body of control over the entire country, assembling a Dail, allowing for local government and from there successfully enact the Irish Free State into being.
Things were more nebulous for the IRA. They still lacked a serious political wing, though Eamon de Valera would try to jumpstart one before the end of the year. So it was primarily a military movement still, one that was dedicated to the vague idea of “the Republic”. But how to achieve that republic, how to defeat the enemy beyond scattered engagements with no unified direction, these were questions that were yet to be answered. Lynch and his officers hoped that they could now enact an insurgency the equal of what had occurred between 1919 and 1921, and bring the provisional government to heel that way. But without that political alternative, it very much looked like an armed group seeking power and control for themselves, with governmental forms only to be considered once the IRA was in a position to implement them (if they wanted to). The opinion of the people was not one that was respected, with Lynch and others expecting, rather hopefully, that they would get onside with the anti-Treaty in time. This couod occur if the same control of the Irish countryside as the IRA was able to enact in 1919 and 1920 was done again in 1922, and the provisional government bled into destruction.
On a smaller scale, there was a degree of direction. Local commands were ordered to start setting up ASU’s – flying columns – at various levels, using only the best, most reliable of men. Just like during the War of Independence, these Volunteers were to live and operate “on the run”, undertaking attacks on the enemy mostly of their own initiative. There was some resistance in some parts, with certain officers believing that it would be better to widen the net and set-up such columns on a divisional basis, with smaller units incapable of properly supporting such a structure. But, in the short-term at least, this turn to guerrilla tactics and the push to get columns formed and operating, would provide dividends for the anti-Treaty side.
That short-term advantage was also going to be fed by the problems that the National Army had. The limited training and frequent ill-discipline of its soldiers were things that could be deflected in the few weeks that the conventional Civil War took place, but now that a new type of conflict was starting they could not be so easily dismissed. Instead of being a regular military force fighting another military force that was at least partly regular, the National Army was going to be called upon to be partly an occupying army, and partly a counter-insurgency tool, who would need to project the provisional governments power and legitimacy over the civilian population of the country, while also attempting to seek out and destroy an enemy who was no longer willing to hold ground and buildings and wait to be attacked. It was to be a job that, for the next few weeks and months, the National Army would demonstrate its complete inadequacy with, especially in parts of Munster.
Over the course of the coming weeks we will look at various aspects of the guerrilla Civil War: the initial anti-Treaty successes, the improvements of the pro-Treaty counter-insurgency campaign, the execution policy, all the way up to its eventual end and what came after. But we must begin with, arguably, the most famous singular engagement of the entire Irish revolutionary period, and perhaps in the entirety of Irish history. It was late August 1922, and Michael Collins was about to to make his final journey.
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