As discussed, by the end of 1922 the anti-Treaty war effort was in a dire state. The IRA’s weaknesses were becoming manifest, and the strengths of their pro-Treaty opponents also. The opportunities for the republicans to strike effectively at the various facets of the provisional government were getting ever more restricted, which might explain how, more and more, the target of anti-Treaty operations had moved from the human to infrastructure. An enormous part of this aspect of the IRA’s offensive capability involved the Irish railway system. This was a vital avenue of transport for the National Army, but with a vulnerability that made the effort to protect it truly enormous for the time and place.
Attacks against the railway system had taken place during the War of Independence, but they had been infrequent at best: it had been worried that such things could alienate public opinion, and many trains were so packed with British troops that taking them on was tantamount to suicide. Such restraint vanished during the Civil War, with republicans using the pretext that even if their attacks hindered the daily lives of the civilian population, that the primary purpose of the rail network at the time was “army work”. Trains, at least in the early part of the conflict, also tended to have less protection than they often had in previous years.
Before the conventional phase was over, Lynch had issued orders that the country’s railway lines should be systematically sabotaged and interfered with. The results could be spectacular: by the end of August, most of the rail system that connected Leinster with Munster was barely operating if at all. Tracks were torn up, sleepers damaged, carriages attacked, engines hijacked so they could be turned into weapons, railway workers shot and stations burned: the railway network provided the unique opportunity of an enormous target that the National Army could not hope to fully protect, that could be disabled with relatively little effort. When a railway bridge over the River Blackwater near Mallow was destroyed in August, it brought National Army operations in that part of the Cork to an standstill temporarily. In Kerry, the hottest part of the insurgency war, rail travel was practically non-existent for much of the Civil War.
The practical effects of such destruction were many. Aside from disrupting provisional government communications, the restriction of the ability of the National Army to move men and material around was severely impacted, an important thing owing to what it led to: the pro-Treaty forces being obligated to rely more on the roads, where they were more susceptible to ambush. In many ways you might compare the railway campaign to the manner in which the IRA selected RIC barracks for destruction relatively early in the War of Independence, a strategy that also obligated the Crown Forces to rely on more mobile projection of power and thus make themselves vulnerable to roadside attack.
The anti-Treaty campaign extended beyond destruction, and onto the human element as well. Lynch issued orders that civilian railway workers were not to undertake repairs when such damage was made, and that any that did so would be considered enemy combatants. In parts of the country railway workers were suitably intimidated, and the provisional government found it difficult to get civilian support for their campaign to keep the railways open. In so doing the battle for the railways became another facet of the war for public opinion: IRA targeting of the railways inflamed civilian perceptions of the anti-Treaty movement in terms of its impact on daily life, but at the same time the inability of the provisional government to keep the system working smoothly could impact hugely on the perception of Dublin’s legitimacy. By January of 1923, the Great Southern and Western Railway Company would provide an estimation of 375 different instances of damage to tracks, over 40 derailed engines, over 250 bridges disabled or destroyed, and over a hundred railway-connected buildings damaged or destroyed.
Before then the National Army had already begun efforts to throw back the tide by forming a specialised unit of the military, the Railroad Protection and Maintenance Corps. Placed under the command of Colonel Charles Russell, a veteran of the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force of the First World War, who is sometimes also credited as a founder of the Irish Air Corps. But it was on land that he would give his greatest service for the pro-Treatu cause. His Railway Corps was something of an ad-hoc unit, whose personnel were a mixture of soldiers, railway staff and other civilians. Their task was to defend the railway lines from a military sense, and to insure that sabotaged sections of track were repaired as speedily as possible.
In many ways, the Railway Corps fought their own little insurgency war for the remains of the larger conflict. Blockhouses were constructed at vital points throughout the country to provide additional protection: especially important bridges and signal points were commonly guarded as such. Some trains were converted into improvised armoured models, with additional armour plating and Lancia armoured cars bolted to the roofs that could provide machine gun fire on any attacker. Larger sections of the Corps were also based semi-permanently in “problem areas”, most especially Tipperary, where attacks on the lines were especially commonplace.
Which is not to say that the Railway Corps immediately altered the entire picture. In took time for their efforts to be successful, and Russell would later complain bitterly at the enormous difficulties he had getting his men even the most basic supplies: at times he would say his Corpsmen worked without shoes, and on at least one occasion a bridge was blown because the soldiers tasked with stopping it from happening had no guns with which to do so. Such things are typical of the National Army experience of the Civil Wart all over the country: the carefully crafted images of men in crisp uniforms that have come down the decades were almost always a propaganda exercise. The real National Army, and especially its smaller sections, were considerable less organised.
But despite the indignities they often suffered, the Railway Corps did turn the tide. As 1922 became 1923 and as the months wore on, the IRA proved less confident in attacking the railways, especially at the vital points where there was now more defences, and they were similarly unwilling to attack better defended trains. As the anti-Treaty campaign slowed owing to other reasons – decreasing manpower, limited supplies, etc – the railway campaign became more and more difficult to maintain at previous levels. It was not until the war was over that the entirety of the system could be repaired and re-opened, but before that point the campaign had faltered to the level that it was more of a nuisance than a serious threat.
The IRA perhaps also over-estimated the value of the railway campaign: before the end of 1922 Lynch would claims that a 100 railway bridges blown was equivalent to a 100 barracks destroyed, which betrayed a blinkered strategic mindset. The attacks on the railway were undoubtedly useful for the anti-Treaty cause, but they would never have won the war for the republican cause: even if the anti-Treaty faction had completely destroyed the network beyond repair, the pro-Treaty side still had the roads, the seas and even the air. Even the Railway Corps efforts were probably best described as a campaign of damage limitation, rather than as a decisive theatre. Not for the first or last time, the IRA placed too much of an emphasis on tactics and strategy that had their uses but no final outcome that they really needed.
From the more general perspective, we will now zero back in to a more specific part of the war. If Lynch was the leader of what we can call the anti-Treaty IRA’s “war” faction, then the other side of the equation can be said to have its significant figures as well. One of those would still prosecute his part of the war with the same kind of energy that had marked his contribution to the War of Independence, but the very act of carrying out his operations in the field would in the end convince him that the war was not worth fighting. It’s time to look at Tom Barry’s Civil War.
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