226: Irish Civil War Pt. 3


After some early failures, the Republican Army would face some hard questions, with no good answers.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 226. Patreon David, Arnav, Hunter, Justin, Grant and historagamer. Reminder that episode 231 will be a Q & A episode it will be released on December 4th, and I think I will probably stop accepting questions on the 27th of November, so you have about a month to get them in. Last episode we discussed the events in Ireland between the signing of the Treaty with the British and the outbreak of the Civil War. Today will be all about the Civil War, which would begin in June 1922 and then continue for almost a year. Even though it continued for such a long time, the outcome of the fighting was not really in doubt after the first few months. Fighting, in one form or another would occur in many areas of Ireland, but it would rapidly devolve into a guerrilla campaign of small groups of Republican IRA soldiers making sporadic attacks on Provisional Government units. We will end today with the death of Michael Collins, who had been a critical leader of the Irish forces before and during the Anglo-Irish war and then an important political figure during the Treaty debates.

The fighting would begin with the Four Courts building in Dublin. In early April units of anti-treaty IRA had captured the Four Courts under the leadership of Rory O’Connor. The reason that the Four Courts had been seized as as a callback to the 1916 Eastern Rising, when the Four Courts had been captured and held by the Irish rebels. These actions by the anti-treaty forces caused tensions to rise, but no immediate actions were taken by the forces of the Provisional Government. If you remember back to last episode, this was during a period when both sides were still trying to work together, and were generally resistant to begin open hostilities. Then, in early June Sir Henry Wilson was assassinated in London. This caused the British to consider making an attack on the Four Courts themselves, utilizing the British troops that had remained in Dublin as part of the treaty agreements. A meeting was held in London on June 24th, with the decision made to go ahead with the attack on the next day. This attack would have been solely motivated by retaliation, but it would not be launched. After returning to Ireland to lead the effort General MacReady had changed his mind about the attack, after re-evaluating the situation in Dublin he decided to postpone the attack, and later he would cancel it out of concerns that any action by the British forces would only serve to unify Irish opinion against peace with the British. This concern was probably correct, during this podcast we have discussed many events where the actions of what was seen as an outside force served to unify diverse national groups that otherwise would not have worked together, it is likely that this would have also happened in Ireland if the British would have taken actions against the Four Courts. Instead, the most important outcome of the British plans was that the Provisional Government was put under greater pressure to handle the Four Courts themselves.

The British would make it clear that if the Provisional Government did not take care of the Four Courts themselves, then they would bring in more troops into the country and take control of the situation. This threat was a big factor in bringing Collins into support for the attack. The other leaders had been more willing to launch the operation, with Griffith, O’Higgins, and other political leaders being in support of an attack even before the British became involved. They had based their opinions on the fact that it was really a question of who controlled the country, either the elected political officials or the anti-treaty military forces. Collins had always been the hesitant one, with his past leadership of the IRA and the fact that he knew and had fought with some of the men in the Four Courts contributing to his hesitancy, but the British threats caused him to see a Four Courts attack as a necessity. It would not be until June 26th that the official decision would be made to move forward with the assault. At 3:30AM on the 28th an ultimatum was given to the occupiers of the Four Courts, this ultimatum was simple, they had to evacuate the building immediately, and when this was rejected the attack began at 4:15AM. The attack would begin with artillery fire aimed at the Four Courts. The defenders had been surprised by the ultimatum and by the attack that followed, there was a general belief among the men that no attack would be made until it was actually happening. The one overriding concern of the defenders was that they not be seen as the aggressors, and this ruled out any offensive action. This meant that after the ultimatum, they were adamant that the defending troops not fire the first shot, and it also meant that the anti-treaty officers refused to move out and occupy any of the surrounding buildings, an action that was critical if they wanted to have any possibility of successfully defending their position.

Firing on the Four Courts would continue for three days, and during this time parts of the building would be destroyed by artillery fire. The Irish leaders were dependent on the British for their supplies of artillery and rifle ammunition, and this presented something of a challenge due to MacReady’s concerns about handing over so many supplies to the Irish forces, who he was quite skeptical of. Pressure from London to provide as much assistance to the Irish troops overrode this skepticism though. Churchill, Minister of State for War at this point, would send a message that ‘Tell Collins to ask for any assistance he requires and report to me any difficulty that has been raised by the Military.’ and he would even advocate for British troops to be sent to Dublin to assist. Collins and the other Irish leaders would always resist the suggestions from London to use British troops. The material support was what the Irish really wanted, and with that support it was only a matter of time and a question of whether or not the Provisional Government’s troops would stay the course. In many ways the situation for the garrison of the Four Courts mirrored the events of the Rising from 1916. it was organized poorly, and the plans in place for defending against an assault were almost nonexistent. Ernie O’Malley, one of the leaders of the defenders of the Four Courts would later write ‘It seemed a haphazard pattern of war. A garrison without proper food, surrounded on all sides, bad communication between their inside posts, faulty defenses, girls bringing ammunition from attackers, relieving forces on our side concentrated on the wrong side of the widest street in the capital.’ After three days and in the midst of an assault by Government forces, the defenders were forced to give up the fight. Explosives were left in the Public Record Office, which would be destroyed after the fighting ended, resulting in the loss of some records dating back to the 12th century.

While the attacks on the Four Courts were ongoing, around Dublin small groups of anti-treaty forces occupied other buildings as well. However, this was not really done in a logical or planned way, and was just kind of random. While these buildings were occupied the overriding feeling among the anti-treaty forces was one of confusion, and in some cases frustration. Here are a few quotes from men who participated in these actions. Ben Doyle would say ‘The whole thing was taken in a half-hearted slipshod manner.’ Sean Smith ‘We could see Staters going around in lorries, but we had no actual orders to fire on them.’ and Maurice Brennan ‘Eventually I felt that the disunity was against any chance we had. . . . I had no heart in it.’ After the Four Courts surrendered the other fighting in Dublin quickly died down and by July 5th Dublin would be fully under the control of the Provisional Government. During these sporadic actions 65 people would be killed and 28 wounded, with total damage to the city being between 3 and 4 million pounds. while the Civil War had now begun, the actions in Dublin would have two important impacts on the conflict as a whole, several prominent anti-treaty leaders had been captured at the Four Courts, and they would be unable to play an active role in the fighting and with the failure of the Four Courts defense, Dublin was mostly lost to the anti-treaty forces. During the rest of the Civil War it would not see any organized anti-treaty actions, and instead their focus would shift to the other areas of Ireland.

With the Civil War started in earnest, it is time to make a slight change to how I am referring to the forces involved. Up until this point I have used pro-treaty and anti-treaty terms pretty frequently, and then the Provisional Government to refer to the pro-treaty Irish government. From here on out I will continue using Provisional Government for the same purpose, but I will start using the word Republican to represent the anti-treaty forces and political leaders throughout the country. When the fighting began in Dublin it looked like the Republican side had many advantages. Outside of Dublin, and especially in the south and western territories, the country was almost entirely under Republican control. In many of these areas there w as almost no Provisional Government presence at all. The Provisional Army was also inexperienced, and in many cases made up of men who had previously been a part of the IRA, which made them hesitant to join in the initial fighting. This made the Provisional troops almost completely unable to actively bring the fight to the rural regions where Republican support was the strongest. There were however several overriding problems that the Republican Leaders would be working against. The first was that the Provisional Army was able to draw on British arms and munitions, which would eventually completely overwhelm what was available to the republicans. The second, and probably more important, was that the fighting was incredibly unpopular, and it would just become more unpopular as it continued. This unpopularity may have been okay in some circumstances, but it was coupled with strong support for the government, or Provisional forces, and not the Republicans. In time this lack of public support would become a greater and greater problem for the Republican forces. In some areas republican forces would end up surrendering or just withdrawing from the war due not to pressure from the Provisional army but instead from the local population, this neutralized Republican units when every man was critical to the Republican war effort.

These challenges, which to be clear the Republican leaders had no control over, were compounded by mistakes made by the Republicans early in the conflict. From a strategy perspective, after the defeat in Dublin the Republican forces generally went on the defensive. They would respond to Provisional attacks and actions, but they rarely launched any large attacks on their own initiative. This would prove to be a critical mistake for an army that, relative to the Provisional Army, would only be at a greater disadvantage as time went on. The inaction would also cause many Republican supporters, men who had joined in the fighting willingly in the early stages, to lose faith in Republican leadership. With resolve being chipped away at in this method, Republican units around the country, who were defending villages and buildings in important areas, would often choose to retreat in the fact of determined Provisional attacks, instead of fighting it out. These surrenders then caused morale to be further reduced, causing a feedback loop that was catastrophic for Republican prospects. The lack of proactiveness among the Republicans could be traced back to its lack of leadership and unity. Many Republican leaders had been captured and imprisoned early in the fighting, or before the fighting even began, Republican leadership was further hampered by the fact that several prominent anti-treaty IRA officers had chosen to abstain from the fighting. It was also a challenge to achieve the unity required to meet Provisional attacks, a constant problem that had been plaguing the IRA since its creation. This lack of unity of purpose and action allowed the Provisional forces to defeat IRA units in isolation. The only good new for the Republican forces was that the Provisional Army was having many problems of its own. It had a lot of men, about 15,000 full time troops and 35,000 available in the Volunteer reserve. However, most of these had little military knowledge or experience. Also, unlike the Republican troops the Provisional forces were not very ideologically motivated, and were instead just in the army for the pay. Early in the fighting these two facts were problematic for the Provisional forces when faced with the far more experienced and determined Republicans.

After the fighting ended in Dublin it would take time before it would expand to the rest of the country. When news of its surrender reached the Western Republican leaders the response would be divided. Some, especially those in the most Republican areas, wanted to immediately go on the attack. They advocated for immediate attacks on Provisional forces in the Western provinces, especially in the south where the Republican forces were at their strongest. Others advocated for a more defensive stance, instead waiting for the Provisional forces to make their move. The Provisional leaders were hesitant to move beyond Dublin, but eventually the began to plan their next steps, and that step would revolve around Limerick City. Limerick city occupied an important space within the geography of the Civil War. If it could be controlled by the Republicans it would solidify their control of the southern counties, and separate some areas of strong Provisional control. The Provisional government wanted to control Limerick for the opposite reasons, they wanted to strengthen their power in South West Ireland, and to begin to chip away at Republican strength in those areas. When the fighting erupted in Dublin the majority of the city was controlled by Republican forces. They had about 700 men in the city, with a very solid advantage over the 400 Provisional Army forces that were also in the city. This advantage for the Republican forces did not immediately cause them to launch an attack, instead their leaders were hesitant to go on the defensive, and instead they entered into negotiations to try and craft a truce with with the Provisional officers. They would craft this agreement ‘in the interests of a united Ireland, and to save our country from utter destruction’ and part of this agreement was that the buildings around the city were portioned out to both sides to control, with the Republican forces given most of the military barracks in recognition of their stronger position.

This truce, crafted by the leaders on both sides, would be heavily criticized by the Republican rank and file. Sean MacSwiney would say ‘Time was needed by the enemy, to gain time they gave pledges which they broke when it suited their purpose.’ In this case the criticisms of the agreement would prove to be warranted, because on July 11th reinforcements for the Provisional units would begin to arrive in the city. It would be on that very same day, during which 150 men would arrive from Dublin to reinforce the Provisional forces, that the Provisional leaders would officially notify the Republican officers that the truce was cancelled. While the truce was cancelled, it would take some time before the Provisional attack would be launched, and it would not be until the 19th that they would begin. This attack would look a lot like the actions around the Four Courts, the Provisional leaders picked one of the strongest Republican positions, in this case the Strand Barracks, aimed some artillery at it, and started firing. The Republican forces were unable to launch an attack to silence the guns, and were initially unwilling to give up their positions. Over thirty shells would be fired into the barracks before the Republican forces retreated from the building. With the Strand barracks surrendered, the other Republican units in the city, instead of continuing the fighting, instead also abandoned their barracks, after destroying many of them. Then the Republican forces would give up the city entirely and retreat south. The fighting in Limerick was light on casualties, only 28 casualties on the Provisional side and roughly the same on the Republican. Due to the speed of the fighting, the loss of Limerick surprised many Republican leaders outside the city. They had anticipated a lengthy defense, or even a successful one. It would just be the first of many unexpected loses over the coming months. By the middle of August almost every sizable population area that had been controlled by the Republicans was captured by Provisional forces. By that point both Waterford and Cork would join Limerick as cities from which Republican forces had been ejected.

These initial actions by the Provisional forces had been successful at capturing the cities, and the loss of these areas had been problematic for Republican morale, but it did allow the Republican forces to maintain most of their strength. Instead of being drawn into costly fighting in the city, which would have rapidly destroyed the fighting ability of their forces, by the end of August the Provisional Army was faced with the prospect of having to carry their campaign into the rural areas where the Republican forces were at their strongest. One Provisional leader would say ‘Our forces have captured towns, but they have not captured Irregulars and arms on anything like a large scale.’ While they were able to enter the next stage of the fighting without having suffered large losses, the Republican forces were forced to alter how they would continue the fighting. This would be the point where the fighting would change from what was pretty traditional fighting around cities and geographical features to be guerrilla fighting between small groups of Republican fighters and the Provisional army. This was an intentional change by Republican leaders, with Liam Deasy and Patrick Moloney sending guidance to Republican officers that they should organize their men into small columns that would carry on the fighting. These columns should be made up of at most 35 men, and they should be hand-picked. Deasy would say that ‘only the very vest and most experienced men, whose record in the late War with the English was such that absolute reliance can be placed on them’ should be included.

There were some critics of this move to small column actions, but in its early weeks and months it appeared to be somewhat successful. It allowed the Republican cause to continue, and for the men to continue fighting some way. Even with this success they could not overcome some of the problems that the new policies would have to contend with, which were problems from which other Republican leaders, especially the political leaders, would draw their criticism of the new strategy. Basically, while the fighting would continue, the chance of any kind of actual victory was gone.

The political leaders on the Republican side believed that it was important for the Republican army to continue large military actions just from a publicity perspective, if they wanted to shift public opinion in their favor there had be be victories, and without those any shift in the mindset of the people would be impossible. From other military leaders, their primary concern, which would prove to be correct, was that if the small column policy was pursued, it would result in a slow bleed of Republican army strength, and over time this is exactly what would happen. The small units would become smaller over time, due more to men giving up the fight than from casualties caused by the enemy. As the number of men grew smaller, the overall nature of the units became more radical, but it also reduced their ability to launch any kind of military action. In essence, the shift in September to small column guerrilla tactics was a strategy designed by and for the most radical Republicans. It had little chance of achieving an actual victory for the Republican cause, and only served to drag out the fighting beyond the point where it had chance change of drastically altering the future course of Irish politics.

One action by the Republican forces that would alter the course of Irish politics would occur on August 22, 1922 when Michael Collins would be killed by Republican troops in Southern Ireland. In the morning of the 22nd Collins would travel in a small convoy of vehicles north out of Cork City. While on the road, they stopped to ask for directions, and it just so happened that the person they asked was a member of the Cork Brigade of the Republican IRA. After he informed his superiors of the encounter, an ambush was laid along the route, just in case the convoy returned along the same route later in the day. Throughout the day the men waited, but by 8PM in the evening many decided to give it up and retire for the night, under the assumption that the convoy must have headed by the Cork City by another route. Five men were left behind to clear up the barricade that they had laid across the road and while completing this task, they heard the convoy returning and setup a small ambush. They fired on the convoy when it came within range and Collins, against the wishes of the other Provisional Officers, ordered the convoy to stop and return fire. For the next half hour or so the two sides fired on each other, at which point Collins was hit in the neck, quickly dying as the only casualty of the fighting. When the news of Collins’ death reached both sides of the Civil War some Republican leaders suggested that he had been killed by a Provisional bullet and they publicly denied that any ambush had occurred at all. There is no evidence for this, but it was a way for the Republican leaders to try and sow doubt as to the cause of Collins’ death. This was important because Collins was a very popular figure in Ireland, and his removal caused a problem for the Provisional Government and it almost certainly altered the course of the Civil War. Decisions made by the Provisional Government, especially around the execution of some Republican leaders, almost certainly would have been resisted by Collins, and those executions would signal the beginning of the end of the Civil War, an end that we will discuss next episode.