Evidence Abounds: British Leaders OK'd Mayhem

Cork Examiner
On December 11, 1920, an IRA ambush near Cork City caused more casualties among the Auxiliaries, less than two weeks after the IRA killed 17 of 18 Auxiliaries caught in an ambush in Kilmichael. That evening, Auxiliaries and Black and Tans poured into town, looting, wrecking, boozing and burning a large part of the city center. The British-appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, proclaimed in the House of Commons that Cork had been burnt by its own citizens.


By Kieron Punch
Special to The Wild Geese Today

The British government used extrajudicial killings as a tool against the IRA during the War of Independence. The strategem fueled the savagery from both sides, inspiring the King to ask "... where will it lead Ireland and us all?"

How much did the British government know about the violence wreaked on the Irish people in its name during the War of Independence? A great deal, according to British government files.

In fact, these documents make clear that these leaders of the government, including Prime Minister Lloyd George, not only nodded at the violence but encouraged it as a tool to help crush the IRA.

Although many of the burnings, beatings, and shooting were spontaneous outbursts caused by indiscipline, drunkeness, or the desire to avenge the death of a comrade, evidence from official sources shows that the British government was aware of the outrages, despite denials that they were perpetrated by "Agents of the Crown."

The authorities became accomplices by encouraging such behavior, and even authorized "official reprisals." The refusal of the Government to rein in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the latter part of 1920 and the first half of 1921 gives the distinct impression that the Tans and Auxies had a mandate for violence from their inception.

"The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you that no Policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."
--Colonel Gerard Ferguson Smyth, Divisional Commissioner, Royal Irish Constabulary, June 19, 1920

The following references provide evidence of British government complicity in the violent actions of the police in Ireland through much of 1920 to the truce in July 1921.

>May 22, 1920: According to Sir John Anderson, Joint Under Secretary, Dublin Castle (later Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer), referring to the date he took his post: "The Police forces were in a critical condition. The morning I arrived in Dublin the Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary stated in my presence that he was in daily fear of one of two things, either wholesale resignations from the force or of his men running amok." (Anderson Papers, July 20, 1920)

June 19, 1920: Colonel Gerard Ferguson Smyth, Divisional Commissioner, RIC, Cork, told his colleagues in Listowel, County Kerry: "The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you that no Policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man." (The Times of London, July 30, 1920)

July 7, 1920: Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, (later slain by two Irish Republican Brotherhood assassins) found that in conversation with Lloyd George that the Prime Minister was aware of and condoned the shooting of "Sinn Feiners" by Major General H.H.Tudor, Chief of Police, Ireland. (Wilson's Diary, July 7, 1920)

September 23, 1920. Sir Henry Wilson, C.I.G.S., recorded in his diary, "Tudor made it very clear that the Police and the Black and Tans and the 100 Intelligence officers are all carrying out reprisal murders. … At Balbriggan, Thurles and Galway yesterday, the local Police marked down certain SFs (Sinn Feiners) as in their opinion the actual murderers or instigators and then coolly went and shot them without question or trial. Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me." (Wilson's Diary, 23rd September 1920)

September 23, 1920. Major General Radcliffe, Director of Military Operations, War Office, wrote to Henry Wilson, "I think the only solution to this problem is to institute a system of Official reprisals."

"Tudor made it very clear that the Police and the Black and Tans and the 100 Intelligence officers are all carrying out reprisal murders." -- Entry in the diary of Sir Henry Wilson, Sept. 23, 1920

Sept. 29, 1920. Sir Henry Wilson put forward the idea of Official reprisals to Lloyd George and it was discussed by the Cabinet on October 1. The Cabinet decided that reprisals "by burning" should cease, but Lloyd George made it clear to General Sir Neville Macready (commander in chief, Ireland) that he still favored "gunning." (Cabinet Conference, October 1, 1920, Records of the Cabinet Office, Public Records Office)


November 3, 1920. "The troops are getting out of control, taking the law into their own hands, and that besides clumsy and indiscriminate destruction, actual thieving and looting, as well as drunkenness and gross disorder are occurring." (Memo by secretary of State for War, discussed by Cabinet, 10 November, 1920. Conclusions of Cabinet Meetings and Conferences)

December 10, 1920. Re: Introduction of Official Reprisals. Neville Macready to Major General Sir Hugh Jeudwine, GOC 5th Division (Curragh), "Strickland (Major General Sir Peter, GOC 6th Division) will have to watch the Police very carefully, for certainly Prescott-Decies (sic) (Brig. Gen. Cyril Prescott-Decie, Divisional Commander, RIC) will think that martial law means that he kill anybody he sees walking along the road whose appearance may be distasteful to him." (Jeudwine Papers, Imperial War Museum)

December 23, 1920. Brigadier General C.B.Thomson, military adviser to the Labour Party Commission to Ireland, said that most of the Officers of the Army of Ireland were, "ignorant of their professional duties", that the Auxiliaries did not, "seem to recognize even the authority of Dublin Castle," and that in creating the Black and Tans, the Government had "liberated forces which it is not at present able to dominate." (Report of the Labour Commission to Ireland, Part II p6, p7, p53-54)

December 29, 1920. First "Official Reprisal" in Martial Law Area takes place at Midleton, County Cork, when the military burns down a house. (G.O.C.-in-C W.S.R. January 1, 1921)

February 25, 1921. Lloyd George told Sir Hamar Greenwood that he was, "... not at all satisfied with the state of discipline of the Royal Irish Constabulary and its Auxiliary force." He referred to "…increasing evidence that in certain sections of the Irish Police there are certain men who are no longer the guardians of the law, but are themselves guilty of unlawful acts against the population it is their duty to protect." (Prime Minister to Chief Secretary for Ireland, 25th February, 1921, Lloyd George Papers, Beaverbrook Library, London)

In the wake of a series of reprisals which occurred in mid-May 1921, the King's Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, wrote to Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, "The King does ask himself and he asks you, if this policy of reprisals is to be continued, and, if so, to where will it lead Ireland and us all? It seems to His Majesty that in punishing the guilty we are inflicting punishment no less severe upon the innocent."

Edward Wood, later Lord Irwin (Viceroy of India), and later still Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary) announced to the House: "When the first charges of reprisals were made, I refused to believe them, and it was in that attitude of mind that I voted for the Restoration of Order in Ireland Bill: but I do not hesitate to say that the cumulative effect of what has happened has made that intellectual attitude impossible to maintain. It is quite idle to deny, making whatever allowances we like, there have been happenings by a section of the Crown's officers of which every Englishman must be ashamed."

WGT's UK correspondent Kieron Punch is a Coventry-based writer and researcher, and previously authored WGT's series on The Forgotten 10.

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Tags: Freedom, Irish, Struggle

Comment by DJ Kelly on June 11, 2013 at 12:48am

Some great research here by Kieron. 

That quote from Smyth about no policeman getting into trouble for shooting any man is slightly suspect, mind you.  The words are those of Constable Jeremiah Mee, the Banbridge-born spokesman for those RIC men who mutinied at Co Kerry's Listowel barracks on 19 June 1920. Mee attributed these words to Smyth when speaking to the press on 10 July 1920 and he was quoted widely in the Irish press.  I would not seek to defend Smyth though, who was later assassinated, probably for those words, and Lloyd George was not exactly vigorous in denying charges of government sanctioned killings. 

Nor would I defend Hamar Greenwood, the Canada-born last Chief Secretary for Ireland, who funded, personally from his own pocket, the defence of Captain William Lorraine King, the head of 'F Company', the self designated 'murder gang' (auxiliaries operating out of Dublin Castle) when King appeared for his second murder trial.  King was acquitted at both trials, some of the prosecution witnesses having been suborned or abducted.  What Greenwood paid out - £500 - would be worth £17,600 or 20,700 euros in today's values. 

Following exposure and condemnation by the world's press, British public opinion turned against the British administration in Ireland and, as Kieron shows, King George V stepped in, demanding Lloyd George's government rein in their uncontrolled 'Tans'.  There was pressure also from the American and Australian governments.  I do have some sympathy for Sir Francis Wilson however, head of the military forces.  This County Longford born soldier loved Ireland but despised the politicians and was revolted by their policies in Ireland.  Ironically, it was 2 English-born assailants who shot the unarmed Wilson outside his home and ran away, only to be apprehended by passing civilians.  

Comment by Gerry Regan on June 11, 2013 at 11:26am

Kieron is one of the most careful, astute researchers I know (and a strong writer, too boot.) The Old IRA is among his special focuses.

Comment by DJ Kelly on June 12, 2013 at 12:08am

Clearly.  It's a great piece and it reflects thorough research. 

Comment by Seán Walsh on June 28, 2013 at 1:57am

Comment by Seán Walsh on June 28, 2013 at 2:07am

Good Morning 

Above image is a selection of players who were on the pitch in Croke Park on Bloddy Sunday 1920: And returned on 21/11/1965. Commeration of Bloody Sunday 21st Nov 1920..Rememberence event for the 14 civilians including players Michael Hogan and Thomas Ryan. Go to irishphotoarchive.ie for more images of this sad day. We also have many great Irish images already on line, with about 3.5m more to add! 

Comment by Gerry Regan on June 28, 2013 at 9:54am

Sean, thanks for presenting this fascinating image, and others going forward. I recommend posting these as a photo, using this link, and then posting the pictures in threads such as these. This way we can feature the image, and better share and promote it, and IPA. http://thenewwildgeese.com/photo/photo/newWithUploader


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