Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer

Tom in Iraq as a Military Observer
They sent me here just to watch...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lessons Learned [or not] from the Black and Tans

War has been defined as "the continuation of political intercourse with the admixture of different means."  Carl von Clausewitz  in his major work, Vom Krieg, analyzed and classified war to an extent that surpassed any comparable work.  He did, however, relegate to insignificance an aspect of armed conflict which has become one of the realities of the modern world.  That overlooked area of belligerency was revolution and insurgency.  Referred to as a "phenomenon of the nineteenth century, an intensification of the fermentation process known as war," and "similar in character to all others fought by second rate troops;"  Clausewitz much underestimated its impact upon the larger spectrum of politics.  Perhaps the contemporary expert in the field of revolution, insurgency, and protracted war was Mao Tse-Tung.  According to the former chairman of the Peoples Republic of China, revolutionary war is an antitoxin which not only eliminates the enemy's poison,  "but also purges us of our own filth. Even his accounts are subjectively written from the vantage point of the insurgent and though they address the singular repetitive technique of "encirclement and suppression," they fail to address a strategy for effectively combating the unconventional warrior.  One might contend that no such strategy is necessary for this country as the majority of our national movements manifest themselves in media campaigns or in the established political process.  Our national interest, however, has extended well beyond our borders for the majority of this century.  One has only to look at the last twenty years to realize that United States military forces have become involved in every aspect of unconventional warfare.  From fighting a combination of guerilla and regular units in Vietnam, to the establishment of a Peacekeeping Forces that are thrust into the very lifelines of the communities they are sent to protect , to the variable scale of  involvement  of military forces in the war on drugs; U.S. forces have embarked upon expeditions into aspects of warfare for which there was no clear doctrine or national strategy.  Our own experience in using trained combatants in a less than clearly defined, limited scale conflict has been less than successful. Before we engage in such future actions, we should examine a broader base of historical precedents.  The case of the Anglo-Irish conflict which manifested itself in violence in the early part of this century falls rather cumbersomely into both the category of conventional warfare and into those varieties of conflict collectively termed unconventional. Of the two adversaries, the methods and forces employed by the British government to suppress the Irish rebellion were by far the most brutal, and were exemplified by a unit known as the Black and Tans.  The use of this infamous, counterinsurgent force in Ireland resulted not in the restoration of subordination to England, but in an increased alienation of the Irish population from the English nation.  The Black and Tans were unsuccessful because they faced an enemy which they could not discern  from the population they were to protect, and as such t could not focus their combat power upon him.

Anglo-Irish politics never existed in an international vacuum.  At the close of the eighteenth century, Britain and France were at war with each other, William Pitt and King George III were in total disagreement upon the question of Catholic emancipation, and Ireland, in hope of French aid, was ripe for revolution. (1  Keir)  With hope of reconciling domestic problems peacefully, Pitt devised a twofold solution.  The first component would create the legislative union of Ireland with England, which when coupled with Catholic emancipation, offered prospective tranquility on the whole of the British Island.  In order to achieve any degree of success, both measures required enactment; however, Pitt approached each problem separately.  The idea of union met little resistance in England, and the promise of religious emancipation won the support of a majority of the Irish Catholics.  In the summer of 1800, Parliaments at both Dublin and Westminster enacted the Act of Union.  The promise of Catholic emancipation was not so easily fulfilled.  George III, believed to have been constantly on the brink of insanity, absolutely refused to permit any degree of Catholic emancipation.  In order to preserve his honor as a statesman, Pitt resigned; but the Irish Catholics had to wait thirty years and once again threaten revolt before they received their promised emancipation.  The Union Jack became a stigma of political treachery, not a symbol of union.  The seeds of political discontent were sewn.

Approximately one hundred years later, the English were once again at war on the European continent.  The cabinet was formed by coalition and definitely not of homogeneous thought, and the Irish again threatened revolt.  Ireland, except for the Ulster counties, was determined to achieve home rule.  John Redmond~ leader of the Irish Party in parliament, was set on winning self-government by supporting the British cause of defeating Germany.  Much to the annoyance of his fellow countrymen, whom he did not consult, Redmond pledged Ireland's loyalty and her resources to England.  Many Irishmen served England faithfully, but many did not.  ~s their predecessors had sought Spanish or French aid, Irishmen desiring home rule looked upon the German aggressors as a potential ally.

In all previous wars, the Irish had thrown their hats in the air and hustled off, as many of them as could, to join Britain's enemies.  It was tradition to do so and good Irish patriotism.  Any enemy of Britain's was a friend of Ireland's, and when the Irish regiments of the British Army were embarking for the Boer War, they cheered the Boers whom they were going to South Africa to fight. (2  Wibberly)

Irishmen, in fact, did seek German aid.  Even with Sir Roger Casement as their primary advocate, the actual assistance received was minimal.  The major resistance to the British came from within Ireland in the form of Sinn Feiners, a de facto appendage of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  Sinn Fein in Gaelic meant "ourselves alone" and that is precisely what its members desired.  While Redmond worked for a negotiated transition to home rule, the Sinn Feiners prepared for a turnover of a more radical nature.  Sinn Fein's best recruiters were not members of the movement per se, but dissident members of Redmond's National Volunteers. The will to resist British rule was as strong in this group as it was in any other Irish society dedicated to the same cause; however, it was the actions of these dissident Nationalists that distinguished them.  Their leaders were Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, and their most provocative action was known as the Easter Rebellion.  The rebellion was scheduled for Easter Sunday 1916, but shortly before the time designated for its execution, Sir Roger Casement and a supply of German arms were intercepted by the British.  An attempt to cancel the rebellion was made, but through thoroughly decentralized communications, the revolt was attempted one day late, henceforth known as Easter Monday.  British intelligence sources concluded that nothing more than a demonstration would take place on that historic weekend.  They were wrong.

When James Connolly stepped out of Liberty Hall just before noon on Easter Monday~ he was smartly dressed in a uniform becoming his rank.  The Headquarters Group, on the other hand, might have startled a conventional observer.  There was a small detachment from the Irish Citizens Army, but its members were not all clothed in the Army's dark green uniform, far from it; nor were all or nearly all the Irish Volunteers in the group wearing their heather green.  Uniforms were always in short supply   Most men had merely bandoliers, and brassards:  and for arms they displayed a curious panoply--old German Mausers from Howth or rifles or a more ancient make of shotguns or pickaxes or pikes.  Such was the headquarters of a revolutionary army which set out to confront the British Empire.  (3  Dangerfield)

Pearse and Connolly enjoyed success for a period of one week, at the end of which, his headquarters surrendered.  Pearse and fourteen of the revolt's leaders were executed.  To a nation at war with Germany, these harsh actions were simply pragmatic.  The Irish populace had a different perspective.

In short, the swift and savage suppression of the rebellion! which was followed by the arrest of several hundred people on dubious evidence, did what Padraic Pearse, a tenth century bard living in the twentieth century, failed to do.  It united the Irish in militant hatred of Britain.  Pearse's Easter morning rebellion was attributed by the British government to the Sinn Fein movement--that somewhat pacific nationalist organization which had attempted to present the wonder of Irish-grown tobacco to the world.

Sinn Feiners accepted the accusation readily and proudly. People who were not Sinn Feiners became Sinn Feiners.  An organization which sought Irish independence by legal methods became a militant force.  And it found a leader in a strange man with the monstrously un-Irish name of de Valera.  (4  Wibberly)

Born in New York City in 1883~ De Valera was the son of a Spanish father and an Irish mother.  During the Easter rebellion he hand commanded a battalion of activists involved in minor skirmishes.  Of the fifteen primary leaders of the revolt, only he was not executed, and that was due to his American citizenship.  Initially sentenced to death, that judgment was commuted to life imprisonment, and then because of the unpopular sentiment aroused in the United States over the handling of the prisoners, he was released after only a year's incarceration.  De Valera returned to Ireland a hero and emerged before the British as a leader of the Irish cause.  The general election of 1918 sealed the doom of Redmond's constitutionalist policy by overwhelmingly electing the Sinn Feiners. This mandate had been foreshadowed by the rejection caused by Unionist opposition in the coalition cabinet to an agreement between Redmond and Lloyd George which would have granted immediate home rule to Ireland with the exception of the six Ulster counties.  The Sinn Feiners elected were pledged to sit in a parliament in Dublin, but never in Westminster.  While the Sinn Feiners did attempt to set up a parliament in Dublin, the actual importance of their election was as a symbol of national resolve and as such those not in hiding or in jail, renewed their declaration of independence.  The arena of conflict had forever been changed from the British Parliament to the Irish streets.

Both the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Hamar Greenwood, and the military commander at Dublin House, General Sir Nevil Macready, believed that only harsh methods would win the fight against what they termed treason and murder.  This punitive attitude prevailed and resulted in the recruitment of two quasi-military police forces.  One was a large unit of former British soldiers who served as constables.  This unit was not, as once proclaimed, the sweepings of English prisons; the soldiers, in fact, had been carefully screened.  Even so, their military demobilization had not removed the painful scars of participating in a world war, and their experience in that realm of world-wide, but conventional combat did not prepare them for their mission much closer to home.  This detachment was outfitted in khaki tunics, breeches, puttees, large tam-o'-shanter bonnets, belts, bandoliers, and holsters of black leather.  The members of the unit, eventually numbering twelve thousand7 acquired the colloquial name of Black and Tans, which was derogatory in that this was also the name of a well known pack of fox hounds in Limerick County.  (5  Asprey)

The other unit was the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  Known as Auxies,  this unit eventually numbered about fifteen hundred men, most of whom were former British officers who wore their uniforms without rank.  Later they wore dark green and khaki uniforms and were organized into one hundred man "shock companies."   While both the Auxiliary Division and the Black and Tans engaged in bitter fighting; it was the Black and Tans alone that acquired notoriety.

Neither group was trained in counter-insurgency operations, and from the start they presented easy targets to the Irish "terrorists."  In attempting to flush out the Sinn Feiners, their heavy hands often fell innocent civilians; moreover, the British government inadvertently sanctioned this sort of action by emergency legislation enacted in July 1920.  The bill approached attainder and was known by its dissenters in Parliament as the "revival of the Star Chamber."  It gave wide powers to the military command to arrest and imprison without trial, to try civilians by court martial, and to hold witnesses in custody for failing to produce evidence.  Macready pleaded with the British government for the authority to declare martial law, and in 1921 his request was granted.  In effect, the British government had lifted all restraints on the forces occupying Ireland, and those forces, especially the Black and Tans, exercised little in the way of self-restraint.  The British government, in an attempt to quickly resolve this conflict, had permitted the operating forces, which were not trained for this sort of combat! to enact their own rules of engagement

One of the earliest incidents involving the Black and Tans occurred when a Royal Irish Constabulary officer was shot and killed in Limerick. Within an hour of his death. twenty to thirty Black and Tans, many of whom were well inebriated, began destroying houses of local residents. Destruction was arbitrary and regard for military necessity was abandon. The drunken avengers had no well defined enemy force from which to exact retribution.  They rationalized that all Irishmen were "shinners'1 in order to avoid the confusion, more appropriately the frustration, of distinguishing the enemies of England from those bystanders involved only by geographical coincidence.  The ensuing actions resulted in one Black and Tan Casualty, and that was from friendly fire.  A veteran of both the first world war and the Boer War, he was killed by mistake by one of his own comrades as the residents of Limerick offered no resistance; however, the casualties accrued by the Black and Tans were far more damaging than this singular victim.  Standing operating procedures had evolved from frustration and inebriation and not from the calculating minds of once professional soldiers.
A second major incident took place in the town of Balbriggan.  The triggering event for this second rampage was the shooting of the Head Constable of the Royal Irish Constabulary while he was in a hotel at Balbriggan.  The news quickly reached Gormanstown which was a Black and Tan Stronghold only three miles away.  Upon their arrival, the Black and Tans smashed in the door of a public house, seized a large quantity of liquor, and proceeded to burn what hand not been "confiscated."  The pattern of reprisal was again arbitrary, but on a much larger scale than the incident at Limerick.

The pattern which emerged from conflicts involving the Black and Tans was a simple one.  First there was provocation7 then there was reprisal.  The factor which distinguished the Irish combatants from those of the English was the target population.  The Irish of course, had the simpler task in avoiding injuries to noncombatants for the simple reason that this aggregate was composed of Irishmen indigenous to the battlefield.  A member of a British occupying force was a likely target for rebel attacks.  It was considered a rather conventional hazard of the occupation.  On the other hand, any Irishman was a probable target for the Black and Tans, regardless of where the victim's loyalties rested.  At no other time in history, hand England's government permitted such a disregard for innocent, civilian life; even during the intense fighting of the Boer War--which was far from conventional--Kitchner's forces exercised a positive degree of professional, soldierly restraint.  Unable to identify an enemy which easily identified and engaged the Black and Tans, this organization sacrificed its military discipline in the name of preserving order.

The Black and Tans had acquired an ironic reputation for preserving order.  When it was announced that some of them would be stationed at Drogheda (the scene of Oliver Cromwell's Irish Massacres), mill owners checked their fire fighting equipment and the local Royal Irish Constabulary refused to work with their "reinforcements."  Nevertheless, the Black and Tans made their presence known upon their arrival.


              If in the vicinity a policeman is shot, five of the leading Sinn Feiners will be shot.

It is not coercion-it is an eye for an eye. We are not drink-maddened savages as we have been described in the Dublin rags.  We are not out for loot.

We are inoffensive to women.  We are as humane as other Christians, but we have restrained ourselves too long.

Are we to lie down while our comrades are being shot in by the corner boys and ragamuffins of Ireland?

We say "never," and all the inquiries in the world will not stop our desire for revenge.

Stop the shooting of police, or we will lay low every house that smells of Sinn Fein.

Remember Balbriggan.
                                                            (By Order)  Black and Tans (6  Bennett)

The actions taken by the Black and Tans not only enraged the Irish, but a majority of the English population as well.  Few on either side were as upset by the conflict as they were by the way in which that conflict was conducted.  The English population was no more accustomed to fighting an invisible enemy than were the men they sent to conquer them; and with this conflict much closer to home, England faced the loss of national resolve.  In 1921, the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned both the violent tactics of the Irish and the British reprisals.  Speaking in the House of Lords! he summarized the dilemma "You cannot justifiably punish wrong-doing by lawlessly doing the like.  Not by calling the Devil will you cast out devilry."   (7 Asprey) Lloyd George had likewise recognized and voiced the dilemma, "I recognize that force is itself no remedy, and that reason and goodwill alone can lead us to the final goal.  But to abandon the use of force today would be to surrender alike to violence, crime and separatism, and that I am not prepared to do."  (8 Asprey)  By the spring of 1921 George had made a retreat forward  by authorizing an increase in the forces deployed to Ireland.  In a strictly tactical sense, he reinforced failure instead of pursuing another avenue of approach. (9)

Strength settled nothing.  Irish terrorists, British reprisals, and sporadic but intensive violence continued to plague the Irish hope of a sovereign and benevolent homeland.  Likewise, ineffective British police actions and aroused public opinion impeded the government's quest to restore the Union.  Britain's coalition cabinet was still composed of a substantial number of strong-willed Unionist who apparently would succumb to nothing short of total victory.  By the late spring of 1921, the cabinet had privately concluded that the only way to ensure victory was to raise an additional 100,000 troops and special police.  These forces would cover the whole of Southern Ireland with barbed wire and blockhouses7 then they would proceed to sweep through the entire country and capture every Irish insurgent.  The strategy worked once before in the Boer War and to the cabinet it appeared a feasible means to achieve victory.  However, "wiser heads pointed out that British public opinion would topple any government suggesting such a move." (10 Asprey)

In July 1921, the British government realized that a reversal in policy on its own part was the only method acceptable to both the Irish and to the English public which would stop the fighting.  Subsequently, the government proposed to the Sinn Feiners what could have become law in 1914.  Ireland was offered a treaty which granted it dominion status in the Empire, one such as that which existed in Canada.  By December of that year the treaty had been signed and Britain quickly withdrew its forces and over one hundred twenty years of some degree of Anglo-Irish conflict had officially ended.  Peace in Ireland, however, lasted only for a short time.  Factions split over the treaty and otherwise divided, mainly by North-South geographical boundaries, and resumed the fighting in the only manner in which they had ever achieved success.  What ensued was an Irish civil war governed once again by the unrestricted rules of this brand of warfare.  England failed in its effort to enforce unity on the British Island and Ireland continued its domestic struggle with increased bloodshed.

To hold one adversary or the other responsible for the Anglo-Irish conflict is at best questionable and really not the focus of this examination.  The success or failure of the means employed by the belligerent factions to achieve their respective objectives is quite ascertainable.  In the case of the British government's use of the Black and Tans to compel Irish subjugation, the inability to locate and destroy the enemy force without arbitrary destruction ultimately destroyed the discipline of the force sent to accomplish this task.  The Black and Tans were composed of the same high caliber men which defeated Germany in the First World War, yet they could not contend with what Clausewitz termed "second rate troops."  The frustrated actions of this force did not simply fail, they served as a catalyst in developing an insurmountable will in the force whom they were to subjugate.

The politics of this polycentric world deny the United States the isolationist position which it sought well into the 20th century.  The national interest no longer resides solely within our borders and when diplomacy fails to protect what is deemed vital to that interest, military intervention is often the mandated course of action.  We maintain well equipped and well disciplined active and reserve forces which could respond to any military threat.  But have we subscribed to Clausewitz's dogma of war and politics too long?  How much longer will the national focus of military effort remain on winning a re-enactment of World War II. Grenada was an anomaly in the midst of third world insurgencies and Desert Storm returned us the comfort  of defining policy and doctrine for conventional warfare.   Daily acts of terrorism and the infiltration of our borders by a cartel which defies nations with impunity are clear indicators of the battlefield of our future.  If we are to seriously consider the use of military force in defending our national interest against any of these threats, we must first learn from the failures of the British in Ireland and our own failures in Vietnam.  The force which we commit must be trained to locate these enemies which cannot be seen, must be prepared to apply the principle of military necessity when engaging an enemy integrated among noncombatants,  and must be prepared to fight a protracted war without alienating the indigenous population or forsaking our own national resolve.  Let's learn from the historical failures of the Black and Tans and not from our own future reenactment of their unfocussed combat.

Thus a victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.       SUN TZU


1  Sir David Lindsay Keir, The Constitutional History of Modern Britain since 1945 (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 1966), p.

2 Leonard Patrick O'Connor Wibberly, The Trouble with the Irish (or the English, depending on your point of view) (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 1956), p. 227

3  George Danger4ield, The Danmable Question:  A study in Anglo-Irish Relations (Boston:  Little, Brown & Company, 1976), p.161-163.

4  Wibberly, p. 231

5  Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows:  the Guerilla in History (New York:  Doubleday and Company Inc., 1975) p. 276

6  Richard Bennett, The Black and Tans (London:  E. Hulton & Co. LTD) p. 98-99
7    Asprey, p. 278
8    Asprey, p. 278

9  A "retreat forward" is part of a concept of social theory known as drift.  Such a "retreat" occurs when an individual (or aggregate) limits his choices to such an extent that it is easier or perceived to be easier to simply continue with his previous behavior than it is to deviate from the established pattern--even though the individual may be headed on a course which he knows will not be successful.
10      Asprey, p. 278


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