Irish War of Independence - WW1 Veterans In A New Battle

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It’s September 1920, and the British have introduced a new force of Great War veterans to crush the independence movement in Ireland. This month, the Auxiliary Division launches a major seek and destroy operation against the IRA – it’s the Irish War of Independence.

By mid-1920, the Irish War of Independence had been going on for the better part of two years. The political fight for Irish independence was led by Sinn Fein, while the guerilla campaign against Britain was carried out by the Irish Republican Army. The British had at first relied on the Royal Irish Constabulary police force to maintain order, but had introduced the RIC Special Reserve, better known as Black and Tans, in March – and you can learn more about them in our previous episode about the war. The Black and Tans were mostly English veterans of the Great War, and in the summer of 1920 this reliance on Great War soldiers to maintain British control in Ireland would take a new form – the Auxiliary Division. They soon became known for introducing a new breed of violence into the conflict exactly 100 years ago.


By mid-1920, the situation in Ireland - from the British point of view at least - was becoming more and more fragile. Attacks on the police by IRA volunteers had forced many police departments to fall back to more secure urban barracks. This allowed Sinn Fein to set up a shadow state in rural areas, since they were the leading party in the self-proclaimed Irish parliament. This parallel state was especially noticeable in the justice system. By the summer, it had essentially come to a standstill as both jurors and witnesses refused to attend trials. This was perhaps partly due to patriotic republican leanings, but also because of a mass campaign of intimidation by the IRA. At some sessions, even the magistrates themselves refused to turn up for court. One magistrate in Mayo+ wrote: “Everybody is yielding to Sinn Fein whether they approve of it or not. They say they can do nothing else, and that the Government cannot or will not protect them, and the police can barely protect themselves.” (Townshend 149) As British control weakened, Sinn Fein established more institutions of governance, including republican courts, police patrols, and even taxes.

One of the reasons the British were losing their grip was that the government under-estimated the sophistication of the Irish republican movement. To many ministers, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the IRA was nothing more than a rabble of ‘murder gangs’. Military figures in Ireland, however, like former Great War general Lord They claimed that martial law was the solution that would bring order to the island, since this would provide them with a full set of military options, and control of the courts. A close friend of the Prime Minister, Lord George Riddell, wrote about his take after a conversation with Lord French: “If the position were recognised and if the Irish were met with a proper military force, the whole agitation would be crushed in a few months… It was absurd to think that the British Army could not quell such an insurrection if given proper powers. [French] said it was an underground conspiracy. You might pass from one end of Ireland to the other and not see anything abnormal. But the rebel organisation was there.” (Riddell 202/203)

The Prime Minister, however, disagreed. Declaring martial law would be unpopular to public opinion and legitimate the IRA as a real state army. Lloyd George put it this way: “You do not declare war against rebels.” (Roxborough 150)

Instead, the burden would continue to fall on the police. By summer, this was a mix of the old Irish policemen and new predominantly English recruits of the Black and Tans special reserve.  But even the Black and Tans were in turmoil after just a few months in Ireland. Morale was low and a small mutiny even broke out in County Kerry. Many Black and Tans resigned, and within a year only half the men who had joined in 1920 would still be with the RIC.


So despite the introduction of the Black and Tan police, the British were no closer to regaining control. Even though the largely veteran force had not brought the expected results, the idea of  recruiting British Great War veterans still had appeal. In July 1920, Lieutenant-General Henry Tudor, the lead policeman at Dublin Castle, got permission to raise a new force of ex-officers to take on the IRA.


This new force was officially called the Auxiliary Division Royal Irish Constabulary, Auxies for short, but they have often been referred to as Black and Tans, even though they were a separate outfit from the RIC Special Reserve, as historian Charles Townshend explains: “The second generation of Black and Tans neither looked like police nor behaved like them.” (Townshend 158)

In July advertisements appeared in Britain calling on former officers with “Courage, Discretion, Tact and Judgement” to join the new force. In exchange, the men would receive a pound a day - making them the highest paid uniformed force in the world at the time. The recruiters stressed that social class would not be a barrier to joining the Auxiliaries. This was important, since class had been a key component of the British officer corps before 1916, but the Auxies would be mostly working and middle class men. As more higher class officers were killed during the Great War, rank and file men were promoted to take their place. Once the war ended though, these working-class officers now found themselves shut out of the good jobs that their higher-class colleagues enjoyed. To them, the high pay in the Auxiliaries was far better than a working class wage.

This meant the Auxiliary Division became a diverse group, though most were British. As well as British ex-officers, there were Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans and even Americans. At least 10 percent were Irish. One of every 8 Auxiliaries had been decorated during the Great War, including three Victoria Cross holders and a recipient of the French medaille militaire. In all, about 2200 men joined the Auxiliaries, about two-thirds of whom were in service at one time.

Like their background, the Auxiliary Division’s kit was also diverse. Much like the Black and Tans, there was a lack of official uniforms and so the Auxiliaries generally wore a mixture of military khakis topped off with the regulation tam o’shanter cap – and rules were lax. They were even allowed to wear open-thigh low-slung hip holsters, as former Auxiliary Bill Munro recalled: “Some of us were influenced by Western films and wore our revolvers in holsters low slung on the thigh which looked very dashing but which was the cause of quite a number of shot-off toes - as the enthusiasts attempted to emulate the cowboys of Texas.” (Leeson 103)

In terms of weaponry, the Auxiliary Division men had their pick of a variety of firearms, including the standard Lee Enfield rifle, as well as Winchester repeating rifles and pump action shotguns. Although the new Colt 1911 pistol proved to be a particularly popular novelty for a while, many returned to their reliable wartime Webleys.

They were also allowed to wear service ribbons on their battledress, perhaps to intimidate and impress the locals. On their shoulders, each wore an insignia including the initials ‘TC’ for Temporary Cadet, although as one Auxiliary Division quartermaster put it: “The Auxiliaries’ own interpretation of those letters is unprintable.” (Leeson 102) And unspeakable in a history documentary – but I can reveal the first word is “tough” and the second only has four letters.


So the British had now recruited an Auxiliary Division of ex-officers to join the police and Black and Tans in putting down the revolt in Ireland. They were divided into companies of 100 men to better carry out their intended mission: as emergency reinforcements for the badly stretched RIC garrisons, but also to seek out and destroy the IRA in Ireland’s most republican regions.


By August, 15 companies had been formed, which were immediately dispatched to the counties of Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway - the strongholds of the IRA. One of their main activities was to simply patrol the area, as a show of force to reinstate Crown control. Temporary Cadet Ernest Lycett explained their duties in his diary: “We were on dangerous duty, which was to keep the highways and roads open to traffic. Every morning the patrols would leave the Castle at 8am with definite routes to be followed by the officer in charge. All in battle order and ready for trouble on the way… Notwithstanding the tension, it was very interesting, passing through the most beautiful country, but we never knew what was just around the bend. When passing through deep cuttings, sometimes we sent out scouts on either side of us, for security against roadblocks.” (O’Brien 34)

Their most aggressive objective of seeking out the IRA was a difficult one, as the IRA units would generally only gather when launching attacks of their own. However, if accurate information was available, search and destroy operations could be launched, such as the one at Kilmashogue in the Dublin Mountains on September 19, 1920. An IRA unit was based in an old quarry in the mountains and was being trained with a new explosive nicknamed ‘war flour.’ IRA headquarters planned to send an inspection team to the quarry, and the British learned of the planned meeting. The Auxiliaries’ attack was a success, catching the IRA fighters by surprise. Forty were made prisoner and one killed in the assault. The operation was seen by the British as a great success by an efficient and disciplined force.

In reality though, this kind of raid was rare, since the accurate intelligence that made it possible was usually not to be had. And behind the scenes, trouble was brewing in the Auxiliary Division. Discipline had been a problem right from the start. Tudor had not made adequate logistical preparations for the unit, according to its first commander, Brigadier General Frank Crozier: “A lot of misery, inconvenience and hard drinking could have been avoided had arrangements been made for the reception of these men, for their ordinary comfort - quartering, messing, and discipline - but instead the men were running around Curragh as they liked. The original members of the Division, which then had no name, had to arrange their own messing and canteens, and there was nobody in command.” (Leeson 99)

Without much to do and with a lot of money in their pockets in the early weeks, many Auxiliary men passed their time drinking, with little supervision from the chain of command. In one incident, RIC and Auxiliary men ended up shooting at each other while drinking in a hotel. In the resulting inquest, the Deputy Adjutant General in Ireland noted: “They all had the wind up, blood up, and did what they used to do in the trenches of France. In the circumstances you cannot hold them criminally responsible, but they are not fit to be policemen - but are any Auxiliaries?” (Harvey 667)

Within the first four months, 50 men had been dismissed for disciplinary issues, and another 40 would desert, an extremely rare thing among British officers. Some contemporaries and historians have explained these problems by pointing to the men’s traumatizing experience of fighting I the Great War. But a more likely explanation was the poor preparation, lack of command structure, and pressures of the situation in Ireland, which had much more in common with a counter-insurgency than a traditional war.

So the Auxiliary Division had begun operations but was suffering from problems with discipline and morale. In spite of its stated goal of seeking out and fighting the IRA, the Auxiliary Division is best known for its important role in reprisals against the civilian population.


Now, up until the middle of 1920, both sides had shown some degree of restraint in the conflict.  IRA attacks usually targeted individuals for assassination, and the RIC were reluctant to punish whole communities for alleged republican support. These last inhibitions disappeared in summer 1920, and in the face of increasing police frustration at IRA attacks, the Irish people themselves became the targets.

These attacks varied in scale and degree of violence, but often involved the destruction of homes and businesses, as well as shooting and grenade attacks. Between July and September, there were notable reprisals in Thurles, Upperchurch, Limerick, Templemore, and Balbriggan, among others.

Explaining the reprisals in detail is complex. The RIC were facing a general boycott campaign, which meant that local shop owners often refused to sell to them. In some places, this led to severe food shortages among the police, even though the boycott was not observed by all, and some only participated under pressure from the IRA. The hostile environment in many communities was seen by the Police Inspector General as one of the reasons for reprisals: “[The men are] boycotted, ostracised, forced to commandeer their food, crowded into cramped quarters without light or air, every man’s hand against them, in danger of their lives, and subjected to the appeals of their families to induce them to leave the force.” (Townshend 161)

In these circumstances, an IRA attack could easily ignite police retaliation, and the Tubbercurry reprisal is a typical example. A police inspector was killed by the IRA and his body brought back to the barracks, where it was seen by the men. They promptly drove into town on trucks shouting for Sinn Fein to come out. They fired at windows and threw grenades at buildings, and wrecked 11 shops. The troops then destroyed two dairy creameries, which were vital to the local economy. Local resident Mrs. Murricane described the behaviour of the police: "They all seemed to me to speak with an Irish accent. The swearing was awful. The men asked me where my husband was, and I asked him what they wanted him for. They replied, 'To shoot him.'” (“Tubbercurry," Manchester Guardian, 4 October 1920. p. 8.) Journalist Hugh Martin visited two days later and described the destruction: “Little spires of smoke were twisting up from three jagged stone skeletons and the breeze twirled ashes instead of autumn leaves across the open ground. Many shops-I counted eleven, and there may have been more between and beside the burnt-out buildings-had their fronts battered and broken, so that the whole triangle had the air of having barely survived an earthquake.” (Hugh Martin "'Black and Tan' Force a Failure," Daily News 4 October 1920. p. 1) The Auxiliaries soon gained a reputation as the main perpetrators of these reprisals after a string of murders in the summer and fall.

Now, reprisals were officially banned in August, but the British authorities often turned a blind eye. Tudor was reluctant to punish those responsible: “How the devil can we round up and try 50 policemen when we know that they know that the bulk of their officers up to the top agree in principle with their action?” (Townshend 163) Some officers actually encouraged the men to commit crimes, like Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Smyth of the RIC: “The more you shoot the better I will like you, and no policeman will get into trouble for shooting a man.” (McMahon 62)

Even Lloyd George didn’t oppose the reprisals, but he did prefer a policy of shooting suspected IRA men – known as ‘counter-murder’ – to indiscriminate destruction. Some military leaders worried that the police attacks were bad for discipline, but even critics acknowledged that they were having some effect: in some places, locals began offering the police information on the IRA to avoid reprisals against their communities, a development one officer called quote “cringing submission.”


It is quite difficult to accurately estimate the degree of IRA support among the population. It’s likely that most people, especially in the south, did sympathise with the republican cause to some extent, but the degree of support varied. There were some who remained loyal to the Crown, and could be seen as potential spies or informers by both sides, and there were also those who cooperated with the police out of fear of reprisal or economic pressure, even if they were republicans.

To weaken support for and cooperation with the British, he republican movement operated a system of ostracisation. Families or individuals known to harbour loyalist beliefs, or who were relatives of policemen, could find themselves excluded from public and commercial life. In close knit village communities, such ostracisation could have a major impact. Women who were known to fraternise with police were often targeted and some were dragged into town squares and their heads shaved. In many cases, known or suspected informants were murdered, their bodies often bearing notices warning others against providing information to the RIC.

Many normal Irish people found themselves caught in this tense middle ground between police reprisals and IRA intimidation. Historian Peter Hart explained this cycle of violence: “This little cycle of killings reveals the runaway tit-for-tat logic of the guerrilla war in Cork, driven by fear and the overwhelming need to respond […] Murder was more common than battle. This dirty war was waged largely by small bands of gunmen, young, tough, and barely under the control of their superiors. The ‘active squads’ on both sides did what they liked, undeterred by orders or discipline further up the organization.” (Hart 147/148)

It was the republicans who benefitted the most,  politically, from the violence. Sinn Fein was able to exploit police violence for propaganda purposes and portray it as an organized campaign of murder and destruction – which was not a difficult task given the nature of the reprisals. Following the increase in police violence, Lily Yeats, the sister of Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote to him: “As you know I was no Sinn Feiner, just a mild nationalist, but now - “ (Townshend 171)


So the IRA had begun to gain more support as a result of violent police reprisals, even while it also put pressure on civilians. But it wasn’t gaining ground all over the island: in the Ulster region in the northeast, the population was mostly loyal to Britain.


In the 1918 General Election, Sinn Fein had swept to power across Ireland except in the northeast counties making up the region of Ulster. This mostly Protestant area supported the Irish Unionist party, which opposed republicanism and wanted to remain in the United Kingdom.

Officially, Sinn Fein continued to say that an independent Ireland must include all of its counties and provinces, including Ulster. In reality though, the IRA had little influence in the northeast, and their units operating there were much less active than in the Catholic parts of the island. Instead of focusing on guerilla attacks, the republican leadership organised an economic boycott of the region. Initially, the Irish President Eamon De Valera was reluctant to do this, since he thought it might damage the chances for a united Ireland. But activists began to organise spontaneous boycotts, and Sinn Fein eventually threw its support behind them. They arranged the boycott of Belfast-based banks and insurance companies, and the boycott quickly expanded to almost all goods manufactured in Ulster.

The idea behind the blockade was remind people in Ulster of their economic dependence on the rest of Ireland, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. In response to IRA attacks and the boycott, a pre-war unionist paramilitary organisation was reformed: the Ulster Volunteer Force. Some figures in the British administration supported UVF, like the Chief Secretary for Ireland Hamar Greenwood, but others were worried its resurgence could trigger even more violence.

And violence did begin to increase between Protestants, who were more likely to support the union, and Catholics, who were more likely to favour a republic. One incident occurred in August, after the death of an RIC District Inspector in Lisburn, in the mostly Protestant northeast. 300 homes belonging to Catholics were destroyed, and nearly the entire Catholic population of the town were forced to flee. In some areas with a Catholic majority, Protestant families living in Catholic neighbourhoods were pushed out into Protestant areas. In many northern towns, a sectarian divide was established that would endure for generations.


By early fall 1920, British authorities had some grounds for optimism. The Auxiliaries seemed to be gaining some control over republican areas, even though they had created controversy because of their role in violence against civilians. And they had yet to sustain a single casualty, which helped increase police morale and correspondingly weaken that of the IRA. The IRA rank and file was also frustrated with the slow pace of operations, police reprisals, and the death of some leading republican figures, like the Mayor of Cork.

In early November, British authorities reported on their progress: “Much of the moral and material support lent to Sinn Fein is due to fear and with the growth of the realisation that the Government is beginning to get a grip of the situation there are indications of a return to sanity and revulsion against Sinn Fein on the part of more responsible persons.” (Townshend 216/217)

Despite this optimism, British confidence on how things were developing in Ireland would soon be shaken by events on a late November Sunday.



Hart, Peter: “The IRA and Its Enemies” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

Harvey, A.D: “Who Were the Auxiliaries?” The Historical Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Sep. 1992)

Hopkinson, Michael: “The Irish War of Independence” (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002)

Leeson, David: “The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1921” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

McMahon, Sean: “The War of Independence” (Cork: Mercier Press, 2019)

O’Brien, Paul: “Havoc: The Auxiliaries in Ireland’s War of Independence” (Cork: Collins Press, 2017)

Riddell, George: “Lord Riddell’s Intimate Diary of the Peace Conference and After: 1918-1923” (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1933)

Roxbourgh, Ian: “The Military: The Mutual Determination of Strategy in Ireland, 1912-1921” in Duyvendak, Jan Willem & Jasper, James M. (eds) “Breaking Down the State: Protesters Engaged” (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015)

Townshend, Charles: “The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence 1918-1923” (London: Penguin Books, 2014)

“Tubbercurry" Manchester Guardian, 4 October 1920.

Hugh Martin: "'Black and Tan' Force a Failure" Daily News 4 October 1920.


1920 News The Great War

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