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Britain’s Irish Civil War

Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army move through Grafton Street, the Battle of Dublin, 1922

In my 2011 review of historian Liz Gillis’ new Irish Civil War study “The Fall of Dublin” from Mercier Press I wrote that:

“…one of the accusations made by some Republicans in the aftermath of the Fall of Dublin was the use of British troops  in the assaults on the Republican forces entrenched in the city. Certainly this is given some credence in a paragraph by Gillis describing a mutiny of Pro-Treaty soldiers at Portobello Barracks:

‘Frank Carney, supplies officer at the barracks, was ordered to hand over weapons and other materials that were to be used in the assault:

He was about to obey the order when he recognised the officer receiving them as a British officer from the Phoenix Park depot [the British Army HQ]. Realising it was an alliance with British against Republicans that he was being called upon to take action, he refused to comply and resigned. Several men resigned with him and all were placed under arrest.’

However there is little other evidence of direct involvement by the British Forces in the fighting, though British troops were kept at the ready in bases around the city to intervene if need be and the British provided the artillery, heavy machine guns and armoured vehicles that the Free State forces used to swing the battle in their favour. Further offers from the British including the use of warplanes to bomb and strafe Republican positions were rejected. But later in the war direct British military assistance, particularly from the Royal Navy, was accepted so perhaps British ‘advisers’ were present during the battles at the Four Courts and maybe elsewhere? Certainly as the war progressed the Free State army increasingly resembled a ‘demobbed’ British Army in Ireland.”

Now new evidence has emerged to prove that the British Occupation Forces in Ireland did participate directly in the earliest stages of the Civil War. Indeed they played a pivotal role in the events that were to propel Ireland into the internecine conflict that was to scar the country for generations to come. First comes an article from Irish Central describing a new BBC radio documentary revealing the memoirs of Lance-Bombardier Percy Creek, a British soldier who served in Ireland during the Revolution:

“A newly discovered military memoir has claimed that British Army artillery crews were commandeered by Michael Collins at the start of the Irish Civil War.

The claim contradicts official accounts that Collins turned down an offer of soldiers and artillery from the British to end the three month occupation of the Four Courts by anti-treaty forces.

The claims have been broadcast by the BBC in Britain in a radio programme featuring the memoir of Lance Bombardier Percy Creek of the Royal Field Artillery.

His book was discovered by Open University academic William Sheehan and broadcast by BBC Radio 4’s Document series.

The Irish Times reports that Creek claims in the book how his unit of howitzer artillery was sent to Fermanagh, but later told to march by night to Dublin and ‘told not to speak to anyone and to keep as quiet as possible.’

The Irish National Army had failed up to then to disperse the anti-treaty forces occupying the Four Courts under the command of Rory O’Connor.

The Irish Army’s shrapnel blasts proved ineffective which is why, Creek claims, his unit was given the orders to fire two heavy rounds.

He recalled: “We then saw the shell rip into a wall of one of the courts. Then, all became quiet and I think the officers and dignitaries were all very tense.

“We only fired two rounds and quickly limbered up and went back to the rest of the battery. The situation in Dublin was very tricky.”

The broadcast recalled how Creek’s sergeant and commanding officer were worried beforehand because of the presence of Irish soldiers in the Royal Field Artillery unit.

He said: “A few days later we went to some docks and the whole battery was shipped back to Fishguard.”

Historian William Sheehan told The Irish Times that the Creek memoir is significant. He said: “It shows that the agenda was being driven by the British cabinet in London.

“Ministers there, including Winston Churchill, were concerned that anti-Treaty forces in Munster and elsewhere would mobilise to surround the National Army troops encircling the Four Courts.

The Nottingham-based academic added: “Collins was not a victim, but there is evidence that he was certainly not in control of what was going on around him. He’s choiceless. He is essentially doing what the British wanted.”

Collins’s biographer Tim Pat Coogan told the BBC programme he did not know if Creek’s version of events was accurate, but ‘it could have happened.’

University of Dundee professor Dr John Regan told the BBC that the account ‘complicates things’. He said: “It suggests that the British were there for the opening shots of the Irish Civil War.””

Soldiers of the Irish National Army (Free State Army) with British-supplied uniforms, weapons and equipment, the Battle of Dublin, 1922

Creek’s testimonial has now been given greater weight with collaborative proof from British government files, as detailed in an article from today’s Irish Times newspaper:

“Lance-Bombardier Percy Creek had no intention of trying to overturn one of the State’s foundation stones when he sat down decades afterward to write of his time in the British army.

Last week sections of his memoir were published. In these he claimed that he and other British gunners were employed to shell the Four Courts in the opening chapter of the Civil War.

Despite the rumours then, and later, it had always been generally accepted that Michael Collins used British equipment and ammunition, but not troops. Creek’s account calls into question this version of history, however. Despite Creek’s doubters last week, and there were many, his account is backed by British cabinet minutes from late June 1922.

Open University academic William F Sheehan, formerly of University College, Cork, examined the cabinet papers for information that would support, or cast doubt, on Creek’s account.

Faced with the killing of Gen Henry Wilson in London, London demanded immediate action against the Four Courts, held by anti-treaty forces since April. During a meeting before noon on June 28th, ministers were told that the British commander in Ireland, Gen Nevil Macready, did not then believe Collins would ask for troops.

“(Lord Cavan, chief of the imperial general staff) thought it was a great pity that the provisional government had not asked the imperial troops to carry out the task for them,” the minutes record.

By 7.45pm, British ministers were back in conclave. The news from Dublin was not good: four 18-pounder guns had been lent, but they were now short of ammunition. New supplies could be shipped, but they could be 24 hours away: “The danger of delay was that reinforcements might arrive from other parts of Ireland for Republican forces,” the minutes record.

Lord Cavan reported that a Royal Artillery officer “had, at the request of the provisional government been giving its forces advice on how to use 18-pounder guns. However, 18-pounders “were not of much value for this kind of fighting” and “heavier ordnance” was needed “against such solid buildings”.

Michael Collins, however, was “not willing to employ it, apparently because the use of such material would require the employment of the regular (ie British) troops”.

Believing that Collins and the provisional government could yet fall to anti-treaty forces, British ministers feared that the delay in seizing the Four Courts could force it to act. “If the British troops had to undertake the task in the end, it would now be much harder and a new plan would have to be formed,” the June 28th minutes record.

Then come the paragraphs that back Creek’s version of events. He says he and his unit were first shipped to Fermanagh and then told to march by night to Dublin.

“Information was received just before the meeting that the provisional government were willing to employ British gunners and to utilise 60-pounder guns,” according to the minutes. Indeed, the Irish were discussing accepting troops.

The provisional government “must be supported in every way, and the operation must not be allowed to fail”, British ministers agreed. Emergency stores of 18-pounder ammunition were to be sent.

A few hours later, British ministers convened again, sending a telegram to Collins: “By all means use the 300 18-pdr high-explosive shells as soon as they arrive, but this will be little use without heavier guns and good gunners. Do not fail to take both. Both are available. It is essential to take the 60-pdr, its gunners and it is ammunition and most desirable to use the six-inch howitzers as well and all together.”

Later that day, the Four Courts was briefly, but heavily, shelled and “the greater part of the building” captured by Collins’s forces, who were now titled Free State, not provisional government, forces.

However, Churchill was concerned about charges in Dublin already circulating that Collins had acted “at the behest” of the British , which had “reacted adversely on public opinion”.

Addressing fellow ministers, he said they should “dwell on the fact that they should avoid any suggestion that the Free State government was acting on British inspiration, and to lay stress on the fact that they have undertaken the task on their own initiatives”.

The cabinet minutes lack a definite declaration that Creek and his men were deployed, but Sheehan believes that, together with Creek’s account, they make a compelling case.”

We now have two eyewitness accounts, that of Frank Carney, a Pro-Treaty IRA and Irish National Army officer, and Percy Creek, a British artilleryman, along with contemporaneous British government papers, all strongly suggesting that the British participated directly in the Battle of the Four Courts in 1922. We also have the numerous claims and rumours reported in Dublin city and elsewhere from this period of British Forces acting on behalf of the Free State government.

The case for the prosecution would seem unanswerable.

UPDATE 01-06-2013: Acclaimed history site The Irish Story sums up the evidence for British military co-operation with the Free State regime during the Irish Counter-Revolution. It is overwhelming.

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