Just after 12 o’clock on the afternoon of Easter Monday, the 24th of April 1916, Patrick H. Pearse and his revolutionary colleagues were escorted by volunteers, citizen-soldiers, of the newly formed Army of the Irish Republic (or, Irish Republican Army) through the entranceway of the centrally located General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin, to a point near the middle of the capital’s main thoroughfare. Looking understandably nervous the teacher, journalist and poet read out a statement proclaiming an Irish Republic and the formation of a Provisional Government to a small and initially confused crowd of onlookers. At the same time insurrectionist forces under the control of the men and women now headquartered in the GPO were taking up defensive positions throughout the city. Despite a planned mobilisation of some 13,500 fighters across Ireland – including at least 3000 in the Dublin region alone – contradictory orders resulted in just 1250 men and women deploying in the capital with another 1300 elsewhere. Nevertheless, the country was now in the grip of an armed revolution intended to liberate the island nation from the colonial rule of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Confrontations with the 17,000 members of the UK’s locally garrisoned military and paramilitary forces seemed inevitable.
Shortly after the dramatic events on O’Connell Street a fifty-strong band of mounted troopers from the 5th and 12th (Royal Irish) Lancers, part of the 6th Reserve Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Marlborough (now, McKee) Barracks near the Phoenix Park, approached the area along the city’s riverside quays. They were escorting a convoy of four horse-drawn wagons of the London and North Western Railway company from a train terminus in the North Wall Quay, a docklands district in the east of capital. The vehicles, manned by several men of the 615th Motor Transport Company of the Army Service Corp, were loaded with rifles, ammunition and grenades being transferred from Britain to the tightly guarded Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park. The commander of the detail was twenty-six year old Second Lieutenant Godfrey Jackson Hunter, an impetuous middle-class Londoner formerly with the Inns of Court Officers’ Training Corps.
As the group journeyed eastward along the streets parallel to the River Liffey they unknowingly passed several insurgent strongpoints. However the local units of the Republican Army were under orders at this time to avoid if possible any clashes with the British Forces. Despite being a choice target the convoy was permitted to proceed unhindered, passing Liberty Hall and the spacious entrance to O’Connell Street, with O’Connell Bridge on the left, until they came to the Bachelors Walk quay. There they encountered a growing throng of men, women and children attracted by the rumours of a republican “rebellion” being staged in the heart of the city. A British sympathiser shouted to the soldiers, “The Sinn Féiners are out – they’re up ahead!”, referring to insurrectionists constructing street-barricades further to the west. However Jackson Hunter ignored the warning and drove his horse through the milling crowds, dismissing claims that a revolution was taking place just metres away, the ammunition train trotting and rumbling behind him.
When the line of mounted troopers and carts passed the sprawling Four Courts complex of buildings on the Kings Inn Quay, the home of the UK’s justice system in Ireland, they came within the operational area of the 1st Battalion of the Dublin Division, Irish Republican Army, under Commandant Edward “Ned” Daly. Dozens of men and some women were busy entrenching themselves in the streets and houses around the district in parties of fours and fives. When the leading soldiers suddenly appeared before a small detail of insurgents constructing a blockade at the southern end of Church Street the astonished volunteers dropped to their knees and opened fire, several of the mounted enemy falling to the ground, dead or wounded. Jackson Hunter roared at his panicked and milling men to retreat back along the Kings Inn Quay, a handful heading northwards up Chancery Place towards the assumed safety of the Four Courts where they were halted by shots from a lone volunteer, James Byrne, armed with an ancient Mauser rifle purchased from Germany. The rest followed their commander up nearby Charles Street West towards the Ormond Square until they came under further fire, stopping in scenes of near chaos. After several minutes of confusion the British officer ordered his men to break into two local businesses, P.F. Collier’s Memorial Dispensary for the Prevention of Consumption, and just across the street, the Medical Mission.
The weapons and ammunition were taken from the wagons and carried into the buildings while the terrified horses were corralled into two or three groups. With the carts pushed onto their sides to form crude barriers, the soldiers settled down to a virtual siege, repulsing several attempts to dislodge them. The most notable of these attacks occurred when two volunteers of Commandant Daly’s unit attempted to burn the Collier’s building using rags and paper soaked in oil. Despite withering fire from the defenders both men nearly succeeded, though in the end one of the duo, Paddy Daly, was seriously wounded and had to be recovered by his comrades. On Wednesday the 26th of April Second Lieutenant Hunter was killed during another assault, while the horses were turned loose in the streets as the trapped men could no longer care for them.
By this date Colonel Bertram Percy Portal of the 3rd Reserve Cavalry Brigade was already operating in the western half of Dublin with the Curragh Mobile Column, a hastily assembled relief force of some 1600 soldiers from the Curragh Camp in County Kildare, the largest British Army base in Ireland. Most of these men had arrived in the capital by train on Monday evening and night and were soon reinforced by units from Athlone, Belfast and Templemore. Under the instructions of Brigadier-General William H.M. Lowe, head of the Reserve Calvary Brigade who had assumed command of the shocked UK forces on Tuesday morning, Portal was tasked with splitting the insurgent positions using the streets along the River Liffey to move eastward. Quickly assessing the difficulties facing the the British forces in the capital, who were barely holding their own against the ill-armed “rebels“, Portal turned to a colleague, Colonel Henry Thomas Ward Allatt of the Royal Irish Rifles, to oversee the construction of a number of improvised armoured vehicles to move troops and materials around the blockaded streets.
Seeking aid from sympathetic unionist business leaders, the sixty-nine year old French-born officer received nearly twenty cars and lorries from the Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate with the permission of Edward Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, including up to five Milne-Daimler flatbed delivery trucks, while Sir William J. Goulding, the owner of the Great Southern and Western Railway (GS&WR), authorised the donation of between ten and twelve locomotive “smokeboxes”. These were large cylinders made of steel fitted to the forward section of a steam train engine allowing hot gasses to escape into the atmosphere through a short chimney stack; most were fitted with circular hatches to provide access to the interior of the steam engine.
The Daimler trucks and the locomotive parts were bolted and welded together at GS&WR’s Inchicore Railway Works in the south-west of the city, a number of small factories partly given over to supplying Britain’s war industry with tooled parts for military equipment (mainly cases for artillery shells and grenades). The design and labour was carried out by civilian employees under the direction of military engineers stationed in the depot, who created three crudely armoured personnel carriers with boiler-like troop compartments which were found to be largely impervious to small-arms fire. Four separate smokeboxes bolted together on the rear of a lorry made one compartment into which could be squeezed at least fifteen fully-equipped soldiers. The roof holes for the chimney stack of each smokebox were sealed with metal plates, while the rearmost section was faced backwards allowing access through a retained engine hatch. A narrow platform, the original bed of the truck, jutted out from this repurposed door.
All of the vehicles had loopholes drilled into their sloping sides along with painted dummy ones to confuse ambushers and opposition snipers, illustrating the forethought the mechanics put into their work despite the panic gripping the British authorities. At least two carried rear-facing Lewis light machine guns inside the compartment which were capable of shooting through a narrow aperture cut into the hatch (though the door could have also been swung open to provide a greater sweep of cover fire for disembarking soldiers). However in practice relatively little shooting came from inside the vehicles due to the cramped space, limited visibility and resultant noise.
The cabins for the drivers were far more vulnerable to attack, relying on a footplate from a train for a roof and welded sheets of metal for protection, and a number of truck operators were wounded during the fighting. In fact, some thirty-three Guinness employees volunteered to act as drivers for the UK forces during the Easter Rising, since so few soldiers or paramilitary police officers knew how to drive. A significant number of those who refused to cooperate with Britain’s troops or who were suspected of “rebel” sympathies were sacked in a purge mounted by the Guinness family and their underlings in the weeks after the insurrection. The GS&WR implemented a similar policy, evicting “Sinn Féin” workers and their families from company-owned houses.
By Thursday the 27th of April the machines, nicknamed “boilers” by some users and observers, were ready for action. One of their first tasks was to take part in a late afternoon attack on Grattan (Capel Street) Bridge, a crossing-point over the River Liffey where the northern half was held in force by units of the Irish Republican Army, which was delaying the encirclement of the seat of the Provisional Government in the GPO. This was the first known use of armoured personnel carriers by the UK’s armed forces, and perhaps the earliest in military history. The vehicles were crewed by members of the 2/6th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters (the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment), whose companion unit had suffered enormous losses the day before during the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, to the south-east. In staggered runs the trucks ferried groups of soldiers across the bridge, assaulting fortified buildings and gradually pushing forward into Capel Street proper and along the quays on both sides of the river-crossing, with infantry following behind on foot.
After several hours of hand-to-hand fighting a wedge was successfully driven between the Republican Army forces around the Four Courts and O’Connell Street, severing the insurgents’ lines of defence and communications. The British took the opportunity to rescue their trapped men from the two bullet-scarred buildings on Charles Street West, the exhausted troopers and munitions being carried to safety in several trips over Thursday night, all the time under fire from the outposts of Commandant Daly’s tenacious garrison. It would be some time before the bodies of their fallen comrades were recoverable.
Over the next three days the carriers were deployed to storm a number of defensive positions in the capital, reversing towards insurgent-held buildings or barricades, the attackers dismounting from the door in the rear smokebox to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, using crowbars and axes to smash any obstacles they encountered. The high platforms at the back of the trucks frequently coincided with the approximate height of ground floor windows in many urban dwellings allowing the troops to move from the interior of the vehicles to inside the targeted houses, minimising their exposure to incoming fire. Elsewhere they acted as general transports, carrying ammunition, food and water or towing artillery pieces to firing positions.
In addition to the ones mentioned above several other “home-made” armoured cars were to appear by the end of the week from engineering groups at Inchicore, the Guinness Brewery itself and a smaller workshop elsewhere in the city. These included an ad hoc “tank’ consisting of a small “pom-pom” gun, a medium-range Ordnance QF 3-pounder Vickers, mounted on the back of a lightly armoured flatbed truck. This weapon had been taken from HMY Helga, an anti-submarine patrol vessel, which was bombarding the city-centre with a heavier QF 12 pounder 12 cwt gun from a mooring on the River Liffey. Incredibly these two artillery weapons were later alleged to have engaged in a short exchange of “friendly-fire” with each other over the rooftops of the burning city.
On Saturday the 29th the revolution formally came to an end with the unconditional surrender of the besieged Provisional Government, though several outposts of the Republican Army in Dublin didn’t lay down their arms until the following day (indeed isolated shooting was still reported in the capital a week later, while it was some time before a number of rural units in counties like Wexford and Galway agreed to stand down or disperse). By the end of May the improvised war machines of 1916 were disassembled and the majority of the base components returned to their owners. For Colonel Henry Thomas Ward Allatt the Easter Rising was to be both the zenith and nadir of his military career. His association with the armoured trucks was to gain him official recognition and praise, a wonderment to the press who were unfamiliar with such machines, the world’s first operational tanks having appeared on the battlefields of Europe only two months earlier.
However the suppression of the revolution was to have darker consequences. During the insurrection officers and soldiers of different regiments had been hastily thrown together to form fighting units, and for a time Allat found himself in the company of one Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst of the 3rd battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. During raids into suspected rebel-held districts Bowen-Colthurst had taken several civilians hostage to serve as human shields against attacks. Over the course of two days he had also carried out or ordered the summary executions of several people, including a local city councillor, two journalists and the well-known pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. Officially Colonel Allat was understood to have died in Belfast on the 8th of May, 1916, well after the end of the rising, confused reports blaming wounds received in the fighting or a heart attack or both. However other rumours pointed to a possible suicide as news of the murders by Bowen-Colthurst and others became public.
I was reminded of the history above while reading these recent accounts from the Oryx blog describing the various attempts by the Islamic States (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq to build their own improvised armoured vehicles. It has led to some equally bizarre constructs, right up there with the home-made designs by the British Occupation Forces in Ireland during the Easter Rising, and is well worth reading, including “The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle fortress” and the follow-up “The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle monstrosity“. Of course IS has also got its hands on conventional equipment, and in huge (and I do mean, huge) quantities, as Oryx also points out.
Note: The above images from Dublin 1916 have been lightly cleaned and edited in Photoshop.