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Black and Tans

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The Black & Tans in Ireland, 1920-1921:
Their Origins, Roles and Legacy

From January 1919 until a truce came into effect on 11 July 1921, a state of undeclared war existed in some areas of Ireland between guerilla units of the Irish Republican Army
(IRA), representing the independence aspirations of militant Irish nationalism, and the forces of the British Military who were charged with the task of restoring law and order in this part of the United Kingdom. With neither a state of war nor martial law being declared by the British authorities in Ireland – martial law did come eventually in
December 1920/January 1921 but it applied only to eight counties in the southern-most part of the country – the military was confined largely to a supporting role, leaving the civil administration based at Dublin Castle heavily reliant on the enforcement powers of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in its efforts to curb the insurgent Irish nationalists. From the IRA’s perspective, the RIC was seen as “a means to restrain in every locality any opposition to the regime it served.” In a response to this apparent menace, early in 1919 the IRA began a campaign of intimidation against officers of the RIC, who were subjected to threats, violent attacks and exclusion of their families from the local community. Other locals who dared to show support or even sympathy for RIC families thereafter were similarly intimidated. The IRA killed 18 policemen altogether over the twelve-month period ending in December 1919. Six months later, police casualties had risen to a total of 55 killed and a further 74 wounded, indicating a considerable escalation early in 1920 in the IRA’s campaign of violence against the RIC.

The British authorities responded to this situation in an extreme manner by advertising in England for British ex-servicemen firstly, and then later for ex-officers, to join the RIC and bring their recent experience of weapons and warfare to what had formerly been a distinctly Irish police force. Known respectively as the “Black and Tans” and the “Auxiliaries”, these two elements of the RIC became infamous for utilizing their experience of war to terrorize the civilian population of Ireland, especially the Catholic Irish majority, in the name of the Crown and supposedly in the cause of law, order and British justice. The idea for the recruitment of the Black and Tans has been attributed to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson who, as Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), is said to have convinced Prime Minister David Lloyd George to favour such reinforcement of the RIC. This claim is based on Wilson having noted in his diary after a Cabinet meeting on 13 January 1920, that “the state of Ireland is terrible…. I urge with all my force the necessity for doubling the police and not employing the military.” Yet the decision to recruit the Black and Tans and, in reality, the beginning of the process of their recruitment, actually predated this Cabinet meeting by some months. In fact, Cabinet had approved an expansion of the RIC as early as 7 October 1919 on advice from the Lord Lieutenant, Sir John French, and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Sir Ian Macpherson, who themselves were responding to an earlier suggestion of 19 September 1919 from the General Officer Commanding the British Army in Ireland, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Shaw, for the police force to be expanded via recruitment of a special force of volunteer British exservicemen.

The authority for recruitment of such a force was issued by the office of the Inspector-General of the RIC on 11 November. It was followed almost immediately by press advertisements calling on men prepared to “face a rough and dangerous task” to call at any of a number of recruiting stations established initially in London, Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow, and complemented by the activities of a special recruiting officer, Major Fleming, who held the rank of Chief Inspector in the RIC. Thus the initiative for the Black and Tans came from the British authorities in Ireland and not from those in London. Even the nickname, Black and Tans, was an Irish rather than an English invention, with the mixed uniform of the new police recruits – dark green RIC caps and tunics with khaki trousers - reminding Irish observers of a famous pack of hounds from Limerick of the same name. But London and the Secretary of State for War, Sir Winston Churchill, in particular, were clearly responsible for a further initiative in the process of militarizing the RIC, namely the creation of the Auxiliary Division. Churchill planted the seed of an idea in this regard at a conference of ministers in London on 11 May 1920 when, in proposing an alternative to substantial reinforcements for the Army in Ireland, he suggested raising a special force of 8,000 ex-soldiers to reinforce the RIC instead. Furthermore, he persisted with his proposal for “the prompt raising of a special Corps of Gendarmerie ... in aid of the Royal Irish Constabulary during the emergency period” despite the clear opposition of a military committee of review appointed by Cabinet and chaired by the new GOC in Ireland, General Sir Nevil Macready, which rejected the idea as “not feasible”. Established in July with an initial intake of 500 men known simply as “temporary cadets”, the Auxiliary Division, RIC, comprising ex-officers rather than ex-soldiers as originally proposed by Churchill, would never number more than about 1,500 men overall. But they did exceed their more numerous Black and Tan brothers in other respects for, in addition to being paid twice the ten shillings per day received by the latter for service in Ireland, the Auxiliaries were considered by Irish adversaries who knew them well to be more ruthless, more dangerous “and far more intelligent than the Tans”.

In 1919, the RIC was responsible for maintaining over 1,300 barracks of various sizes throughout the country with a force 9,300 strong. The IRA began a campaign of attacks on these barracks starting in January 1920, which forced the closure and evacuation of many smaller, remote stations and the concentration of police forces in fewer defensible locations. In the first six months of this campaign, IRA guerillas captured and destroyed
16 defended RIC barracks, damaged another 29, and burnt 424 abandoned buildings to the ground. Regular RIC members at this time were armed with Martini-Metford carbines rather than the military issue Lee-Enfield rifles, though they also had access to recently ordered supplies of revolvers, Colt automatic pistols and hand grenades. But their training and experience in the use of such weapons was minimal and, in any event, many experienced police constables regarded them as hinderance to an effective relationship with the local community. The first Black and Tan recruits who began arriving in Ireland from late-March 1920 – in many instances with their wives or other female companions – went initially to a staging area at the RIC’s Phoenix Park depot in Dublin. From here, they were distributed in small detachments amongst the RIC barracks as reinforcements to bolster their defences. The Black and Tans had an intake of 646 recruits altogether in the first six months of 1920. This would increase substantially thereafter, with a total intake of about 7,000 by the time hostilities ceased in July 1921.

Following the appointment of Major-General Hugh Tudor, an artillery officer and Churchill’s personal choice as the new Chief of Police in Ireland from 15 May 1920, initiatives were taken to:
• further the process of evacuation and concentration of police forces in barracks which could be readily defended against attacks by the IRA;
• rearm the RIC with Lee-Enfield rifles and Lewis guns to enhance police firepower against the IRA; and
• establish an RIC transport division with expert personnel, replace the Ford vans acquired in 1919 with more suitable Lancia and Crossley vehicles and, with these means, provide for a mobile force of mainly Black and Tans to conduct regular patrols of the country in order to harass and disrupt local IRA guerillas and their supporters and, as Tudor told Churchill, “help to re-establish the ordinary law.”
Unfortunately, while they were supposedly subordinate in their actions to the authority of the RIC’s own divisional commissioners, the Black and Tans seemed for the most part to behave in a patently undisciplined manner. They had tendency to engage in the wanton destruction of property, indiscriminate shooting and violence and, on occasions, even deliberate murder, in their apparent quest “to administer random terror.” The lasting image of the Black and Tans as brutes derives from this kind of outrageous behaviour on their part which was anything but conducive to the restoration of law and order in Ireland.
Most of all, however, the Black and Tans became infamous for their method of retaliation or reprisal for attacks made upon them and their RIC colleagues by IRA units.

One of the more notorious of the Black and Tans’ reprisals occurred on 20/21 September 1920 at Balbriggan, a small town about 20 miles north of Dublin, following the assassination of the local head constable of the RIC, named Burke, and the wounding of his brother. When word of this attack reached the Black and Tans at their Gormanstown depot just a few miles down the road, they immediately set off in force to vent their rage on the supposedly guilty resident of Balbriggan. Upon arrival, they proceeded to sack the town, shot dead two IRA suspects, left four public and nineteen private houses destroyed, along with an English-owned hosiery factory, and caused damage to a further thirty homes. A similar reprisal took place the following day, after the death of five Black and
Tans shot with flat-nosed bullets in an IRA ambush at Rineen in west Clare. Angered by the sight of the horrific wounds inflicted on their comrades, regular RIC officers and
Black and Tans ran amuck, killing a man in a hay-cart and burning down eight houses at nearby Milltown Malbay, then moving on to Ennistymon where they shot and killed another man and a twelve-year-old boy, as well as burning four houses and a drapery shop. They finished up by setting fire to the town hall and seven houses at Lahinch, with a man suspected of involvement in the IRA ambush party being burned alive inside one of these houses. These were examples of a pattern or surge of apparently spontaneous reprisals by the Black and Tans that would continue for months to come, during which it was common in many Irish towns for homes to be burnt, shops and creameries to be destroyed and people suspected of being IRA members or sympathizers to be abducted and killed without ceremony. Such outrageous behaviour on the part of the Black and Tans captured the attention of the press in Ireland, England and overseas – especially in the United States – with the British Government being accused by its critics of conniving in a systematic program of barbaric reprisals against the Irish people. Prominent among the many critics of the Black and Tans was the King, George V, who in May 1921 told the Chief Secretary’s wife, Lady Margery Greenwood, that “he hated the idea of the Black and Tans.” In expressing his hate of these police militiamen, the king echoed the sentiments of many of his subjects, including a British army officer serving in Ireland who wrote to Sir Henry Wilson in September 1920 complaining that “we are importing crowds of undisciplined men who are just terrorizing the country.” Both Wilson and the GOC in Ireland, General Macready, were two of the more strident critics of the Black and Tans fearing rightly, as it turned out in some instances, that the bad example set by the police militias might influence impressionable young soldiers and contribute to a breakdown in military discipline. In England, meanwhile, a London based Anti-Reprisals Association was formed in November 1920, with an executive committee including Joseph Kenworthy MP, Liberal member for Hull, and the well known author, G. K. Chesterton. They petitioned politicians and other prominent citizens in Britain to join in a campaign to embarrass Lloyd George’s government over the misdeeds of the Black and Tans and “compel them to abandon a policy, which is as foolish as it is wicked.” So adverse was the publicity subsequently generated in the
British and world press, that it was later hailed by Sinn Fein’s Director of Propaganda,
Desmond Fitzgerald, as having “been most damaging to England’s prestige.” Eventually even the Prime Minister, whom many considered responsible for this situation, came to realize that the Black and Tans were getting out of control and threatening the government they had been sent to Ireland to support. So he wrote to the Chief Secretary, Sir Hamar Greenwood, on 25 February 1921 and insisted that “the violence and indiscipline which undoubtedly characterise certain units in the R.I.C. should be terminated in the most prompt and drastic manner.”

In summing up their situation at this point in time, Mark Sturgis, an Under Secretary at Dublin Castle, noted in his diary: ‘The Black & Tans have done fine work and could have been ideal for the job if some of them hadn’t taken a completely wrong view of their functions….’ Sturgis was not a lone voice in claiming to have seen some good result from the presence of the Black and Tans in Ireland. In October 1920, for example, they received the sincere and grateful thanks of the Templemore town council in Tipperary for their decisive role in curbing a reprisal against the town by British soldiers reacting to the death of three comrades in an IRA ambush nearby. And on Armistice Day, November 11, 1920, Sturgis recorded seeing the ‘Dublin Crowd’ cheer a lorry load of Black and Tans at College Green for having observed two minutes silence, at attention, in memory of those who had died in the Great War. ‘They were generally a very fine lot of men,’ according to Major A. E. Percival, a British military intelligence officer based in County Cork, who concluded that they ‘would have done well under other conditions.’ William Wylie, the Law Adviser at Dublin Castle observed a ‘vast improvement’ in their manner and discipline by June 1921 and lamented ‘that if they had behaved all through as they behave now the result would be … very different ….’ But such regrets could not alter the fact that, irrespective of their hard won achievement in regaining some ground for the RIC against the IRA, the Black and Tans, by their own outrageous actions, had lost the equally important battle for public opinion in Britain and Ireland. Though sometimes confused or misrepresented as being much the same as the Black and Tans, the Auxiliaries were in fact a different, distinct element of the RIC. Certainly, in the early stage of their service in Ireland, they wore the same Glengarry caps, carried . Webley pistols in open black leather holsters and had bandoliers for their ammunition, as the Black and Tans did. But they were distinguished by their officer-style khaki tunics and trousers – later replaced with a dark blue uniform – worn with high leather boots or leggings rather than the puttees common among the non-commissioned ranks from which the Black and Tans had been drawn. And Auxiliaries had the letters TC, for Temporary Cadet, emblazoned on the shoulder straps of their tunics as another distinguishing feature. They were also organized differently to the Black and Tans, with the Auxiliary Division of the RIC (ADRIC) being formed into companies for dispatch to regions where the IRA was particularly troublesome. These companies varied in strength from around 100 men in some, 70-80 in others, to as low as 44 in K Company situated in Cork city. They were led by former military officers of the rank of colonel or major and usually comprised three sections commanded by captains. Of the eighteen companies eventually formed, four were located in Dublin, another four in the county of Cork, with the others being distributed in counties in the centre, west and south of the island. Their presence in the north, in the loyalist stronghold of Ulster, apparently was not considered to be necessary.

The first recruits to the ADRIC began arriving in Ireland towards the end of July 1920 and, after a six-week course on policing at the RIC’s Curragh training centre, became operational in September. With their headquarters at Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin, the scattered companies of Auxiliaries operated under the overall command of Brigadier-
General Frank Crozier. They were well supplied with Crossley tenders to enhance their mobility and apparently well suited to the task of mounting raids and searches for arms, seditious literature and suspect individuals on their own initiative, or in association with other RIC or military units. But their methods did much to promote fear and indignation among the civilian population, as Tom Barry of the IRA’s No.3 Cork Brigade recalled:

They had a special technique. Fast lorries of them would come roaring into a village, the occupants would jump out, firing shots and ordering all the inhabitants out of doors. No exceptions were allowed. Men and women, old and young, the sick and decrepit were lined up against the walls with their hands up, questioned and searched. No raid was ever carried out by these ex-officers without their beating up with the butt ends of their revolvers, at least a half-dozen people. They were no respecters of persons and seemed to particularly dislike the Catholic priests.

And it was not long too before the Auxiliaries, like their Black and Tan brothers, became infamous world-wide for outrageous reprisals against the civilian population in retaliation for losses suffered in engagements with the IRA. The first notable reprisal took place on
November 21, 1920 – hereafter known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ – following the assassination in Dublin of twelve suspected British intelligence officers by the IRA, the wounding of five others and the cold-blooded killing of two Auxiliaries who, unfortunately for them, happened to be passing by at the time. The deaths of the two Auxiliaries - Section Leader
Gaimon and Temporary Cadet Morris – were the first fatalities suffered by the ADRIC.
Later that day, in retaliation for these killings, I Company of the ADRIC, which was supposed to take part in a combined operation with the military and other RIC units to search the crowd at a Croke Park football match, arrived early and took the opportunity to shoot into the crowd, killing twelve civilians and wounding dozens more. While some commentators have denied that this action was actually a reprisal by the Auxiliaries, the
ADRIC commander, General Crozier, had no doubt that it was, recording in his diary:
‘Croke Park massacre. Many murder’d by R.I.C.’ The most astounding reprisal of all, however, occurred on the night of 11 December 1920 in the city of Cork. After an attack by the IRA earlier that day at Dillon’s Cross in which thirteen Auxiliaries were seriously wounded, the members of K Company of the ADRIC took it upon themselves to retaliate by looting, burning and destroying a substantial part of the city centre. This was an event so devastating, that it forced the government to order a formal military inquiry which, in turn, compelled the Prime Minister to demand an end to such outrageous behaviour on the part of these rampant RIC militiamen, because it was ‘alienating public opinion in
Great Britain from the present methods of restoring law and order in Ireland.’ Both the Auxiliaries and the Black & Tans did substantially bolster the ranks of the RIC and take the fight to the IRA in many disputed areas. But any success gained here in subduing militant nationalism was more than overshadowed by the reprisals surge against the civilian population, which provided Sinn Fein with a propaganda gift and turned British public opinion, including that of the King and many leading MPs, against Lloyd George’s government. The government also lost patience with them in the end, regarding these RIC militias as being almost more trouble than they were worth. Nonetheless, they were troublesome for the IRA too and, on the Irish side, the Anglo-Irish War has gone down in history as the ‘Tan War’ in recognition of the particularly bitter nature of the conflict between the RIC militias and the IRA. Given that the RIC almost certainly could not have held the line against the IRA without these reinforcements, the term ‘Tan War’ does seem appropriate as a description of this particular aspect of the Anglo-Irish War.

The RIC militias provided an early and perhaps original example of what we have seen elsewhere more recently in Northern Ireland with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in Chile under General Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s, and in Kossovo during Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s tenure in the 1990s. Auxiliaries were also used in their original form by British authorities striving to curb guerilla forces in Palestine in the 1920s, so it comes as no real surprise to see similar police militia forces being utilized today by both
Israel and the Palestine Authority in the Middle East. In each instance as mentioned above, the police militias have operated with military support, supposedly in an attempt to curb or contain violence on the part of guerilla forces operating under cover of civilian populations. And what they have achieved in every case is an escalation of violence rather than its diminishment. In none of these cases have the so-called terrorists on the guerillas’ side been defeated by the terrorist tactics used by the police.

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