Quite Ordinary Men

David Leeson, The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence, 1920-21

Oxford University Press, 320pp, £30.00, ISBN ISBN 9780199598991

reviewed by John Newsinger

Early reviews - including one particularly scathing piece in History Ireland magazine - portrayed DM Leeson’s new book as yet another revisionist work, re-writing Irish history for the benefit of the British and on this occasion, actually, rehabilitating one of the most hated British exports to Ireland: the Black and Tans. In some quarters this has led to it being welcomed, in others condemned. In fact, this is a serious misreading of what is a well-researched and thoughtful study that makes an important contribution to history of the Irish War of Independence, but also to the very contemporary subject of counter-insurgency.

Leeson certainly does not deny the atrocities committed by the Tans and their comrades-in-dishonour, the Auxiliary Division. Indeed, he provides a quite relentless chronicle of the whippings and beatings, murders, robbery and destruction carried out by these men. A few examples give the flavour of the war. In September 1920, for example, two suspected Sinn Feiners were killed at Ennistymon in County Clare. One of them was Thomas Connole, the secretary of the local Irish Transport and General Workers Union. He was dragged from his home, put up against a wall and shot. His killers then fired his house and threw his body into the flames.

The following month, the Auxiliaries picked up two brothers, Patrick and Harry Loughnane, respectively president and secretary of the Shanaglish Sinn Fein club. Their burned bodies were found ten days later, dumped in a pond, with injuries that suggested they had been dragged to their deaths behind the Auxiliaries’ truck. And he goes on to detail the firing of farms, creameries, shops and pubs, including the sack of Cork City in December 1920. On this celebrated occasion, the forces of law and order burned down some sixty shops, including four large department stores, as well as firing both the city library and the city hall.

What has perhaps excited controversy is Leeson’s explanation of why these men behaved the way they did. The usual explanation is that they were thugs and criminals, the dregs of British society, deliberately recruited to wreak havoc in Ireland. Many of them were former soldiers, men supposedly damaged by the war, with a predisposition for violence, the British equivalent of the German Freikorps. It seems fair to say that Leeson pretty effectively knocks this notion on the head. They were, in his words, ‘quite ordinary men’. The Tans were overwhelmingly unemployed, working class ex-soldiers, looking for work. It was their joblessness that led to their enlistment rather than any supposed pathology. But if they were not somehow psychologically predisposed to committing atrocities, why did they behave the way they did?

Leeson favours ‘the stresses of counter-revolutionary warfare’ as an explanation. Confronted with the realities of guerrilla war, fighting an elusive enemy that struck from ambush, carried out assassinations and surprise attacks and then disappeared into the civilian population, the Tans inevitably responded with reprisals. They shot and beat suspected enemies, their supposed sympathisers and, on occasions, anyone unlucky enough to be in the vicinity when they saw red. He bolsters his case by pointing out that the reprisals had actually begun before the Tans arrived on the scene with members of the regular police, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), already engaging in such conduct. Some of his evidence here has, it has to be said, been questioned.

In general terms, his is an important insight, however. Indeed, a good case can be made that such behaviour by police and troops engaged in counter-insurgency operations is an inevitable product of the stresses of counter-revolutionary warfare. What is not inevitable, however, is the extent and ferocity of such reprisals. This is determined by a range of factors among which the most important is the extent to which such behaviour is systemically condoned, even encouraged.

Leeson does acknowledge this himself. He notes that Major General Hugh Tudor, the man put in to run the police by the Lloyd George Coalition, ‘was notoriously soft on reprisals’. Indeed, the British government, the Dublin authorities, the Army and the police hierarchy ‘all tolerated and even encouraged reprisals’. According to Leeson, they were worried that if the police were not allowed to strike back in some way, then the RIC would collapse. What this ignores is the extent to which reprisals were, at this time, a routine part of British methods for suppressing insurrection and rebellion throughout the Empire. The condoning and encouragement of such behaviour was not an act of desperation caused by the IRA’s successful guerrilla war campaign - it was the way such rebellions were always put down.

In the British Empire, rebellion would be put down by killing the rebels and punishing the population at large for supporting them. The complication on this occasion was that such methods were being used in what was supposed to be part of the United Kingdom, where the victims had the vote and used it to support Sinn Fein, and in full view of the international media. And the victims were white. This seriously compromised the reprisals policy that had worked elsewhere in the Empire without anyone, except the victims, getting too worked up about it. Interestingly, one dimension of the normal policy of reprisals that was missing in Ireland was rape, something that requires further consideration, although the most likely explanation is, once again, that the victims were white.

What can one conclude from all this? While the Tans and the Auxiliaries were obviously personally culpable for the beatings, the murders and the destruction they perpetrated, they would not have committed these crimes if the Coalition government had not taken the decision to send them to Ireland in the first place. From this point of view, the ultimate responsibility for the crimes committed in this and other counter-insurgency campaigns since lies with the political leaders who send these ‘quite ordinary men’ into extraordinary circumstances, suppressing rebellion in other people’s countries.