At the outbreak of hostilities it was apparent that the I. R. A. could not hope to win a traditional stand up military fight against a modern, well equipped army with the financial backing of The British Empire. In order to engage the crown forces in a guerrilla war, weapons and ammunition were required in large numbers. General Head Quarters (G. H. Q. ) authorized smuggling operations and had sent volunteers abroad to procure arms. G. H. Q. sold arms to the individual units, many of which were hampered in their operational status due to lack of funding to purchase weapons and ammunition.
As the war progressed many Royal Irish Constabulary (R. I. C. ) barracks and the Crowns Tax Offices were attacked and burned. GHQ issued a general raid order in September of 1920. The primary objective the Volunteers attacks on isolated R. I. C. barracks were to obtain arms and ammunition. Many of these barracks were poorly defended and usually consisted of terraced houses. In order to disrupt the governance of rural areas, tax offices were targeted. These targets allowed collection of funds from the local populace that were to be appropriated to the Crown.
These tactics were adopted by many units when news of the initial successes of these barracks and tax office attacks filtered out, throughout the country. The volunteers embarked on a campaign of Intimidation of R. I. C men and their families, and members of the general public who supported the crown forces, many of which were shot. This tactic was extremely effective at reducing the morale of the R. I. C. Recruitment dropped and resignations increased in the organization The R. I. C. retreated to larger towns after it was decided to evacuate may rural barracks. This tactic led to large parts of rural Ireland becoming ungovernable.
This allowed the Dail to implement their much heralded Courts System, collect taxes and implement civil control. Most units at the start of the war appeared to act independently without central command control. Attacks on Crown Forces were sporadic in nature and were badly planned. Inexperience of many of the men in these units led to many failed operations Many units operations amounted to sabotage by digging trenches in roads, de-railing trains, cutting of communications lines, snipping at barracks and personnel. Even the most poorly equipped and inactive units could engage in many of these tactics.
The effectiveness of military actions conducted varied widely accordingly to geographic location. Areas like South Tipperary, East Limerick and Cork were particularly active, while areas such as Wexford, Mayo and Waterford had low turnout and low activity. Cite. Meeting and Drilling after the day’s work was done, amounted to the extent of some volunteers actions for the duration of the war cite The willingness of volunteers to risk their safety was also another factor which hindered operations in many units. Volunteers who possessed weapons especially rifles were usually picked to partake in operations over volunteers who did not.
The men who possessed guns gained experience on active operations and were given higher status within units. In many areas this led to a cycle of a select group of men getting more and more experience on active service, while men who had no weapons remained inactive were not gaining any such experience. To alleviate this some units introduced rotational systems were guns and ammunition were stored in a central weapons dump. Access to weapons dumps could only be gotten after permission from the units Quarter Master was given. Activity of units depended largely on the membership and the professionalism of their commanding officers.
Traditionally commanding officers were elected and appointed by their members. Electoral decisions appeared to be based on the social standing of the officers, family traditions and whether the men liked them or not. Many units were hampered in their operations as officers would not authorize actions as they feared for their own safety or were incompetent in planning and action. To instil discipline and a sense of military professionalism G. H. Q. sent organizers out to instruct and train these officers and units that they commanded. Training camps were set up to properly instruct officers and volunteers.
The military discipline in these camps was strictly enforced and the training was particularly gruelling. When men returned to their units, they were expected to instil similar discipline within the rank and file. Discipline was to be rigorously introduced by commanding officers and military punishment meted out for infractions. Formal reporting structures were introduced and all commanders were expected to submit reports to the central authority of G. H. Q. on a regular basis. These reports were analysed by G. H. Q. and orders were issued to individual units.
This strategy led to a more centralized planning and intelligence apparatus. Ultimately G. H. Q. decided to set up divisions with respective commanders, in attempt to coordinate the activities of the volunteers within bordering brigade areas. These attempts at introducing a modern military structure into the different units were mostly successful, although highly active units such as South Tipperary maintained a more independent existence until the end of the war. Initially the volunteers had a very high tolerance to violence and did not want to be involved in operations that led to murder.
This tolerance was eroded of the course of the war as reprisals by the crown forces, led to many civilian atrocities throughout the country. As the casualties list rose, public opinion turned against the British Government. This was galvanized by reports that started to appear in newspapers internationally and in London G. H. Q. published the details of many of these reprisals in their publication their political journal t-Oglach. The publications also included details of military tactics and so also functioned as a training manual for the volunteers.
After the introduction of The Restoration of Order Act in August 1920 the and the introduction of martial law in the South in 1921, attacks and reprisals against the civilian population increased. The arrival of the much hated quais military/police forces which later became known as the Black and Tans in March 1920 and the Axillaries the following July exasperated the situation and led to increased militancy in the volunteer force and the general population. Support for the volunteers steadily grew and the general population assisted them with funds, safe houses and intelligence.
As a result of police crackdowns and further arrests of suspected volunteers, the continued raids on civilian houses, many volunteers went on the run. By mid 1921 there were over 4,000 suspects interned. Many men who were on the run went on to form the celebrated flying columns. These columns consisted of 20 highly armed men, who would attack patrols by laying ambushes on roads, and then melting back into the countryside. Tom Barry was commanding officer of the 3rd (West) Cork Brigade, which was a particularly effective flying column. They were responsible for many successful attacks on military personnel.
On 28th of Nov. 1920 they wiped out an Auxiliary regiment in Kilmicheal, Co. Cork killing nearly a whole platoon. In reprisals the Black and Tans burned the City of Cork on 11th of Dec. There were many other tactics used by the I. R. A. during the war, examples include targeting prominent members of the British Establishment and Intelligence for assignation, it is beyond the remit of this short essay to explore these in their entirety. The ultimate goal of these operations and tactics were to disrupt and demoralize the administration of British Rule.
After Bloody Sunday the British Intelligence Network was effectively non-existent which the I. R. A. took full advantage of, by actively engaging Crown Forces in the capital while sending out their own armed patrols in select parts of the city. As we can see at the start of the war the Volunteers were a highly disorganized and poorly equipped force. Through the use of guerrilla hit and run tactics, they made the most of their limitations to disrupt and demoralize the crown forces. After G. H. Q. exerted a central command and military structure the volunteers became a more ruthless and successful in active operations.
Ultimately the British Establishment appeared to have overestimated the numbers of active members and their access to weapons. If their intelligence apparatus had not been infiltrated and disrupted by the I. R. A. the Crowns military campaign may have been more effective, and they may have continued the war which would have pushed the I. R. A, to the limits of their abilities and resources. G. H. Q. played a pivotal role in forming public opinion through their domestic publication t-Oglach and releasing accounts of civilian casualties and atrocities to foreign correspondents, effectively winning the propaganda war.
It is doubtful whether the isolated regional active units would have been as effective without the co-ordination and leadership of G. H. Q. The organization of operations and centralization of command by G. H. Q. , may have been the deciding factor in the War, although many units remained in a state of disarray and were badly equipped for the duration of the war. As a measure of the success and effectiveness of operations conducted, I. R. A. guerrilla tactics became a blue print for many revolutionary forces around the World.