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IN THE 21ST CENTURY we’ve become used to ragtag rebels beating military superpowers. Armed with little more than the will to carry out shocking acts of terrorism and the savvy to cultivate worldwide sympathy through the media, the little guy has come out on top more often than you’d expect. The paradigms are the 1962 French defeat in Algeria, America’s 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam, and Russia’s disaster in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The United States was similarly dealt defeats in Beirut in 1983 and in Somalia in 1993. It almost happened in Iraq—and may yet happen in Afghanistan. What few remember is that the script followed by groups as diverse as the Vietcong and the Taliban was written in Ireland during its 1919–1921 War of Independence, the first successful revolt against the British Empire since the creation of the United States of America. But at the beginning of the uprising, victory for the insurgents seemed highly unlikely. The Irish, after all, had been rebelling regularly and futilely against British rule since 1798. As recently as 1916, during the Easter Rising, the British Army had speedily repressed an attempt by Irish rebels to seize power in Dublin. What made the difference in 1919? For one thing, Britain was war-weary after the conclusion of the War to End All Wars. And while ideas of national self-determination spread like wildfire, the British appetite for imperialism rapidly declined. But it’s doubtful the revolt would have succeeded without the genius of one man: the Irish Republican Army’s de facto military commander, Michael Collins, described by one of his foes as a man “full of fascination and charm—but also of dangerous fire.”

TWENTY-NINE YEARS OLD in 1919, Michael Collins was already a veteran revolutionary who had spent time in a prison camp in Wales after taking part in the Easter Rising. He had grown up in County Cork, in southwest Ireland, the youngest of eight children born to a prosperous elderly farmer who died when Collins was a boy. He was convinced, he later recalled, that “Irish Independence would never be attained by constitutional means,” and that “when you’re up against a bully you’ve got to kick him in the guts.” He was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1909, then into the Irish Volunteers (precursor of the IRA) in 1914 while living in London, where he worked first for the British civil service and later for two financial firms.

“Mick,” as he was known, was tall, broad shouldered, and athletic, with a quick mind, boundless energy, and undeniable charisma—“hearty, boisterous, or quiet by turn,” in the words of an IRA officer. He was fond of whiskey, cigarettes, swearing, and female company—“a real playboy,” recalled one woman. Though a keen practical joker, he also had a foul temper and a domineering personality. It was during his stint at the Wales internment camp, which one British intelligence officer called “the nursery of the IRA,” that he first showed a gift for leadership, earning him the nickname “the Big Fellow” among the inmates. After his release in December 1916, having served six months, he assumed key leadership positions in all three major nationalist organizations—the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and Sinn Féin—an unusual hat trick that put him at the center of the action.

In January 1919, the new Irish parliament, the First Dáil, issued a declaration of independence from England, and the IRA’s war against the British commenced in earnest.

Collins was then minister of finance in the rebel government—a title that did not hint at his importance. Although he raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the revolution via a bond drive, he played a bigger role in the rebels’ military operations as director of intelligence of the IRA and president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He was, asserted one IRA officer, “commander in chief in fact, if not in name.”

Half accountant, half swashbuckler, Collins could handle meticulous paperwork as well as great personal risk. Throughout the war he seldom left Dublin, even though he had a heavy price on his head. He worked from numerous homes and storefronts and frequently varied where he slept. He routinely put in 17- or 18-hour workdays before repairing to a pub or hotel to blow off steam. Sometimes he would pop up at an IRA safe house to swap a few jokes and ask, “Well, lads, how are ye getting on?” His visits bucked up morale among his men, who revered him.

Traveling without bodyguards or a disguise, he cycled through the streets on an “ancient bicycle whose chain,” one of his men wrote, “rattled like a mediaeval ghost’s.” He was stopped many times, but in his neat gray suit, which made him look like a stockbroker, he always managed to bluff his way through—or to threaten police so convincingly that they dared not risk their lives to capture him. More than once he escaped out of a building through a skylight or a back door while British troops rushed in through the front door. One of his chief pursuers wrote that “he combined the characteristics of a Robin Hood with those of an elusive Pimpernel.”

Some of Collins’s success can be attributed to his penchant for keeping things close to his vest. “Never let one side of your mind know what the other is doing,” he once said. His best-kept secret was the spy ring he cultivated inside the British administration. Four members of the Dublin police detective bureau, G Division, reported to him, along with a dozen uniformed constables. Other spies, working as secretaries in Dublin Castle, the British administrative seat, or clerks in the post office, passed along important British correspondence and ciphers.

That intelligence proved vital to the IRA’s war efforts. In April 1919, one of Collins’s moles gave him a midnight tour of G’s headquarters, where he spent five hours reading the most sensitive files. He then sent his men to order the “G-men” to stop harassing the IRA. Those who ignored the warnings were targeted by Collins’s hit team, known originally as the Twelve Apostles (it began with a dozen members) and then, when it grew, as the Squad.

While most IRA men were part-time volunteers, the Squad consisted of full-time, paid gunmen. Armed with powerful Webley .455-caliber revolvers, at least six members were always on standby at their headquarters, first a house, then a cabinetmaking shop. They would play cards or tinker with lumber to pass the time while awaiting the call for what was termed “extreme action.”

By the spring of 1920, 12 Dublin policemen who were, in the words of a Squad member, “making themselves frightfully obnoxious” had been shot. Eight of them were killed, including the head of G Division. A similar fate awaited the few, inept British spies who tried to infiltrate the IRA’s ranks. “We had no jails,” Collins explained, “and we therefore had to kill all spies, informers, and double-crossers.”

That shadow war was the essence of the conflict: There was hardly a single conventional battle. Broadly speaking, the IRA waged guerrilla war in the countryside, targeting police barracks and patrols, while in the cities its soldiers operated more as terrorists, killing off-duty policemen or civil servants.

On the British mainland, the IRA carried out a handful of largely terrorist operations. Among the most audacious: the failed assassination in December 1919 of John Pinkstone French, the British viceroy and supreme commander of the British Army in Ireland, and the burning of 17 Liverpool warehouses in November 1920.

Collins entertained even more ambitious plans, such as truck bombing the House of Commons, kidnapping its members, and executing members of the cabinet. But ultimately he concentrated his operations on Ireland.

AFTER COLLINS HAD ESSENTIALLY NEUTRALIZED G Division, the British brought in their own intelligence specialists—a group of retired army officers known as “the hush-hush men,” who often operated undercover. Collins decided to wipe them out at a stroke, setting in motion the most critical clash of the war.

The operation, slated for Sunday morning, November 21, 1920, was assigned to the IRA’s Dublin Brigade, working closely with the Squad. The night before, Dick McKee, the brigade commander, was snatched in a British raid along with his deputy. But Collins, displaying nerves of steel, decided to proceed anyway.

Dozens of gunmen, including the future prime minister Sean Lémass, assembled at rendezvous points in Dublin shortly before 9 a.m. on November 21, a calm, gray winter’s day. They were to hit 20 targets at eight hotels and rooming houses.

At 9 a.m. Squad member Vincent Byrne led 10 operatives to a house where two British officers were staying. A servant girl told them where to find the officers’ bedrooms and how to get in by a back door. Byrne and another gunman dashed into one bedroom and ordered the officer to put up his hands. He asked what was going to happen to him. Byrne replied, “Ah, nothing,” and then ordered him to march to another bedroom where the other officer was being held.

Byrne later recounted, “When the two of them were together, I said to myself: ‘The Lord have mercy on your souls!’ I then opened fire with my Peter [a Mauser C96 pistol]. They both fell dead.”

In all, 14 men were killed that morning, 5 wounded. Most were shot after surrendering, some in front of their terrified wives or girlfriends. “It has been a day of black murder,” a British official wrote in his diary.

That afternoon a Gaelic football match was scheduled at Dublin’s Croke Park. A substantial force of “Auxies” and “Black and Tans” showed up to surround the stadium and search the crowd. The Auxiliary Division was made up of 1,500 former British Army officers assembled as a counterterrorism unit to complement the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Black and Tans were 7,000 British recruits—many of them World War I British Army vets—sent to fill out the constabulary’s ranks. Because of a shortage of uniforms, many wore a mixture of the constabulary’s dark green, almost black apparel and the army’s khaki—hence their nickname, shared with a breed of hunting dogs.

Both Auxies and Tans became notorious for their brutality, which they displayed at Croke Park when they opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 civilians and wounding 60. The police claimed they had been shot at first, although even one Auxiliary officer conceded, “I did not see any need for any firing.” The IRA believed the slaughter was straightforward revenge for that morning’s assassinations.

All the facts of the first “Bloody Sunday” (there was another one in 1972 in Derry, Northern Ireland) will never be known for certain, but its impact was clear. Like the Tet Offensive in 1968, it belied official claims of progress and encouraged the government to look for a negotiated solution.

And just as the U.S. armed forces during Tet lost the battle for public opinion even as they defeated the Vietcong, so too did the British Army badly hurt its own cause. Even the normally nationalistic Times of London harshly criticized the army’s “lynch law,” writing in 1920 that “an Army already perilously undisciplined, and a police force avowedly beyond control have defiled, by heinous acts, the reputation of England.” Like counterinsurgents throughout the modern world, British soldiers in Ireland were upset when their government failed to adequately challenge reporting that they said exaggerated their misdeeds while downplaying those of the enemy.

General Nevil Macready, the army commander, raged against the “blackguard Press” and the “frocks” who ran the failed British propaganda effort to paint the IRA as the bad guys. His protests made no difference—the British were losing the battle of the narrative.

FOR SECURITY’S SAKE, many officials and officers had to move into Dublin Castle, where, wrote General Macready, they were “reduced to a state of nerves that it was pitiable to behold.” In the countryside, the British closed constabulary outposts and isolated police in large, fortified barracks. Such measures cut off security forces from the populace and made it harder to gain intelligence to suppress the uprising. An Auxie wrote that he felt hunted every time he left Dublin Castle—“a horrible feeling.” Even General Macready never ventured out without an automatic pistol, safety off, handy in his pocket or, when driving, in his lap. But increasingly the British forces were like a blinded fighter flailing at an elusive adversary.

The British forces found it extremely difficult to operate with such paltry intelligence about the IRA’s full-time guerrillas, the Flying Columns. The Auxies would set off in their Crossley trucks or Rolls-Royce armored cars to chase rumors of a pending IRA action, only to find that the rumor was false or that the enemy, warned of the raid, had melted away.

In frustration, following various deadly IRA operations, British troops or police rampaged through towns, burning homes and businesses, shattering shop windows, beating and sometimes killing. “Towns showed jagged stumps of broken teeth where fire had spread,” wrote an IRA officer; “raiding parties smashed property and looted.” This clumsy retaliation only increased support for the IRA among a people who had been largely apathetic at the start of the struggle. A British intelligence estimate concluded that “from the beginning of 1921…the bulk of the population was in a state of open rebellion or was in sympathy with such a rebellion.” In many areas the “Shinners” (rebels, after Sinn Féin) even ran a shadow government, complete with its own police force and courts, that was more efficient than the Crown.

The British eventually deployed 50,000 troops and 14,000 constables to fight 5,000 of Collins’s Volunteers. It was not enough. British generals estimated that pacifying this nation of fewer than three million people would have required dispatching tens of thousands more troops, possibly hundreds of thousands more, for an extended period.

That was more than a country so tired of war could bear. Having just waged a world war to liberate Belgium, the British were not willing to fight indefinitely to subjugate the small state next door—particularly when its people had expressed their preference for independence.

The prime minister, David Lloyd George, a Liberal, was willing to place several counties under martial law, thereby allowing suspects to be tried in military court. He even turned a blind eye to Black and Tan rampages and the interrogation and occasional killing of suspects “while trying to escape.” But he was not willing to bomb Irish villages, execute captured terrorists en masse, or round up tens of thousands of civilians in concentration camps. He was not, in short, willing to treat Ireland as Britain treated Iraq in 1920, when it ruthlessly suppressed a much larger revolt at a cost of almost 9,000 lives, or India in 1919, when its troops killed more than 370 unarmed demonstrators in Amritsar.

Even War Minister Winston Churchill, while defending “the integrity of the British Empire,” would not countenance a policy of “murder and counter-murder, terror and counter-terror.”

By July 1921 the British had had enough and declared a truce. Eventually an Irish negotiating team that included Michael Collins took the best deal it could get. The British government was determined to defend the northern counties, which were chiefly Protestant. Under a treaty signed on December 6, 1921, the 26 southern counties would become the Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire like Canada, while the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom.

Bad as the exclusion of Northern Ireland was to many republicans, even more galling was a provision that Dáil members would have to swear loyalty to the Crown. A narrow majority of the Dáil endorsed the treaty, but half the IRA would not recognize the result and took up arms against the British and Collins’s Irish Free State.

As commander of the Free State Army, Collins led the fight against his former comrades, a move that ensured he would not live to see a peaceful independent Irish state. On Au­gust 22, 1922, he was killed in an ambush by the anti­treaty IRA while motoring with a small security detail through his native County Cork.

The Big Fellow, who had eluded so many British manhunts, was only 31. Just a few weeks before, he had turned down his fiancée’s entreaties to be more careful: “I can’t help it and if I were to do anything else it wouldn’t be me,” he wrote her, “and I really couldn’t stand it.” When they heard of his death, a thousand anti­treaty republicans in a Free State prison spontaneously kneeled to recite the rosary in tribute to the man who had once been their leader.

THE CIVIL WAR ENDED in May 1923 with a resounding victory for the protreaty forces. Even if the so-called Tan War did not secure independence for the entire island, it was a remarkable achievement that presaged the success of colonial revolts throughout the world. The cost: 4,000 killed or wounded, including 950 British soldiers and police.

To this day Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, despite decades of terrorism by diehards of the Provisional IRA (a group that split off from the IRA in 1969 to pursue the independence of Northern Ireland from England through any means necessary). The more recent IRA campaigns failed mainly because the British in later years regained the intelligence edge they had lost between 1919 and 1921. In the 1980s, when the Provisional IRA tried to launch a Tet-style offensive employing weaponry supplied by Muammar Qaddafi, high-ranking informants tipped off the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch.

“The British knew the IRA was coming,” wrote Irish journalist Ed Moloney, “and they were ready.”

The Provisional IRA also failed because its extremism cost it public sympathy, both in Ireland and Britain. In 1979 the Provisional IRA murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and five years later attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the entire British Cabinet by bombing their hotel in Brighton. Michael Collins had been astute enough to avoid such excesses—he knew when to stop fighting. The Irish experience in 1919–1921 shows that the most successful terrorist campaigns are waged for causes, usually nationalist, that are accepted broadly by the public and supported by major political parties. Fringe groups seeking radical social change—whether the anarchists of the 19th century or Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang of the 1970s—have little chance of success.

Terrorists also do better if they fight a democratic nation with a free press, whose coverage will help to magnify their attacks while restraining the official response. There is not much terrorism in totalitarian states, because the secret police can ruthlessly snuff it out. The British government, on the other hand, could not even censor the press without a declaration of war, which never occurred in Michael Collins’s Ireland.

That was a lesson the Algerian National Liberation Front, the Vietcong, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other guerrilla and terrorist groups would learn and apply in their own battles.

While the Irish War of Independence demonstrates that insurgents can defeat liberal democracies like Great Britain, the British were much more successful in subsequent years in Malaya, Kenya, and Northern Ireland, among other battlegrounds. The Americans had considerable success in Iraq, as did Israel in the Second Intifada in Palestine, and Colombia in its battles against the FARC. But the 1919–1921 conflict shows that democracies must maintain public support to win wars against guerrillas and terrorists. Lucky for them, few insurgent leaders are the equal of Michael Collins.

Max Boot, the author of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from his forthcoming Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue (Vol. 25, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: ‘Kick the Bully’: Michael Collins Launches the 1921 Irish Rebellion

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