The Auxiliaries – the tough men of 1919-21
The name ‘Black and Tans’ is enough to send a frisson down the spine of any Irish person interested in the troubled formative years of the Irish state. The Black and Tans were a squad recruited from Britain at the height of the War of Independence in 1920 to add muscle to the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police force which was under pressure from IRA attacks. However the Black and Tans were not the only security outfit mobilised in support of the RIC during the conflict.
Not as well known, but even more feared at the time were the ‘Auxiliaries’, or to give them their official title, the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The ‘Auxies’ were recruited from ex-officer grades of the British Army; they were experienced, well paid, and to a man, tough. It is this latter characteristic which gave them an alternative nickname which has been used as the title of a new book ‘Tudors Toughs’ by Ernest McCall, a Newtownards based author. Mr. McCall recently gave a presentation to the progressive Monasterevin Historical Society in which he put the case that the Auxiliaries had got an undeservedly bad press in the way that the War of Independence has been written from the Irish perspective. Incidentally the ‘Tudor’s Toughs’ in the title of his book refers to Major-General Hugh Tudor who was appointed Inspector General of the RIC in May 1920 at a time when the British Government realised that it had a fight on its hands in the face of a rampant IRA which had inflicted 145 casualties on the RIC since the war had erupted in January 1919.
The Auxiliaries were recruited from an upper class of ex-British Army personnel. Most had been commissioned officers and many had been awarded bravery medals arising from service in World War One. Following a recruiting campaign in Britain the first drafts of Auxiliaries were brought to the Curragh in the summer of 1920 for preliminary training. However there was trouble in the camp and Mr McCall speculates that there may been friction between the battle-hardened Auxiliary cadets ands the British army units in barracks. Whatever the reason the Auxiliaries were relocated to Beggar’s Bush barracks in Dublin to continue their short induction to the realities of war on the island of Ireland.
The Auxiliaries were distinct from the Black and Tans who were another form of reserve for the RIC. However in popular folklore the Black and Tans became a collective label for all British police forces involved in the War of Independence and it was used as catch all title for actions involving the RIC proper, the RIC Special Reserve (the true Black and Tans) and the Auxiliary Division of the RIC otherwise known as ‘Auxies.’ The author is at pains to draw distinctions between the various constabulary forces pointing out that the Auxies had their own self-contained structure which well able to account for itself.
In twelve chapters of strongly researched material Mr. McCall sets out to revise the common interpretation of the ‘Auxies’ – that they were a violent and volatile gang who were constantly outwitted by the IRA. And some of their activities would lend credence to this stereotype – the Auxiliaries lost 17 men to a textbook IRA ambush at Kilmichael near Macroom in November 1920 while the following month they set fire to the city of Cork. However it was far from being one way traffic. In May 1921 the Dublin Brigade of the IRA mounted a large scale attack on the Customs House. They succeeded in setting the building ablaze but were trapped by the Auxiliaries who shot dead five IRA men and captured a hundred more. The advantage which the IRA had in the early months of the War of Independence was neutralised by the Auxiliaries who brought with them the kind of combat experience that the peacetime RIC had never absorbed. According to Ernest McCall ‘Auxiliaries fought the IRA on its terms … it could not cope with the ferocity of the Auxiliaries compared to the regular RIC.’
Whether the Auxiliaries were more effective than nationalist rhetoric would allow is a question that historians will continue to debate. This in turn will fuel a wider debate emerging as to whether the IRA forced the British to the negotiating table or whether the opposite was the case – that by July 1921 the IRA had been fought to a standstill with the Auxiliaries playing a significant part in countering the republican flying columns. Ernest McCall’s book ‘Tudor’s Toughs’, although not perfect, puts a well-researched case for the Auxiliaries in any assessment of the winners and losers of the War of Independence. Book reviewed: ‘The Auxiliaries – Tudor’s Toughs’ by Ernest McCall, published by Red Coat Publishing, Newtownards. Series no: 226.
Liam Kenny reviews Ernest McCall’s book ‘The Auxiliaries – Tudor’s Toughs’ in his Looking Back series from the Leinster Leader 26 April 2011