8 – He created the infamous Black & Tans, who terrorised Irish people
“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English”
Churchill had seen firsthand what the British imperial project meant while serving in India and Africa, and just how successful terror could be as a weapon against people in revolt. He would find in Ireland that it was not always successful.
Before the outbreak of the First World War, Ireland – then a constituent part of the United Kingdom without its own Parliament – had been promised Home Rule, but had had it suspended due to the conflict. During the war, however, militant nationalists staged the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, an attempt at revolution that was brutally suppressed by the British. All the leaders were executed and the rebellion crushed, but the tide of public opinion had shifted massively against Britain. At war’s end, a general election was held in 1918 and the radical Nationalist party in Ireland, Sinn Fein, won a resounding victory. They refused to take up their seats in the House of Commons and instead declared independence.
The Irish War of Independence began in early 1919 and the military wing of the Irish nationalist movement, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began attacking British Army units stationed in Ireland. Churchill, who was at the time Secretary of State for War, proposed a paramilitary force that could back up the regular army, to be recruited from unemployed veterans from the First World War. Nearly 10,000 men were raised, trained in a hurry and shipped over the Irish Sea. Due to their uniforms, which did not match, they were known as the Black and Tans. Alongside them were the Auxiliaries, a paramilitary wing of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the police, recruited from former British Army officers, again spearheaded by Churchill.
Between them, they wreaked havoc on the local population. As the IRA tended to work in flying columns and attack and withdraw quickly, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries would take out their revenge on the local civilian population. They were poorly disciplined and often drunk, as well as arbitrarily violent and destructive. In November 1920, they killed 14 civilians at a Gaelic Football match in Dublin, while in December, they burned the centre of Cork to the ground and shot at firefighters attempting to put out the blaze. It was clear that they were out of control and the Irish public only galvanised themselves against them. Back in England, public opinion turned against the Army because of their strongarm tactics.
“If the British Commonwealth can only be preserved by such means, it would become a negation of the principle for which it has stood,” wrote Lionel Curtis, a staunch defender of imperialism. When peace was offered by England, Gandhi wrote: “it is not fear of losing more lives that has compelled a reluctant offer from England but it is the shame of any further imposition of agony upon a people that loves liberty above everything else.”
Churchill’s decision to vastly escalate the conflict in Ireland through paramilitaries begat the end of the closest colony to England and again diminished his reputation further. He remained Secretary of State for War, however, and would again show his brutality in the near future: this time, in the Middle East.