Like many South Florida Irish-Americans, I spent the summer in Maine, enjoying its soft Ireland-like weather, searching for sea glass on the beach and spending many quiet evenings reading. One of the great books that I read this summer was The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, originally published in 1962 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction that year. This amazing story of the politics and persons responsible for the outbreak of World War I, and of the first few weeks of battle, so impressed President John F. Kennedy that he gave copies of the book to his friends as Christmas gifts.
The Guns of August was a revelation to me, surprised me by revealing how little I really knew about “the war to end all wars”, and provided me with a fresh perspective on events that shaped the history of the 20th century. If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it:
Of particular interest to me was a now little-known incident relating to northern Ireland that paralyzed Britain’s military decision-makers in 1914, and which emboldened Germany to launch its invasion of Belgium and France in August of that year. The Guns of August briefly mentions the so-called “Curragh Mutiny” incident that rocked Britain’s military and political structure to its foundations in the months before the start of World War I, and left the mighty British Empire unprepared and indecisive on the precipice of impending war in Europe.
In January 1913, after over 700 years of England’s colonial oppression of Ireland, a Liberal Party-controlled British Parliament voted to grant “Home Rule” to Ireland, including its own independent Irish Parliament. Conservative pro-British Unionists in the north of Ireland vehemently opposed “Home Rule” and the prospect of being governed by a liberal Irish Parliament in Dublin. The Ulster Unionists threatened armed rebellion to prevent Irish “Home Rule” in the north, formed their own provisional government at Belfast and established their own paramilitary force with an estimated 100,000 volunteers by 1914. Faced with the threat of armed opposition to the enforcement of the Home Rule Act, the British Government ordered its military to ready weapons and troops to respond to any armed rebellion in Ulster. In March 1914, the largely pro-Unionist British officer corps in Ireland balked at the prospect of fighting against “its own people” in Ulster, in what became known as the “Curragh Mutiny”. Britain’s Parliament and Government were shaken by the resignation of a large number of its senior Army officers and by the threat that its military might not obey the civilian Government.
Meanwhile, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was contemplating the imminent invasion of France through Belgium. His decision would be based upon the likelihood of Britain’s not honoring its treaty obligation to defend neutral Belgium. The Kaiser’s close cousin was King George V of England and the mighty British Empire, and Kaiser Wilhelm was afraid of facing a British military response to any German invasion of Belgium. The political chaos and fractured military authority in England, created in large part by the “Curragh Mutiny”, lead the Kaiser to believe that England would either opt to stay out of any Continental war or, at the very least, delay any British military response long enough for Germany to launch a rapid and overwhelming invasion through Belgium and achieve a quick conquest of France. Upon this wishful and faulty assumption, the Kaiser plunged the world into the greatest and costliest war in human history to that time. World War I killed much of an entire generation, wasted Western Europe and, in its festering ruin, spawned nearly a century of world conflict. The “Curragh Mutiny” also resulted in nearly a century of unnecessary conflict and terror in northern Ireland. The following detailed account of the “Curragh Mutiny” was compiled from public domain sources on-line:
The “Curragh Mutiny”
Events which culminated in the “Curragh Mutiny” of March 1914 had their beginnings at the end of the 18th century when, by the Act of Union, the islands of Great Britain and Ireland were joined administratively. Thereafter, one Parliament would govern both countries. Under-Secretary Cooke wrote to Prime Minister Mr. Pitt in 1799: “The Union is the only means of preventing Ireland from becoming too great and too powerful.” Repeal of the Act of Union, otherwise known as “Home Rule”, became the objective of every Nationalist Party at Westminster. In the latter half of the 19th century, Mr. Gladstone became the champion of Home Rule. With reference to the Act of Union, he said in 1886: “There is no blacker or fouler transaction in the history of man. We used the whole civil government of Ireland as an engine of wholesale corruption . . . We obtained that union against the sense of every class of the community, by wholesale bribery and unblushing intimidation.” Gladstone twice sponsored a Home Rule bill in Parliament and was twice defeated. Home Rule was political dynamite, and would have to await a more favorable opportunity for its reintroduction to the House of Commons.
In 1910, the situation at Westminster favored reintroduction of the question of Home Rule. The December elections of that year saw the return to power of the Liberal Party, but with a majority of only one seat. Prime Minister Asquith formed his government and was maintained in power only by the votes of the 84 Irish Nationalists in Parliament led by Mr. Redmond. The Home Rule Bill became the topic of the day, and it was evident from the start that it would have a stormy passage through Parliament. Whatever political opposition to Home Rule existed inside the House of Commons, there were also many outside the House prepared to resist the introduction of the bill, by force of arms if necessary.
Anglo-Irish politics have never been simple, so it is useful to examine the various parties involved and where they stood:
1. The Liberal Party formed the British government. It was headed by Prime Minister Asquith, who believed that, whatever the opposition be to Home Rule outside the House, in the end, the will of Parliament would prevail.
2. The Irish Nationalist Party supported Asquith’s government. Mr. Redmond defined the Nationalist position when he said: “Ireland today is full of hope and expectation. Beware how you dash that hope to the ground. Rebellion is threatened. Rebellion is justified in high quarters. The rebellion of a portion of the population of four counties, because they disapprove of the act of the imperial parliament before any wrong has been done, and before any oppression has been attempted, would be a crime and a calamity. Rebellion by over three-fourths of a people of a country distracted, tortured and betrayed, deprived of the rights of freemen, and condemned to a barren policy of coercism, would be too horrible a thing to contemplate; and it is because this is so that I rejoice with all my heart to believe and to know that the future of this bill is safe, and that the future of Ireland is assured.”
3. The Conservative Party, headed by Mr. Bonar Law, formed the opposition in Parliament. Bonar Law saw in the issue of Home Rule a means of bringing together a Conservative Party divided by dissension.
4. The Irish Unionist Party, led by Sir Edward Carson, whose cry of “Home Rule is Rome Rule,” had set Ulster afire. Speaking on the issue in the Commons, he said: “Ulster looms very large in this controversy because Ulster has a strong right arm . . . It will not be my fault if resistance becomes necessary; but, Mr. Speaker, on my conscience, I shall not refuse to join them.”
5. The Ulster Volunteers were the militant arm of the Unionists. A well organized and disciplined force, they were estimated to number 100,000 in March, 1914. Its leader Mr. Carson declared: “I am told it will be illegal. Of course it will. Drilling is illegal . . . the volunteers are illegal and the government know they are illegal, and the government dare not interfere with them. Don’t be afraid of illegalities.”
6. The National Volunteers, formed in 1913, were the Nationalist counterpart of the Ulster Volunteers. They lacked arms, organization and training. Could they be relied upon to assist in enforcing Home Rule in Ulster? Padraic Pearse defined the Nationalist attitude on this point when he said: “Let accursed be the soul of any Nationalist who would dream of firing a shot or drawing a sword against the Ulster Volunteers in connection with this Bill.”
7. The Troops of the Irish Command, to whom would fall the task of maintenance of law and order and the enforcement of Government policy consisted of two infantry divisions and two cavalry brigades under the General Officer Commanding Ireland, Lieut. Gen. Sir Arthur Paget.
Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Paget is important to the story that follows, as his personality was one of the causes of the “Curragh Mutiny”. He had seen service in Ashanti, Burma, The Sudan and South Africa, and was aged 63 years in 1914. He was considered: “too out of date, too casual, and intellectually too shallow . . . He could be genial and amusing, and was a great ladies man, but his old-fashioned pomposity was a standing joke. He talked as if he were thinking aloud, and his rambling and often highly colored language betrayed the romantic and even melodramatic current of his thoughts, besides a deeply rooted egotism.” When he died in 1928, his obituary notice in The Times included the following: “Had he only devoted to Military Study a fraction of the time which he gave to the observation of trees and shrubs he might have ranked as a learned soldier.”
Paget’s official residence in 1914 was in the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, a short distance from the administrative headquarters of his command at Parkgate, Dublin. An imaginary line joining Sligo and Wexford divided Paget’s command in two. One infantry division and one cavalry brigade were located both north and south of this line.
As subsequent events primarily concerned the units north of this line, it is necessary to consider their composition and deployment. These were the major units located north of the Sligo-Wexford line:
The 5th Infantry Division consisted of three infantry brigades each of four battalions:
1. Brigadier General Cuthbert’s 13th Infantry Brigade was located in Dublin.
2. Brigadier General Rolt’s 14th Infantry Brigade was located at the Curragh.
3. Brigadier General Count Gleichen’s 15th Infantry Brigade was located in Ulster.
All battalions of the 5th Infantry Division were from England. For example, the 14th Brigade at the Curragh consisted of:
- 2nd Battalion, Manchester Regiment, occupying Keane Barracks, now Pearse Barracks.
- 2nd Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, occupying Gough Barracks, now MacDonagh Barracks.
- 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, occupying Beresford Barracks, now Ceannt Barracks.
- 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, occupying Wellington Barracks, Dublin.
Brigadier General Headlam commanded the Division’s artillery, with his headquarters at New-bridge, where the 27th Brigade RFA was also located. The 15th Brigade RFA was located at Kildare and the 28th Brigade RFA was located in Dundalk.
The General Officer Commanding 5th Infantry Division was Major General Sir Charles Fergusson, aged 49 years at that time. “He was a big dour Scotsman, always cool and not easily provoked,” was how one acquaintance described him. Fergusson had served with Lord Kitchener in The Sudan, and by all accounts, he was a very strict and professional soldier. He had taken over command of the 5th Infantry Division in 1913, and lived at this time some two miles south of the Curragh Camp, at Ballyfair House.
The 3rd Cavalry Brigade, although located in the area of the 5th Infantry Division, was not part of that division, but came directly under the command of the General Officer Commanding Ireland. Brigadier General Hubert Gough had commanded the 3rd Cavalry Brigade since 1911. Gough was 43 years old, and wrote afterwards of himself, “I am Irish by blood and upbringing, though I was born in London.” He came from a famous fighting family. His father, uncle, and brother were all recipients of the Victoria Cross, and he felt he had a personal mission to add to this list. “Tough, fiery, energetic, a skilled and passionate horseman,” Fergusson wrote of Gough, “he possessed in every sense, and perhaps rather too much, ‘the cavalry spirit ‘.” “We ladies of the hunting field could always expect Gough to arrive along when we were halted at a fence… ‘What’s the trouble, ladies?’ Gough would say, ‘that fence is easy’… He would then stand off, take a flyer at it, and usually end up on the broad of his back.” During the South African war, Gough was the first officer of Buller’s relieving force to enter Ladysmith. However, he got there by disregarding orders. Ryan records that on the day in question, Gough, when some few miles from Ladysmith, was ordered ‘to retire at once.’ Gough refused to obey orders and continued on into Ladysmith. Gough lived at Brownstown House in 1914, just one mile south of the Curragh. His brigade was comprised of the following units:
- 4th Hussars, located at Stewart Barracks, Curragh, now Connolly Barracks.
- 16th Lancers located at Ponsonby Barracks, Curragh, now Plunkett Barracks.
- 5th Royal Irish Lancers, located at Marlborough Barracks, Dublin, now McKee Barracks.
- Also attached to the 3rd Cavalry Brigade were D and E Batteries, Royal Horse Artillery, stationed at Newbridge.
There were, of course, a number of depots and stores in various parts of Ireland apart from the units listed above.
In the spring of 1912, the Liberal coalition British government of H. H. Asquith had introduced the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which proposed the creation of an autonomous Irish Parliament in Dublin. A large section of Unionists had objected to potential rule by the proposed Dublin Parliament and had founded the Ulster Volunteers paramilitary group in 1912 to fight if necessary against the British government and/or against a future Irish Home Rule government proposed by the Bill. The Home Rule Bill was introduced into The Commons and was passed in January, 1913. The House of Lords rejected the bill. However, because of new limitations placed on the House of Lords, they could not delay its coming into operation beyond 1914. Opposition to Home Rule mounted in the interim. The Ulster Unionist Council delegated its powers to a Provisional Government which, it was announced, would be set up in Belfast as soon as the Home Rule Bill became law.
Prime Minister Asquith sought vainly for a compromise. “We will not close the Avenue—however unpromising for the moment entrance upon it may appear— which directly or indirectly may hold out the hope of leading to concord and to settlement.” Redmond reached the limit of compromise when he agreed to “County option with a time limit of six years”, but reminded the Government that if these terms were rejected then it was their duty to employ “all the resources at its command to suppress any movement that might arise to overawe Parliament or subvert the law by menace of force.” Carson replied to this offer, in the House of Commons on Monday, March 9th: “We do not want sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years.” Also early in March 1914, intelligence reports reaching London suggested that “evil-disposed persons” were plotting to raid stores of arms and ammunition in Ireland, particular reference being made to Armagh, Omagh, Enniskillen and Carrickfergus. A number of senior officers such as Lord French and Henry H. Wilson had expressed their concerns to the government that the British Army would find it difficult to act against the Volunteers, given that they shared the same basic aim of preserving and defending the British Empire and believed Home Rule would threaten it.
As a result, Asquith set up a special committee to deal with the matter. It was comprised of: the Marquis of Crewe; Mr. Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland; Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Mr. Seely, Secretary for War. On Saturday, March 14th, Churchill, a great believer in Home Rule, delivered a speech at Bradford which caused a sensation throughout England. He declared that there were “worse things than bloodshed even on an extended scale”, described the Ulster Provisional Government as “a self-elected body, composed of persons who, to put it plainly, are engaged in a treasonable conspiracy.” Was the parliamentary system to break down in the face of this challenge? He ended with these words: “I can only say to you, let us go forward together and put these matters to the proof.” On this day also, Paget received instructions from the War Office, instructing him to take special precautions for safeguarding depots and stores, special reference being made to Armagh, Omagh, Carrickfergus and Enniskillen. On Monday, 16th March, Secretary for War Seely wired Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Paget, asking what steps had been taken by him regarding security.
Paget replied on the 17th to state that he was satisfied with the strength of the garrison at Enniskillen, was about to increase the garrison at Carrickfergus, and was taking steps to remove arms and ammunition from Armagh and Omagh. He was reluctant to move troops into Ulster, least it precipitate a crisis. Paget, as requested, then crossed to England that evening and reported to the War Office on Wednesday, 18th March. Those present included: Prime Minister Asquith; the members of the special committee referred to earlier; Paget; Field-Marshal Sir John French, Chief of the Imperial General Staff; Sir Spencer Ewart, Adjutant General; and Major General Sir Nevil Macready. Supposedly, Paget was instructed to move 800 men into Ulster to reinforce depots and arms stores there; preparations for a possible rebellion in the province were discussed; and it was also rumored that Unionist leaders were to be arrested; however, no written record was kept of the discussions which took place at the War Office. From the instructions transmitted by Paget to his headquarters in Dublin, it appears that the following specific decisions were made:
- A Battalion of the 14th Infantry Brigade would be moved to Newry and Dundalk.
- Carrickfergus would be reinforced by troops from Dublin.
- Enniskillen, Omagh and Armagh would be reinforced by troops from Mullingar.
- The Dorsets Battalion, located in Belfast, would be moved to Holywood, to prevent their being blockaded in their city garrison.
- General Macready would go to Belfast to take over as military governor when he considered it necessary.
Despite the fact that all these measures were to take place “with all secrecy”, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Mr. Bonar Law, was kept fully informed of the happening at the war office by Major General Henry Wilson, Director of Military Operations. The conference resumed on Thursday, March 19th, but without PM Asquith who had an audience with the King. Paget expressed anxiety on three points:
1. He still felt that the movement of troops into Ulster would excite a disturbance which might take the form of active resistance. On this point he was overruled. He was reminded that as Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, he had “full discretionary powers” to deploy his forces as he saw fit to meet any contingency. Seely told him “You can have as many more men as necessary when you find they are necessary, even to the last man.”
2. Paget’s second anxiety concerned the transportation of troops to Ulster. What if the employees of the Great Northern Railway refused to move them? To obviate such a possibility Churchill promised Royal Navy support.
3. The last of Paget’s anxieties related to the possible behavior of his officers, and that was discussed on Thursday afternoon between Paget, French and Seely. Seely laid down the following principles for his guidance.
- That officers ordered to act in support of the civil power should not be permitted to resign their commissions, but must, if they refused to obey orders, be dismissed from the Army.
- That indulgence might be shown, in cases where it was asked for, to officers who were domiciled in Ulster.
On all these matters, Paget received no written orders. He returned to Dublin that night, but not before he wired instructions for his unit commanders to meet him on Friday at his headquarters at Parkgate. The Cabinet members, who had attended the conference at the War Office, hurried to the Commons to attend a most important session. Mr. Bonar Law had tabled a vote of censure on the Government and in concluding his address he stated: “What about the army? If it is only a question of disorder, the army will and ought to obey, but if it is a question of civil war, the soldiers are citizens like the rest of the people. The army will be divided, and that force be destroyed on which we depend for our national safety.” The vote of censure was rejected by a vote of 345 to 252.
At 0930 hours on Friday, March 20th, seven officers assembled in Paget’s office at Parkgate, Dublin. They were Fergusson, Rolt, Cuthbert, Gough and three officers of the General Staff. Paget forbade the taking of notes early in the conference. There are three accounts available of the happenings. Paget himself wrote the shortest account for the King, five days after the event. Gough made notes immediately after the conference, but did not assemble them until much later. Ferguson’s narrative is the fullest and was written seven days after the event. When the officers were seated, Paget strode in, according to Gough, looking “stern and pompous and smoking a cigar.” What thoughts were running through Paget’s mind at this time we shall never know. He may have been carried away by the visions of a vast armada of warships off the coast of Scotland, or of a vast army under his control, all deduced from Seely’s guarantee of support. By all accounts, Paget became very excited and rambled on about “the whole place being ablaze by tomorrow.” “He did not say one word about law and order” said Gough, “and our duty to maintain it when necessary.”
Paget had apparently forgotten that all he had been told to do was to move two Battalions and one company of infantry. The plan was to occupy government buildings and to repel any assaults by the Ulster Volunteers, putting the latter on the wrong foot. Paget misinterpreted his orders for precautionary deployments as an immediate order to march against the Ulstermen. Paget then went on to outline the conditions pertaining to officers, as laid down by Seely in London the previous day. Acting on his own initiative, he offered the officers under his command the choice of resignation rather than fighting against the Ulster Volunteers. This was later to become known as “The Ultimatum.” Brigadiers were to go at once and place the alternatives before their officers and notify him forthwith of the outcome. The meeting adjourned. Fergusson, Rolt, Cuthbert and Gough were all agitated. “Come along” said Fergusson, “Let us talk over this. The Army must hold together.” Cough declared bluntly that he would not go. The party broke up.
Fergusson was required to remain in Dublin to attend an afternoon conference, and took the opportunity to put “The Ultimatum” on paper and then send it by his aide-dc-camp to the Curragh, to be placed before the combat, support and service elements of his division. This document is of prime importance, for it is the earliest written document of what Paget had said. Fergusson reproduced the document in full in his book. It stated, in part: “In view of the possibility of active operations in Ulster, the War Office has authorized the following communication to officers:
1. Officers whose homes are actually in the province of Ulster who wish to do so may apply for permission to be absent from duty during the period of operations, and will be allowed to ‘disappear’ from Ireland. Such officers will, subsequently, be reinstated, and will suffer no loss in their career.
2. Any other officer who from conscientious or other motives is not prepared to carry out his duty as ordered, should say so at once. Such officers will at once be dismissed from the service.”
Cough walked the short distance from Parkgate to Marlborough Barracks and placed the ultimatum before the assembled officers of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. All were prepared to accept dismissal in preference to the possibility of taking part in active operations in Ulster.
Rolt arrived by motor car at the Curragh at 11.30 a.m., and outlined the ultimatum to his battalion commanders. The colonels dispersed and each summoned his officers to their mess and put the ultimatum before them. One officer wrote later “Everyone objects to going and nine out of ten refuse under any conditions to go.”
A subaltern, in Dublin, wrote his father: “Can you imagine a subaltern of 22-26 making up his mind in an hour as to whether he should shoot down Loyalists in Ulster or try to start a civil job without a bob? . . . Imagine anything more criminal than making us decide a matter which might affect our whole careers, without giving us time to think or get advice from anyone.”
Cough did not reach the Curragh until about 3.30 p.m., and immediately ordered all officers of the 16th Lancers, 4th Hussars, and Royal Horse Artillery to meet at the Officers’ Mess at Ponsonby Barracks. Cough laid the ultimatum before the assembled officers. “Each must decide for himself;” however, he did tell them that he had chosen the option of dismissal. He requested their decisions by 5.30 p.m., and at that time, all except two opted for dismissal.
The first indication to reach London that all was not well in the Irish Command was a telegram from Paget to the War Office at 7 p.m. Word also broke on Fleet Street about the same time. Unaware of these happenings in the military, some cabinet members were, at this time, assuring the people of the Government’s resolve. Mr. John Burns, President of the Local Government Board, in an address in the National Liberal Club, said: “Home Rule is a question mainly for Ireland itself. Three-fourths of the people there have demanded it persistently for years, and we have no right to listen to the demand for more concessions or yield to clamor.” Thomas McKinnon, Secretary of State for Scotland, also voiced this resolve when he said “We will carry Home Rule by agreement if we possibly can, but without it if we must.”
Fergusson returned to the Curragh at 9 p.m. and went directly to his home. He did not learn of the serious situation within his division until the following morning, when he met Headlam and Rolt at his headquarters, and they made him aware of it. Fergusson was not prepared to leave his officers, least of all the young ones, to face a perplexing problem by themselves. “It is,” he used to say “the duty of leaders to lead.” Fergusson ordered the Manchesters and Suffolks to parade to the gymnasium at the Curragh, where he addressed them. Then he journeyed to Kildare, Newbridge and Dublin, and in each place, he addressed the assembled units. The contents of his address were the same in each place: the need for discipline and loyalty to King and Government. One officer of the East Surrey Battalion wrote later: “He reminded us that although we must naturally hold private political views, officially we should not be on the side of any one political party. It was our duty to obey orders, to go wherever we were sent and to comply with instructions of any political party that happened to be in power. There was no sloppy sentiment; it was good stuff straight from the shoulder and just what we wanted.”
Matters were far from satisfactory in the 3rd Cavalry Brigade. Word arrived from the War Office on Saturday, directing Cough and the Officers Commanding the 3rd Cavalry Brigade to report to London. Paget determined to put an end to any misunderstanding by travelling to the Curragh and speaking to the cavalry officers. Paget’s address turned out to be a most bizarre episode. The old war horse rambled on in his usual manner, and told the assembled officers that “he was their friend and that they should trust him.” He had no intention of urging war on Ulster, and to prove it, he would divulge some of his plans. To such an extent was he prepared to avoid fighting that he had given orders that if any battalion met with opposition in its march, it was to turn around and go back to barracks. And if fighting took place against Ulster forces, he would order all his men to lie down and not return the fire, and he and his generals would advance alone and parley with the men of Ulster. As far as the Cavalry were concerned, he would put them on a flank, and if they met opposition and cleared it, he would be pleased, but if they took no active part, he would also be content. Paget concluded his address and, prior to departing for Dublin, told his audience to make their decision and convey it to Fergusson.
On his return to the Curragh, Fergusson learned of the decision of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade, to the effect that only the officers of the 4th Hussars and Royal Horse Artillery had relented. Out of the 70 British Army officers based at the Curragh Camp, 57, led by Brigadier General Herbert Gough, who, like many of them, had Irish family connections, accepted Paget’s offer to resign their commissions in the British Army, or to accept being dismissed from it, rather than enforce the Home Rule Act in Ulster. Paget then sent a telegram to the War Office in London:
“OFFICER COMMANDING 5TH LANCERS STATES THAT ALL OFFICERS, EXCEPT TWO AND ONE DOUBTFUL, ARE RESIGNING THEIR COMMISSIONS TODAY. I MUCH FEAR SAME CONDITIONS IN THE 16TH LANCERS. FEAR MEN WILL REFUSE TO MOVE. REGRET TO REPORT BRIGADIER-GENERAL GOUGH AND FIFTY-SEVEN OFFICERS 3RD CAVALRY BRIGADE PREFER TO ACCEPT DISMISSAL IF ORDERED NORTH.”
The 57 officers were not actually guilty of “mutiny”. They had not disobeyed direct orders of any kind. Nonetheless, news of their resignations caused government alarm. Cough, Lieutenant Colonel MacEwen, O.C. 16th Lancers, and Lieutenant Colonel Parker, O.C. 5th Royal Irish Lancers, were instructed to report to the War Office in London forthwith.
In London, the weekend of the 2lst-22nd of March was one of considerable political activity and intrigue. The whole question had now become a national issue, with the press on one side calling the events “a sinister plot to coerce Ulster” and the Government pleading that only the maintenance of law and order was involved. The Daily Chronicle reported: “For the first time in modern English history a military cabal seeks to dictate to Government the Bills it should carry or not carry into law. We are confronted with a desperate rally of reactionaries to defeat the democratic movement and repeal the Parliamentary Act. This move by a few aristocratic officers is the last throw in the game.” The Daily Express announced in black type that “The Home Rule Bill Is Dead,” and The Daily News queried, “It is a question whether we govern ourselves or are governed by General Cough.”
Speaking on the Irish question, at a meeting held at Huddersfield on March 21st, Mr. Lloyd George said: “We are confronted with the greatest issue raised in this country since the days of the Stuarts. Representative government in this land is at stake. In those days our forefathers had to face a claim of the Divine Right of Kings to do what they pleased. Today it is the Divine Right of the aristocracy to do what it pleases. We are not fighting about Ulster. We are not fighting about Home Rule. We are fighting for all that is essential to civil liberty in this land.”
All the forces of “the establishment” were brought to bear on the Government, at this time, with such success that, when Gough reported to the War Office on March 23rd, they were seeking a way out of the impasse. Cough, made aware of the Government’s predicament by Wilson, was interviewed by French, Ewart and Seely. He was told that there had been a misunderstanding and was requested to accept reinstatement. This, Gough was prepared to agree to, provided that the Army Council would furnish certain assurances in writing.
The Cabinet approved a letter acknowledging a misunderstanding, but pointing out that it was the duty of soldiers to support the civil power in the maintenance of law and order. Cough was instructed to return later in the day to collect the document. He consulted Wilson, who pointed out a difficulty that might yet arise, namely that, in the event of Home Rule becoming Law, could not the Army be called upon to enforce it on Ulster under the expression of maintaining law and order. Gough sought clarification on this point in a letter, which he dispatched to Ewart at the War Office. However, this letter did not reach Ewart until the Cabinet had approved the initial document and adjourned. Seely felt licensed to tamper with the Cabinet paper, for he added: “His Majesty’s Government must retain their right to use all the forces of the Crown in Ireland, or elsewhere, to maintain law and order and to support the civil power in the ordinary execution of its duty. But they have no intention whatever of taking advantage of this right to crush political opposition to the policy or principles of the Home Rule Bill.” To this document, Seely, French, and Ewart appended their initials and it was handed to Cough when he returned to the War Office.
Cough retired and consulted with Wilson, Parker, MacEwen, and his brother. They were worried about the words “crush political opposition” in the final paragraph of the document. Cough wrote, on a sheet of War Office paper, the following: “I understand the reading of the last paragraph to be that troops under our command will not be called upon to enforce the present Home Rule Bill on Ulster, and that we can so assure our officers. Cough handed this paper to French, who, having studied the paper for some minutes, wrote at the foot of the page: “This is how I read it.” The documents, later to be known as “The Guarantee,” were returned to Cough, who immediately departed for Ireland.
The events already related were to be the subject of many weeks of heated debate and discussion in both the press and Parliament. The Government rejected “The Guarantee” on the grounds that the parties, who amended the Cabinet document, had no authority to tamper with it. Efforts were even made to recover it from Cough, but to no avail. Seely, French and Ewart all resigned because “The Guarantee” was repudiated. There were charges of a Government plot to coerce Ulster and that the reports of possible seizure of arms depots were fabrications. Countercharges of mutiny and subversion of democratic Government followed. Russian radical Vladimir Lenin cited the incident as an example of the “determined resistance of the British landlords and capitalists in Ireland to the introduction of Home Rule.”
Cough was hailed as a hero: “The plot has been defeated by the courageous stand made by the officers of the Cavalry Brigade . . . We congratulate General Cough, whose fearless and honorable conduct has added luster to the laurels of a great Irish family.” Fergusson was denounced as “ a cur.” Even the King was to take him to task for having used his name in addressing the troops on Saturday, March 21. However, he was fixed in his views, for he later wrote “if my conscience were as clear about everything in my life as it is about that incident, I should he very pleased.”
What were the results of the preceding events, which became known collectively as the “Curragh Mutiny”? They were both long and short-term, effecting both Ireland and England:
The most immediate result was the reading, by Prime Minister Asquith in the House of Commons on March 28th, of a New Army Order concerning discipline. The opening paragraph read: “No officer or soldier should, in future, be questioned by his superior officer as to the attitude he will adopt in the event of his being required to obey orders dependent on future or hypothetical contingencies.”
At the highest levels of the Army, the adverse effects of the “Mutiny” were great. It left a legacy of suspicion between Britain’s military and political leaders that would last for years, during the entire long course of World War I. This mutual distrust was to hamper decision-making and operations throughout the War.
In Ireland, the “Mutiny” had major effects upon the course of Anglo-Irish relations. The Home Rule Bill, passed in the Commons on May 25th, found its way into the Statute Books on September 18th, with the proviso that it not come into effect until after the end of the War. Parliament had dodged facing the issue, for it knew that it could not depend upon the Army to implement a Home Rule Bill for the whole of Ireland. As far as the Irish Nationalists were concerned, the damage was done. With all confidence now lost in Parliamentary procedure, it followed that their resorting to arms was unavoidable. On April 24th, the Northern Irish Ulster Volunteers covertly landed about 24,000 rifles at night in the “Larne gun-running” incident, without any of those involved being discovered or arrested. The growing fear of civil war in Ireland led on to the government considering some form of partition of Ireland in July 1914 by an amending bill, and further discussions at the Buckingham Palace Conference, but both it and the main act were suspended soon after the start of World War I in August. On Easter Monday, 1916, under a banner which said “We serve neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland”, the Irish rose in armed rebellion.
What impact did the “Mutiny” have on the Army’s rank and file to fight, when called upon to do so? The answer became clear five months later. The 5th Infantry Division and the 3rd Cavalry Brigade were amongst the first British units ordered to France at the outbreak of World War I. At 11.15 am, on Saturday, the 22nd of August, 1914, “E” Battery, Royal Horse Artillery fired the first British shots of World War I. In the ensuing engagement, these units, which figured so prominently in the events at the Curragh, bore the brunt of the German attack and covered the retreat of the British Forces from Mons. They fought with great courage and endurance.
Significant lessons can be learned from the “Curragh Mutiny” pertaining to the ethics and the behavior of the military in relation to a civil government. Paget, when at the War Office on March 19, sought guidance as to his actions in certain eventualities. This guidance was furnished to him by way of “The Ultimatum.” It was unnecessary, injudicious and improper to place that choice before the officer corps. The blame for the effects that followed lay not with those officers forced to make the choice, but with those who caused it to be offered. To term the results of this folly a “mutiny” is a misnomer. There was no mutiny. In fact, all “orders” given at the time were punctually and implicitly obeyed. The reactions of Fergusson and Cough to “The Ultimatum” provide an excellent case study in leadership. The background of both officers was similar: Royalist, Protestant, experienced and of the same age, and yet they reacted in quite different ways. Which was correct? It is evident that both cannot be so.
- Fergusson wrote later: “Needless to say what my inclinations were. All personal considerations invited me to do what Cough did; and if anything could strengthen those feelings, it was the “ultimatum” put to me on Friday last.” However, he goes on to say: “we officers have all the responsibility of being able to influence, in a greater or lesser degree, according to rank and position, those serving under us. . . I may be willing to accept dismissal from the service myself, but I am not prepared to draw others into the risk of losing everything because of their loyalty to me . . . Logically, if we officers refuse to fight against our friends, are we prepared to accept the same argument from our men when they are called on to fight their friends in labor disputes, etc? If the Army break up, and discipline is allowed to become dependent on personal considerations, what is there between the country and revolution? . . . Therefore, I will do nothing that will in any way weaken the discipline of the Army, which I hold to be the paramount consideration. Democracies always have exhibited concern over their military establishments because military organizations have the ability, as holders of the instruments and science of violence, to short-circuit the democratic process.”
- Of Cough, one can understand how he reacted to “The Ultimatum”, and on technical grounds he could never be accused of mutiny. Guided entirely by his emotions, he exercised his prerogative when Paget presented the alternatives to him. Of “The Guarantee,” which he later sought and obtained in London, his actions are suspect.
Prime Minister Asquith summed up the whole question of the “Ultimatum” and “Guarantee” when he wrote: “In the view of the Cabinet, it was wrong to demand from the officers any assurance as to what their conduct might be in a contingency which might never arise, and it is at least equally wrong for an officer to demand any such assurance from the Government.” If orders had existed for the repression of the Ulster Unionists and the arrest of their leaders, they were at once withdrawn. Asquith claimed publicly that no such action had been contemplated and that the whole episode had resulted from an “honest misunderstanding”, and the affected officers were reinstated. The War Office in London declared that ministers had no future intention of using the Army to enforce submission to the Home Rule Bill. This assurance may have been given without Cabinet authority, as those responsible for issuing it were subsequently obliged to resign.
Overall, the “Curragh Mutiny” incident greatly increased the confidence of Ulster Unionists. They firmly believed that the government had intended to crush them, but its plan had failed for lack of military support. Thereafter British government ministers were convinced that they could not trust the Army to quell opposition to home rule in the province. For Irish nationalists, the events merely confirmed their increasing doubts about Asquith’s real commitment to granting Irish self-government and about his willingness to ever grapple with Unionist militancy.
The Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland.
1. The Ulster Crisis by ATQ Stewart; Faber & Faber, London – 1967.
2. The Green Flag by Kee, Robert; Weidenfeld and Nicolson – 1972.
3. The Army and the Curragh Incident 1914 by Beckett, Ian F. W.; Bodley Head for the ARS – 1986.
4. The Curragh Incident by Fergusson, Sir James; London – 1964.
5. Mutiny at the Curragh by Ryan, A.P.; London – 1956.