Kilmichael: a battlefield study

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Reviewed by Lar Joye
Lar Joye is curator of military history at the National Museum of Ireland (Decorative Arts)

kilmichaelSeán Murphy is a retired Irish Defence Forces officer and lawyer originally from West Cork who has written a fascinating book examining the Kilmichael ambush from the point of view of a professional soldier. On 28 November 1920, 36 IRA Volunteers commanded by Tom Barry ambushed two trucks of RIC Auxiliary Division cadets, killing eighteen of them. This ambush, happening a week after Bloody Sunday in Dublin, showed, according to some historians, that the IRA had developed into a fighting force capable of taking on the Crown forces. Others feel that it delayed peace efforts in progress at that time. The events of the battle have been hotly debated over the last twenty years, dominated by the late Peter Hart and Meda Ryan. Indeed, while I was reading the book for this review on a train, a fellow passenger exclaimed loudly to the rest of the carriage, ‘Oh God, not another book about that!’

In setting out his case for what happened, Seán Murphy makes the point that not many Irish historians have military experience, and thus they have no knowledge of what weapons can and—more importantly—cannot do. Movies dominate most of our ideas of the effectiveness of pistols and rifles. The reality, however, is that armies have to train soldiers how to fire rifles, and even then you will always find soldiers who cannot hit the proverbial barn door. As we approach the 1916 centenary, we still read that British snipers were killing Volunteers and civilians, and that British artillery destroyed the city, aided by the navy ship Helga. None of this is true: snipers are trained soldiers with specialised rifles, and there were none in Dublin; there were only four eighteen-pounder artillery guns in Dublin in 1916; most of the damage was from fires started by the artillery bombardment and by the rebels themselves; finally, the Helga only fired twenty shells at Dublin city centre.

In analysing the ambush Seán Murphy uses a military planning tool called Mission, Enemy, Troops(own), Terrain and Space, otherwise known by the acronym METTS, and After Action Assessments. He shows that the eighteen Auxiliary cadets were not all battle-hardened veterans of the First World War and that Kilmichael is not easily defined as a battle in a military context but more a small-scale engagement. It started at around 4pm and only lasted 30–45 minutes. The eighteen Auxiliary cadets were well equipped with a rifle each, two revolvers and two grenades; the 36 Volunteers were equipped with a rifle and 35 rounds, a few had revolvers and their commander, Tom Barry, had two grenades. The Volunteers had very little experience of firing their rifles and only had enough ammunition for four or five minutes of fighting. Tom Barry wrote in his autobiography that the West Cork IRA had no experience of war and had not been trained to use rifles. The Australian Army studied the shooting ability of recruits in the 1st Australian Division in the First World War and found that 50% of them failed their shooting practice. Seán Murphy concludes that we can expect something similar for the Volunteers at Kilmichael.

From accounts of the battle, the Volunteers captured eighteen rifles, 30 revolvers and 1,800 rounds of ammunition. Indeed, 90% of the Auxiliary ammunition was captured. This is surprising, as Murphy points out that such well-equipped Auxiliary cadets should have wounded or killed more of the Volunteers at such close quarters.

Investigating this further, he carried out an experiment in 2013 based on four Auxiliary cadets firing their revolvers after the start of the attack, using four volunteers who had a variety of shooting experience. This group had a 71% hit rate with their first shot, which makes it difficult to comprehend how the Volunteers were not wounded or killed as they advanced on the Auxiliaries. In relation to the types of rifles used at Kilmichael, he makes a well-argued case that the Volunteers were using Canadian-made Ross rifles captured during two famous raids on local coastguard stations. These rifles were well known for having many defects that could kill their user. In some cases the bolt of the rifle, if incorrectly assembled, could fire backwards. He feels that this is how Jim O’Sullivan was killed rather than during the false surrender. In addition, at this stage in the War of Independence British military intelligence had supplied defective ammunition and explosives used by the IRA and this could have affected the battle. In the end, it is clear that the Volunteers were very well led by a battle-hardened veteran in Tom Barry and that he was single-minded in destroying the Auxiliary patrol. Looking at the military aspects of Kilmichael, Murphy concludes that the most plausible view is that the Auxiliary cadets in the two trucks surrendered. In capturing so many Auxiliaries, the safety of the 36 Volunteers would have been paramount in the mind of their commander. As Diarmuid Ferriter has recently commented, however, ‘the contradictory evidence about what happened does not merit emphatic conclusions from anyone involved in the debate’. No doubt the arguments will continue as we come closer to the centenary in 2020.

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