The capture and death of Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith, 1921

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2018), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 26

By Saoirse Ní Shíocháin

Above: Posthumous portrait of Major Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith by Sir John Lavery. (Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane)

Geoffrey Lee Compton-Smith was born in 1889 in South Kensington, London. After finishing school, he decided not to follow the family tradition of studying law. He actually wanted to become an artist, but his father insisted that he join the army. He studied at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and during the First World War his regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was sent to France. In 1917 he was wounded at the Battle of Arras, but he continued to fight on. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (GSO) for ‘conspicuous gallantry’. In 1916 he married Gladys Mary Lloyd. They had one child, a daughter, Anne. In 1919 he was sent to serve in Ireland during the War of Independence. This project will look at his capture and death.

Compton-Smith in Ireland

In 1919 Compton-Smith was commander of the British Army base at Ballyvonane, near Buttevant, but he was also an intelligence officer. The Irish Independent stated that he was ‘engaged as an intelligence officer and consequently his duties brought him to many different barracks, including Cork and Buttevant’. Maurice Brew, from Donoughmore, wrote in 1954 that he was ‘chief British intelligence officer for Munster’. Tim Sheehan writes that he admitted to being an intelligence officer during an IRA interrogation. As an officer he also sometimes presided over courts martial. In January 1921, for instance, three IRA volunteers were tried by him for involvement in the ambush at Shinanagh, near Charleville, and he sentenced them each to six months.

February 1921 was a bad time for the IRA in Cork. They suffered major losses at the ambushes at Clonmult and Mourne Abbey, and several volunteers were taken prisoner. Four of these were sentenced to death. The IRA thought that these death sentences might be commuted if a British officer was held as a hostage. It was this that led to the capture of Compton-Smith. On 16 April 1921 he travelled to Blarney. According to his letters he was going on a sketching trip, but I have learned from the family that he was going to meet a woman with whom he was having an affair. This was also later reported to Michael Collins, who learned that he had ‘an appointment with a nurse’ from Victoria Barracks. The IRA had spies in Victoria Barracks, and this may be how they knew that Compton-Smith was coming to Blarney. A squad led by Frank Busteed, a very experienced IRA man, easily captured him after he got off the train.

Busteed then cycled to Donoughmore, where he met with Jackie O’Leary, the IRA battalion commander. It was decided that Donoughmore was the perfect place to keep a hostage, because parts of the parish were remote and the IRA was strong there.

Meanwhile, Compton-Smith was being held prisoner in a house at Knocknasuff, near Blarney. Early next morning, 17 April, he was brought to a house in Courtbrack. It was here that Compton-Smith wrote the first of his letters to his family. On 18 April, after dark, O’Leary, Busteed and others arrived at Courtbrack to transfer the prisoner by car to Knockane House, an abandoned big house in Donoughmore. The following night he was moved again, this time by pony and trap, to Barrahaurin, a remote townland in the Boggeragh Mountains. Compton-Smith was kept here for the last eleven days of his life, on the small farm of Jack and Mary Moynihan. He was held prisoner in a shed, always under guard. Every evening he was brought into the house, where he ate and stayed at the fireside. He and his guards had conversations about history and politics; one night they even had a singsong, and Compton-Smith joined in with a rebel song.

Compton-Smith wrote some letters while in Barrahaurin but we know that these were never sent, as they were discovered the following month in a raid on a Sinn Féin office in Dublin. It looks like Jackie O’Leary had sent them to Dublin to be checked for security reasons.

Above: The Moynihan house today at Barrahaurin, Donoughmore, where Compton-Smith was held prisoner for the last eleven days of his life. (Saoirse Sheehan).

The execution

The four IRA prisoners were executed on 28 April 1921. Two days later, on 30 April, Jackie O’Leary informed Compton-Smith that he was going to be executed. Compton-Smith then wrote his final letter to his wife, Gladys. He tells her that he will die with her name on his lips and her face before his eyes and that he will ‘die like an Englishman and a soldier’. He is not thinking about himself but of his wife and daughter, his father and his regiment. He is even thinking about the man who has the job of executing him, Jackie O’Leary, to whom he gives his watch—an act of forgiveness, perhaps?

Above: Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the nation is very like the story of Major Compton-Smith. Frank O’Connor fought in Cork during the War of Independence; his mother, Minnie, was from Donoughmore, and he often visited his grandparents, John and Julia, there. Is it possible that O’Connor got the idea for his famous short story from these connections?

The second letter was to his regiment, and in it he says: ‘I should like my death to lessen rather than increase the bitterness which exists between England and Ireland … My cigarette case I leave to the mess. I … shall die with it in my pocket.’

Compton-Smith’s final letter was to Lt.-Gen. Strickland. It is from a major to his most senior officer, but it shows very little respect for the latter. He starts off by admitting that he had disobeyed orders. He doesn’t condemn the IRA but actually calls them idealists ‘who are doing what they earnestly believe to be right’.

After finishing his letters, Compton-Smith was led up into Barrahaurin bog behind Moynihan’s house, to a place where his grave had already been dug, and was given a final cigarette. In his witness statement Maurice Brew wrote: ‘When removed to the place of execution he placed his cigarette case in his breast pocket of his tunic … He then lighted a cigarette and said that when he dropped the cigarette it could be taken as a signal by the execution squad to open fire.’

Aftermath

It wasn’t until late in the following month (May), when the cache of letters was discovered in the Dublin raid, that the Compton-Smith family were informed of his death. His father, William, then started a campaign to find his son’s body. He wrote letters to MPs and to the British Army, seeking information and help. He also wrote to Erskine Childers TD but got no reply. He offered a reward of £500 for information, but only the Irish Times agreed to print his advertisement. He believed that the British authorities had not done everything they could have done to rescue his son. This explains why, when he had Geoffrey’s war medals framed, he had the following inscription added:

Above: Anne Compton-Smith visiting the grave of her father in Davis Fort, August 1927. (Rupert Peploe)

‘The British Government concealed from the War Office, the Army, his Regiment, his Father and his Wife, his peril and his fate. They fraternised with his murderers, denied justice and stifled all enquiry into the circumstances of the crime.’

In November 1921 a cousin of Gladys met Michael Collins in London and asked him for help in finding the body. Correspondence between Collins and the Compton-Smith family suggests that Collins was trying to help in 1922, but he failed to get any results before he was killed at Béal na Bláth that same year.

In one of the letters Gladys asks Collins: ‘Also if you could tell me the date he was killed, exactly where he was first captured and if he was quite alone at the time’. It seems strange that Gladys wanted to know ‘exactly’ where her husband was captured and whether he was ‘quite alone’ at the time. Perhaps she suspected something about her husband’s affair. Collins knew that Compton-Smith had come to Blarney ‘to keep an appointment with a nurse’ but he didn’t mention this to Gladys. In another letter Collins mentions that he met Sir John Lavery in London and that Lavery had offered to paint a portrait of Compton-Smith for Gladys ‘because of the high regard in which Major Compton-Smith was held’. The famous artist did indeed paint the portrait but Gladys never collected it. Was she angry with him for his infidelity? The painting (p. 44) is now in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery.

Recovery of the body

After the deaths of Michael Collins and Erskine Childers, with the Civil War raging in Ireland, the Compton-Smith family seem to have stopped trying to locate the body. Then, in late 1924, William wrote to Garda headquarters in Dublin. It sparked investigations, and Sgt Connors of Donoughmore was asked to look into the matter. Connors spoke to Jackie O’Leary, who agreed that the body should be returned.

On 3 March 1926 Compton-Smith’s grave was opened by the Gardaí. The newspapers reported that the remains, because of the conditions of the bog, ‘were not so badly decomposed as to render identification impossible’. The body was brought to Collins Barracks in Cork.

On 5 March the Gardaí sent a telegram to the Compton-Smiths, informing them that the body had been found. William was on holidays in Tenerife, however, and Gladys was in Italy. William returned home a week later and telegraphed the Gardaí, but he wanted absolute proof that the body was Geoffrey’s before he would do anything: ‘If you can place before me such evidence as will satisfy me that they can be identified with him I will proceed—otherwise I decline to interfere … If the “remains” can be identified to my satisfaction I would like them sent to England, but not unless this can be done.’ Things dragged on for a while until, on 18 March, the Gardaí informed him that ‘arrangements are being made to have the body interred in the British Military Cemetery at Cork on to-morrow, 19th inst., as it is not practicable to have it removed to England. If it is desired at any future date to have it removed to England, facilities will be given for its exhumation.’

The next day, the day of his son’s funeral, William wrote to the British War Office: ‘So far as I am personally concerned … the body may as well rest in the British Military Cemetery at Cork since, from my experience it would appear that in England the mental complexion of the Episcopacy is of too politic and time serving a character to permit any epitaph over my son’s alleged remains which would, except very remotely, represent the truth’. From these letters and telegrams it seems that William was a difficult man to deal with!

The reburial of Major Compton-Smith was carried out with great dignity. The Irish Army escorted the coffin from Collins Barracks to Penrose Quay, where British forces from Spike Island took the coffin on board a boat. While the boat travelled down the River Lee, the Irish Army’s guard of honour presented arms and sounded The Last Post. The British then brought the coffin to Carlisle Fort, near Whitegate, where it was buried with full military honours. On the grave there is a bronze wreath bearing the inscription ‘Major G.L. Compton Smith D.S.O. With love from Anne’. Anne, his daughter, was only two years old when he was executed. I have learned from her son, Rupert Peploe, that Anne and her grandfather, William, visited the grave in August 1927 and placed the bronze wreath.

 

Conclusion

The story of Compton-Smith’s capture and death is a story of Ireland’s War of Independence, a story of love, of respect between enemies, and of the death of a brave man in a lonely bog. Compton-Smith was a British officer and a war hero, and I was surprised to learn that he had some sympathy for Sinn Féin and its aims. It is amazing to hear of his joining in the singing of a rebel song in a kitchen in the Boggeragh Mountains. His bravery on the day of his death is inspiring. His act of forgiveness in giving his watch to the local IRA leader, Jackie O’Leary, was very moving. His letters to his wife are full of love, even if he might have been having an affair. The visit of his little daughter to his grave in 1927 is very sad. And the story of his captivity in Donoughmore may have led to one of the greatest Irish short stories ever written. Most of what I have learned about the personality of Compton-Smith comes from letters, not from history books. Historical sources are very significant, but family information, fieldwork and talking with local people are also very important in history projects.

Saoirse Ní Shiocháin is a student in Gaelcholáiste Choilm, Baile an Chollaigh, Co. Corchaí.

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FURTHER READING

  1. Hart, The IRA and its enemies: violence and community in Cork 1916–1923 (Oxford, 1999).

D.M. Leeson, ‘Reprisals’, in J. Crowley, D. Ó Drisceoil and M. Murphy (eds), Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Cork, 2017).

  1. O’Connor, Guests of the nation (London, 1931).
  2. Sheehan, Execute hostage Compton-Smith (Dripsey, 1993).
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