I worked the Firelock booth at Adepticon, right alongside Blood & Valor‘s author Rufus. We talked about two of the latest Firelock releases – ‘War Stories,’ and ‘End of Empires’. While there, some folks pointed out that a key difference between the two games’ setting is that you’re far less likely to find yourself mired in controversy when dealing with WW1. It’s not really a ‘political’ (politicized) war.
So on Monday I sat down with my new copy of ‘End of Empires‘ in hand. It’s got a section on ‘The Conflict in Ireland’, with just 2 army lists. The background provided for the ‘Irish Volunteer Army’ is all about the Easter Rising – but the Rising was only 4 days in April, while the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Irish Civil War spanned 4 long years. In fact, May 24th 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Irish Civil War. So why the focus on the Rising?
This isn’t unique to Blood & Valor, either. Ireland’s “Independence Day” is December 6th, but it’s not really observed or marked by a holiday – more attention is paid to the Rising. But why? I think that Dublin MP John Dillon’s response to the executions following the Rising summarizes it best,
…it is not murderers who are being executed; it is insurgents who have fought a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided.John Dillon, Dublin MP, House of Common, ‘On the Continuation of Martial Law,’ 11 May 1916
Insurgents? Misguided? Perhaps, on the 107th anniversary of the Rising, it would be more beneficial to cut through the mythology, and wade into the peat-bog of controversy which surrounds the Easter Rising.
I spent the rest of Easter Monday just deciding where to start…
“In the name of God and of the dead generations”
So begins ‘The Proclamation of the Irish Republic‘ read by Pádraig Pearse on the steps of the GPO that Easter Monday in 1916. But that is not where this story should begin.
The story of the Easter Rising begins in 1155, when Pope Adrien IV granted King Henry II of England the authority to invade Ireland and claim it for the English crown. Thus establishing England’s claim to Ireland.
Or perhaps the story begins with the Planation of Ulster, in 1609. When King James I granted land from Northern Irish counties to private landowners – provided they were “English speaking, Protestant, and loyal to the King.”
Maybe it should begin with the dissolution of the Irish Parliament with the 1801 Acts of Union, and the subsequent disenfranchisement of Irish voters with the 1829 ‘Catholic Relief Act’.
Perhaps it is tangential, but we might also discuss the failed 1848 revolution of the Young Irelanders, in the midst of the Great Famine. The nationalists went underground, and in 1856 established themselves as the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
But more accurately, I think that this story begins in 1912, with the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill by British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. The bill proposed giving the Irish some measure of self-governance within the United Kingdom. The bill was immediately opposed by the Protestant dominated counties in Ulster, who believed that they would not be fairly represented in a majority-Catholic government. In response, they formed the Ulster Volunteer Force – a paramilitary group dedicated to resisting any notion of Home Rule.
In 1913, the Irish Republican Brotherhood responded to the formation of the UVF by creating the Irish Volunteers – a paramilitary group dedicated to defending Ireland’s right to self-governance.
Also in 1913, British and Irish employers responded to public outcry for better labor conditions with the Dublin Lockouts – a Capital Strike designed to punish striking workers by shutting down all employment opportunities and forcing them back to work. Outraged by this, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) formed the Irish Citizen Army, under James Connolly.
That Small Nations Might Be Free
The Third Home Rule Bill was hotly contested in Parliament by those MPs representing the Ulster counties. They finally assented to pass the bill only if Asquith excluded the Ulster counties from immediate governance by the new Irish Parliament. The details of how many counties would be excluded, and for how long, were on the ironing board. However, before anything could be settled, WW1 broke out.
In Parliament, Asquith rushed through the Suspensory Act, which postponed implementation of the Third Home Rule Bill (now the Government of Ireland Act) for one year, with provisions to reassess implementation every 6 months thereafter, until the end of the war. Naively, everyone involved expected that the war would only last for a few months.
Meanwhile, Irishmen enlisted in the British army to fight in WW1. Ulster Protestants and Catholic Volunteers enlisted in almost equal numbers, and stormed the beaches of Gallipoli together as 10th division, of IX Corps – where 50% of them would be cut down by Turkish guns. Their lonely graves lined Suvla Bay, indeed.
‘Twas BEtter to Die ‘Neath An Irish Sky
The appalling losses at Gallipoli and elsewhere particularly outraged James Connolly, leader of the Irish Citizen Army. Connolly was born in England to Irish parents, and had grown up to become a Marxist, active in the Labor Movements in both the United Kingdom and in the United States – but it was always Ireland that he held most dear.
In Connolly’s eyes, brave, working-class Irishmen were being killed as pawns in the king’s foreign war when their lives could be better spent winning Ireland’s freedom at home. The adoption of Home Rule seemed a pipe-dream as the war dragged on, and how many Irish soldiers would be sacrificed in the meantime? Connolly approached members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and told them that unless they planned a revolution, he would do it himself.
Connolly had between 200-300 members in his organization, armed with rifles smuggled from Germany, and headquartered at Liberty Hall in Dublin. It would be a fool’s errand to attempt a rebellion with so few, but it threatened to force the hands of the IRB and their Irish Volunteers.
Although the IRB was dissatisfied with the solution of Home Rule rather than a truly independent Irish Republic, they had squashed all notion of violent revolution unless the British attempted to force conscription upon the Irish – something which they had so far avoided. Fortunately for Connolly, there was a splinter group within the leadership of both the IRB and Volunteers, who shared his negative opinion of Irish involvement in WW1. With Connolly’s pressure, seven members of the Military Council secretly plotted what would become the Easter Rising.
Those Fearless Men, But Few
For the Rising to have any chance of success would require every member of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army to rise up all across Ireland and swiftly cut-off British support, forcing the British government to the negotiating table.
Unfortunately, Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Volunteers Eoin Macneil, was not in favor of the Rising, and vowed to do everything in his power short of notify the British authorities to prevent it. He moved quickly to countermand the Easter mobilization orders. The confusion caused by this meant that only those forces in direct contact with the Military Council could be counted on. As those were the forces based around Dublin, it was decided that the Rising would proceed. James Connolly would be named Commander in Chief, with Pádraig Pearse of the IRB elected as President of the Republic, and a declaration of Irish independence drafted and signed by the 7 member committee.
So it was that 250 members of the Irish Citizen Army, along with 800 Irish Volunteers, and 200 women from the organization Cumann na mBan, marched into Dublin on the morning of Easter Monday, 1916. Four hundred of them gathered at Liberty Hall, to march down Sackville Street, to the steps of the General Post Office in Ireland. There, in front of bewildered onlookers, Pádraig Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.excerpt, ‘The Proclamation of the Irish Republic’
In 4 days, Connolly, Pearse, and 14 other leaders of the Rising – including all 7 signatories of the Proclamation – would be imprisoned Kilmainham Gaol, sentenced to execution by firing squad.
They Hung Out the Flag of War
The British were caught entirely unaware by the Rising. Owing to this, the Volunteers were able to quickly seize key positions which they had identified in the weeks leading up to the rebellion. Telegraph lines were cut, and rail lines were sabotaged. They were too few in number to hold the rail stations and the docks, but they took up positions in Dublin City Hall, in the area surrounding The Four Courts (the highest judicial institutions in Ireland) and on St. Stephen’s Green. They made their headquarters in the GPO.
The British were unsure of the situation on the ground, and their patrols blundered in to Volunteer positions, where they were ambushed. For the first day, confusion reigned. The Dublin police were pulled off the streets, and looting broke out among the civilian populace.
On the second day, the British declared martial law and began to surround the city. Artillery was brought in from Athlone and the British shelled Volunteer positions in the Northern parts of the city. The gunboat HMS Helga also sailed along the River Liffey, shelling positions in the city.
The fighting reached its peak on the third day. The British brought in thousands of troops and made inroads into the city. They isolated specific Volunteer positions, forcing them to surrender. Fires were raging in the city from British artillery, and Volunteer attempts to deny positions to the encroaching British.
Civilian casualties mounted quickly. This was 1916, and modern warfare was in its infancy. British soldiers were trained to fight in the trenches, not in the complicated mess of urban warfare – especially not in an occupied city. The fighting was dominated by machineguns and snipers, with streets becoming bloody kill-zones, while innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire.
On North King Street, the British emplyed improvised armored personnel carriers made by mounting the boiler cases of steam locomotives onto trucks donated by the Guinness brewery. These may well have been the first APCs in modern combat. They also learned to occupy the buildings on either side of the street and then “mousehole” their way through the walls to attack rebel positions. Tragically, while occupying these houses, 15 men and boys were rounded up and shot by the soldiers as either sympathizers or rebels. The ‘North King Street Massacre’ would come to exemplify British cruelty in the coming years.
On the fourth day, it was clear that the situation was hopeless. Pearse offered the British his unconditional surrender. A few volunteer strongholds held out until written orders could be produced under a flag of truce, ordering them to lay down their arms. A few Volunteers had been able to escape the city or hide out within it, but most of those who were not killed or wounded were rounded up as prisoners.
The Requiem Bell Tolled Mournfully and Clear
When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Dublin looked like a scene from the Western Front. Buildings were burnt out and destroyed by shellfire, windows shattered, doors barricaded and smashed.
66 Volunteers were killed. All of the leaders were either dead, or had been captured upon surrender.
The British lost 143 killed and 397 wounded.
Civilian casualties numbered 260, with more than 2,000 wounded.
In the aftermath, the British targeted the separatist political organization Sinn Fein, despite it being neither militant nor Republican (yet) and having no involvement in the Rising. The British set out to arrest anyone involved in the Rising, even if they had not been active participants. 3,509 people were arrested. Just under half the people were let go, but 1,836 men were held without trial in British internment camps. Several also had no involvement in the Rising. Several more used this time and their resentment of the British to plot the wars to come.
187 people were tried by military court martial, in secret, without defense. It was later determined by the British crown that these trials were illegal. Further muddying the waters, some of the men deciding cases had been in command of British troops during the Rising, which was prohibited by the Military Manual. Still, 90 people were sentenced to death, with 14 of them actually executed (including Connolly, Pearse, and all 7 signatories of the Proclamation). Innocent people also faced the firing squad, including John MacBride, who had not participated in the Rising at all, but who had fought against the British in Boer War.
The executions outraged the public, even those who had previously been hostile to the rebels. Asquith urged Maxwell to stop after the execution of James Connolly, the last of the leaders to be executed. Connolly had been shot in the ankle during the fighting, and by the time he was executed two weeks later he was feverish, delirious, and in agonizing pain. Unable to stand, he was tied to a barrel and shot by the firing squad. All further death sentences were commuted to penal servitude. The only two leaders spared execution were Constance Markiewicz, because she was a woman, and Éamon de Valera because of his ties to the United States (Britain not wishing to anger the US while courting them as an ally in WW1).
A Terrible Beauty is Born
The Rising had failed. Its leaders were dead, imprisoned, or in hiding.
However, the British mishandling of the Rising and its aftermath galvanized Irish Separatist sentiments across Ireland. Two more failed attempts at implementing Home Rule (hamstrung over the question of Partition between the Irish and Ulster counties) and an attempt at Conscription, sealed Ireland’s fate. The Sinn Fein party won overwhelmingly in the 1918 General Elections, but refused to take their seats in Parliament. Instead, they remained in Ireland, forming a separate government – Dáil Éireann – and in 1919, penned a Declaration of Independence.
The Irish Volunteers reorganized themselves into the Army of the Irish Republic – commonly called the Irish Republican Army. They were now the IRA.
The goals of the IRA aligned with the Dáil, but control of the loose organization of guerilla fighters was contentious. The Volunteers had been sworn to uphold their original Constitution, and no other – they saw themselves as a separate military entity from the Dáil. For its part, the Dáil attempted to guide the IRA, but did not officially claim it as the military arm of the Republic until very late in the War of Independence.
Violence flared up across Ireland, with IRA “flying columns” ambushing, assassinating, and sabotaging British targets wherever they could. It was the Rising, on a larger scale. Martial law was declared, and thousands of British reinforcements were shipped in – paramilitary volunteers like those added to the RIC and the Ulster Special Constabulary – gained reputations for disobedience and for violence against civilians. The death toll mounted, and between 1919 and 1921, 2,300 lost their lives. Among those slain were 900 civilians.
To stem the bloodflow in 1921, the Dáil agreed to a truce. The IRA saw the truce as a temporary ceasefire, and recruited more members for a time when hostilities would resume. Sporadic fighting between the IRA and the British continued as negotiations went on. Finally, on December 6th, 1921, the Dáil agreed to a peace treaty; 4 votes to 3. Ireland became a Dominion of the British Empire on the same date, 1 year later.
Ireland Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace
The Easter Rising was not finished reaping its bloody toll. Pearse had stood upon the steps of the GPO and proclaimed a Free Ireland for all Irish, but in the eyes of many, the Treaty had not freed anyone.
The treaty had established Ireland not as a free and independent nation, but as a dominion. Irish politicians were still required to swear a loyalty to oath which included loyalty to King George V. Furthermore, the Treaty had allowed for Partition – the contentious issue which had dogged Home Rule since 1912.
Not only Partition, but areas in the Ulster counties where Nationalists had won electoral majorities (County Fermanagh, Tyrone, and the city of Derry as well as parts of Armagh and Londonderry) were “sold out” to the British in exchange for forgiveness of war debts owed by the new Republic.
Éamon de Valera – now President of the Dáil and veteran of the Rising – was outspoken against the treaty. He was joined by fellow Rising veteran, Cathal Brugha in his opposition. They rallied those IRA men who were loyal to the vision of Pearse and the Volunteers of the Rising. They carried on hostilities against the British.
Michael Collins – veteran of the Rising who had led the IRA in the field during the War of Independence – saw the treaty as the only hope for Irish nationalism to survive in the face of British strength. When the British demanded that the new Irish Republic get the IRA under control and cease attacks on British agents, Collins led the new Republican military and police forces to ferret out the IRA.
The Irish Civil War was fought from 1922 until the middle of 1923. Former comrades met each other in raids and ambushes, at gunpoint. There has never been official tally of losses during this phase of the struggle for Independence, but by many accounts, it was more bloody (both for combatants and for civilians) than the entirety of the War of Independence.
The Irish Civil War “ended” in 1923, with the defeat of the anti-treaty IRA. The violence did not stop in Northern Ireland. Fueled by sectarianism, the ghosts of Pearse and Connolly, and the question of a “united Ireland,” Northern Ireland would be wracked by conflict for another 75 years, with sporadic violence still occurring to the present day.
Their Stories and their Songs
So is it really fair to say that ‘Blood & Valor’ isn’t political?
I think that every historical wargame is inherently political, in some capacity. Even Archduke Ferdinand was killed by a Serbian Nationalist – a man fighting for the same ideals as those 1250 Volunteers who marched into Dublin that fateful Easter Monday. It would be especially hard to write a historical wargame with an expansion titled ‘End of Empires’ and not have it be political. But that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying a wargame.
People also say that it is disrespectful to dilute wartime experiences to “just a game of toy soldiers” – and I agree with them. That’s why historicals should never be “just a game.” We should always acknowledge the historical realities of the games we play, and attempt to learn from them. I would love to repeat the bloody battles of the Easter Rising every weekend on the tabletop, while laughing and sharing a beer with my friends – but I never want to see another generation of brave men and women spill their blood in a needless struggle for civil liberty.
For slavery fled, O’ glorious dead,
when you fell in the foggy dew