Friday 30 September 2016

Urban battles of 1916 were a precursor of what was to come in Iraq

John Dorney

Published 12/03/2016 | 13:00

The hazards the British army ran into in Dublin in 1916 have much in common with urban battles in our own age. In 2004 a Division of US Marines, were like the British forces in 1916 faced with a city, Fallujah in Iraq, that had fallen into the hands of insurgents.

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British Army Casualties

Nearly twice as many British troops were killed in the Easter as Rising as Volunteers or Citizen Army men. Some 113 were killed and over 350 wounded.

Dozens were shot down in lethal close range crossfire at Mount Street Bridge, a slaughter compounded by the insistence of their commander, Brigadier General Lowe that the position had to be taken ‘at all costs’. One was Captain Deitrichson of the Sherwood Foresters, whose family poignantly, he had just moved to Dublin

Some 15 more died around North King Street and another 40 were wounded in savage house to house fighting at the rear of the Four Courts. One of the wounded was Harold Bullock aged 22 from Cradely Heath in England, who had joined the South Staffordshire Regiment during the Great War. He lost a leg to a grenade blast and was discharged from the Army before ever serving in France.

In the South Dublin Union fighting was if anything even more ferocious, taking place inside the hospital buildings with small arms and grenades.

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(Image Credit: Bureau of Military History section, Military Archives Website)

The Volunteers and Citizen Army fighters are often criticised for their military naiveté, and certainly the overall military strategy had little hope of success. But in all of the locations where close combat occurred, they fought tenaciously in Easter week.

The British Army’s casualties in Dublin were soon forgotten by all except their loved ones. How could it have been otherwise with thousands of young men dying every week on the battlefields of the Great War.

Urban Warfare

Former Irish Army officer Declan Power when interviewed spoke of the similarity of modern urban warfare in the likes of Iraq in some of the challenges they faced. Fighting in an urban environment he argued, cancels out many of the advantages held by regular troops over insurgents. Visibility is hindered by the dense cover offered by a built up area. Troops are disorientated by the echoes of gunfire off buildings, fire can unexpectedly from any side.

One British officer remarked, ‘In some ways the fighting in Dublin was worse [than in France]. In France you generally had a fair idea where enemy was and where the bullets were going to come from. In Dublin you never knew when or from where you were going to be hit.’

At Fallujah in November 2004, the American forces used tanks, artillery and airpower to all but flatten the city. The British in 1916 had not the same quantity of firepower, but their strategy was in many ways similar; isolate the insurgent positions and call in heavy weapons – in their case artillery and the guns of the Helga to force them to surrender.

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In both cases, though, where infantry had to actually clear defended positions, progress was slow and losses were high. The American Marines lost nearly 600 casualties at Fallujah in 2004, with nearly 100 killed. The only reason their number of dead was lower than the British Army in 1916 was because military health care had improved so much in the intervening 88 years.

Frontal Assaults

Power remarks that many of the British losses in 1916 were unnecessary, the result of officers ‘thinking culturally and not militarily’. At Mount Street Bridge for instance, there was no need to launch repeated frontal assaults, the position could simply have been by-passed at the next bridge over the canal at Baggot Street. It was, Power reflects a symptom of the British command’s desire to demonstrate their superiority over the rebels.

Similarly on North King Street, British troops were progressing slowly down the street, hacking through walls to avoid the Volunteers’ fire, until a Colonel Taylor insisted on a costly –and failed - assault of the barricades.

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In Dublin in 1916 and in Fallujah in 2004 the use of heavy weapons in an urban area caused heavy civilian casualties.  In both cases, British and American commanders respectively argued that it was the insurgents who had put their lives at risk. General Maxwell for instance said of the civilian casualties that they were ‘ the inevitable consequence of a rebellion of this kind’.

A final lesson to take from both battles is though, that military victory and political victory are not the same thing. The British Army re-took Dublin fairly rapidly in 1916. The Americans after a month of fighting crushed the Iraqi insurgents in Fallajah in 2004. But in 1922, the British Army left Dublin, which became the new capital of the Irish Free State.

Today Fallujah is again in the hands of Sunni insurgents –largely the same as in 2004 but now rebranded as the Islamic State. Without a settlement that encompassed self-determination for Irish nationalists, the British Army’s victory in 1916 was meaningless. In the same way, with Sunni Iraqis excluded from power in that country, the ground was laid there for the rise of IS and the current civil war.

So for the friends and comrades of the British and American soldiers who died in either city, in retrospect it must have seemed a bitter victory.

John Dorney is a historian, author of 'Peace After the Final Battle the Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924 (2014)' and editor of The Irish Story website.

GPO Photo Credit: National Library of Ireland.

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