Whose fault were the Civilian Casualties in 1916?
Published 26/03/2016 | 08:00
In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Dublin Corporation pasted notices up on the city’s walls advising citizens to inform the authorities immediately on coming across dead bodies.
Bodies on the Streets
Clearly those killed in the Rising littered the streets and the Corporation feared an epidemic. Glasnevin cemetery recorded burying 197 bodies of those killed in the city ‘in all cases from gunshot wounds’ up to May 5th and total later crept up to 201.
The records of Deans Grange cemetery on the south side of the city similarly record a grim total of over 30 bodies interred. Even the smaller, Protestant cemetery at Mount Jerome buried 22 victims of the fighting.
It is generally stated that of the 487 fatalities in Dublin city during Easter Week that we know about and another 2,500 wounded, at least half were civilians. On the basis of the cemetery records, this seems like a conservative estimate.
By contrast, counting both combat and subsequent executions, 80 insurgents lost their lives along with 134 British soldiers and policemen. So civilians were about twice as likely to be killed as someone wearing the uniform of the Crown, and about six times as likely to be killed as a Volunteer or Citizen Army member.
The Easter Rising, the assertion in arms of the Irish Republic by a self-selected group of revolutionaries, was therefore exceptionally costly to Dublin’s civilian population. Bearing in mind that the fighting lasted only a week, this would have meant that had fighting of such ferocity continued, there would have been over 1,000 dead civilians in a month, and 10,000 injured, and in the unlikely scenario that urban warfare had ground on for a year, there would have been 12,000 civilians killed in the city and over 100,000 injured.
In other words, considering its short time frame, the Easter Rising’s fighting was every bit as severe in its consequences for civilians as, for instance, the present day siege of Aleppo or the battle of Fallujah in 2004.
Were the rebels to blame?
The civilians of Dublin who died in 1916 had not asked for their city to be turned into a war zone. They had not taken up arms on either side. So who should we blame for their deaths?
One of the shocking things to come out of the recently released Bureau of Military History witness statements is how common were violent confrontations between the insurgents and civilians in the first days of the Rising.
The Volunteers and Citizen Army took over sites like Jacobs Biscuit Factory and Boland’s Mills, making the workers there unemployed and South Dublin Union – a workhouse and hospital which the poor relied on for what public healthcare there was at the time. Many Dubliners also had relatives serving in the British Army.
As a result , on Easter Monday there were not a few occasions where Dublin civilians, particularly the very poor, rioted against the republicans. At Church Street Volunteers had to fix bayonets to drive away crowds of women who were attempting to pull down their barricades.
At Jacobs Vinny Byrne saw the Volunteers shot dead a man who tried to snatch a rifle off one of them and drive the rest off with shotgun fire. While at the same location Matt Walton saw a woman who was hitting a Volunteer shot in the face, ‘I just remember seeing here head disappear as she went down like a sack’.
At Stephens Green, James Stephens, who worked at the National Gallery, saw a carter shot dead when he tried to remove his cart from a Citizen Army barricade.
Disturbing as such stories are however, they were generally confined to the first day of the Rising, and could account for no more than a dozen, at most killings – and probably fewer. Elsewhere, during the fighting, the Volunteers generally tried to move civilians away from danger.
Were the British to blame?
Fearghal McGarry, historian of the Rising has argued that, whether by accident or design, the British Army was probably responsible for most of the civilian deaths. Their troops had little idea of who was hostile and who was not in a strange city and therefore shot at everything that moved. They also had far more formidable weapons than the insurgents in artillery, machine guns and explosives.
One soldier in Beggars Bush told his commander that he had shot woman who watching the fighting. ‘What on earth did you do that for?’ he was asked. But doubtless there were many such cases.
Around Moore Street, as the rebel GPO garrison was cornered at the end of the week, there are many accounts of civilians being gunned down by the encircling troops as they tried to flee the scene. Some Volunteers remembered seeing three elderly men with white flags shot down; others recalled the deaths of a husband and wife and their young daughter, who were shot as they tried to flee their house; others the deaths of another family who had tried to use a woman’s apron as a flag of truce.
There were also to cases at least of British soldiers deliberately targeting civilians. One was at Portobello Barracks where Captain Bowen Colthurst had Francis Sheehy Skeffington and three others summarily executed.
The other was at North King Street, where orders were issued that all men in the area were rebels and were to be shot, with the result that 15 civilian men and boys were taken from cellars where they were sheltering and killed.
Again though, this is not the full story. The British troops at North King Street were acting under orders and there were no repeats of the atrocity elsewhere in the city. In many locations the British troops, like the Volunteers, attempted to evacuate civilians before launching their assaults on rebel strong points.
What is more, such deliberate killing amount to only a fraction of the 250 odd civilian deaths. We must conclude that most of them were killed by one side or the other in the crossfire.
Sacrifice & Protection
So if both sides killed civilians deliberately on some occasions, but generally tried to avoid hurting them most of the time, who ultimately should we blame for all the civilian deaths and injuries of Easter Week?
One argument is that, by choosing to launch in the insurrection in the middle of Dublin the leadership of the Volunteers and the Citizen Army were deliberately sacrificing the civilian population to inevitable death and injury.
This is a fair point, as civilian casualties were entirely foreseeable in urban warfare. On the other hand though, Patrick Pearse explicitly stated that he was surrendering precisely because so many civilians were being killed – especially in front of his eyes at Moore Street.
He told a Wexford Volunteer when asked why he had not fought to the last, ‘Because they were shooting women and children in the streets. I saw them myself’.
And it seems that the majority of civilian casualties were most probably caused by the British Army.
So we are left with a messy conclusion. The republicans bear the ultimate responsibility for the outbreak of fighting in the first place but the British Army certainly failed to protect the civilian population in its re-capture of the city centre.
Small comfort either way to those whose loved ones ended up in mass graves at the end of Easter Week 1916.
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.