The Ins and Outs of The Kilmichael Ambush
“They discussed the Irish Question; but they never seriously contemplated the Irish Answer.”
-G. K. Chesterton, Irish Impressions 1919
99 years ago, on November 28, 1920, 36 IRA men under the command of Tom Barry laid an ambush just south of Kilmichael in West Cork for an 18 man British patrol and slaughtered them. 16 of the paramilitary policemen were killed outright. One was wounded, stumbled away from the carnage to seek shelter, and was summarily executed with his own weapon by two IRA men (not involved with the ambush) who were hiding nearby. The last one so severely injured that the IRA shooters thought he was dead; 24 hours later, he was scooped up by his comrades from the ambush site and nursed back to health to give the only British recollection of the fight.
It was the largest and bloodiest IRA action of the Anglo-Irish war. It was thought that the British superiority of numbers, logistics, and equipment made any stand up fight hopeless and so dictated that the IRA must skulk about sniping at tower guards and hitting isolated individuals and teams. 18 veteran soldiers being gunned down in the blink of an eye by some backwoods bushwhacker gang seemed to change everything.
The Military and Political Situation in Ireland
I am going to attempt to give the background to the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 in as broad of strokes as possible. My intent is to maintain focus on the ambush itself, which precludes delving too deeply into politics. However, military actions are welded firmly to political goals, and any discussion of fighting that does not give political context to them is inherently incomplete. Let them this extremely brief description suffice to satisfy both purposes.
As it stood at the end of the nineteenth century, Ireland was part of the UK the same as Wales, Scotland, and England, and was therefore represented within the British Parliament. For various reasons that convinced a decent sized majority of Irishmen (and a fair number of other ethnicities within the UK), people became convinced that Ireland needed its own Parliament to pass its own laws in order to prosper, which would give it a measure of self-sovereignty within the British Empire on par with Canada or Australia. Accordingly, Ireland had been demanding more and more insistently for Home Rule. For a variety of reasons which would needlessly elongate this section, Britain alternatively refused point blank to grant it and made false promises that Home Rule was just around the corner.
On Easter 1916, a coalition of Nationalists and Socialists joined forces in a rebellion centered in Dublin city to shove the envelope as far as it could go, asserting that mere Home Rule was insufficient. They declared the birth of a new Irish Republic, as distinct from Britain as France or Germany was.
The Easter Uprising in 1916 was utterly crushed by the superior British infantry and artillery within a few short weeks, but when the Nationalist leadership who had dared to declare independence right in the middle of the Great War were executed, their martyrdom sparked mass sympathy among the populace of Ireland. In 1918, the separatist party Sinn Fein ("Ourselves Alone") campaigned for Parliament seats on the promise they would secede from the UK if elected. They won the vote and, true to their word, they seceded to form their own Irish Parliament. The British naturally disagreed that such an action was legal or indeed possible and so declared Sinn Fein an outlaw political party. They sent troops over again to dismantle the nascent government and to keep order in the face of the simmering, belligerent rebellion, which in turn led the provisional government of the Irish Republic to organize resistance in 1919. Local militia units across the country, who swore allegiance to the Irish Republic as proclaimed on Easter Sunday 1916, formed a loose and decentralized guerrilla movement; the armed wing of the Republican movement was named, fittingly, the Irish Republican Army. The decentralization was necessary, for the leaders of IRA had no reliable and secure lines of communication and supply to their soldiers spread throughout the country. Every population center self-generated its own cadre of leaders and fighters and conducted the fighting as it saw fit- the West Cork IRA was for all intents and purposes on its own. The violence bubbled up sporadically in fits and starts as the various police, paramilitary, and military units loyal to the Crown feuded with the various “flying columns” of the IRA. The same population that had voted for Sinn Fein mostly supported the Republican cause, and this conviction only deepened when naked violence was employed against them to root out the insurgent forces.
On November 21st 1920, the de facto Commander-in-Chief of the IRA Michael Collins upped the ante of violence. Acting at last on two years' worth of carefully collected and organized information of enemy identities and movements, he sent assassins to murder every British intelligence agent and informant he could find, which turned out to be about 21 men all killed on the same morning, mostly at their own doorstep without warning. This stroke of violence not only shocked the British, it would also leave them blinded and almost incapable of detecting IRA members and helpers for the rest of the war. The British backlash was clumsy, emotional, and undisciplined. That same afternoon after Collins’ gunmen did their bloody work, the Dublin Auxiliary branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary surrounded a Gaelic football match with the apparent intent to mass search all 5,000 of them for weapons. Someone starting shooting, so all his mates started shooting, machine guns opened up on the crowd, and it was all in all about a minute and a half of pure craziness. 14 civilians died and about 65 were injured. ”Bloody Sunday” marked a significant uptick in the level of violence in Ireland.
Tom Barry of the West Cork IRA Brigade would match it just one week later at Kilmichael.
So Who Are These People, Anyway?
The Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary were recruited and formed in 1920 to add firepower and spine to the Royal Irish Constabulary, who were trying to suppress the insurgents. Demographically, the Auxiliaries had a type. They were all former Army officers, mostly jumped up from the enlisted ranks in the First World War for valor and to fill dead men's shoes- not many blue blooded noblemen among them. They averaged about three years in the trenches each. They sprang primarily from the lower and upper middle class, the sons of merchants and shopkeepers. Ethnically, they were almost a perfect cross section of the UK with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England being proportionately represented. Barring one or two individuals, none of them had criminal records. The average age was around 30 years old. They simply couldn't find work after the war ended and so jumped at chance to serve in Ireland.
The men of the IRA also had a type. They were mostly young men from a working class or laborer background. Most had avoided the First World War, unwilling to die for a country that denied them Home Rule, though Tom Barry himself was an exception that tested this rule; he had served in the British Army in Iraq before his exposure to Republican politics following the 1916 Easter Uprising, and had been initially distrusted in the IRA for flying the British flag over his home when he returned home. They were overwhelmingly Catholic, though interestingly there were a couple of Protestant members scattered here and there.
In the face of the experienced and well-equipped British war machine, the IRA’s primary task was to survive, for as long as they could produce “flying columns” of guerrilla fighters to harass the British forces, assassinate British civil servants, and intimidate loyalist informers, the cost of the war to the government would act as a powerful inducement to recognize Irish sovereignty. They therefore rarely took any immense risks that might lead their units to being cornered and wiped out; they could afford to have individual volunteers snatched up, arrested, and often killed, but the apparatus that recruited, organized, and directed them was fragile and almost irreplaceable.
The Ambush Itself
To set the stage for the Kilmichael Ambush, the West Cork Auxiliaries based in Macroomwere out raiding after Bloody Sunday. They hopped in their lorries every day and rode out to burn homes, terrorize women and children, assault men with rifle butts and pistol grips for speaking Irish, and murder suspected members of Sinn Fein in cold blood. That's the folk memory of how the Auxiliaries conducted counter-insurgency, and it is relatively accurate in spite of frequent exceptions. Much has been said about their brutality and lawlessness, framing them as a bunch of psychotic, sadistic hooligans. Like many stereotypes, this is based on reality, but there are many reasons to cast some doubt on the folk memory of the Auxiliaries. Many of their barn burnings and raids and killings were said to be official British policy, and this was a solid 25 years before army men found out that "just following orders" was a not a proper excuse. According to one IRA spy named who had embedded in their ranks as a sleeper agent, they were mostly good guys, but about 10% were "bad eggs"; obviously, the actions of a "bad egg" wearing a distinct uniform will be attributed to everyone wearing the uniform. Counter-insurgency too has the tendency to bring out the worst in people, as the frustration of dealing with a hostile population and not being able to separate the guerrillas from the civilians takes its toll. Finally, they are often conflated and confused with their sister unit of the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve (known slangily as the Black and Tans, because their uniform was an irregular mix of army khaki and police black), who were also paramilitaries recruited from the army to bolster the police presence, but who were a) recruited from the enlisted ranks, not the officers; b) far more deserving off their reputation for brutality and lawlessness; and c) far more numerous than the Auxiliaries. These distinctions and mitigating traits were, of course, blurred a bit for the population who suffered under state sanctioned violence.
Tom Barry paints this specific ambush as an absolute necessity for the war effort. As long as the Auxiliaries can roam at will and terrorize entire counties with impunity, the population that the IRA depends on for sustainment (food, clothing, shelter, intelligence, volunteers, etc) will start to waver in their support. After all, if the IRA can’t fight back, why allow our houses to burn and our children to be threatened by armed men? What’s the point of declaring independence if we lack the strength to defend ourselves? From there, it’s but a short skip and a jump to “Why am I giving up the last of the food in our larder to provide dinner to a group of raggedy insurgents?” and “It’ll go easier on all of us if we give the police the names and home addresses of the guys in the flying column,” at which point the war is basically lost. As such, a dramatic counter strike was desperately needed.
Through intelligence given by sympathetic locals, Tom Barry noticed that the Auxiliaries were committing the cardinal sin of counter-insurgency work; they fell into a predictable pattern, taking the same route home every night. There were two stretches of their route where they were vulnerable, but one was far too close to a British outpost filled with reinforcements for comfort. The other was a country road just south of Kilmichael.
I have made an effort to recreate the ambush that Tom Barry planned: an improvised L-shaped ambush. For those who never lovingly leafed through FM 7-85 “Ranger Unit Operations”, chapter 6 of it describes it succinctly: “The L-shaped ambush is formed with the base (bottom) of the L perpendicular to the expected enemy direction of advance. This is a good ambush for a road, jungle trail, or an area where the enemy is canalized and his approach route is known.”Indeed, this matches the situation to a tee. I have no idea if Tom Barry instinctively sussed out how to set up a decent ambush from first principles or if he picked up the concept during his stint in the British Army. I suppose it hardly matters.
He divided up his force of 36 fighters into three distinct sections with some minor detachments. They were armed with captured rifles, shotguns, revolvers, bayonets, and a couple of grenades.
His three man “Command Post” (helpfully and expertly marked on my screenshot of Google Maps)adopted concealment behind a stone wall to the east of the ambuscade, staring west down the headlights of the advancing lorries. This CP would form the little leg of the L of the L-shaped ambush. Their task was to instigate the firing, for to preserve the element of surprise nobody would occupy their fighting positions until after the CP opened fire.
Section 1 with ten men was positioned mere yards away on the reverse slope of a big boulder, unable to see anything until they stood up and inched forward to peer over the top. They would function as the lower part of the long leg of the L of the L-shaped ambush, tasked with pouring flanking fire into the lorry once it was stopped. They would also be the assaulting element once the ambush was sprung.
Section 2 with ten men was strung out along the military crestof the hillside, hidden and protected by the rocky terrain. They would be the upper part of the long leg of the L. Once the patrol was fixed in place, they were to engage the second lorry in the convoy. I have no clear idea where exactly they were ensconced in, hence the question marks.
Section 3 was divided up into two groups, which I have arbitrarily labeled group A and B. Group A with six men was stationed behind some rocks to the south of the road in case the Auxiliaries dismounted and sprinted into cover on that side- trying to solve a problem before it developed, you see. Google maps shows no rocks that they could plausibly hide behind as Tom Barry said they did, so I’m not clear on where exactly they were either. I’m assuming that the field to the south has been cleared in the decades since the ambush, because this contemporaneous photo shows that the terrain south of the road was far rockier than it is today.Group B, also six men, were held in reserve somewhere north of the ambush site- they were expecting two trucks, but if there was a third or a fourth then Section 3B was tasked with maneuvering against them to prevent them from interfering with the ambush.
The remaining men were spread as scouts in all directions to provide security and advance warning of enemy movement. Tom Barry himself would take center stage, standing openly in the road in between the CP and Section 1; he's the green dot on the linked map. We’ll get to his role shortly.
This ambush was notable in two ways. First, it would be conducted at excruciatingly close range. The disparity of training between the IRA and the Auxiliaries was considerable. Due to ammunition shortages, there had only been enough bullets to allow each IRA man four live bullets to practice their aim before sending him into action, in contrast to the hundreds and thousands of rounds shot to hone marksmanship in the British army. Since there really aren’t any sharpshooters at a distance of five to ten yards- you either line up your sights onto the target or you don’t- the chosen tactics and starting positions neutralized the British advantage in arms.
Second, and very much related to the first, Tom Barry deliberately violated the cardinal rule of guerrilla warfare by selecting an ambush site with no easy exit. Every other premeditated skirmish they had ever staged had had an escape route to take if things went wrong. This time, however, neither the Auxiliaries nor the IRA would have any plausible opportunity to break contact after the first shot was fired. It was going to be (as Tom Barry gravely informed his men as they set up the ambush) a fight to the death- either the Auxiliary patrol gets wiped out, or the flying column perishes. To raise the stakes even higher, the West Cork Brigade were neither numerous nor well-stocked with weapons. At no point in the war did Tom Barry and his men have access to more than 116 rifles, and those 36 men were the cream of the crop of the whole county. If killed, and their weapons seized, they could not easily be replaced. Every egg they had was to be placed in the same basket for this fight.
The 36 IRA men got their battle plan from their captain that morning, then trudged off to take up their positions and wait. They’d marched on foot all night to reach the killing field to set up first. The owners of the house just to the south were sympathetic to the cause, but had no food for themselves, let alone a gaggle of frozen and weary riflemen. They sent a bucket of tea around instead to give the guerrillas something hot to drink. That’s how Tom Barry’s men passed the daylight hours of November 28th: soaked through from the dew and frozen in the Winter winds, empty stomachs gnawing at them, and with plenty of hours to sit still and think about what might go wrong.
The Jaws Snap Shut
Francis Crake had been a clerk at an insurance firm, and he married his sweetheart in the same month the war broke out. On September 3rd, 1914, Private Crake enlisted with the 1st Hampshires and went to war in France.
Three years later, he was Lt. Crake.
A year later, in 1918, he was being mentioned in dispatches for conspicuous gallantry and leadership under fire.
February of 1920, he was discharged from the army.
October 3rd, 1920, seven years to the day since he joined the army as a private, Captain Crake joined the Auxiliary Division.
Two months after that, he was leading the 18 man Auxiliary patrol through West Cork. He sat in the lead vehicle, riding shotgun, heading home to Macroom after a day of raiding.
At approximately 4:05 pm, just after sunset, his convoy took the curve of the road around the darkened, rocky hillside at about 40 mph. Even without the headlights, the moon was almost full, so visibility was pretty good. He saw a man standing in the middle of the road wearing a military uniform, waving his hands as though to ask for help. Cpt. Crake ordered his driver to slow down to see what the problem was.
That man in the road was indeed wearing a military uniform, but not a British one. It was the official tunic of the IRA, though Tom Barry knew perfectly well that no British soldier would recognize it on sight. The man in the uniform with the military webbing and equipment over it was easily mistaken for a fellow Auxiliary.
Once Crake’s convoy had slowed down, the ambush was sprung. A grenade was flung into the cab, killing and mangling the driver and Crake alike. Rifle fire from the front and the left raked the men in the lead vehicle in a murderous crossfire. Behind them, the second lorry was being riddled with bullets by Section 2. Men shot rifles (designed to be accurate and deadly at a thousand yards) at men so close they could have spit on them just as easily.
The men of the lead vehicle (helpfully marked as a red square in the accompanying map) tried to dismount under fire. The survivors who did manage to get solid ground under their feet were hit by a charge as ferocious as any they’d seen in the trenches of France. They were alternately shot with pistols at close range, ran through with bayonets, clubbed down with rifle butts, and blasted with shotguns.
At some point, Temporary Cadet Cecil Guthrie escaped from the mayhem, crawling away from the rear vehicle with presumably non-fatal wounds. Guthrie was a Royal Air Force veteran, a pilot who spent the war all over the Middle East- in fact, it’s not impossible that he and Tom Barry were posted to the same base at some point, for although Tom Barry was an enlisted artilleryman and therefore unlikely to mix with the pilots, they were on the same front in roughly the same battle space and fighting the same Ottomans.
Guthrie was mentioned in dispatches in 1919 for his service in the Afghan war, where he met and fell in love with a nurse named Irene Peach. They had married earlier that year and the Mrs. Guthrie already had a child on the way; indeed, she was mere miles north of him at his base in Macroom, waiting patiently for his patrol to return. He scrambled into the dark, away from the Kilmichael ambush. He would make his way on foot four miles across the countryside towards safety, but two miles short of Macroom, Guthrie would try to get help at a civilian house. Unfortunately for Guthrie, two IRA men were hiding there, and they recognized the ragged, wounded man by face.
You see, a month before, an unarmed man named James Lehane has been snatched up by Guthrie’s unit in a raid and murdered without trial on suspicion of being an IRA volunteer. Witnesses had fingered Guthrie as the man who had emptied his revolver into Lehane at point blank range and in cold blood. It’s like I told you, counter-insurgency brings out the worst in people. Guthrie was executed with his own gun and his body was tossed into a nearby bog. Years later, after the Treaty, the Irish government had his remains dragged out and given a proper burial in deference to his widow and daughter, though there is no real way to know if the body they buried was in fact his or not.The lead truck’s dead were bunched up in a tight clump, and the rear truck’s detachment were scattered across the fields. This indicates that the dismounted survivors of the rear truck scattered and were hunted down as individuals.
Here, presumably, Temporary Cadet Frederick Forde was dropped by a gunshot wound to the head. Forde was born to be a soldier; he grew up as a military brat in India and applied to the Royal Military Academy before the Great War even broke out. He commissioned in 1915 and served as an artilleryman in the Balkans, Egypt, and Palestine; at some point, just like Guthrie, Forde might well have bumped into the very man who had organized the ambush he’d been driven into.
By both Forde’s and Tom Barry’s account, the IRA finished off the wounded and stripped the bodies of ammunition, grabbed the dropped rifles, and searched the bodies for papers that might bear valuable intelligence.
Two of the Irishmen- Michael McCarthy, the leader of Section 2, and Jim O’Sullivan- were stretched out dead in the damp grass. They had died from Auxiliary shots from the rear truck. Sullivan in particular died under highly controversial circumstances that I will get to in a minute. Patrick Deasy, aged 16, was also hit, and hit bad. Pat Deasy was the little brother of 22 year old Liam Deasy. The two brothers had served in the West Cork IRA together, and when the Treaty came into effect the following year Liam would bitterly reject it. Both Liam Deasy and Tom Barry alike would end up on the Anti-Treaty side in the coming Irish Civil War, dodging policemen and soldiers of the Irish Free State instead of British policemen and soldiers, ambushing their former IRA comrades in arms instead of the Auxiliaries. Tom Barry would be cooling his heels in a Free State prison cell when his friend Liam Deasy set a long range ambush that would see Michael Collins shot to death in 1922.
However, all of that is in their future. That evening of the 28th of November, Liam’s little brother Pat was begging his commander for a drink of water. Tom Barry knew that giving water to a man with such a stomach wound would be lethal, so he promised him a cup of tea when they got to safety. Pat Deasy didn’t survive long enough to drink it.
Many of the IRA men were physically sick to their stomachs by what they had seen and done- by Tom Barry’s account, one IRA man had been standing so close to his victim that he had had blood splashed into his mouth when he shot the Auxiliary in the neck. The men of the West Cork brigade had learned the same lesson that the dead had learned in the Great War- violent death at close quarters was an intense and emotional experience. Noting that they had been shaken badly by the sheer violence of their own attack, Tom Barry found it necessary to spend valuable time parading them around the ambuscade site in close order drill- left, left, left right, about face, present arms, forward march, left face, right face, shoulder arms, left, left, left right- purely to settle their nerves and restore discipline. The drill was concluded by saluting their three slain comrades who were laid out before them.
The whole business took about a half hour from the initial shots until the flying column was marching off into the dark with their newly captured arms and ammunition, using their head-start to avoid the inevitable counterattack that would come once the results of the ambush were discovered.
The rains poured down heavy that night; black clouds blocked out the bright moonlight. When Forde’s comrades saw that Crake’s patrol had failed to return on time, they sent out a search party but in the dark and stormy night had found nothing. They tried again in the morning and found the site of the massacre easily this time. It is nothing short of miraculous that Forde survived until morning, and then survived the trip to the Battalion surgeon. He would end up with a medical discharge at the highest pension rate available at the time, which was only fair, for he would be paralyzed for life.
The Controversies and Mysteries That We Are Never Going to Solve
The real problem here is that there are two primary sources for the Kilmichael ambush- Tom Barry’s memoir Guerrilla Days in Ireland and similar recollections from surviving volunteers given years or decades later, and the British account based on Forde’s recollection and on physical evidence collected the following day. I am happy to assume the truth when they are in agreement with each other, and even reasonably on board with details given by one account but not the other. However, when they assert conflicting facts, we are forced to play the part of the courtroom lawyer and the armchair psychologist by questioning sources and applying logic and unraveling unlikely alibis.
For instance, just after the ambush, a local coroner conducted a “superficial examination” and concluded that some of the bodies had been mutilated post-mortem with “an axe or some kind of similar heavy, sharp tool.” Forde’s personal account seems to confirm it- a fellow Auxiliary speaking of Forde’s private recollection claimed that “[t]he leader appeared to be an enormous red headed Irishman who personally inspected each body for signs of life. He was armed with a pistil [sic] and a small axe. The last thing Forde remembers was lying on the road with the red headed giant bending over him taking a swing at his head with the axe.”
Whereas Tom Barry stoutly denies any axe swinging or mutilation whatsoever, labeling it a vicious piece of British propaganda.
So just what are we to make of this?
Well, one, Forde was confused about a lot of things. He thought that there was about 100 IRA dressed as British soldiers, when there was only about 30 shooting in total and only one had a a uniform on. He thought that they had a machine gun and a mess of Tommy guns, when they absolutely didn’t. The guy walked into a maelstrom of chaotic violence and then got shot in the head, so how good could his memory possibly be? Not to mention that he described Tom Barry as an enormous, red-headed giant, while in real life he looked like he might go into a food coma if you fed him half of a ham and cheese sandwich.And it’s not like the British Empire held itself to a high moral standard when it comes to propaganda and spreading lies; the story that the West Cork IRA had mutilated the bodies hit the newspaper the day after the ambush, long before Forde was able to be properly debriefed. Come to that, Forde’s medical discharge stated that his head wound came from a gunshot with no mention of any other cause.
Then again, Tom Barry’s account may also be unreliable. He denied the allegation, sure, but he was also completely unaware at the time of his memoir in 1949 that Forde had survived at all. He was under the impression that 17 men had died by their trucks, and the 18th has escaped only to be hunted down and tossed into the bog the day after. So his account was made under the impression that no British eye-witness could possibly gain-say him. One might ask, what’s the point of desecrating the dead to make a point only to deny it later? The obvious answer is that the axe chopping was a spur of the moment, adrenaline-pumping-through-his-veins kind of thing. That is the exact kind of thing that an insurgent commander would need to stringently deny and cover up if he wanted to win the propaganda war.
If I had to make a call, which I really don’t want to do because I’d be standing on very shaky ground, I’d say that any post-mortem mutilation was a natural result of close quarters violence and not a deliberate attempt to subject the fallen to dishonorable degradation. I can kind of construct a timeline of it- the coroner takes a peek at a series of badly damaged corpses, ravaged as they were by grenades and bayonets and shotguns, and comments, “Jeez, it almost looks like someone took an axe to this guy.” Some savvy British spook then spreads the story far and wide that the savage Irish chopped up the dead like wild Injuns, Forde’s memory is influenced by the official story, and Tom Barry has to try to ignore all damage he ordered done to the enemy after they hit the dirt to counter the accusation. A nice, neat, clean interpretation of events, which is as plausible as any other fictional story because we simply don’t know.
We’ve already covered the controversial use of a uniform in an act of deceit. The British were convinced that the IRA used stolen uniforms to deceive Crake’s patrol, which infuriated them to no end. Tom Barry’s stance was that it was not only a practical strategy, but also perfectly above board because the IRA was a proper army under the leadership of a legitimate government, and the fact that the British couldn’t recognize the tunic on sight the way they could recognize a German or Italian uniform was their problem, not his. Deciding how foul and dishonorable a trick it was probably depends on your politics.
But the pinnacle of the controversy revolves around the narrative of “the false surrender”. Just as the British accused the IRA of mutilation, so to did the IRA accuse the British of faking a surrender to kill their attackers.
Tom Barry’s account is a clean cut narrative- once the ambush was sprung and Section 1 pushed west down the road to engage the rear truck, the British called out to surrender and threw down their rifles. The firing stopped, the Irishmen exposed themselves by walking forward to collect the prisoners, and the Auxiliaries opened fire with their pistols, killing Sullivan and mortally wounding Deasy (McCarthy had been shot and killed in the initial outbreak of gunfire). Tom Barry, in a fury, ordered them “annihilated” for their dishonorable fake out and had his men keep firing into the dead bodies for a minute or two to make sure of them.
There are reasons to doubt such a story.
One, Forde contradicts it. He claims the IRA did capture individuals after the fighting stopped and then executed them all one by one. Two, other volunteers who had taken part in the ambush being interviewed years after the fact offer a slightly different story- that they enemy tried to surrender and then drew pistols, sure, but not all of them. One volunteer, Jack O'Sullivan, testified that he disarmed a wounded Auxiliary but “[h]e was walking him up the road as a prisoner when a shot dropped him at his feet". Another volunteer recalled that Jim Sullivan had been shot before the surrender, not during. And three, frankly, Tom Barry’s story of the false surrender simply makes no sense.
How on earth could an ambushed squad, squirming about desperately under fire, possibly have concocted a plot to fake a surrender solely to get a confirmed kill or two? Why the hell would they? The West Cork Brigade had an established pattern of taking prisoners and letting them go again- it was broadly understood that if the IRA caught you flat-footed they’d take your rifle and ammo and send you off- so why commit suicide by opening fire after the shooting stopped? What kind of fast paced discussion among the dismounted and scattered men of the rear truck led them to think that faking a surrender would work out?
The ugliest explanation I’ve heard is that Tom Barry intended from the start to give no quarter- after all, if you’ll recall, the whole point to the ambush was to make a dramatic counter attack and prove that you’d couldn’t raid West Cork without paying for it. What makes the point clearer, jumping a couple of guys and disarming them, or slaughtering them all to a man? By this theory, after the initial volleys, the surviving Auxiliaries had tossed their rifles and given up only to be massacred as prisoners.
Tom Barry wrote his account in 1949, almost thirty years after the fact. His story is neat and clear cut and flows logically from point to point: the exact kind of clarity of vision that is deeply implausible during the rapid clash of arms that was the Kilmichael Ambush. I just don’t believe it. Based on the volunteers’ testimony, I can believe that in the confusion, some Auxiliaries tried to surrender at the same moment when others tried to keep fighting, and that the IRA vengefully slew them all in the heat of the moment, and that Tom Barry had decades to mull it over and decide that since those Auxies had sneakily murdered Jim Sullivan and young Pat Deasy with their false surrender, they had deserved what they got.
But I really don’t know. All the witnesses are dead and nobody involved had any great interest in the Truth for Truth’s sake.
The question naturally arises about why I bothered to do this write up. After all, not only did the Kilmichael Ambush happen before my grandparents were even born, but it’s not even my heritage. I’m neither Irish nor British; I lack a dog in this fight. The honest but surface answer is that I’m a nerd and I like reading up about wars. Even so, as an American, I have plenty of material to geek out over- Saratoga, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. Why this time and place?
An answer that cuts a little deeper into the issue is that I was once involved at the ground level with a counter-insurgency myself, though my role in the proceedings was not terribly dramatic. The ethnic and cultural differences between us and the insurgents were considerable, and it takes an immense amount of effort for me to even try and step into the other guys’ shoes and see the world from their point of view. It is fascinating for me to study another insurgency from not too long ago with an entirely different cast of characters, both of whose cultural backgrounds are present in my own society. The patterns of the Anglo-Irish war are similar enough to Afghanistan that I find them achingly familiar, and yet altered enough to startle me at the same time.
As well, I was deeply impressed by how small of a scale this ambush was on. Twenty men killed and one wounded was considered a major event. Compare that to the Somme, or to Austerlitz, or God save us all to the charnel house of frozen hell that was Stalingrad. Twenty deaths wouldn’t even show up as a blip on the radar in a big war. It is easy to reduce humans to mere numbers when the scale is big enough. 20,000 marching there, 5,000 dead and twice that wounded, a small detachment of 200 sent to hold that bridge, a big push of 60,000 attacking the left.... the human mind can’t handle the amount of empathy it takes to process that many people suffering and dying. But with so few people involved, you can put names and histories onto corpses and get a proper perspective on how God-awful and cruel the whole business of war really is.
A few weeks back, I got into an argument with someone who suggested half-seriously- purely as a hypothetical- that we ought to send troops to Mexico to stamp down on the cartels to help reassert the Mexican government’s control. I pointed out that such an action would be pretty pointless, since the starting conditions that created the cartels would remain after we came, killed, and left. He responded that the number of the cartels’ potential recruits would run out sooner or later. In effect, he argued that if we killed off enough military age males, potentially tens of millions of people, the cartel crackdown would be permanent.
And I thought to myself, “I would bet money that this guy has never so much as been in a fistfight before. If he had ever hurt somebody bad, or seen them hurt bad before his very eyes, or gotten hurt bad himself, he’d know just how criminally insane his suggestion was.”
It worries me that people whose only exposure to war is video games, movies, and gushing reports of steely-eyed elite commandos taking the fight to the jihadis are so instinctively enthusiastic about it. It bothers me that people without skin in the game will happily vote their way towards armed conflict without bothering to think through whether people truly need to suffer and die en masse over the issue at hand. I’m no pacifist myself, you must understand. It just seems to me that people who are disassociated from the reality of war have a tendency to ruin things for everyone else.
However, all such moralizing is ultimately secondary to my purpose. The impulse to tell the tale of the Kilmichael Ambush is an old one, for the telling of war stories is an ancient tradition. As far back as Homer's Iliad, people have been huddling around campfires to gush about this hero's courage, to scorn that villain's cruelty, to mourn the death and agony inflicted upon the innocent, and to retread in the footsteps of the dead and buried soldiers of yesteryear. Undoubtedly there is some clever sociological explanation for why humans of all cultural backgrounds do this, but I need no justification for it. The campfire is replaced by a computer screen and the audience is full of strangers instead of kin and allies, but the form is the same, and in my opinion that is what matters.