Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Officers and Gentlemen

(February 1960)

From The Newsletter, 6 February 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

‘It is the Curragh situation all over again...’ So wrote the Daily Telegraph’s Algiers correspondent in that paper for January 27. The officers’ mutiny at the Curragh (the Aldershot of Ireland) in 1914 was an event which bulked big in the thinking of Marxists of my generation about the problem of how power would have to be taken from the capitalist class. I wonder whether it means much to those now in their twenties. At a Socialist Forum discussion three years ago a mention of it was dismissed by a ‘New Left’ type as ‘ancient history’!

Clearly, the Algiers crisis is far from being merely a repeat performance of the Ulster crisis of 1913–1914 in new costumes and a different setting; but some similar elements are certainly present.

Lenin appreciated the significance of the Curragh affair in these words: ‘March 21, 1914, will mark a world-historical turning point, when the noble landlords of England, smashing the English Constitution and English law to atoms, gave an excellent lesson in class struggle.’ They showed for all to see that ‘real class rule lies outside of Parliament’.

The Liberal government of the time proposed to grant Home Rule to Ireland. In the province of Ulster the Tory opponents of Home Rule rallied a force of volunteers who threatened to resist by force the implementation of the government’s policy. When the government began moves to despatch troops to Ulster to protect arms depots against raids by the volunteers they found themselves confronted by organized refusal of the officers concerned to carry out orders, an attitude in which they were supported by the generals at the War Office, by the King and by the Tory Party. The Liberals backed down and suspended their grant of Home Rule. The Easter rebellion of 1916 and the bloody Anglo-Irish war of 1918–1921 had to take place before it could be won, and then only for part of Ireland.

What could the government have done instead of surrendering? Lenin wrote at the time: ‘In order to suppress the rebellion of the aristocratic officers, the Liberal government ought to have appealed to the people, to the masses, to the proletariat, but this is exactly what the “enlightened” Liberal bourgeoisie were more afraid of than anything else in the world.’

The whole episode which culminated in the Curragh mutiny is instructive regarding the realities that underlie the ruling class’s talk of ‘patriotism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘loyalty’. A number of Ulster Tory MPs said openly that if Home Rule were granted to Ireland they would transfer their allegiance to the German Kaiser. The newspaper Irish Churchman wrote (November 14, 1913): ‘We have the offer of aid, from a powerful continental monarch who, if Home Rule is forced on the Protestants of Ireland, is prepared to send an army sufficient to release England of any further trouble in Ireland by attaching it to his domain ...’ In April, 1914, 35,000 rifles and 2,500,000 rounds of ammunition, German-made and passed through the Kiel Canal with the German government’s consent, were landed at Larne and elsewhere for the Ulster Volunteers. It was the opinion of the American ambassador in Berlin that all this contributed materially to the Kaiser’s confidence in going to war that summer.

Bonar Law, one of the leaders of the Tory Party (and later Prime Minister) wrote to Carson, head of the Ulster Volunteers, on September 18, 1913, that he had talked with Churchill, then a member of the Liberal government, about the situation in Ireland : ‘Does he suppose that the Army would obey orders to exercise force in Ulster? I said to him that in that case undoubtedly we should regard it as civil war, and should urge the officers of the Army not to regard them as a real government but to ignore their orders.’ Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, then Director of Military Operations, recorded in his frank diaries, published in 1927, how he and other high-ranking officers had intrigued with the Ulster Volunteers, and referred to the final showdown at the Curragh, when the officer; of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade refused to proceed to Ulster as ‘our action in the army’.

What made the whole affair especially educative to the working-class movement was that, only two years before, Tom Mann had been sent to prison as the author of a leaflet appealing to soldiers not to fire on strikers. After the government’s surrender to the Curragh mutiny, the Daily Herald, then the organ of the left wing, reproduced this leaflet on its front page.

Last updated on 13.10.2011