Patrick Bury: How the rebels could have won in 1916
With a little more military experience, either during planning or as events unfolded, things could have been very different
The GPO after 1916. If in the event of Patrick Pearse’s inner IRB circle of the Irish Volunteers had a simple contingency plan for their Dublin rising, it could have been much more effective. Photograph: Thomas Johnson Westropp
The Easter Rising is often viewed as a “glorious sacrifice” led by brave men with little military experience. What if they had had some?
There are numerous tantalising military “what if’s?” of the Rising – the failure of the gunrunning and Eoin MacNeill’s resulting countermanding order the most obvious – but if Patrick Pearse’s inner IRB circle of the Irish Volunteers had a simple contingency plan for their Dublin rising, it could have been much more effective.
Little is known about the exact plan for the Dublin rising, but we do know the IRB Military Council that approved it lacked military experience. Joseph Plunkett, who drafted the detailed but prescriptive plan, was interested in war but lacked formal training. His plan called for the seizure and static defence of buildings of varying tactical importance in north and south Dublin.
Meanwhile, despite spending seven years in the British army, James Connolly focused on tactical rather than operational adjustments to this plan. Crucially, the rest of the council – Pearse, MacDonagh, Ceannt, Clarke and MacDiarmada – while brave and committed, lacked military experience. But given the high-risk, synchronised nature of the Rising plan, reliant as it was on co-opting MacNeill into mobilising the volunteers and the simultaneous landing of guns near Tralee, no evidence exists that the council had a contingency plan in case one, or both, of these elements failed.
This mattered most in Dublin where MacNeill’s countermanding order meant only about a third, (1,000) of the volunteers, and half (220) of Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army paraded on Easter Monday. With these severely depleted numbers, it was clear to most of the leaders that they did not have enough men and women to hold Dublin according to Plunkett’s blueprint. Why wasn’t there a back-up plan?
Student of warThe IRB’s need to keep the plan secret meant the one man who undoubtedly would have transformed Plunkett’s plan, “Ginger” O’Connell, was not consulted. Although O’Connell was opposed to the IRB, he had served in the US militia and was tactically and operationally adept. He was also a student of war theorist Carl Von Clausewitz, whose maxim “No plan survives contact with the enemy” the military council would have done well to digest. When O’Connell found out about the Dublin plan he said it was “far too clockwork and there should be an alternative”. But there were other options. Michael Mallin, second in command of the Irish Citizen Army, had served in the British army for over 12 years. Crucially, he knew the plan well in advance and criticised it for being too prescriptive and unrealistic. He could have used his clout with Connolly to lobby for a contingency based on smaller numbers than expected. Meanwhile, The O’Rahilly, the volunteers’ director of arms, had led the Howth gunrunning and therefore had some experience of planning operations.
Although he spent Easter Sunday rushing around Munster delivering the countermanding order, he was present at the final showdown the evening before between Pearse and MacNeill at St Enda’s, and he later famously joined the rebels in the GPO. What if he had sided with the rebels on Saturday? He would have been aware their numbers would be greatly reduced. He too could have advocated a change of plan. With a little more military experience, either during planning or as events unfolded, the rebels could have adjusted their dispositions. Things could have been very different.
Defensive perimeterCentral Dublin is relatively easy to defend. The Royal Canal in the north and the Grand Canal to the south provide a natural, circular defensive perimeter. But the Liffey cuts this ring in half, causing defenders to split their forces, thereby threatening communication and withdrawal routes. With their forces drastically reduced, even if a contingency had not been drawn up, a quick rebel reassessment of the situation on Easter Monday would have led to the conclusion that both sides of the Liffey could not be held.
Concentrating their forces within one half of the ring would have brought the rebels numerous advantages, most obviously the ability to mass forces and hold more ground inside this smaller defensive zone. This would have allowed a much stronger outer defence to be placed along a canal bank and one bank of the defendable Liffey quays to cover the major crossing points.
Indeed, the lethality of even a small number of rebels in well-sited positions was proved at Mount Street Bridge, where 17 rebels inflicted 240 casualties (almost half their number) on an advancing battalion. The concentration of forces would have meant the rebels’ greater number of positions were mutually supportive, had defence in depth and better communications. It would have also placed the major barracks outside of the rebels’ perimeter, making it far harder to bypass, cordon and reduce rebel positions dispersed around the city, as the British eventually did. In his excellent book, Easter 1916, Charles Townshend argues that the northern side should have been prioritised. I disagree. The south has more defendable buildings, the rebels’ positions here were generally tactically well-sited (Mallin’s force digging trenches in Stephen’s Green overlooked on all sides is an obvious anomaly) and it contains Dublin Castle, defended by a skeleton guard of only six men on Easter Monday.
Centre of gravityIt is easy to identify at the time that the British centre of gravity in the capital is Dublin Castle and that the seizure of it should be the Rising’s main effort. It must be taken at all costs. Similarly, Trinity College had to be taken and held as it dominates the area and is easily defendable. If a side of the Liffey has to be chosen at the last minute, it is easier to move the two northside units south, rather than the southern four north. With the northern forces manning the Liffey’s southern bank and the GPO forces used to assault and hold the castle, suddenly the Rising becomes militarily tenable.
Despite the defensive nature of the Rising, concentrating forces to the south frees up small forces for offensive action to keep the British guessing. The GPO is not taken; its telegram system can be destroyed in a raid. On the north side, a small detachment at Amiens (now Connolly) Station would have caused serious casualties as reinforcements arrived from Belfast. Similarly at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) a small team firing on troops arriving by boat would have caused chaos, before retreating back to the Grand Canal. The British only had 400 troops on active duty in Dublin on Easter Monday, out of an available total of almost 2,500. By Tuesday this was about 6,500; by Friday 16,000. Although some did join the rebels during the week, ultimately the British could only get stronger, the rebels weaker. But by concentrating their forces in the south and seizing the castle, the volunteers and Irish Citizen Army would have inflicted much more serious losses on the British, and held out longer, before gradually falling back on interior lines toward the castle for a final stand. The fact that the British seized 365,000 rounds of ammunition from surrendering rebels indicates they could have held out much longer, another week at least, in better positions.
British casualtiesWhat if the rebels adjusted their plan? In such a scenario much of inner south Dublin would have been destroyed. This, and the much heavier British casualties, would have brought British repression and political repercussions of their own magnitude. But the fact that the rebels held out longer, and seized the seat of government would likely have sent deeper shockwaves through the British administration and the empire than the five-day seizure of a post office did.
Inspired by Dublin’s continued resistance and the tying up of army reinforcements, volunteers in the rest of the country may have mobilised. The battle for public support would have begun. In the eyes of the Rising’s leaders, this represented the real victory.
Unsupported by a popular, national insurrection, the Dublin rising was bound to fail. Decisively, however, what the rebel leaders lacked in tactical and operational experience they made up for in courage and strategic vision. The Rising is, therefore, interesting militarily, as tactical and operational failure ultimately led to politico-strategic success. A fact most of us remain truly grateful for.
Patrick Bury is a security analyst and former officer in the Royal Irish Regiment