1920-1939 | Assassinations | Backing terror operations | Ireland


General Sir Henry Wilson –
Photo in the public domain via Wikimedia

6 September 1920

General Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, despised Irish republicans. In 1919, he observed in a letter to his predecessor, General Sir William Robertson, that ‘Ireland goes from bad to worse’, recommending that ‘a little blood shedding is needed.’  On 1 September, the following year, he was still deriding Lloyd George’s government in London as ‘a Cabinet of cowards’ for making occasional peace overtures to Sinn Fein.1 A few days later, however, Wilson was taken aback on discovering that the hawks in the Cabinet, led by Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill, and abetted by the police commander in Ireland, General Sir Henry Tudor, had authorised the use of British auxiliary forces, known as the ‘Black and Tans,’  to terrorise and assassinate republican rebels and sympathisers. On 6 September 1920, on hearing confirmation of their indiscriminate killings, he noted in his diary:

‘Macready ( the general commanding the British Army in Ireland ) says that  Tudor’s “Black and Tan” officers are a most cut throat lot of men and that they terrorize a town or a country side just as much as the SFs (Sinn Feiners). These cutthroats are the invention of (Secretary of State for War) Winston (Churchill) & (Lieutenant-General Henry) Tudor, but how either of these worthies hopes to solve the Irish problem by these counter-terror-gangs I cannot imagine. It is a most dangerous and indefensible proceeding.’2  

The Black and Tans, as the Nottingham Evening Post informed its readers later the same month, were ‘recruited mainly from young demobilised soldiers, who receive £1 per day pay, who are dressed in khaki and armed with rifles and revolvers, but have not the smallest experience of police duties.’  The paper explained that they had ‘become a law unto themselves… exacting not an eye for an eye, but two for one, and they believe also, not without justification, that reprisals are a part of their business.’ The inevitable result had been ‘a peculiarly revolting form of guerrilla warfare, in which the chief sufferers are women and children.’3 They carried out extra judicial executions, while looting and burning down entire neighbourhoods on the slightest suspicion of community collusion with rebel forces.  General Sir Henry Lawson, who in December 1920 travelled to Ireland as an unofficial peace envoy, noted that some ‘districts have certainly been terrorised.’  He could not estimate ‘to what extent the policy of collective reprisals… was suggested and approved from above,’ but added, ‘that it received something more than tacit approval was obvious from many public utterances.’4


  1. Keith Jeffery, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier, Oxford University Press, Oxford,  2006, p. 256 and p. 275.
  2. Sir Henry Wilson’s diary, 6 September 1920 cited in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Volume IV Companion, Part 2 Documents, July 1919 – March 1921, Heinemann, London, 1977  p. 1206.
  3. ‘The ‘Black and Tans,’ The Nottingham Evening Post, 27 September 1920, p. 1.
  4. ‘Black and Tans Exposed by Famous British General,’ The Nottingham Journal, 31 December 1920, p. 1.

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