Charles Townshend

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This won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in 2015, along with a special mention for The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but I found it a tremendous book - a blow-by-blow account of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, looking pretty neutrally at both British and Irish records and coming to some interesting conclusions. Like most Irish people with any interest in history, I was pretty familiar with the outlines of the story, which meant that the new details were very interesting indeed.

Going through it chronologically, there are points of interest in each of the long chapters. The British conceded a massive chunk of territory, quite literally, by evacuating small rural police stations as soon as the first trouble began in mid to late 1919. The Royal Irish Constabulary were more of a paramilitary law enforcement agency than a community police force, but even so, the withdrawal to fortified regional redoubts basically conceded the monopoly on the use of force to the IRA. This created space for the Dáil court system to start functioning a year or so later - the received history is that the Dáil courts were a turning point, but in fact they could not have functioned if the police had been, well, policing.

In 1920 the IRA worked out how to fight a guerilla war more or les from first principles, with ultimately the introduction of the Black and Tans, whose violence shifted what remained of neutral opinion in most of Ireland towards separatism, culminating in Bloody Sunday. This is one part of the generally believed narrative that Townshend confirms. But even so there are some interesting wrinkles. The strike of railway workers - or rather, their refusal to carry British troops on the trains - was a serious blow to British mobility. And also, British policy itself was completely unhinged, with no medium to long term goals - if they were to win the war, what next? But they were too poorly organised to have a chance of winning, with lines of control at the top (and indeed middle) deeply obscure.

1921 saw the two sides edging towards a truce, and eventually to the December 1921 Treaty. What's especially interesting is that both sides were motivated to keep talking because neither believed that they could win if war resumed. My father always used to say that most armies are so badly organised that it's just as well that they only ever have to fight other armies. The turning point here, and I guess I knew this but had not seen it that way before, was the election in May. The British commanders had assured the government at the start of the year that they would have crushed dissent by late spring, so the elections were duly scheduled and organised. But in fact Sinn Féin won every seat outside the new territory of Northern Ireland (er, and Trinity college Dublin), unopposed. As Asquith put it (not quoted by Townshend, but I've seen it elsewhere), London gave Ulster a parliament that it did not particularly want, and the rest of Ireland a parliament which it would not have.

1922-23 saw the difficulties in implementing the Treaty eventually spill over into the Civil War. I had not realised quite how quickly the Republican side basically lost the war by default. They assumed that as in 1919-21, the latent support of the people as a whole would sustain them and delegitimise the Collins / Griffith / Cosgrave government; and they controlled large parts of the south and west of the country, and two small but strategic parts of Dublin. But the Free Staters picked off the areas of Republican strength one by one, and retaliated brutally to individual attacks by executing prisoners; meanwhile the Legion of the Rearguard waited for a popular revolt that never happened.

It's a great chronology. I do have two complaints. There is not enough about Northern Ireland / Ulster; Townshend remarks several times that Collins rather ignored it, but is somewhat guilty of doing the same himself. On the other hand, there is too much about political ideology. The understanding of the Republic mattered a lot to many of the participants, De Valera in particular, and not only him. but I find it personally rather difficult to grasp.

Anyway, this is a great book which anyone interested in that place and time should read.
… (mer)
nwhyte | 1 annan recension | Jan 14, 2022 |
This book is an illustrated collection of essays mostly by experts from military museums. The essays discuss techniques, technology, and other warfare developments from the seventeenth century to the 1990s. Chapters are as follows:

Introduction: The Shape of Modern War
The Military Revolution I: The Transition to Modern Warfare
The Military Revolution II: Eighteenth-Century War
The Nation in Arms I: The French Wars
The Nation in Arms II: The Nineteenth Century
Imperial Wars: From the Seven Years War to the First World War
Total War I: The Great War
Total War II: The Second World War
Cold War
People's War
Technology and War I: to 1945
Battle: The Experience of Modern Combat
Sea Warfare
Air Warfare
War and the People: The Social Impact of Total War
Women and War
Against War
Technology and War II: Postmodern War?

The coverage is very selective and somewhat quirky, and mostly elides over specific battles and individual actors - you won't find much here about Hitler, for example, or even the Holocaust, and Stalin gets barely a mention. Nor can you expect to read much about Churchill or Eisenhower. Neither Ulysses S. Grant nor the American Civil War even merit a mention in the Index. But for aficionados of history who rely on other books for more in-depth coverage of wars, this book has an interesting focus and unusual selection of interesting illustrations.
… (mer)
nbmars | 1 annan recension | Feb 6, 2021 |
I read this as a follow up to Townshend's "Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion." The two books were recommended to me, along with Tom Barry's "Guerilla Days in Ireland," by a bookseller in a great store in Cork City when my wife and I were there on vacation a few years back. I had asked him about the best books to read to learn about the events of those years.

The Republic is very detailed and so is not particularly a fast read. Interestingly, during the course of the narrative, Townshend often compares earlier published histories to demonstrate how knowledge and perspectives about particular events have evolved as attitudes have changed and new information has been uncovered or new interviews given. Townshend also does his best to unravel fact from legend. Probably the toughest job for anyone, like myself, who did not grow up learning this history, is keeping straight all of the factions in the struggle and all of the chief figures. Given all that, my opinion, like that of many others evidently, is that Townshend has done an admirable job of it. In particular he shows the glories and the bravery of the revolutionaries, but also their frequent viciousness and incompetence. Also, the ways in which the English frequently and tragically misjudged one situation after another. In the end, it seems it was more global opinion, and British political exhaustion, than military achievements that got the British to the bargaining table and led to the treaty that created the Irish Home State, less than the full independence the fighters wanted, but perhaps as much as they might have expected given the totality of the Irish ability to carry on armed conflict and the British belief that control of Ireland was critical to their own self-defense.

By the time Townshend comes to describe the Irish Civil War between the pragmatists who wanted to get on with building a government and considered the exit of the English Army from their island victory enough (despite having to live with the dreaded partition of the three northern counties from the rest of the country) and the purists who swore to fight on against whoever stood in the way of a fully independent Irish Republic, Townshend stops describing the combat itself. The reader, after all, has already gotten enough of a picture of what the guerilla combat of the past years had looked like. Townshend focuses instead on the personalities and politics of that conflict.

His short description of the final end of the Civil War is extremely evocative, I think: " . . . {Eamon} de valera issued his order to the 'Soldiers of the Republic, Legion of the Rearguard" declaring that 'the Republic can no longer be defended successfully by your arms.' Military victory 'must be allowed to rest for the moment with those who have destroyed the Republic.' Nearly a month after that, on 24 May, {IRA Chief of Staff Frank} Aiken issued the final command to the IRA to dump its arms. There were no negotiations, no truce terms: the Republic simply melted back into the realm of the imagination."

This is a very good resource for anyone looking for a comprehensive and readable, if not always flowing, account of these fascinating but tragic times. Perhaps at least a bit of foreknowledge about the subject matter might be recommended, though, to keep the details from becoming too confusing. Anyway, four stars from me.
… (mer)
rocketjk | 1 annan recension | May 31, 2020 |
Few events in modern Irish history are as pivotal as the “Easter Rising”, the dramatic seizure of the General Post Office and other parts of Dublin that marked the declaration of the Irish Republic. Yet for decades the event has never received the thorough examination it deserves, due in part, as Charles Townshend observes in his preface to this fine book, to the long-standing reticence to release the oral histories of the event contained within the archives of the Bureau of Military History. Their release in 2003 provides the best opportunity yet to study the uprising, and Townshend has risen to the challenge by providing a penetrating examination of the origins and the impact of the Rising.

Townshend traces the origins of the Rising to the development and definition of Irish identity in the late nineteenth century. Here the breadth of his examination is immediately apparent, as he moves beyond the political to study the role that the cultural movement known as the Celtic rising played in inspiring Irish nationalists to challenge British rule. A key figure bridging between the cultural and the political was Patrick Pearse, the president of the provisional republic claimed in the aftermath of the seizure of the General Post Office. By delving into Pearse’s past as a nationalist consumed with freeing Ireland not only from British political domination but its cultural domination as well, he illustrates just how important the cultural component was in inspiring the nationalists and driving them towards action.

Yet Irish politics in those years was dominated not by nationalism but the issue of Home Rule. Here Townshend focuses on the reaction to the Home Rule measure in Ireland, which catalyzed Unionist resistance in the north to the devolution of Irish government. The formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in turn, inspired southern nationalists to form their own armed group, the Irish Volunteers, a movement quickly subsumed by the Irish Parliamentary Party into their organization. Yet the outbreak of the First World War and the decision by Irish parliamentary leader John Redmond to support the war split the Irish Volunteers and came to undermine his standing.

The nationalist Irish Volunteers that broke away from main group were themselves divided over the next step, however. As they gained in standing with the growing unpopularity of Redmond’s decision, Pearse and other members sought to take advantage of Britain’s difficulty to throw off her rule of Ireland. Given the attitudes of the Volunteer leadership, such planning had to take place in secrecy, and one of the great strengths of this book is Townshend’s laudable effort to wade into the confused jumble of half-hidden events to detail the evolution of the Rising. What was initially envisioned as a nationwide rebellion quickly became a Dublin-centric event that would take advantage of a planned Easter Sunday mobilization to strike against British rule. The last-minute efforts by the nationalist Volunteer leadership to head off the rebellion, though, resulted in a confused and only partial assemblage of Volunteers on the following day.

The three chapters on the Rising itself form the heart of Townshend’s book, and they recount an event characterized by confusion on both sides. The poor preparations and questionable decisions by the rebels were equaled only by those of the British authorities, whose overreaction in the aftermath of the rebels’ inevitable defeat turned them from extremists into heroes. Townshend concludes the book by looking at the belated efforts by the British in the aftermath of the Rising to craft a settlement in response to the growing nationalist challenge to their control over Ireland – a challenge that in the end they failed to avert.

With its clear prose and painstaking reconstruction of the tangled events of the Easter Rising, Townshend’s book is a masterpiece of the historical craft. The thorough research and judicious analysis contained within its pages is unlikely to be bettered as a guide to the complicated and confused developments that led to this dramatic and exciting event. For anyone seeking a study that will help them understand the Easter Rising, its background, and its consequences, this is the one to read.
… (mer)
MacDad | 4 andra recensioner | Mar 27, 2020 |


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