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Mutiny in the Spring air

The troops were restive. Rumours rippled through the mess halls on the Curragh. There was chatter among the cavalry in Newbridge, among the artillery in Kildare and among the infantry in Naas. The ripples of rumour spread wide. Soon there was gossip in the society salons of Dublin Castle and nervousness in the corridors of power at Westminster. There was mutiny in the air in the spring of 1914. The Kildare Observer newspaper used a more elegant phraseology describing the situation as “l’affaire d’armée” . 
Perhaps the Observer columnist hit the right note … this was a mutiny with manners. This was not the soldiers banging their mess tins off the canteen tables. Nor was it the sailors conspiring to throw the captain overboard as per “Mutiny on the Bounty”.   In fact the episode which rippled through the establishment in spring of 1914 was not, strictly speaking, a mutiny at all. No orders were disobeyed. Rather it was an intimation by a number of senior officers that they would not obey a certain kind of order were it to arrive on their desks. And in the rule-bound system of the British empire even a hint of disobedience at such a senior level was enough to trigger crisis.
The context was, as ever in Ireland, against the background of northern Ireland volatility. The Ulster Unionists were resisting with ferocity any move to bring Home Rule to Ireland. “Home Rule is  Rome Rule” they cried and warned of armed resistance against the Westminster Government if it gave in to the demand by the Irish Parliamentary party for a Dublin-based parliament. The situation was ironic – the Ulster Unionists who professed loyalty to His Majesty were so loyal that they were prepared to resist the writ of His Majesty’s Government.
With a Home Rule Bill making is way through Westminster in spring of 1914 the situation was heading for a collision.  Orders came from London to move troops within the Irish command from the Curragh and Dublin to reinforce the garrisons in Ulster in case the Ulster Volunteer Force, the armed wing of the Unionists, attempted to poach arms. The orders extended no further than the taking of precautions.  But the Commanding Officer of the British Army in Ireland, General Paget, panicked on receiving this nuanced instruction from the War Office and told his officers that the Army would be used to face down the Ulster unionists. Paget inflamed matters further by giving his officers the choice of marching on Ulster or be suspended from their commands.
This was too much for many of the officer class whose social backgrounds were inextricably bound up with those of the conservatives and loyalists. They shared with the Ulster Unionists a conviction that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was an indivisible entity and any attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland would destabilise the hierarchy of loyalties at the heart of the Empire.
That there was bungling and mis-handling of the situation there was no doubt. General Paget’s over-reaction to the precautionary order from London inflamed matters. But it did not take much to prompt the likes of Brig.General Sir Hubert Gough, commanding officer of the 5th Cavalry Brigade, and the bearer of a family name deeply rooted in the exploits of the British Army throughout the Empire. An enraged Gough travelled to the Curragh to speak to his officers who commanded the Lancers and the Hussars, among the most elite and sought-after officer positions in the army. The Hussars were incensed at the prospect of marching on the Unionists. Dozens of officers made it clear to the high command that they would rather be suspended than be used to enforce Home Rule on their Unionist kin. The situation was exacerbated by the rumours that began to swirl around the nerve centres of the establishment. The Kildare Observer caught the mood of the moment in its last week of March 1914 edition: “There was commotion here on Friday when the news leaked out that General Gough had resigned.” Like any breaking story the cries of the newshounds added to the drama. The Observer reporter wrote of his peers in the wider press: “The lynx-eyed reporters from the metropolis and from England were upon the spot” and adding their accelerant to the flames of rumour.
Soon General Gough took matters into his own hands. He by-passed Paget, his commanding officer, and travelled to London where, in controversial circumstances, he extracted a guarantee from the politicians that his cavalry would not be given orders to crush the Unionists. There were resignations from the Government over the affair but things calmed down among the officer ranks. The humdrum of military routine returned to the Curragh. As the Kildare Observer reported in its first edition for April 1914: “ Nothing startling has occurred to us since our last letter, and after the unusual hustle and extraordinary excitement over the Ulster movement things are again assuming their normal appearance.” Series no: 275.

In series number 275 of his Looking back articles from the Leinster Leader Liam Kenny writes of mutiny in the British Army on the Curragh. Our thanks to Liam

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