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Army Deserters in Ireland


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The whole area numerically of deserters/awol/missing seems much larger in Ireland that I had initially thought

Can anyone help with any hard figures on say

1. Monthly desertion reported by all battalions to Dublin Castle. I remember seeing the figures, but cannot find the reference now!

2. Can anyone compare something like desertions per 10,000 men in WW1 with Ireland in War of Independence and with peacetime.

I appreciate that there would be pressure on adjutants to keep desertions reported down, but I assume eventually the missing men would have to be accounted for, unless their period of engagement ended while they were missing (army found it easier to just forget about them)

Any figures on desertion would be welcome.

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  • 9 months later...

Hi, I suppose these sort of cases can probably be revisited now that there's a lot more Bureau of Military History material publicly available.

One puzzling case, however, is the "circus deserters" of May 1921.

I note that the recently-released accounts in the Bureau of Military History tend to suggest that the two Machine Gun Corps casualties may actually have been misclassified as executed in June 1921:


However, dying very bravely etc etc is often standard guff used in Volunteer statements to put distance between the executioners and their deeds.

On the other hand, there was a 'Slag' Sullivan and a Patrick J Sheehan shot in June 1921, and it's possible that the executions are being conflated with one another, as numerous accounts identify Sullivan and Sheehan as spies being executed:

http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1051.pdf#page=1 and

http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS1039.pdf#page=1 and


It's entirely conceivable that Sullivan and Sheehan died bravely and wanted it over with quickly etc etc. On the other hand it may well be the case that the two "circus" deserters of May 1921 were Intelligence Officers who died bravely when captured.

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Thanks for that information. It is interesting to find an IRA reference to the 2 MG men deaths.

I have added it to my page on the MG "Deserters " - click for page.

As you say there is a great amount to come out from the Witness Statements - though I should say that the WS are more an indicator of what happened, rather than the definitive version. In other words you have to put them together with the other information

The circus deserters disappeared on 26 May (from newspaper reports) and Sullivan & Sheehan on 29 Jun (according to that WS). The two MG man were found in 1951. I don't know if Sullivan and Sheehan's bodies were ever found, but to establish whether there is any confusion in the two pairs of deaths, one would need to see if you could disprove the link via grave positions. My feeling is that they are quite separate.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here is my take on him - click . My feeling in his case is

"The balance of probability is that Monaghan was a British spy. If he was he was a very brave man."

The problem that the IRA had was determining who was or was not a British spy in a time of war. I have not been able to come up with a figure such as "there were x,000 desertions in the British Army in Ireland at that time, y were real deserters and z were spies" - by the nature of things nobody will ever know.

It boiled down to local IRA commanders taking pragmatic decisions as to what to do with deserters - if they had had a bad experience, or what they perceived to be a bad experience, with deserters, then they veered to the "safe" side and assumed all were spies and took the "appropriate" action.

What one can say is that the British did little (well nothing) to follow up "deserters" who were missing when they left Ireland, even where there was evidence that the men had been killed.

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Collins was ambivalent to ex British army volunteers. One, they had 4 yrs combat under their belts. Two they could be spies.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Afraid the findagrave attribution to the place of his death is wrong. Contemporary newspaper reports say he died at Crossbarry, and in addition he was Essex Regt which took part at Crossbarry, not a Royal Fusilier, who took part at Headford.

Headford Junction ambush in Tuesday 21 March 1921, and Crossbarry was on 19 March 1921, which is probably why the guy that wrote the blurb on findagrave got confused

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  • 2 months later...
  • 1 year later...

Thanks PFF , I have added that snippet to my notes on Fielding


The WS says

a British soldier, who gave his name as Private Fielding, and who posed as a deserter from Buttevant Barracks, was captured by Denny Noonan, who was in charge of a party of three, naie1y, Mick Collins, Con Browne and Jack Sheahan. He was tried by courtmartial and executed as a spy in the Charleville Battalion area. Later, I learned from the regiment's official "Lily White Magazine" that he was a high ranking, highly efficient Intelligence Officer. No more would-be deserters visited the area

It shows the care one has to take with Witness statements. Fielding was certainly ever only a Private, his CWGC grave shows that

and I sincerely doubt that he would have been written up as a officer in the Regimental magazine. Out of interest I tried to see if the "White Lily" was the magazine of East Lancs Regt, but had no luck. Can anyone help here?

There is always a small chance that he was working for Basil Thomson, as deep undercover, but his profile just does not fit that.

Mind you, it it obvious that the IRA had difficultly distinguishing real deserters from British plants, and if they did execute a British soldier under these conditions, for their own sanity, would wish to rationalise that the man wsa a spy

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