Civilized War by George A. Birmingham
"This," said Captain Power, "is an utterly rotten war."
The rain was dripping through the roof of the shed which had been allotted
to Power as a billet The mud outside was more than ankle deep. The damp
inside was chilly and penetrating. Ned Waterhouse, a Second Lieutenant,
the only other occupant of the shed, looked up from an old newspaper which
he was trying to read.
"All wars are rotten," he said.
"Not at all," said Power; "a properly conducted war, run in a decent way
by civilized men is quite agreeable, rather fun, in fact. Now the last in
which I was mixed up was rather fun."
Waterhouse eyed Power suspiciously. He suspected that he was being made
the victim of some kind of joke. Waterhouse was an Englishman and it was
not of his own desire that he was an officer in the Hibernian light
Infantry. He felt himself out of place among Irishmen whom he never quite
understood. He was particularly distrustful of Captain Power. Power was an
expert in the art of "pulling the legs" of innocent people. Waterhouse had
several times found himself looking like a fool without knowing exactly
"What I call a civilized war," said Power, "is waged in fine weather for
one thing, and men have a chance of keeping clean. The combatants show
some regard for the other side's feelings and don't try to make things as
nasty for each other as they can. The business is done in a picturesque
way, with flags and drums and speeches. There are negotiations and flags
of truce and mutual respect for gallant foemen—instead of this
d____d coldblooded, scientific slaughter."
"No war was ever like that," said Waterhouse. "Novelists and other silly
fools write about war as if it were a kind of sport. But it never was
"The last war I was in, was," said Power.
"I don't believe you ever were in a war before," said Waterhouse. "You're
not old enough to have gone to South Africa."
"All the same I was in a war," said Power, "though I didn't actually
fight. I was wounded at the time and couldn't But I was there. Our Irish
war at Easter, 1916."
"That footy little rebellion," said Waterhouse.
"You may call it what you like," said Power, "but it was a much better war
than this one from every point of view, except mere size. It was properly
conducted on both sides."
"I suppose you want to tell a yarn about it," said Waterhouse, "and if you
do I can't stop you; but you needn't suppose I'll believe a word you say."
"The truth of this narrative," said Power, "will compel belief even in the
most sceptical mind. I happened to be at home at the time on sick leave,
wounded in the arm. Those were the days when one got months of sick leave,
before some rotten ass invented convalescent homes for officers and kept
them there. I had three months' leave that time and I spent it with my
people in Ballymahon."
"The whole of it?" said Waterhouse. "Good Lord!"
"You'd have spent it in the Strand Palace Hotel, I suppose, running in and
out of music halls, but I prefer the simple joys of country life, though I
couldn't shoot or ride properly on account of my arm. Still I could watch
the sunset and listen to the birds singing, which I like. Besides, I was
absolutely stoney at the time, and couldn't have stayed in London for a
week. As it happened, it was a jolly good thing I was there. If I'd been
in London I'd have missed that war. Perhaps I'd better begin by telling
you the sort of place Ballymahon is."
"You needn't," said Waterhouse. "I spent three months in camp in County
Tipperary. I know those dirty little Irish towns. Twenty public-houses.
Two churches, a workhouse and a police barrack."
"In Ballymahon there is also a court house and our ancestral home. My old
dad is the principal doctor in the neighbourhood. He lives on one side of
the court house. The parish priest lives on the other. You must grasp
these facts in order to understand the subsequent military operations. The
only other thing you really must know is that Ballymahon lies in a hole
with hills all round it, like the rim of a saucer. Well, on Monday
afternoon, Easter Monday, the enemy, that is to say, the Sinn Feiners,
marched in and took possession of the town. It was a most imposing sight,
Waterhouse. There were at least eight hundred of them. Lots of them had
uniforms. Most of them had flags. There were two bands and quite a lot of
rifles. The cavalry——"
"You can't expect me to believe in the cavalry," said Waterhouse. ''But I
say, supposing they really came, didn't the loyal inhabitants put up any
kind of resistance?"
"My old dad," said Power, "was the only loyal inhabitant, except four
policemen. You couldn't expect four policemen to give battle to a whole
army. They shut themselves up in their barrack and stayed there. My dad,
being a doctor, was of course a non-combatant I couldn't do anything with
my arm in a sling, so there was no fight at all."
"I suppose the next thing they did was loot the public-houses," said
Waterhouse, "and get gloriously drunk?"
"Certainly not I told you that our war was properly conducted. There was
no looting in Ballymahon and I never saw a drunken man the whole time. If
those Sinn Feiners had a fault it was over-respectability. I shouldn't
care to be in that army myself."
"I believe that," said Waterhouse. "It's the first thing in this story
that I really have believed."
"They used to march about all day in the most orderly manner, and at night
there were sentries at every street corner who challenged you in Irish.
Not knowing the language, I thought it better to stay indoors. But my dad
used to wander about He's a sporting old bird and likes to know what's
going on. Well, that state of things lasted three days and we all began to
settle down comfortably for the summer. Except that there were no
newspapers or letters there wasn't much to complain about. In fact, you'd
hardly have known there was a war on. It wasn't the least like this
beastly country where everyone destroys everything he sees, and wretched
devils have to live in rabbit-holes. In Ballymahon we lived in houses with
beds and chairs and looked after ourselves properly. Then one morning—it
must have been Friday—news came in that a lot of soldiers were
marching on the town. Some country girls saw them and came running in to
tell us. I must say for the Sinn Fein commander that he kept his head. His
name was O'Farrelly and he called himself a Colonel. He sent out scouts to
see where the soldiers were and how many there were. Quite the proper
thing to do. I didn't hear exactly what the scouts reported; but that
evening O'Farrelly came round to our house to talk things over with my
"I thought you said your father was a loyal man."
"So he is. There isn't a loyaller man in Ireland. You'd know that if you'd
ever seen him singing 'God Save the King.' He swells out an inch all over
when he's doing it."
"If he's as loyal as all that," said Waterhouse, "he wouldn't consult with
"My dad, though loyal, has some sense, and so, as it happened, had
O'Farrelly. Neither one nor the other of them wanted to see a battle
fought in the streets of Ballymahon. You've seen battles, Waterhouse, and
you know what they're like. Messy things. You can understand my father's
feelings. O'Farrelly was awfully nice about it. He said that the people of
Ballymahon, including my father and even the police, were a decent lot,
and he'd hate to see licentious English soldiers rioting through the
streets of the town. His idea was that my dad should use his influence
with the C.O. of the troops and get him to march his men off somewhere
else, so as to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. O'Farrelly promised he
wouldn't go after them or molest them in any way if they left the
neighbourhood My dad said he couldn't do that and even if he could, he
wouldn't. He suggested that O'Farrelly should take his army away.
O'Farrelly said he was out to fight and not to run away. I chipped in at
that point and said he could fight just as well in a lonelier place, where
there weren't any houses and no damage would be done. I said I felt pretty
sure the soldiers would go after him to any bog he chose to select
O'Farrelly seemed to think there was something in the suggestion and said
he'd hold a council of war and consult his officers."
"What an amazing liar you are, Power," said Waterhouse.
Captain Power took no notice of the insult. He went on with his story.
"The Council of War assembled next morning," he said, "and sat for about
four hours. It might have all day if an English officer hadn't ridden in
on a motor-bike about noon. He was stopped by a sentry, of course, and
said he wanted to see the C.O. of the rebel army. So the sentry
"What on earth for?"
"In civilized war," said Power severely, "envoys with flags of truce are
invariably blindfolded. I told you at the start that our war was properly
conducted; but you wouldn't believe me. Now you can see for yourself that
it was. The sentry led that officer into the council, which was sitting in
the court house. I told you, didn't I, that the court house was the rebel
"You didn't mention it, but it doesn't matter."
"It does matter. And you'll see later on it's most important Well,
O'Farrelly was frightfully polite to the officer, and asked him what he
wanted. The officer said that he had come to demand the unconditional
surrender of the whole of the rebel army. O'Farrelly, still quite
politely, said he'd rather die than surrender, and everybody present
cheered. The officer said that the town was entirely surrounded and that
there was a gun on top of one of the hills which would shell the place
into little bits in an hour if it started firing. O'Farrelly said he
didn't believe all that and accused the officer of putting up a bluff. The
officer stuck to it that what he said was true. That brought the
negotiations to a dead-lock."
"Why the devil didn't they shell the place and have done with it, instead
"That's what would happen out here," said Power. "But as I keep telling
you our war was run on humane lines. After the officer and O'Farrelly had
argued for half an hour my dad dropped in on them. He's a popular man in
the place and I think everyone was glad to see him. He sized up the
position at once and suggested the only possible way out O'Farrelly, with
a proper safe conduct, of course, was to be allowed to go and see whether
the town was really surrounded, and especially whether there was a gun on
top of the hill, as the officer said. That, I think you'll agree with me,
Waterhouse, was a sensible suggestion and fair to both sides. But they
both boggled at it. The officer said he'd no power to enter into
negotiation of any kind with rebels, and that all he could do was take yes
or no to his proposal of unconditional surrender. O'Farrelly seemed to
think that he'd be shot, no matter what safe conducts he had. It took the
poor old dad nearly an hour to talk sense into the two of them; but in the
end he managed it O'Farrelly agreed to go if the safe conduct was signed
by my dad as well as the officer, and the officer agreed to take him on
condition that my dad went too to explain the situation to his colonel. I
went with them just to see what would happen."
"I suppose they made O'Farrelly prisoner?" said Waterhouse.
"You are judging everybody by the standards of this infernal war," said
Power. "That English colonel was a soldier and a gentleman. He stood us
drinks and let O'Farrelly look at the gun. It was there all right and
Ballymahon was entirely surrounded. We got back about five o'clock, with
an ultimatum written out on a sheet of paper. Unless O'Farrelly and his
whole army had marched out and laid down their arms by 8 p.m. the town
would be shelled without further warning. You'd have thought that would
have knocked the heart out of O'Farrelly, considering that he hadn't a
dog's chance of breaking through. But it didn't He became cheerfuller than
I'd seen him before, and said that the opportunity he'd always longed for
had come at last. His men, when he told them about the ultimatum, took the
same view. They said they'd never surrender, not even if the town was
shelled into dust and them buried in the ruins. That naturally didn't suit
my dad—or for that matter, me. The soldiers were sure to begin by
shelling the rebel H.Q. and that meant that they'd hit our house. I told
you, didn't I, that it was next door to the court house? My poor dad did
his best. He talked to O'Farrelly and the rest of them till the sweat ran
off him. But it wasn't the least bit of good. They simply wouldn't listen
to reason. It was seven o'clock before dad gave the job up and left the
court house. He was going home to make his will, but on the way he met
Father Conway, the priest He was a youngish man and a tremendous patriot,
supposed to be hand-in-glove with the rebels. Dad explained to him that he
had less than an hour to live and advised him to go home and bury any
valuables he possessed before the shelling began. It took Father Conway
about ten minutes to grasp the situation. I chipped in and explained the
bracket system on which artillery works. I told him that they wouldn't
begin by aiming at the court house, but would drop their first shell on
his house and their next on ours, so as to get the range right. As soon as
he believed that—and I had to swear it was true before he did—he
took the matter up warmly and said he'd talk to O'Farrelly himself. I
didn't think he'd do much good, but I went into the court house with him,
just to see what he'd say. I must say for him he wasted no time. It was a
quarter past seven when he began, so there wasn't much time to waste."
"'Boys,' he said, 'will you tell me straight and plain what is it you
want?' O'Farrelly began a long speech about an Irish republic and things
of that kind. I sat with my watch in my hand opposite Father Conway and
every now and then I pointed to the hands, so as to remind him that time
was going on. At twenty-five past seven he stopped O'Farrelly and said
they couldn't have an Irish republic just then—though they might
later—on account of that gun. Then he asked them again to say
exactly what they wanted, republics being considered a wash-out You'd have
been surprised if you heard the answer he got Every man in the place stood
up and shouted that he asked nothing better than to die for Ireland. They
meant it, too. I thought it was all up and Father Conway was done. But he
"'Who's preventing you?' he said. 'Just form fours in the square outside
and you'll all be dead in less than half an hour. But if you stay here a
lot of other people who don't want to die for Ireland or anything else
will be killed too; along with having their homes knocked down on them.'
"Well, they saw the sense of that. O'Farrelly formed his men up outside
and made a speech to them. He said if any man funked it he could stay
where he was and only those who really wanted to die need go on. It was a
quarter to eight when he finished talking and I was in terror of my life
that there'd be some delay getting rid of the men who fell out But there
wasn't a single defaulter. Every blessed one of those men—and most
of them were only boys—did a right turn and marched out of the town
in column of fours. I can tell you, Waterhouse, I didn't like watching
them go. Father Conway and my dad were standing on the steps of the court
house, blubbering like children."
"I suppose they weren't all killed?" said Waterhouse.
"None of them were killed," said Power. "There wasn't a shot fired. You
see, when the English officer saw them march out of the town he naturally
thought they'd come to surrender, and didn't fire on them."
"He couldn't possibly have thought that," said Waterhouse, "unless they
laid down their arms."
"As a matter of fact," said Power, "hardly any of them had any arms,
except hockey sticks, and the Colonel thought they'd piled them up
somewhere. He seems to have been a decent sort of fellow. He made
O'Farrelly and a few more prisoners, and told the rest of them to be off
"Ireland," said Waterhouse, "must be a d____d queer country."
"It's the only country in Europe," said Power, "which knows how to conduct
war in a civilized way. Now if a situation of that sort turned up out here
there'd be bloodshed."
"I suppose O'Farrelly was hanged afterwards?" said Waterhouse.
"No, he wasn't."
"Shot, then? Though I should think hanging is the proper death for a
"Nor shot," said Power. "He is alive still and quite well. He's going
about the country making speeches. He was down in Ballymahon about a
fortnight ago and called on my dad to thank him for all he'd done during
the last rebellion. He inquired after me in the kindest way. The old dad
was greatly touched, especially when a crowd of about a thousand men, all
O'Farrelly's original army with a few new recruits, gathered round the
house and cheered, first for an Irish republic and then for dad. He made
them a little speech and told them I'd got my company and was recommended
for the M.C. When they heard that they cheered me like anything and then
shouted 'Up the Rebels!' for about ten minutes."
"I needn't tell you," said Waterhouse, "that I don't believe a word of
that story. If I did I'd say——"
He paused for a moment.
"I'd say that Ireland——"
"Yes," said Power, "that Ireland——"
"I'd say that Ireland is a country of lunatics," said Waterhouse, "and
there ought to be an Irish Republic I can't think of anything to say worse