Civilized War by James Owen Hannay
An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories
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 why.
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
foemeninstead 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
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
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 morningit must have been Fridaynews
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 dad.
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 rebels.
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
What an amazing liar you are, Power, said Waterhouse.
Captain Power took no notice of the insult. He went on with his
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 blindfolded him
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 H.Q.?
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 of talking?
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 dador 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 thatand I had to swear it was true
before he didhe 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
thenthough they might lateron 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 wasn't.
'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 menand most of them were only boysdid 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
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
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 than that.