The ‘one-armed Irish warrior’ who was a determined opponent of IRA

Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth was born September 7 1885 in Punjab and was the eldest son of George Smyth of Milltown, near Banbridge, Co Down, the High Commissioner in Punjab, and Helen Smyth (née Ferguson).

He grew up in Punjab, was educated at Shrewsbury, and then was privately tutored before he entered the Army in 1905. As a graduate of Woolwich, he received a commission in the Royal Engineers in 1906.

A highly intelligent man, his interests extended to polo, photography and mountaineering and he excelled at mathematics and Spanish. At the outbreak of the Great War he declined the position of Professor of Mathematics at Chatham in order to accompany the British Expeditionary Force to France.

An exemplary officer, he started the war as a captain and rose to become a brevet brigadier-general. He was mentioned in despatches seven times and awarded the DSO twice (and was also awarded both the French and Belgian Croix de Guerre).

Referring to Smyth’s role in the retreat from Mons, Brigadier-General James Walker observed in his memoir that Smyth was ‘the life and soul of the company’ and ‘his Irish humour and pluck did wonders in maintaining discipline’.

Wounded six times, he lost his left arm below the elbow as early as October 1914 (during the Battle of Aisne) while rescuing a wounded soldier under heavy shellfire. However, this was no impediment to his inexorable rise.

In 1916 he was promoted brevet major and in December of that year given command of a battalion of King’s Own Scottish Borderers which was part of Brigadier-General (later Major-General) Sir Hugh Tudor’s 9th (Scottish) Division. His battalion of the KSOB was the only unit to achieve its objective in the Battle of Arras in May 1917. In the regimental history of the KOSB in the Great War Smyth was described as ‘a one-armed Irish warrior of dauntless courage’.

After the war he spent a year at Staff College before taking up command of the 12th Field Company in Cork.

When Tudor took up his appointment as police adviser to Dublin Castle on May 15 1920, he recommended Smyth’s secondment as RIC divisional commissioner for Munster, easily Ireland’s most turbulent province during ‘the Anglo-Irish War.

Smyth was determined to go on the offensive and defeat the IRA insurgency but some RIC men, despite being the IRA’s primary target for murder, were, at best, ambivalent in their attitude to the insurgents.

On June 19 1920 Tudor, Smyth and Inspector John M Regan visited Listowel RIC barracks in Co Kerry. In a briefing to the local officers, Smyth is alleged to have told them: ‘Police and military will patrol the country roads at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but make across the country, lie in ambush, take cover behind fences near roads, and when civilians are seen approaching shout: “Hands up!” Should the order be not obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If the persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets or are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.’

Constable Jeremiah Mee, the ringleader and spokesman for his colleagues, took exception to whatever Smyth had said and refused to obey Smyth or the other officers present.

Although repudiated by Smyth, Tudor and Regan, Mee’s version of the incident made its way into the public domain and into the Freeman’s Journal.

Mee was disaffected because in 1915 he had incurred the displeasure of his superior officer by refusing to enlist in the army and he had antagonised his superiors again by joining the police union formed in early 1918. This was probably why he found himself deployed to Listowel, the centre of a ‘disturbed district’, in 1919. As he certainly had no stomach for taking on the IRA, he was not exactly a loyal subject of King George V, a point underscored by the fact that he became a confidant of Michael Collins.

Mee’s fabrication caused consternation in Dublin Castle, 10 Downing Street and the House of Commons. Smyth was summoned to London to brief Lloyd George, the prime minister. Sir Hamar Greenwood, the chief secretary for Ireland, denied the accuracy of Mee’s account. Even the Freeman’s Journal conceded that Mee’s account was intended to discredit British governance in Ireland.

Mee had highlighted the fact that Smyth was serious and a determined opponent of the IRA who meant business. On the night of July 17 1920, as he was sitting in the smoking room of the Cork and County Club with George Craig, the county inspector of Cork, and two other gentlemen, Smyth was murdered. Even by the violent and brutal standards of the early 1920s, his death was viewed as pretty shocking.

Smyth was buried with full military honours in the family grave at the public cemetery, Newry Road, Banbridge. It was probably the largest funeral the town had ever witnessed.

Major George Osbert Stirling Smyth was Gerald’s youngest brother. He too had served in the Great War, was wounded on three occasions and awarded the Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.

He was serving in Egypt at the time of his brother’s death but secured a transfer to Ireland to assist in suppressing the rebellion.

On October 12 1920, he and a group of soldiers went to the home of Professor Carolan, a lecturer in St Patrick’s Teacher-Training College, Drumcondra, where Osbert was murdered by either Dan Breen or Sean Tracy who were hiding in the house.

Like Gerald, Osbert is buried in Banbridge Municipal Cemetery.