Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Trouble & Strife - the military career of Pvt. James Cutting Part 2

The Fenians were what we would now call a terrorist group, founded in the United States in 1858 with the aim of  driving Ireland out of the British Empire. An Irish American organisation, they even staged a few raids into Canada with veterans of the civil war. Opponents of the Fenians in Canada and Ireland were murdered and there was an assassination attempt on Prince Alfred in Sydney in 1868. But agitation in Ireland, and amongst Irish migrants to Britain, was the main aim.

In 1865 Fenians tried to organise a revolt in Ireland, collecting up to 6,000 firearms, but they were hopelessly infiltrated by the British and in September most of the leadership was arrested. Nonetheless, in early 1867 there were a series of failed uprisings in Kerry, Limerick, Cork and Dublin. In the largest engagement at Tallaght south of Dublin, on the 5th of March, several hundred armed Fenians were driven off and dispersed by the local Irish Constabulary.

There were also plans for England using Irish emigrants, including an ambitious attempt to take over the armoury at Chester castle, again foiled by good intelligence. In September 1867 a group attempting to rescue one of their leaders from a prison van attacked it with revolvers, and were later captured and executed for murdering one of the prison guards. In December an attempt to dynamite the wall of Clerkenwell prison in London caused the demolition of several tenement buildings in the street opposite, killing 12 people and injuring over 50. Again the organiser was quickly caught and hanged.

The Coldtream Guards were in the thick of these events. On 20th February 1866 the 1st battalion were rushed to Dublin at 24 hours notice, leaving behind any men unfit for active service, and they remained there until March 1867. It can hardly have been a pleasant tour of duty, not least as they had to police other regiments suspected of infiltration. For example, a party of the 1st battalion and Dublin police raided Pilsworth's public house in James St and arrested three soldiers of the 86th regiment, including a corporal who was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment and 50 lashes. Prisoners from Tallaght were escorted into Dublin by two companies of the Coldstream, and a troop of Scots Greys. The Illustrated London News of the time describes the Fenians as mostly youths or rabble, but with men "of more soldierly aspect and carriage who had served in the late civil war in America".

Illustrated London News March 16 1867.  Coldstream Guards escorting prisoners through Dublin.

On returning to London the 1st battalion were commended on their discipline, zeal and cheerfulness. They were relieved by the 2nd, who likewise served in Dublin for a year, at the end being commended for their good conduct "during trying times, and when the men were exposed to mischievous temptations".

Whilst the battalion in Dublin certainly had a trying time during these years, it was not a bed of roses for those in London. During 1866 and 67 a Reform Bill was passing through Parliament which, eventually, gave the vote to all male householders. However, this was not the original intention of the bill, and it was only after many public demonstrations, and a "bidding war"between Disraeli and Gladstone that the bill was passed. Towards the end of July 1867 all leave of the 2nd battalion was cancelled and officers were recalled, and magistrates were attached to all the London barracks should the army be required to aid the civil power.

Disturbances continued into 1867, with on several occasions the public guards at Buckingham  and Kensington palaces and other sites being doubled. Things reached a head with the terrorist attack on Clerkenwell in Dec 1867. All leave, drills and exercises were cancelled, and a party of the 1st battalion was immediately sent to Clerkenwell consisting of 3 officers and 100 men with loaded rifles. A piquet of 100 men under  a captain guarded the barracks and guards were posted on Millbank prison and small arm factories throughout London. At the the Tower of London, where the 1st battalion was stationed, patrols were mounted all night around the outer ditches and surrounding wharfs. Leave continued to be suspended over Christmas and things only started to return to normal in January.

So James had a busy couple of years, not with wars but police actions in Ireland and London, as well as having to learn to use the new Snider-Enfield breech loading rifle, introduced following the success of the Prussian version in wars against Denmark and Austria. It should be noted however that James was awarded Good Conduct pay at 1d/ day, on 16th November 1867, a reward for men after "meritorious conduct".

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