Monday, July 20, 2009

The not-so-good and not-so-great, number 16

The family Macready

It's been a while since Malcolm added to his portrait gallery of grotesques. Here comes another.

As will become evident, it's often not what one does, but what one neglects to do that marks out a moment of greatness.

First, though, a moment of genealogical reflection. How about this:
  • Cecil Frederick Nevil Macready, born 7 May 1862, died 9 June 1946; son of --
  • William Charles Macready, born 3 March 1793, died 27 April 1873; son of --
  • William Macready, born 1755, died 11 April 1829.
Just three generations take us from George II to George VI, from the publication of Johnson's Dictionary to Animal Farm, from the Seven Years War to the Cold War, from Major George Washington of His Majesty's loyal Virginia militia to the 33rd President Harry S Truman, from gunpowder to the atom bomb and ballistic missiles.
[In the fourth generation, Sir Gordon Macready, son of Nevil Macready, 1891-1956, was also a soldier, reprising his father's career in Egypt and in the War Office, ending up as Head of the British Army Mission in Washington, 1942-46. He was part of the British delegation at Potsdam in 1945.]
The first of those Macreadys was a Dubliner, who served his apprenticeship as an upholsterer in his father's firm, then became an actor, first in Ireland, then at Covent Garden, and finally owning theatres across provincial towns and cities. When he died, as a respected member of the freemasons, he was buried with some honour in Bristol Cathedral.

The Great Macready

In 1810, aged 17, he was playing Romeo in Birmingham. The following year it was Hamlet in Newcastle, where he also played opposite Sarah Siddons. By 1815 he could command a stellar salary of £50 a week; and was being courted by London managements.

For nearly half-a-century, William Charles Macready trod the boards, in all the great London theatres, around the provincial circuit, on three American tours, and on the Continent.

His achievements were to restore authenticity to Shakespearean performances, introduce texts to the repertoire, and to encourage ensemble playing with a new rigour of extended rehearsals.

For our purposes here, it is significant that in his retirement he remarried: he was 67, she was 33. They had one son, who was:

(Cecil Frederick) Nevil Macready

His father was opposed to a career in the theatre. Macready grew up surrounded by creative types, but claimed he was "far too lazy" to develop an artistic talent. So, he went to Sandhurst and a commission in the Gordon Highlanders.

Aged 19, he was involved in the Egyptian Campaign, and at the battle of Tell al-Kabir. That led to being staff lieutenant and garrison adjutant at Alexandria, responsible for military policing. After five years (and marriage to a County Cork girl) he was back with his regiment in the Indian Empire. Promoted to Captain, he was posted to Dublin. Then back to India with the 2nd Battalion, which was about to be transferred to South Africa.

That put (now Major) Macready inside the siege of Ladysmith (1899-1900). Another promotion, to Lt-Colonel, and he was tasked to control cattle-rustlers in Zululand. Staff jobs in the Cape Colony meant mentions in dispatches and a full colonelship in 1903.

In 1907 he was assistant adjutant-general in the War Office, responsible for military discipline and liaising over the use of troops to support the civil power. For a year he was officer in command of the 2nd infantry brigade at Aldershot; promoted major-general, and back at the War Office in time for miners' strikes in South Wales and anticipated trouble over Irish Home Rule.

Two things were working in his favour: he was known to be a "safe pair of hands" and to have liberal and democratic sympathies. These characteristics were about to be tested.

The coal disputes of 1910-12

In November 1910 Macready was sent to command the troops supporting the police in South Wales, where the miners had gone on strike against the coal combine. Macready insisted that his soldiers served under the direct authority of the Home Office, thus ensuring local magistrates could not use them in any possible re-run of the Peterloo massacre.

Macready was also creatively dilatory in responding to Churchill, the Home Secretary, issuing instructions for military involvement. Haldane was Minister of War and held the troops up at Swindon, only to be over-ruled by Churchill, who telegrammed Macready, now the Southern Commander, to send cavalry into "the disturbed district ... without delay". Macready discreetly negotiated this down to a detachment of cavalry at Pontypridd (where they took little part in the strike) and the Lancashires, the Munsters and the Yorkshire infantry supporting the police. Only one serious situation developed: the police were stoned at Penygraig, and soldiers with fixed bayonets were paraded as a deterrent.

Both in South Wales, and in the 1912 national coal strike, Macready avoided the worst effect of military intervention, so not further inflaming a charged situation. A knighthood followed.

Ireland and Home Rule

In the last two years of "peace", Ireland boiled over. First the Unionists, then the Nationalists armed themselves as "Volunteers". In March 1914 came the trauma of the Curragh Mutiny. Macready was nominated as the potential "military governor" in Belfast in the event of a full-blown civil war.


By the summer of 1914 Ireland's troubles were eclipsed by the outbreak of war with Germany. Macready was off on another mission, as adjutant-general of the British Expeditionary Force. This was the dirty end of the stick: one of his main tasks was burial of the dead, which in the early months was a disgrace. His achievement was identifying Fabian Ware (already co-ordinating Red Cross operation) as the key man to run the business of recording graves (out of which came the Imperial War Graves Commission).

In February 1916, Macready was recalled to London as adjutant-general to the forces, which made him responsible for maintaining the strength of the army in the field. He addressed this by job-substitution, particularly in the use of women to replace male workers where possible.

Another crisis, another rôle:in 1918 the Metropolitan Police went on strike over pay and union recognition. Macready, now a full General, and against his best judgement, was appointed Commissioner. He promptly bought off the pay demand, and arranged a form of collective representation: when there was a further strike (in August 1919) Macready sacked the strikers and discipline was restored.

Ireland, again

In the spring of 1920 Macready was induced ( a £5,000 "disturbance allowance" was involved) to accept command of the army in Ireland. Another motive was loyalty to Lord French, now the Lord Lieutenant. Equally, sending an administrator and policeman (rather than an exponent of the mailed fist) to run the army in Ireland, suggests that Britain was already seeking an accommodation rather than a "solution".

Macready was in an impossible position. His intelligence systems were hopelessly compromised. The First Dáil was setting up a parallel administration: as the Daily Herald (quoted by Diarmaid Ferriter) put it, in November 1919:
This invisible republic with its hidden courts and its prohibited volunteer troops exists in the hearts of the men and women of Ireland and wields a moral authority which all the tanks and machine guns of King George cannot command.
Ex-servicemen returning to Ireland found themselves treated as traitors: 46% of them remained unemployed (in Britain it was about 10%). In effect, Macready arrived and was confronted by a simple fact:
the virtual collapse of British government in Ireland by 1920.
What Macready could achieve was a sense of purpose, and a saner approach to security policy, as the countryside declined further into a state of insurrection. New troops and equipment, motor transport and armoured cars, were brought in. In one important matter, Macready blinked: he refused to take responsibility for the RIC, although he concurred with the deployment of the RIC auxiliaries (the Black and Tans). So, by ignorance or wilful neglect, Macready ensured that there was no unity of command, the police were not militarised (there is evidence that regular RIC men were totally disaffected with the Auxiliaries), and that reprisals continued. In a negative way, that was Macready first (of three) contributions.

In any case, the War of Independence was effectively lost and won on the eve of Easter Day, 192o. That was when the IRA took out all the tax-record offices, and burned 315 abandoned RIC barracks (thus preventing reoccupation).

By the early summer of 1921 Macready was advising London that there was no scope for a concerted drive against the IRA:
There are, of course, one or two wild people about who still hold the absurd idea that if you go on killing long enough peace will ensue. I do not believe it for one moment, but I do believe that the more people are killed, the more difficult will be the final solution.
That was the second important contribution, and a very positive one, Macready made to the future of Anglo-Irish relations. And thereby hung Lloyd George's attempts to find a treaty formula.

The Four Courts

The third of those contributions occurred in June 1922. A Treaty had been signed, and some sort of settlement had been cobbled together. The only group wholly satisfied with the outcome was the Ulstermen with their own toy parliament in Belfast, while Macready was over-ruled when he resisted the creation of the B Specials.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had been in occupation at Dublin's Four Courts since 14th April. The Free "Partition" State Election took place on 16th June.

Then, Sir Henry Wilson, the machinator of the Orange cabal, "the greatest intriguer who ever wore the King’s uniform", and now a Unionist MP, was assassinated (22nd June). This placed enormous strains on the Lloyd George coalition (it was a main factor in the Tory backbench revolt which prompted the collapse of the coalition). Churchill, Secretary of State for the Colonies and a signatory of the Treaty, went ape. In a spectacular miscall, he ordered Macready to send the British forces still in the Dublin garrison to reduce the Four Courts. Macready wisely procrastinated, while Michael Collins sent the Free State forces in to do the job. Thus a further, and unnecessary Anglo-Irish crisis was avoided.

Macready retired from his lifetime of Imperial service in 1923, and received a baronetcy for his troubles. Sphere: Related Content

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