This is one of a series of articles written by the Irish Marxist, James Connolly, in the newspaper Workers’ Republic during May-July 1915. The articles analyzed insurrections in cities from 1830 to 1905, concluding that the Russian experience in 1905 “succeeded in establishing the fact that even under modern conditions the professional soldier is, in a city, badly handicapped in a fight against determined civilian revolutionists.” As we examine conditions today and street protests, occupations and confrontations, we are led to always think back to the momentous 1916 Rising, how it played out and how since then, the entire Republican & Socialist movement trace their lineage. In transcribing this article, we note how important it is to understand the confrontations that occurred in the past. From the history, we understand the future.
What is interesting is that this pamphlet elongated a set of tactics, yet those tactics were disregarded when the Rising itself occurred and buildings, open to artillery shelling were occupied, rather than the mazes and defiles that Connolly speaks so fondly of. Other historical sources suggest the Rising was supposed to only occur temporarily and the forces would flee to the mountains to adopt a guerrillas struggle, not too dissimilar from the struggle of the flying columns a few years later.
Revolutionary thinkers like Connolly pondered upon these questions at great length, because they were relevant and because they fully intended to begin a revolution.
We should ponder these questions too, for the time for throwing up barricades may yet come.
Alexander Homits – General Secretary
In the military sense of the term what after all is a street? A street is a defile in a city. A defile is a narrow pass through which troops can only move by narrowing their front, and therefore making themselves a good target for the enemy. A defile is also a difficult place for soldiers to maneuver in, especially if the flanks are held by the enemy.
A mountain pass is a defile the sides of which are constituted by natural slopes of the mountain sides, as at the Scalp. A bridge over a river is a defile the sides of which are constituted by the river. A river is a defile the sides of which are constituted by the houses in the street.
To traverse a mountain pass with any degree of safety the sides of the mountain must be cleared by flanking parties ahead of the main body; to pass over a bridge the banks of the river on each side must be raked with gun or rifle fire while the bridge is being rushed; to take a street properly barricaded and held on both sides by forces in the houses, these houses must be broken into and taken by hand-to-hand fighting. A street barricade placed in a position where artillery cannot operate from a distance is impregnable to frontal attack. To bring artillery within a couple of hundred yards – the length of the average street – would mean the loss of the artillery if confronted by even imperfectly drilled troops armed with rifles.
The Moscow revolution, where only 80 rifles were in the possession of the insurgents, would have ended in the annihilation of the artillery had the number of insurgent rifles been 800.
The insurrection of Paris in June 1848 reveals how districts of towns, or villages, should be held. The streets were barricaded at tactical points, not on the main streets but commanding them. The houses were broken through so that passages were made inside the houses along the whole length of the streets. The side walls were loopholed, as were also the front walls, the windows were blocked by sandbags, boxes filled with stones and dirt, bricks, chests and other pieces furniture with all sorts of odds and ends piled up against them.
Behind such defenses the insurgents poured their fire upon the troops through loopholes left for the purpose.
In the attack upon Paris by the allies fighting against Napoleon, a village held in this manner repulsed several assaults by the Prussian allies of England. When these Prussians were relieved by the English these latter did not dare attempt a frontal attack, but instead broke into an end house on one side of the village treet, and commenced to take the houses one by one. Thus all the fighting was inside the houses, and musket fire played but a small part. On one side of the street they captured all the houses, on the other they failed, and when a truce was declared the English were in possession of one side of the village, and their French enemies of the other.
The truce led to a peace. When peace was finally proclaimed the two sides of the village street were held by opposing forces.
The defense of a building in a city, town, or village, is governed by the same rules. Such a building left unconquered is a serious danger even if its supports are all defeated. If it had been flanked by barricades, and these barricades were destroyed, no troops could afford to push on and leave the building in the hands of the enemy. If they did so they would be running the danger of perhaps meeting a check further on, which check would be disastrous if they had left a hostile building manner by an unconquered force in their rear. Therefore, the fortifying of a strong building, as a pivot upon which the defense of a town or village should hinge, forms a principal object of the preparations of any defending force, whether regular army or the insurrectionary.
In the Franco Prussian War of 1870 the chateau, or castle, of Geissberg formed such a position in the French lines on August 4. The Germans drove in all the supports of the French party occupying this country house, and stormed the outer courts, but were driven back by the fire from the windows and loopholed walls. Four batteries of artillery were brought up to within 900 yards of the house and battered away at its walls, and battalion after battalion was hurled against it. The advance of the whole German army was delayed until this one house was taken. To take it caused a loss of 23 officers and 329 men, yet it only had a garrison of 200.
In the same campaign the village of Bazeilles offered a similar lesson of the tactical strength of a well defended line of houses. The German army drove the French off the field and entered the village without a struggle. But it took a whole army corps seven hours to fight its way through to the other end of the village.
A mountainous country has always been held to be difficult for military operations owing to its passes or glens. A city is a huge maze of passes or glens formed by streets and lanes. Every difficulty that exists for the operation of regular troops in mountains is multiplied a hundredfold in a city. And the difficulty of the commissariat which is likely to be insuperable to an irregular or popular force taking to the mountains, is solved or them by the sympathies of the populace when they take to the streets.
The general principle to be deducted from a study of the example we have been dealing with is that the defense is of almost overwhelming importance in such warfare as a popular force like the Citizen Army might be called upon to participate in. Not a mere passive defense of a position valueless in itself, but the active defense of a position whose location threatens the supremacy or existence of the enemy. The genius of the commander must find such a position, the skill of his subordinates must prepare and fortify it, the courage of all must defend it.
Out of this combination of genius, skill and courage alone can grow the flower of military success.
The Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers are open for all who wish to qualify for the exercise of these Qualities.
– James Connolly, Revolutionary Warfare (pamphlet), New Books Publications, Dublin and Belfast, 1968, pp. 32-34