Field Marshal Sir George White VC held almost every honour the British Army could bestow, especially after his defence of Ladysmith (which was a traumatic battle for the British Government since the public was shaken by the fact that the Boers were defeating the ‘invincible’ British Army, and needed a successful siege or two, at least, to restore conﬁdence).
He belonged to the Anglo-Irish landowning class, the equivalent of Germany’s “Junkers”, who one as the other supplied the most militaristic of ofﬁcers, born as they were with a garrison mentality, surrounded in their infancy by an alien peasantry of an alien faith.
Sir George’s son, born in Co. Antrim in 1879, James Robert (always known as Jack) White, naturally went into the Army, first saw action in Magersfontein (South Africa) crushing a Boer rebellion. It was a strange beginning for his subsequent political career; but he learned to hate militarism even though accepting the fact of war. At Doorknop he was one of the first to go over the top to find one terrified boy of 17 left in the redoubt. As the rest came over the ridge one officer cried, “Shoot him” and White is said to have replied, “Do so, and I’ll shoot you.” Hardly the stuff of which lifelong militarists are made.
White got the DSO (but that may have been a tribute to his father the General); later he went as aide de camp to his father as Governor of Gibraltar — when he learned rudimentary Spanish that later served him in good stead.
Soon after he dropped out of the Army and bummed around Europe, teaching in Bohemia (which had in those days a strong attraction for liberal minded people, standing in relation to Austria as Ireland to England), working as a ranch hand in Canada and finishing back in Ireland. It was the pinnacle of Carsonism. Sir Edward Carson was organising the Protestants into a bigoted Toryism, preparing to use, if necessary, armed insurrection against the Liberal Government if it went ahead with Home Rule. J R. White organised one of the first Protestant meetings, at Ballymoney, to rally Protestant opinion against the Unionist Party with its “bigotry and stagnation” that associated the ethnic identity of Northern Irish Protestants with conservatism. Another Protestant, Sir Roger Casement, coming from the titled establishment, also spoke.
Protestants had in fact for years been in the forefront ‘of ﬁghting for Irish independence. It was natural that the industrialised part of the country, the North, which happened to be where the Protestant workers were, and where the Anglo‘-Irish gentry had as great a dominance as elsewhere on the island, should be in the forefront of struggle. It was only when the working class of the north began to fear wage under-cutting from the Irish Catholics in the south that tensions began; these were skillfully fanned by the “gentry” and in particular Carson (coming from a successful career as an English lawyer and making a Tory come-back against the Liberal Party victories in England) provoked the tensions that have never since subsided. It never occurred to Protestants like White, any more than it had done to Wolfe Tone, that there was any conﬂict in independence for Ireland and belonging to an ethnic minority over the country. The Northern Protestants were far less anti-Catholic than many Republicans, coming from a Catholic background, were anti-clerical. The R.C. Church was then the enemy of republicanism and excommunicated those who resisted.
The hierarchy, cast into a Statist mould ever since the settlement of Maynooth whereby the (anti-Catholic) English Tories endowed a seminary for Irish (RC) priests thus introducing the only priests regarded favourably by the English upper class, the French refugee priests (bitterly anti-revolutionary and hating anything that savoured of disloyalty to the State) who inﬂuenced generation after generation with the doctrine of non-resistance. It was this principle of non- resistance that led inevitably to violence later. It meant that the police repression also conducted by the military could ride over the people unmolested; until the point came where resistant violence erupted.
White in the Labour Movement
As a result of Ballymoney, J R White was invited to Dublin. There he met James Connolly and there he was converted to socialism (though he told me once he had originally accepted the principle of libertarian socialism in Bohemia but had been ‘re-introduced’ to socialism, as syndicalism and as Marxism, in Dublin). He was always more of a syndicalist than a Marxian socialist (he described himself at the time as a guild socialist).
It was Connolly’s syndicalism (the SLP-brand) that impressed him at the time. He offered his services to the strike committee in Liberty Hall (centre of the Irish Labour movement in Dublin) speaking on platforms alongside Bill Haywood (of the Chicago-based IWW) and Connolly, as well as well-known figures who supported the strike (such as Sheehy Skeffington). A Peace Committee was formed with a view to conciliation in the great Dublin lockout; under White’s chairmanship it became the Civic Committee, and his proposal to form a Citizens’ Army, the strikers being drilled by him, was enthusiastically accepted. From being a figure popular in the Irish socialist movement as coming from the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy and lending it respectability, he had become a major figure in the working class movement.
At a mass meeting of strikers James Larkin and J. R. White called for volunteers for military training, as a defence force. Some ten thousand were there, and almost all volunteered. They were directed to the Transport Union hall — only forty came, but it was a beginning, and it grew to 250. The strike never came to a confrontation, however. It had almost petered out when, at Butt Bridge, police charged an unemployed procession led by White and four other Citizens Army men. They fought desperately all the way to the police station.
This battle shocked Irish opinion — which was much more conservative and restrained than subsequent nationalist agitation and the current labour struggles would suggest. A more respectable organisation, the Irish Volunteers, was organised by the John Redmond wing of the Irish parliamentary party. Then came the bombshell, the Curragh Mutiny. British Army officers, organised by Carson, declared they would not obey orders to march against the Ulster Volunteers, the Protestant force that had been set up in Belfast with strong Establishment support. It opposed the British Liberal Government’s policy of evolution, and threatened armed rebellion if it went forward with its plans.
The Irish Volunteers declared that what was presumed legal in the case of the Ulster Volunteers must surely be legal for them; and the Citizen Army declared that Irish workers too had the right to bear arms. White offered the fully equipped and drilled Citizens Army at the disposal of the Irish Volunteers to receive the extraordinary reply that it could not possibly enter into relations with a body that had recently been in conﬂict with the police!
White was determined however to make a stand and offered his personal services to the Irish Volunteers, his place in the Citizens Army being taken by Larkin. He went to Derry, where there was a brigade of Volunteers largely ex-British Army like himself. But he was shaken by the “sectarian” attitudes he found. Coming from Dublin, where these attitudes did not exist, he could not understand the hatred what had grown up between Catholic and Protestant workingmen in the North. When he tried to reason with them, they merely took for granted he was “defending his own”. He was asked bluntly whether he would ﬁght against the Loyalists. White replied unequivocally No. “My aim is to unite Irishmen against England, not to divide them among themselves.” For that answer he was removed from his command. He had taken another command of Volunteers in Tyrone when World War I broke out.
War & the Republic
It is a mistake to think that Ireland as a whole had taken a firm anti-imperialist stand by 1914, or even by 1916. Redmond offered fullest support for the war. The nationalists were out on a limb. Casement sought the co-operation of Germany on the grounds that England’s peril was Ireland’s opportunity; Connolly and Larkin not supporting the war, confined themselves to labour struggles at the beginning; Padraig Pearse and those who opposed the war were very much a minority without popular support. White thought (like Redmond), that this was Ireland’s opportunity if she co-operated. Many others had the same idea of rewards for co-operation in the wonderful new world that would be created after the war, and some of them got them too — (like the women’s suffrage movement, or the Zionists). He thought the Volunteers could be transformed into a defence force within Ireland, and so relieve the Army. This was regarded with suspicion and rejected by Whitehall, when Captain White joined an Australian ambulance unit, his association with Casement — going back to their joint meeting in Ballymoney — was held against him and he was constantly under suspicion of being a spy.
He became disgusted with the horrors of the war and was leaving his unit when he heard of the 1916 rising. The labour movement of Connolly and Larkin had united with the Nationalists to declare a Republic. It was short-lived, receiving little support. Pearse certainly never expected that it would. Public opinion was with the Irish soldiers fighting overseas, and felt that a rising was “stabbing them in the back”. But the unexpected brutal repression, in which the British Army did not hesitate to shell Dublin, caused a revulsion that spread through the whole country, and led finally to the establishment of the Free State.
Most of the leaders of the rebellion were sentenced to be shot (with the exception of the American-born De Valera). Connolly, wounded, had to be taken on a stretcher to his execution. White took the one step that he felt might save Connolly — he rushed to South Wales and tried to bring the Welsh miners out on strike. For that he was sentenced to three months imprisonment.
In the Wilderness
He had been, he felt, consistent, but was left in a political wilderness. He was for an independent Ireland in which both communities could, he felt, exist together. It was possible in the South; it was in the North that he ran up against suspicion and bigotry on both sides. From then on he was regarded as a “Shinner” by the Loyalists of the North, one who had opposed the war and supported the Taigs; and as an Orangeman by the republicans, one who had supported the war!
He moved towards the Communist Party, which with the opening up of the Russian Revolution, seemed to offer hope for the world. But he never joined it, having reservations about its plans for Ireland. The position of John MacLean in Scotland appealed to him. He approached MacLean with a view of a Socialist Republic movement in Ireland, and worked for a time with Sylvia Pankhurst’s anti-parliamentary communist movement.
He wanted to organise a Citizens’ Army of strikers once again, this time in England, at the time of the General Strike. The Communist Party had a fit when it was proposed to them. It is an odd commentary on his background that he was immediately approached by the Imperial Fascisti, who were indeed organising a “citizens’ army” very much approved of by the authorities, who had heard he wanted to do the same thing and assumed automatically that it must be against the strikers! Was he not an Irish Protestant? That attitude made White furious. He was emphatically against the Establishment and an anti-fascist from the beginning. He was in Italy during the workers’ occupation of the factories: once again he wanted to use his British Army training to form a citizens’ army. Nobody in the socialist movement wanted to know; the only ones using force against the Fascists were the Anarchists. At that time White retained the bourgeois prejudice against Anarchist thought and would not contact them.
His private life became an obsession to Jack White. He had always opposed the bigotry that said the Roman Catholic Church was a menace. Now he became to be aware that after all, there was something to be said for that point of view. The intolerant Protestants could not say the R.C. Church was intolerant if it were not the case. Priests began to intervene in his married life. His domestic disagreements led to a series of kidnappings of the daughter in a tug-of-love case complicated by difference of religion. He was obsessed with this question during the thirties. Politically he took the line of the IRA then in its Stalinist period, the present Officials. But he was increasingly perturbed about the growth of fascist support coming from the Catholic wing. “The green of Ireland is being corrupted by the mustard gas of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia”, he said. Though in the main Irish fascism came from those who had fought against the IRA in the civil war, following the formation of the Free State, there were elements in the IRA too, some of which later came to found the Provisionals.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War brought White’s contention to a head. The Irish fascist movement, under General O’Duffy, immediately organised to send a contingent to help General Franco. The IRA organised an Irish column to fight him. It was a natural command for Capt. White.
Incidentally the Irish Republican Brigade was a proof of how “Catholics” and “Orangemen” could work together in a common cause. In the first months of the Spanish war it did sterling work. White was thrilled with the collectivisation in Spain, and also with the volunteer militia. He learned with amazement that this was the work of the Anarchists (from whom he had refrained in Italy). In addition to his work with the Irish Brigade at the front, he showed Spanish volunteer militia how to use ﬁrearms, and also train women in the villages on the way to Saragossa on the use of small arms for defence. What, however, he could not stomach was the fact that the Communist Party was increasingly manipulating the Irish, like the rest of the International Brigade. He had never accepted the CP; he had just not seen an alternative. Now he saw an alternative.
There was a clash between Jack White and Frank Ryan, the CP’s top man — who accused White of being a “Trotskyite” and a traitor, in the same way that he had been accused in Derry of being an “Orangeman” and a traitor! It is interesting in regard to record that Frank Ryan, at the close of the Civil War, went from a Spanish prison to work for Hitler only a matter of months after the civil war had ended (to opposition from the CP who thought it should go on and were unaware that Moscow would change the line). White offered his services to the CNT, relinquishing his International Brigade command.
The policy of the CNT was that they did not want foreign volunteers. They had enough support at the time. What they wanted was arms. They wanted people on the outside desperately. Unlike the CP who wanted to build up artificial support within Spain, they wanted support outside Spain where there was barely any at all. They also wanted the International Brigades dissolved but did not like openly to say so. They knew they were being used to build up CP support but the public as a whole was sold on the idea of support from the outside world with the “inevitable” but mythical eventual Russian intervention. White was asked to do his best to dissolve the Irish Brigade, and to work for the CNT in London. In the course of a few months in Spain he had become a convinced Anarchist. His pamphlet on Anarchism follows this introduction.
I met White in 1937 when we were organising support to Spain. The “ambassador” for the CNT-FAI in London was Emma Goldman. They spoke at a number of meetings together though there was a clash of opinion between them.
It may seem curious to those who think of Emma Goldman in terms of her pre-WWI campaigns in the USA; but whereas White was in favour of including such matters as sexual emancipation into propaganda, she vigorously opposed it. “The essential thing now is Spain, Spain, Spain,” she insisted.
It was also instructive to listen to the discussions between Matt Kavanagh and Jack White. Kavanagh was a Liverpool-Irish worker, his experiences totally different from White’s. For the young Anarchists of the 30s, of whom I was one, and right until the 1950s, Matt was our link with the traditional working class Anarchism of the past and our mentor as no other. They worked together on a survey of Irish labour and Irish aspirations, in relation to Anarchism.
With much else, including White’s study of the little known Cork “Soviet”, unfortunately, this is irretrievably lost. (White died in Ireland in 1946 and his heirs disposed of his papers). Their study would have been very applicable today, with the situation in the North of Ireland, where the best of both Protestant militants and Catholic militants are moving increasingly to a libertarian position; but not knowing how it can be maintained in the “realities” of the situation.
Albert Meltzer (1981)