He’s the author of one of the most tastelessly titled autobiographies ever published The Men I Killed. He was a career soldier, a martinet, bounced a few big cheques in his day and then, in one of the great ‘Road to Damascus’ stories of the early twentieth century ended his life as a convinced pacifist. Frank Percy Crozier was nothing if not a mass of contradictions.
But probably his main contribution to Irish history came in 1921 when he confirmed what everybody in this country had known for at least twelve months, namely that the fine body of men he commanded, the RIC Auxiliary Division, was a haven for some of the lowest scum to have represented the interests of the King in Ireland. In essence he substantiated the axiom that the only creature lower than an ‘Auxie’ was a ‘Black and Tan’ by resigning from the force in disgust and returning to tend to his garden, write some books and give a few lectures.
So just who was this delicate flower whose stomach was turned by the extra-curricular activities of his own men? Well, it has to be said that, in the past he had not displayed a notable sensitivity or delicacy of feeling.
Crozier, born in Bermuda of British stock on New Year’s Day 1879, had served through the concentration camps of the Boer War before taking charge of one of the battalions of the 36th Ulster Division in the Great War. He became commanding officer of the 9th Royal Irish Rifles, covenanting loyalists from Protestant West Belfast. While Colonel of the battalion he took a particular interest in excessive drinking in the ranks – he was a reformed alcoholic – and the sexual antics of his charges. In the latter instance his concern was not merely puritanical, a soldier with venereal disease was a soldier out of the trenches and not doing his job, the job of dying horribly for King and Country.
A small pudgy figure with a thin wispy moustache he was, in many respects, the epitome of the cartoon-British officer class. Crozier had the honour, if that is the word I’m after, of leading his men – he called them ‘my Shankhill boys’ – into battle on the infamous 1 July 1916 at the village of Thiepval on the first day of the greatest cock-up in British military history, the Battle of the Somme. Of course he shouldn’t have been in No Man’s Land at all, commanding officers were given strict instructions not to go ‘over the top’. Crozier was one of two Colonels in the 36th to ignore the order. In the heat of battle he recorded that he was obliged, on more than one occasion, to threaten the lives of sensible combatants whose response to the murderous German fusillade, was to turn tail and run back to their own trenches. Crozier, waving a revolver in the air, turned these potential deserters around and sent them back to almost certain death or injury.
Crozier survived the opening day of the Somme campaign and was recommended for a Victoria Cross. The men who had sought the safety of the trenches during the battle didn’t have a vote. He was told, through channels, that it was touch and go whether he would get a VC or a court martial for insubordination. A compromise was reached and he got neither! A highly successful recruiting officer for the 36th he once promised the family of one young soldier, with whom he happened to share a surname, that he would look after their son James. He discharged this obligation by subsequently officiating at the execution of young James Crozier for cowardice.
After the war, where he rose to the rank of Brigadier General, he assumed control of the force of British ex-servicemen sent in 1920, to stiffen the opposition of the Royal Irish Constabulary to the IRA. The RIC Auxiliary rapidly became just as unpopular as the better-known, but no better loved, RIC Special Reserve, or the infamous ‘Black and Tans’. He quickly became disillusioned with the levels of indiscipline and the predilection for drunken retaliation among the members of his force. In February 1921 he dismissed 21 Temporary Cadets, as they were officially known, for their depredations during raids on Trim and Drumcondra. When he was overruled by his own commanding officer, Chief of Police Henry Hugh Tudor, he submitted his resignation. Not the first time a Percy was slapped around by a Tudor.
This principled gesture cost him dearly. England expected … and Percy had not lived up to expectations. He was forced to resort to writing and lecturing to earn a living. He also became a convinced pacifist and supporter of the anti-war Peace Pledge Union established in Britain in 1934. Crozier died in 1937 at the age of 58.
Francis Percy Crozier, commanding officer of the RIC Auxiliary Division, resigned from his post in disgust at the behaviour of his own men, ninety-five years ago, on this day.
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