Private Stanley William Steward (aged 25) of the 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment (Crossbarry ambush)
Date of incident: 19 March 1921
Sources: Death Certificate, 19 March 1921; CE, 21, 22, 23 March 1921; FJ, 22 March 1921; CC, 23 March 1921; CCE, 26 March 1921; Military Inquests, WO 35/152/75 (TNA); Peter Kearney’s WS 444, 5-9 (BMH); William Norris’s WS 595, 9-11 (BMH); William Desmond’s WS 832, 37-44, 48-49 (BMH); Michael Coleman’s WS 1254, 13-16 (BMH); William McCarthy’s WS 1255, 8-11 (BMH); Timothy Warren’s WS 1275, 14-15 (BMH); Timothy Keohane’s WS 1295, 9-11 (BMH); Daniel Holland’s WS 1341, 9-12 (BMH); Michael J. Crowley’s WS 1603, 18-20 (BMH); James Doyle’s WS 1640, 17-20 (BMH); Florence Begley’s WS 1771, 1-5 (BMH); Rebel Cork’s FS, 157-60; Barry (1949, 1989), 124; Deasy (1973), 348-50; ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 93-97; Kautt (2010), 138-48; irishmedals.org (accessed 28 July 2014); Commonwealth War Graves Commission; http://www.cairogang.com/soldiers-killed/list-1921.html (accessed 8 Aug. 2014); http://www.cairogang.com/soldiers-killed/crossbarry-ambush/steward/steward.htm; http://www.cairogang.com/soldiers-killed/crossbarry-ambush/crossbarry.html (accessed 8 Aug. 2014).
Note: Private Steward was killed in the Crossbarry ambush of 19 March 1921. Crown forces had acquired intelligence that the headquarters and an arms dump of the Flying Column of the West Cork Brigade was located in the Crossbarry area. In an attempt to find these IRA men a party of roughly seventy soldiers of the Essex Regiment travelling on lorries decamped in the area; it was the smaller British party remaining with the lorries who were ambushed by the Flying Column. See Sheehan (2011), 150-51. In terms of fatalities the IRA came off far better than the crown forces.
The Daily Mail of London reported on 21 March that three British military lorries ‘were literally blown up’, and that when a hundred soldiers of the Hampshire Regiment finally arrived as reinforcements, ‘they found the first party almost all killed or wounded’. According to a report in ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, the fatal British casualties included two officers of the Essex Regiment and seven other soldiers, of whom four were from ordinary ranks of the Essex and three were from ordinary ranks of the Royal Army Service Corps, with one policeman killed in addition (a total of ten dead). In its report on the removal of the bodies of the military and police victims at Crossbarry from Cork Military Barracks to the Glanmire railway station, the Cork Examiner of 23 March 1921 commented on the presence of ten coffins. The ambush was also notable for the British military reprisals that followed it. The Times reported that during the military operations carried on by the nearly three hundred reinforcements, ‘several farmhouses appeared to be blown up’. At the close of the same article the correspondent declared: ‘For miles around, houses and farm produce are reported to have been burned.’ For extracts from these newspaper reports, see Deasy (1973), App. E, 348-50. Private Steward was buried at Romford in north-east London.
William Desmond, captain of the Newcestown Volunteer Company, had a unique view of the immediate aftermath of the Crossbarry ambush site. He had been captured by British forces just before the ambush as he was proceeding on Tom Barry’s order to the nearby farmhouse of the Humphrey Forde family at Ballymurphy, where Charlie Hurley, the commander of the Cork No. 3 Brigade, was still recuperating from a badly sprained ankle. Well before Desmond could reach him as a special guard, Hurley had been shot and killed by British forces. When the British captured Desmond, they made him join two other captives in pulling a trap bearing a dead body towards Crossbarry: ‘I was made get between the shafts [of the trap] again, and with the two others and the old man [Humphrey Forde’s father] walking behind, I was made pull it down to the actual scene of the ambush. It was a sight I won’t easily forget. There were soldiers dead and wounded lying all over the road between Beasley’s and Harold’s [two Protestant farmers whose houses had been used by the ambushers]. There was a lorry which had apparently run up against the fence after the driver was shot, and a soldier still alive and wounded [was] wedged between the lorry and the fence along by Harold’s. Further down the road, another lorry was on fire. At this time I saw no sign of I.R.A. casualties, only military [ones]. I expected the whole [IRA] column to have been wiped out, but there wasn’t a sign of one of them. [He later saw three dead Volunteers.] It was then we were ordered to take the body out of the trap, and when I realised who was there, I nearly dropped dead myself. I got the greatest shock I ever got, I think, when I saw it was Charlie Hurley. We were ordered to bring him in and lay him down in the yard beside some of the dead soldiers. We then collected the wounded British and carried them into Beasley’s and Harold’s houses, where they were attended to by soldiers and by some of the women of those families. We also had to shift the lorry and take the wounded man out from where he was pinioned between it and the fence. Then we had to collect the dead soldiers, 18 of them [an exaggerated number], and we laid them side by side in Harold’s yard. We were getting kicked and beaten all the time by the military.’ For Desmond, who was soon brought to Bandon Military Barracks, there were numerous other beatings to follow.
On the morning of 22 March at the barracks, recalled Desmond, “There appeared to be unusual activity about 10 o’clock. We were ordered out on the barrack square again, driven there with the usual kicking. A big number of coffins, 18 altogether, were mounted on trestles. They were better looking coffins than the ones our men went into. We were lined up, with soldiers lined up all around us. We were told we were I.R.A. soldiers and to stand to attention. This we didn’t do and didn’t pretend to know any military orders or drill. There were clergymen there, and they read a burial service and sang some hymns. Arms were presented several times by the military, and finally the coffins were put on Crossley tenders and driven out of the barrack gates.’ See William Desmond’s WS 832, 37-44, quotes on 40-41, 48-49 (BMH).
The British army reported that 146 soldiers had been deployed in the operation, which was only a fraction of the 1,370 members of the crown forces claimed by Tom Barry in his Guerrilla Days in Ireland. See ‘The Irish Rebellion in the 6th Division Area’, Irish Sword, 27 (Spring 2010), 93-97; Barry (1949, 1989), 124. In the aftermath of the Crossbarry ambush, the question arose as to why British troops had concentrated around Crossbarry on 19 March. IRA leaders came to believe that one of their own men, later named as Patrick Coakley, the former captain of the Knockavilla [Knockaveale] or Crosspound Company, was responsible. He had been captured or had surrendered in the tragically abortive Upton train ambush of 15 February 1921. Though the British had sent him before a court martial, he was never sentenced but was merely interned at Bere Island ‘after having been in Cork [city] for a time’. While in British custody, he had given up ‘many vital facts’ relating to the headquarters of the West Cork Brigade and to the movements of senior brigade officers. Flor Begley told the Bureau of Military History that the traitorous Volunteer had eventually confessed: ‘At the general release of prisoners from internment camps late in 1921 this gentleman (coy. capt.) approached a local I.R.A. man on his arrival home and volunteered a statement of what occur[r]ed after his arrest at Upton, and he clearly stated that he gave certain information whilst under the influence of drugs, etc., etc. He was later court-martialled by senior I.R.A. officers and sentenced to death subject to G.H.Q. sanction. Sentence was commuted to exile for life, it being Truce times. Now it was undoubtedly as a result of this man’s information that the British happened by accident to come in contact [in such great numbers] with the [IRA] column at Crossbarry.’ See Florence Begley’s WS 1771, 4 (BMH).