The Rising of 1916 did not take everyone by surprise. According to The Times, ‘those who knew how to read the signs’ believed that it was imminent. [1] Within the Unionist minority in Dublin, voices had complained that for months the rebels were flaunting their ‘arms and accoutrements’ in the streets and proclaimed to the world their disregard for law and order. [2] At a localised level such post-hoc observations might be expected in most situations of serious disorder. In this instance foreknowledge appears sufficiently extensive to obligate a deeper analysis. Other than the insurgents, who knew the Easter Rising was about to happen? What, if anything did they do about it?

Dublin May 1916. The damage in central Dublin was extensive around O'Connell Bridge

The British Secret Services knew. Naval Intelligence had been in possession of German secret codes from mid-October 1914 [3] to the extent that virtually any wireless signal made by the German Navy could be intercepted by a select and very secretive group. [4] It was established at the Admiralty in London, in Room 40, under Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Reginald Hall. Possession of these priceless codes was a strategic coup of the highest order and proved invaluable in guiding the Lusitania towards U-20’s location in 1915. [5] The story of how these codes fell into the Admiralty’s hands stretches credibility [6] but further ‘good fortune’ also delivered the German diplomatic codes to the same people in March 1915. [7] Whether or not the codes originated from the sources stated in official histories is immaterial to the fact that in 1916, British Intelligence monitored Roger Casement’s activities while he was in America and Germany and knew of his intentions to return to Ireland. Room 40 decrypted at least thirty-two cables from the German Embassy in Washington to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin dealing with German support for Irish nationalism. [8] Count Bernstorff, the German Ambassador at Washington, cabled Berlin that an armed uprising was planned for 23 April, Easter Sunday, and requested that rifles, machine-guns and field artillery be provided to support it. Naval Intelligence knew that arms were to be sent in the small steamer Aud, knew the codewords to be broadcast and had more than enough information to closely follow its progress. [9]

Casements’ activities in America and Germany were also betrayed by his manservant and alleged lover, Adler Christensen, to the British minister in Oslo, who passed this to the Foreign Office in London. Sir Edward Grey forwarded the report to the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, the chief secretary for Ireland, Augustine Birrell, and to Lord Kitchener at the War Office. [10] Casement’s letters to the Irish Volunteer’s chief of staff Eoin MacNeill were intercepted en route to Ireland [11] and when he eventually stepped on to Irish soil in Tralee Bay, he was arrested within hours. From the moment he landed back, Roger Casement repeatedly stated that his sole purpose was to stop the rising which he knew to be a ‘fatal mistake’ [12] He had not returned to lead the rebellion but to stop it.

Roger Casement was promptly whisked off to London to be jointly interrogated by Sir Basil Thomson, head of the Criminal Investigation Department, Reginald Hall from the Admiralty and Major, later Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hall (no relation), MI5’s resident Irish Expert. All three were pro-Empire loyalist who followed the Secret Elite agenda with ruthless determination.

Roger Casement - his arrest was kept secret, was were his heart-felt requests.

What Casement did not know was that Frank Hall had been military secretary to the UVF in Ulster, served on the 12-man committee on gun-running and was a signatory to the Solemn League and Covenant.  It was Frank Hall who, as secretary of the Unionist Clubs of Ireland [13] and senior staff officer in the UVF, had forwarded Sir Edward Carson’s letter asking all Ulster Clubs and Orange Lodges to help in the ‘immediate organisation of the UVF’, in August 1913. [14] The British Intelligence Service, and even Churchill himself, relied on Frank Hall’s assumed ‘expertise’ on matters pertaining to Ireland. And he despised Casement. Indeed all of his interrogators treated Roger Casement with contempt.

Was this why Casement’s request to be allowed to appeal publicly to the Irish Volunteers to call off the proposed Easter Rising and stop the useless bloodshed, was refused? Records in the National Archives at Kew confirm Casement’s requests. [15] Sir Ernley Blackwell, legal adviser to the Home Office cited an internal document [16] which recorded that Casement ‘begged to be allowed to communicate with the leaders to try and stop the rising but he was not allowed.’ This request was made before his interrogation at Scotland Yard. Blackwell’s appeal for more information about Casement’s interrogation added ‘On Easter Sunday at Scotland Yard, he implored again to be allowed to communicate or send a message, but they (Thomson and both Halls) refused, saying ‘It’s a festering sore, it’s much better it should come to a head.’ [17] Sir Ernley Blackwell specifically asked Inspector Edward Parker of Special Branch if this claim was true because he had ‘several similar statements from different sources’ which he was anxious to answer. Pertinently, the Home Office legal adviser had to hand ‘several similar’ claims that the interrogators wanted the rebellion to go ahead. [18] And it did.

Consider the awful implications of this admission. The most senior men in British Intelligence knew that the uprising was about to erupt, but refused  to make any effort to prevent it. Indeed, the inference is that they welcomed it. Basil Thomson replied by letter that same day, quoting first from Special Branch shorthand notes. Here Casement stated that: ‘The rising would take place on 23 April whether arms came or not…’ [19] At this point, the Assistant Chief Commissioner wrote that ‘after the shorthand writer left on Easter Sunday, Casement said, ‘I hope you will announce my arrest. I said Why? He said, because if they know that I am taken, nothing will happen, they will know that the game is up. I am positive that he did not ask to send a message, nor did anyone say, ‘It is a festering sore…’ Thomson ended his reply by stating that Casement said he felt it his duty to come and warn the rebels when he learned that the Germans had refused to send men. [20]

Roger Casement escorted by police during his trial.

Thus according the Home Office records, Roger Casement made at least two requests to be allowed to communicate with Dublin to stop the Rising, the last on Easter Sunday. We know that Sir Ernley Blackwell had knowledge of ‘several similar’ statements that the Scotland Yard interrogators had expressed a comment about the need to let the festering sore come to a head. Who else was party to such a momentous decision? To have permitted an uprising against the Crown was treason itself. Yet the colouration of what did and did not constitute treason against the Crown changed hue dependent on whether one’s loyalties were to Ulster or not. Was Frank Hall under instruction? He had nailed his convictions to the union flag in August 1913, when he wrote that [Clubs] ‘must be kept going and encouraged by them in view of the possibility of a general election before the actual passage of the Home Rule Bill, and the consequent outbreak of hostilities.’ [21] Carson’s man had no love for the anti-war rebels in the South. What cannot be denied is that before a shot had been fired, a covert decision been taken to let the Easter Rising go ahead.

Other key members of the Secret Elite had foreknowledge of the outbreak in Dublin. Arthur Balfour, then in charge at the Admiralty, ‘knew beforehand that the rebellion in Ireland would start on Easter Monday 1916 and made naval preparations in advance.’ [22] Furthermore it was Admiralty staff who informed Downing Street about the outbreak of hostilities in Dublin. Balfour had instructed the Duty Officer at the Admiralty to stay constantly in touch with the Post Office in London to monitor the flow of telegrams to and from  Dublin. Immediately the line was blocked, Downing Street was told that that the rebellion had started. [23]

Herbert Asquith and his secretary, Maurice Hankey, another inner-core Secret Elite member [24] were ‘out of town’ and, according to Hankey’s diaries, arrived back in London late that Monday evening (12.30 am.) to be told that the Easter Rebellion had begun. Asquith’s reaction does not appear to include any surprise at all. According to Hankey, ‘Asquith merely said ‘well, that’s really something, and went to bed.’ [25]  Out of town? Merely went to bed? In the midst of a vicious war the prime minister could not be contacted about a rebellion in Ireland? How odd. Why did he not react immediately or ask why he had not been informed earlier or send for up-to-the-moment information, or contact Birrell or react with more concern? Why indeed?

On the morning of Holy Saturday, 1916, the British authorities in Dublin confidently believed that there was no danger of disruption in the city. They had been deliberately kept in the dark. With the capture and sinking of the Aud and consequent loss of arms and ammunition, the military commander in Ireland, Major-General Sir Lovick Friend retired to London for the Easter weekend. Similarly, Augustine Birrell, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was in London to attend a cabinet meeting on the impending and contentious conscription bill. Kept in ignorance of Casement’s statements or requests, Birrell decided to stay there for Easter. His under-secretary in Dublin, Sir Matthew Nathan was so confident that any danger of a rising had passed that he wrote an upbeat assessment for Birrell, though hard liners like Lord Wimborne still pressed for the arrest and internment of the Volunteer leaders. [26] Why had no-one told them what Casement had said? What Casement had offered? Regretfully, we can only surmise that for reasons that were never openly expressed, no warnings were issued through British Intelligence. The given excuse is that intelligence was in its infancy and not properly co-ordinated. How convenient.

The Admiralty Statement to the press that weekend made reference only to the German naval activity around the south coast of Ireland, linked to arms and ammunition. [27] Casement’s arrest and plea to be allowed to stop the Easter Rising was suppressed. Instead the events that transpired were predicated by news of German activity in and around Ireland. This is the context within which the general public learned about the rising.

William St John Brodrick, Lord Midleton

On the following day, the first man into the breach in parliament was Lord Midleton, otherwise known as William St John Brodrick, an intimate member of the Secret Elite [28] and previously Secretary of State for War during the Boer War. As leader of the Unionist Association and Irish landowner, Midleton was primed for battle. He opened the attack with a simple question in the House of Lords, seeking information on the grave disturbances in Dublin [29] before anyone else had grasped the extent of the ‘disturbances’. Next day he was scathing in his attack on Asquith’s government. He dubbed the rebels ‘an organised body of Sinn Feiners’ and this label was stamped across the uprising by the British propagandists, even though Sinn Fein as a political movement had no place in the revolt. His typically partisan analysis criticised the regular Sunday ‘Sinn Feiner’ parades (no mention was made of the Irish Republican Brotherhood or Connolly’s Citizen Army) which, in his view, should have been put down months, if not years before. Similar restrictions were not envisaged in Ulster. Of course, the Gaelic name Sinn Fein sounded foreign to the English ear – why – it looked like German on the printed page.

Midleton’s account of unheeded warnings obligated Lord Lansdowne, at this point a member of the Cabinet, to admit that ‘my noble friend has access to information to which I have not access.’ [30] We should ponder this; these men were pro-unionist allies and friends; both were Secret Elite insiders. Allegedly, Midleton was better informed than the cabinet minister. It was a charade. Asquith’s coalition Cabinet was replete with Unionists in 1916, and since Cabinet Ministers could not offer public criticism of the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the old-fashioned Liberal, Augustine Birrell, the attack was spearheaded by Midleton in the House of Lords. At this juncture, Parliament was first made aware of the arrest of Sir Roger Casement, [31] though the association between Germany and the uprising had been repeated in the press for days.

Police Blockade in Dublin 1916.

What can be fairly deduced is that those to whom the leading officers in British Intelligence were responsible, who knew that the Easter Rising was about to happen did not alert the appropriate government officials in Ireland. Was a decision taken at the highest level to ‘let the festering sore come to a head’? Such a vital decision could never had been taken by Thomson or the Halls. Naval command at Queenstown, led by Admiral Lewis Bayly, had been given explicit instructions to prevent German weapons reaching the Irish mainland, and they did. Knowledge about this and the German connection was shared with Lord Kitchener, Field Marshal French, Commander of the British Home Forces and Major-General Friend in command of the armed forces in Ireland. Yet the army was not put on high alert. Indeed no action was taken which might have forewarned the leaders of the rebellion that the authorities had wind of their intentions. [32]

Usually, the given excuse for not sharing critical information was that military sources were too sensitive or valuable to risk exposure. In this instance the burning question must be, who decided that it was in the best interest of Britain or Ireland or Ulster to let the rebellion take place? There is a worrying conflict between the belief that the rebel Military Council gained an outstanding success in concealing its intentions and the fact that the British military and naval commanders knew about the impending uprising, knew that Casement wanted to call it off, knew that without the guns, ammunition  and men from Germany  it could never succeed.

Consider for a moment the benefits of permitting the rising to go ahead. The damage to the Cabinet Liberals was bound to be extensive, and many within the Secret Elite wanted Asquith out of government. [33] The Ulster Unionists had predicted that the Irish Volunteers could not be trusted. Here was the ultimate vindication of their case. Furthermore, Redmond and Dillon, indeed, everyone inside the Home Rule Party was compromised. What future the Home Rule Act which Unionists wanted to kill in its suspended state? Additionally, it allowed the British government to ruthlessly crush anyone who opposed war in Ireland and sought independence from the Crown; the socialists, the Irish Volunteers, the Citizen Army, trades-unionists and republicans, those who advocated neutrality or were conscientious objectors, the writers and orators, the organisers and sympathisers, all fell victims to suppression.

Whatever else, there were serious winners and losers.

[1] The Times 1 May 1916, p. 10.
[2] Ibid.
[3] see Blog, Lusitania 1: The Tale Of The Secret Miracles.
[4] Patrick Beesley, Room 40, British Naval Intelligence 1914-1918, p. 7.
[5] Colin Simpson, Lusitania, p. 115.
[6] see Blog, Lusitania 1: The Tale Of The Secret Miracles.
[7] Beesley, Room 40, pp. 129-132.
[8] Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, The Authorized History of M15, p. 87.
[9] Beesley, Room 40, pp. 186-7.
[10] These documents still remain classified one hundred years later.
[11] Roger Sawyer, Casement: The Flawed Hero, p. 119.
[12] National Archives, Home Office Records, HO 311643/51.
[13] Timothy Bowman, Carson’s Army, The Ulster Volunteer Force, 1910-22, pp. 22-3.
[14] PRONI D.1518/3/8, Circular Letter from Captain Frank Hall to Unionist Clubs.
[15] National Archives, Papers of the Metropolitan police, 2/10664.
[16] National Archives, Home Office Records HO 311643/51.
[17] National Archives Home Office, MEPO 21/10664.
[18] Letter from Inspector Edward Parker to the Assistant Chief Commissioner, 18/07/1916. NA file MEPO21/10664/C/701389.
[19] Confidential reply, Thomson to Blackwell, 18 July, 1916, page 1. MEPO 21/10664.
[20] Ibid., p. 2.
[21] Bowman, Carson’s Army, pp. 22-3.
[22] Recollections, Vols 1,2, Memoirs of Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Henry Oliver, (unpublished), National Maritime Museum, OLV 12 , p. 165. Cited in G. Sloan, (2013) The British state and the Irish rebellion of 1916: an intelligence failure or an failure of response. Intelligence and National Security, 28 (4). pp. 453-494. ISSN 1743-9019 doi: 10.1080/02684527.2012.735079
[23] Ibid.
[24] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[25] Stephen Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets, Vol 1, 1877-1918, p. 265.
[26] Michael Foy and Brian Barton, The Easter Rising, p. 79.
[27] The Times, 25 April, 1916, p. 4.
[28] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 9 et seu
[29] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 25 April 1916 vol 21 c810.
[30] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 26 April 1916 vol 21 cc827-8.
[31] Ibid., cc826-7.
[32] Foy and Barton,The Easter Rising, p. 65.
[33] A.M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 324.