In this edition, we publish the winning entry from the school essay competition organised by Westmeath County Council between September and November 2022. Entries to the competition focussed on Westmeath during the War of Independence and Civil War.
Gunshots rang out, echoing throughout the evening sky in Glasson. What started out as a planned smash and grab operation, ended up with death and destruction that is remembered to this day! The Irish War of Independence took place between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government forces from January 1919 to July 1921. Also known as the Anglo-Irish war, it was a guerrilla conflict fought in Ireland predominantly. It was initiated by a small number of determined republicans who were convinced that an Irish Republic could only be gained by force. Much violence occurred during this period until both sides agreed a truce on 11th July 1921. This marked the end of the War of Independence and the start of negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Image 1 - British soldiers leaving Custume Barracks, Athlone, where Thomas Stanton Lambert was stationed (National Library of Ireland)
The War of Independence was a traumatic time for all in Ireland, with attacks, ambushes and reprisals. County Westmeath did not escape the violence, with incidents including the attack on the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Barracks in Streamstown; the killing of a Black and Tan officer at Parkwood, near Moate; and the reprisal burning of Athlone Print Works by the RIC Auxiliary Division. One incident that stood out during the war was the ambush at Benown, Glasson, County Westmeath. This resulted in the death of Colonel-Commandant Thomas Stanton Lambert and the subsequent revenge attacks for his death.
The son of Richard Lambert, a Church of England vicar, Lambert was born in 1871 and grew up in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. After attending the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the East Lancashire Regiment. In 1900, Lambert married Geraldine Foster in India and together they had two sons. Soon, the Lamberts moved back to London, where he held the rank of Captain. He was promoted to Major shortly before World War I began. When war broke out, Lambert was assigned to the War Office, holding the position of Deputy Assistant Adjutant General. He was sent to France to command his old unit. Lambert held a number of key staff positions, rising through the ranks before becoming General Officer Commanding of the 69th Infantry Brigade in March 1916. In May 1918, he was promoted to Commanding Officer of the 32nd Division on the Western Front, along with the temporary rank of Major-General.
As the political situation in Ireland deteriorated in the summer of 1919, Lambert was posted to Victoria Barracks, Athlone (now Custume Barracks) and was made Officer Commanding of the 13th Infantry Brigade, taking up residence at Abbey House on the Coosan road. As the insurrection progressed, the IRA began to attack occupied and vacant police barracks across South Westmeath in the Spring of 1920. In August of that year, a unit of the IRA shot and killed Thomas Craddock, a sergeant of the RIC, in Athlone.
At this point, the IRA’s Athlone Brigade had formed an active service unit – a ‘flying column’ of twelve to fifteen full-time armed guerillas. These insurgents moved around south Westmeath looking for ambush opportunities and relied on the support and goodwill of families who sympathised with the Republicans’ aims. On 2nd November 1922, Constable Sydney Larkin was shot and killed at Auburn, Glasson, during an IRA ambush carried out by members of the Drumraney Battalion. The response of the British Crown forces marked the end of the flying column’s run of success in south Westmeath since Lambert imposed restrictions in an attempt to curtail the ongoing attacks.
Lambert became a target for the IRA and his movements were watched by Captain John J. Elliot and the Tubberclair Volunteers. They knew that Lambert frequently visited friends, the Metge family, near the village of Glasson, Athlone. The Lamberts, the Metges and their friend Colonel Challoner enjoyed a game of tennis at Killinure House, Glasson, on 20th June 1921. Captain Elliot and the IRA decided to ambush Lambert and Challoner on that day. According to local tradition, the intention was to capture Lambert and to use him as a prisoner-exchange to secure the release of IRA officer Seán Mac Eoin. Mac Eoin had been captured by the British in March 1921 and it was felt that if a British officer of the similar rank was also captured, the British would have to agree to the exchange.
Image 2 - Moydrum Castle, one of a number of houses burned down around Athlone in the weeks after Lambert's death (Athlone Public Library)
Captain Elliot chose eleven men to carry out the ambush. Lambert, Challoner, and their wives were travelling by car from Killinure back to Athlone. Geraldine Lambert was driving, along with Mrs. Challoner, Colonel-Commandant Lambert, Kate Elsie Arthur and Colonel Challoner. Lambert’s car was called to stop by four or five armed men near a large house called Harmony Hall. They fired one shot at the car but the car drove on. Further down the road, another group of IRA men fired shots at the car. Lambert was shot in the neck, while Colonel Challoner’s wife was wounded in the face. Mrs. Lambert drove through the ambush and continued to the hospital in Athlone barracks, where Colonel-Commandant Lambert died later that evening. The impact of the ambush was immense. Lambert’s death sparked anger among the Crown forces, who were keen to exact revenge on the IRA
British intelligence agents conducted inquiries into Lambert’s death. They were told that the men who laid the ambush had come across Lough Ree and were from Knockcroghery, Co. Roscommon. This information was incorrect but believed by the agents. On the morning of 21st June 1921, four lorry loads of Black and Tans, RIC and Auxiliaries from Athlone arrived into the village of Knockcroghery. Dressed in civilian clothing and wearing masks, the convoy's occupants were armed and drunk. They fired shots into the air and pounded on the doors of houses, driving inhabitants into the streets. The raiding forces looted the houses for valuables, then spilled petrol on the houses and set them alight. The village went up in flames, leaving only four houses untouched. The majority of the village’s occupants sought refuge on nearby Hangman’s Hill, left with nothing but their nightclothes. The Black and Tans knew that many IRA members were farmers. Therefore, in more acts of reprisal for Lambert’s assassination, masked Crown agents burnt a house in Mount Temple on 22nd June and five farmhouses in the Coosan district on 2nd July. The IRA retaliated the next day by burning Moydrum Castle.
The War of Independence was a distressing time for all. As we can see from Thomas Stanton Lambert’s story, many lives were affected and many were lost. However, the war was a major step towards Ireland’s freedom from Britain. Westmeath has come a long way since those violent times. It is now a prosperous county with industries as diverse as tourism, pharma/biomedical and software development. I’m glad, 100 years on, that Westmeath is such a beautiful peaceful location.
Transition Year student, Our Lady's Bower, Athlone
Winner of Westmeath County Council’s School Essay Competition
The essay was previously published in both the Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 03/01/2023