Bloody Sunday—Another Perspective (Part 1)

Tragic as Bloody Sunday was, as Holmes observed with ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’,[1] what didn’t happen can be as instructive as what did.

Approximately 1,800 soldiers were deployed in Londonderry’s Bogside for the containment operation, from at least four different units, the majority armed with SLRs with 20 rounds on the weapon and 30 spare. Even grossly underestimating that only half (but probably nearer 95%) carried the SLR, that equates to 18,000 rounds on rifles, ready to go; including their reserve ammunition makes 45,000 rounds available. Yet only 126[2] rounds were fired—0.71% of their loaded ammunition and 0.28% of their total supply. Even the 21 paras who fired barely expended a quarter (107, plus one ejected after a stoppage) of the 420 rounds loaded on their rifles; 1,050 rounds being carried altogether[3] means they handed back nine-tenths of their ammunition.

Do soldiers returning nine-tenths of their ammunition sound like people that ‘ran amok’[4] or were intent on committing ‘pre-meditated mass murder’[5]?

To provide context: 129[6] people had been murdered by Irish republican terrorists before that January 30; two of the latter were police officers murdered in Londonderry’s Creggan on the Thursday prior (a third officer was wounded). Two of the nine soldiers murdered in Londonderry in the previous six months were killed by terrorists using rioting crowds as cover. Peter Taylor noted that ‘nearly 2,000 shots’[7] had been fired at the army in Londonderry in the three months prior to Bloody Sunday; here is a photo taken July 27, 1971, of ‘Corporal Peter Booth, Royal Green Jackets, get[ting] immediate medical attention after being shot in the knee in the Bogside, Londonderry, N Ireland. The incident was one of three shooting incidents when a total of 15 shots were fired at British soldiers following an earlier civil rights meeting’. The young soldiers were deployed into a confusing and dangerous situation. Things went wrong, and 13 people were fatally shot and another 13 wounded (at least a few being hardened rioters and one a member of the PIRA youth wing). But that so few soldiers fired, and even the ones that did returned nine-tenths of their available rounds, evinces that the soldiers were genuinely trying to identify legitimate targets, and on not identifying a legitimate target, withheld their fire. They were mistaken in their identifications or missed their intended targets; it was an awful foul-up and no more.

As comparison, the civilised and democratic Swiss (famous for their 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace[8]) managed to shoot dead 13 demonstrators and wound 65 in Geneva in 1932—and they did not have the mitigating circumstance of being in the midst of an insurgency with multiple active terrorist groups. Apartheid-era South African Police notoriously killed 69 and wounded 180 at Sharpeville in 1960[9]—and in 2012 post-Apartheid SAP killed 34 striking miners and wounded 78. Casualties from the 1961 Paris massacre range from ‘two dead, several wounded and 7,500 arrests’ at the low end to 325 dead at the high. At My Lai in March 1968, American soldiers proceeded over four hours to massacre an estimated 347–504 Vietnamese civilians—mainly infants, children, women and the elderly. In October of the same year, Mexican soldiers killed 200–300 protesters. At Tiananmen Square, 1989, Chinese troops fired on civilians and estimates of deaths ‘range from several hundred to thousands’—‘According to an internal Chinese document, more than 2,000 people died in various Chinese cities on June 3rd and 4th and the days immediately following. The Tiananmen Mothers have documented the names of 182 victims, including three who died at Tiananmen Square’ (graphic images of the repression here). In 2011: ‘… at least 14 protesters were shot and killed and another 64 wounded by Kazakhstan’s security services in the oil town of Zhanaozen. Other protesters, mainly striking oil workers, were rounded up and allegedly tortured.’

Perhaps the most apposite comparison is the Kingsmill Massacre of January 5, 1976, where a van of civilian workmen were stopped by apparently 12 men, questioned as to their religion (the Catholic driver so identified being told to run off), and the remaining 11 defenceless textile workers were gunned down, at close range and in cold blood on a quiet country road. 11 weapons were identified as used in the attack and 136 rounds fired; only one man survived and even he was shot no less than 18 times. Unlike Bloody Sunday, there was no confusion—the terrorists knew themselves to be safe and that their victims were unarmed civilians.

Whenever armed people find themselves in a confusing and volatile situation with justified fear of their lives, there is a risk of tragic mistakes happening. But the above examples demonstrate that the British army exercises greater discipline than just about any other army or gendarmerie.


[1] ‘Silver Blaze’ in The memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

[2] 126 rounds plus a 127th ejected after a stoppage. The figure of 128 was used in the Widgery report, para.40: ‘Support Company of 1 Para had, in the course of 30 January, expended 108 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition. … About 20 more rounds were fired by the Army in Londonderry that afternoon, but not by 1 Para and not in the area with which the Tribunal was primarily concerned.’ The latter figure has since been repeated elsewhere, such as ‘The Irish Government’s Assessment of the New Material Presented to the British Government in June 1997’, see para.147.

[3] Soldier Q stated that he carried only 20 rounds spare, the remaining issued spare 10 rounds being left in the Pig: Day 339, p.2 and statement; ‘Many witnesses have told us that a standard issue was a magazine of 20 rounds and then another spare magazine, also containing 20 rounds and ten bullets in a bandolier’ (questioning of Soldier R by BSI’s Mr Clarke, Day 337, p.6).

[4] As the coroner, Maj. Hubert O’Neil accused in 1973

[5] To select a random pseudonymous commenter

[6] 129 people: 17 of them terrorists (15 ‘own goals’ and 2 shot in feuds); 44 civilians, 50 British Army (one from the Irish Republic, and six UDR), 17 RUC and one Garda; a further four were killed by unknown parties (but likely republicans).

[7] Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War Against the IRA. London: Bloomsbury, 2002. 94. Print.; and BSI testimony on day 218, page 116.

[8] Famous quote from The Third Man (1949), Orson Welles’ Harry Lime justifying his corruption: ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

[9] As the link shows, Sharpville is more complicated than commonly thought, with the little-known Cato Manor incident a factor.


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