Some time in the 1920s a Scot called James Alan Rennie went to a Central American country for a petrol company to guard oil wells.
Rennie was a prolific writer of the postwar period, turning out novels, plays, and history books at an industrial rate. In 1962 he wrote his autobiography Past Horizons. Rennie had lived a hell of a life: upbringing in Scotland, youthful service in WWI, art school, prospecting in Canada, travelling through America, nightclub bouncer, logger in the arctic circle. And briefly a mercenary for an oil company.
Rennie passes over the episode in a few pages, careful not to give too much away. He doesn’t tell us the name of the country, the company, or very much about what he did to protect oil wells from revolutionaries.
Down Mexico Way
It was probably Mexico in the mid-1920s. A lot of oil companies, including British ones, were getting rich there and didn’t want the country’s political instability putting a dent in their profits. They hired ex-soldiers and adventurers to guard their installations. It didn’t do much good and most companies had shifted operations to Venezuela by the end of the decade.
What Rennie does tell us is that many of his fellow mercenaries were former Black and Tans from Ireland.
In 1919 the Irish decided they wanted independence from Britain. The next two and a half years were a nightmare of ambushes, resistance, bombings, executions, guerrilla warfare, and villages burning. The Irish finally got their independence at the cost of around 1,400 dead on all sides.
During the fighting, the British forces were thickened with volunteers. About 10,000 men signed up as temporary constables with the Royal Irish Constabulary. Most were British veterans of WWI, although Irishmen also joined. A uniform shortage led to them wearing a patchy mix of RIC and British army uniforms, with some civilian touches. An Irish journalist christened them the Black and Tans after a pack of fox-hunting hounds with distinctive colouration.
The temporary constables were open to anybody but the Auxiliary Division set up shortly after was for ex-officers only. Auxies earned £1 a day (twice the wage of the temporary constables) and had better uniforms, with a jaunty tam o’ shanter hat. Although a different unit with a separate command structure, they were often lumped in with the Black and Tans.
The Auxiliaries had a swaggering Freikorps image, with pistols on each hip and little respect for prisoners’ rights. There were revenge attacks, extra judicial murders, abductions and disappearances. The IRA targeted them, the newspapers wavered between hero worship and condemnation, politicians reined them in one day and let them loose the next.
“Egged on to be brutal and tyrannising one day, imprisoned and dismissed the service the next if we dared speak roughly to our enemies,” said Black and Tan Douglas Duff, “it is no wonder that the heart was taken out of these men and that most of us soldiered merely for our pay.”
In 1922 the British pulled out and their paramilitary groups dissolved.
Intimidating the Judge
When Rennie, short of funds and living in Montreal, joined the mercenary group recruited by the oil company he found many of colleagues were former Auxiliaries. The glamour of their swaggering, freebooting image soon wore thin.
“Numbering about 100, the majority of the personnel had served as auxiliaries in Ireland, whose uniform they wore,” said Rennie, “plus fours, khaki tammies, and two guns strapped to their thighs […] It is true that the force had within its ranks a few reckless youngsters who, like myself, had a real desire for travel and adventure, but by far the greater number were men of a different stamp, ranging from the congenital mercenary to out-and-out sadists and degenerates who base appetites were insatiable.”
Rennie had little time for Mexicans (syphilitic zombies, in his opinion) but was still shocked by the actions of a former Auxiliary he called Captain Pat. On Christmas Eve about 20 mercenaries, including Rennie and Pat, attended a dinner given by the English wife of the oil depot’s chief engineer. While they were eating a shot came in through the window and blew off the back of the woman’s head. Her brains spattered on Rennie’s shirt.
Pat convinced himself the shot had been meant for him and the killer drank in a nearby tequila joint. He went there on his own with two revolvers and demanded the customers hand over the shooter. They had no idea what he was talking about so he opened fire and killed a few.
The oil company insisted Pat stand trial for murder. He stood in the dock with guns on his hips while the other armed mercenaries, including Rennie, stood at the back of the courtroom.
A nervous judge gave Pat six months. The ex-Auxiliary negotiated taking his woman and guns into jail with him. The revolution ended shortly after and the mercenary force was disbanded. Rennie returned to Canada with a fat wallet, wondering if Pat would ever actually serve his sentence.
In Ottawa he met a young man who turned out to be a relative of Pat. He wanted information about the black sheep of his family.
“When I explained that the last time I had seen his relative he was about to start a six months’ sentence in jail, the news was accepted with apparent approval.”
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