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Michael Collins: Still the second biggest enemy of Britain?

Online poll puts War of Independence revolutionary ahead of Rommel, Napoleon and George Washington in ‘Britain’s Greatest Foes’ list… but behind the founder of modern Turkey.

Michael Collins, director of intelligence for the IRA, and later Finance Minister in the government of the Free State.
Michael Collins, director of intelligence for the IRA, and later Finance Minister in the government of the Free State.
Image: Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/PA Images

Updated 14.33: Paraic Collins, who works in a newspaper in Istanbul, had contacted our comments section to say that the voting rigging for Ataturk is making headlines in Turkey. See comments below.

THE IRISH REVOLUTIONARY Michael Collins is currently second in an online poll to find out who is ‘Britain’s Greatest Foes’ of all time.

The poll is on the British National Army Museum website, to promote an exhibition called ‘Enemy Commanders’. The Museum’s staff selected a list of 20 to form the ‘leaderboard’. The top five, as voted for by the public in the poll, will be discussed by historians at a seminar at the British Army Museum in Chelsea, London on 14 April.

Currently, Collins is second only to the first President of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk was listed because he “fought a tenacious defensive campaign at Gallipoli in 1915 which forced the Allied invasion force to withdraw”. However, it is noted on the poll that there has been some unusual voting patterns that might have put Ataturk at the top, with a message from curators that: “Unfortunately we have had to remove some of the votes registered for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk  over the weekend as they were generated artificially and were therefore not within the spirit of the competition.”

Collins is in the list because, according to museum staff, “With his talent for organisation and logistics, Collins helped transform the Irish Republican Army into a powerful insurgent force that fought the British to a standstill”.

Collins fought in the 1916 Rising and was interned in Frongoch prison camp in Wales. On his return to Ireland, he became Sinn Féin MP for Cork South but abstained from Westminster and became Director of Intelligence for the IRA in September 1919. After a bitter guerilla campaign against British forces here, he formed part of the Treaty delegation sent to London and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a treaty which split the country and led to the Civil War. Collins was commander-in-chief of the new Irish Army and was killed in an ambush in Cork in August 1922.

The description of Collins on the poll says that:

Collins was the outstanding leader of the Irish War of Independence and fought the British to a standstill. He made much of Ireland ungovernable with an army that never exceeded more than 3,000 active volunteers at any given time. He also had an instinctive understanding of the strengths and limitations of guerilla warfare, realising that the IRA could not completely defeat the British.

Indeed on the eve of the 1921 treaty discussions, he conceded that his army was running out of weapons and ammunition. Collins compromised in order to win a partial victory, but he is said to have commented after signing the treaty: ‘I tell you, I have signed my death warrant.’

Michael Collins: Still the second biggest enemy of Britain?
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  • Michael Collins

    Collins addressing a crowd gathered for the great treaty meeting in College Green on December 6, 1921. (PA Images)
  • Michael Collins

    Collins, Commander in Chief of the National Forces of the Irish Free State, poses in his uniform. He was killed eight days later during an ambush at Beal na mBlath in Cork. (PA Images)
  • Michael Collins

    Collins marches beside Richard Mulcahy (left) in the funeral procession of Arthur Griffith, the president of the Irish Free State, who died in August 1922, shortly before Collins himself was assassinated in Cork. (PA Images)
  • Michael Collins

    Collins (marked with an 'X' in this PA Archive image), head of the provisional Government, leaving Dublin Castle with Kevin O'Higgins and WT Cosgrave after the British surrender ceremony in January 1922.
  • Michael Collins

    Collins at Portobello barracks, Dublin in August 1922. (PA Images)
  • Michael Collins

    Collins's funeral in 1922 after he was shot in an ambush in Beal na mBlath in west Cork. (Tophams/Topham Picturepoint/PA Images)

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