The Connaught Rangers Mutiny India, July 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Spring 1998), News, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 6

Among the large number of departmental records made available to researchers in early January this year was one bulky file from 1968 containing correspondence relating to the repatriation of the remains of the Connaught Rangers mutineers who had died in India in 1920. The release of these documents renders timely an examination of their mutiny and prompts further reflection on the role of the Irish soldier in Britain’s Empire overseas.
Private Daly of the Connaught Rangers stationed at Solon, a strategic garrison on the road between Delhi and Simla allegedly shouted to the officers guarding the munitions store which Daly and his fellow Rangers had attempted to seize. In the confusion of their attack, two men were killed and one seriously wounded. At a stroke, what the military authorities might just possibly have viewed indulgently, might even have been tempted to pass over as an ‘incident’, was transformed into a full-scale ‘mutiny’ which had to be crushed with exemplary force. Before the summer was over, sixty-one Rangers were convicted by courts martial of mutiny: fourteen were sentenced to death and the remainder to varying periods of imprisonment. Many of the sentences were reduced on appeal, but Daly’s conviction was upheld and he was shot at sun-up at Dagshai Barracks on 2 November 1920. He was the last soldier of the British Army to suffer death in peace or war for a military offence.
Daly had claimed to be the leader of the mutinous soldiers at Solon and while this was undoubtedly true, he had not in fact instigated the protest. This had begun two hundred miles away at Wellington Barracks, Jullundur, in the Punjab on Sunday, 27 June 1920. That night, a small group of Rangers (among them Daly’s brother) had been discussing the appalling state of affairs at home and they had decided to make a protest against British military atrocities in Ireland: they would ‘ground arms’ and refuse to soldier. They were quickly joined by several hundred other Rangers (including at least one Englishman). Joseph Hawes, from Kilrush, County Clare—a veteran of the Western Front and Gallipoli—was the prime mover at this stage. Smoking a cigarette, Private Hawes coolly informed his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Deacon, that the men would not return to their duty until all British soldiers had left Ireland, and he then had the Tricolour run up the flag post. It is not recorded which of these actions most infuriated Colonel Deacon.
At this point, Hawes and his fellow-mutineers took the fateful decision to spread the protest to the Connaught Ranger companies at Jutogh and Solon. Emissaries were dispatched to these garrisons and, though the men at the Jutogh hill-station remained loyal, the Rangers at Solon, led by James Daly, decided to ground arms. Daly, like Hawes, told his captain that they would soldier no more until all British soldiers had been withdrawn from Ireland. Under pressure from the Catholic chaplain at Solon, Fr Benjamin Baker, the mutineers agreed to remove all their weapons to the magazine for safe-keeping. That night, however, a party of men led by Daly made an attempt to recover their arms and in the engagement two of them, Patrick Smythe and Peter Sears, were killed. Within a few days, both garrisons at Jullundur and Solon were occupied by loyal regiments—without incident—and the mutineers were marched off to face court martial. The ‘summer madness’, as the regimental historian called it, was officially over.
In the months and years that followed the question of motivation was endlessly canvassed. Why had the Connaught Rangers mutinied? The regimental historian understandably sought reasons within the regiment. Most of those who had grounded arms had been new recruits. Enlisted in 1919 and shipped out immediately to India, they had been subjected to a rigorous training schedule on the plains of the Punjab at the hottest season of the year. In addition, their officers had been remarkably irresolute and incompetent. The men’s understandable fed-upness had festered into something much more alarming in the absence of diligent officers. And yet, even the official historian was forced to admit that the mutineers, to some extent, ‘were influenced, as they declared, by the political news from home contained in letters which had arrived the day before’. Certainly, Hawes had told the others of his indignation and humiliation at the breaking up of a hurling match by British soldiers in his native Clare while he had been home on leave; and the unfurling of a Tricolour, the wearing of Sinn Féin ribbons and the men’s demands about British withdrawal all bore witness to the political content of the mutiny. Daly, for his part, made no attempt to hide his deep hatred for British actions in Ireland. But why then had he enlisted in April 1919 when the War of Independence was underway? There is no suggestion that he had infiltrated the Connaught Rangers (as the Fenians had done generally in the British army in the 1860s) in order to sow disaffection. Nor can it be claimed that he was acting in concert with his brother in Jullundur: William Daly had indeed been active at the beginning of the protest but he had backed away from it within twenty-four hours. James Daly’s youth (he was twenty-one years old when shot), his coolness under pressure, his assertive personality and his effective leadership all marked him out as a remarkable man: perhaps these characteristics also prompted him to take the lead in the protest at Solon? Perhaps they also made it impossible for him to pull back in time? In his last letter to his mother, he remarked that ‘I wish to the Lord that I had not started on getting into this trouble at all’, but he concluded the note by claiming that ‘it is all for Ireland’.
Two puzzles remain: first, why a mutiny in the Connaught Rangers and not in other Irish regiments? In 1920 the Royal Irish Regiment was allegedly ‘full of Sinn Féin’ men; there were doubts about the reliability of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers; and even the Irish Guards were reported to be unsettled: but nothing happened. It may be that all these regiments had the combustible material to make a protest but yet lacked the vital leadership afforded by Hawes and Daly in the Connaught Rangers; the officers in these regiments may also have been more effective than those in the Rangers. Second, why was James Daly shot? The short answer to this is that, in the eyes of the authorities, Daly had to die, not for Ireland, but for India. The mutineers had been wholly conscious of the historical resonance of the word ‘mutiny’ in India, where memories of the Cawnpore massacre of 1857 were still fresh: hence their ready agreement to lock away their arms lest the ‘natives’ should seize them; and hence their resolute avoidance of the word ‘mutiny’ in favour of ‘grounding arms’ The mutineers made no attempt to make common cause with the Indians who surrounded them. Hawes may have reflected that ‘we were doing in India what the British forces were doing in Ireland’, but that was as far as it went. No attempt was made to make contact with the Indian National movement; and the imprisoned mutineers gave no thought to escape in a hostile country. The fact that General Dyer had massacred hundreds of Indians in Amritsar in 1919 (with the entire Punjab seething with unrest ever since), merely prompted the mutineers to be circumspect in their protest, and to ensure that the local population did not take advantage of the disturbances. And yet, ironically, it was almost entirely for Indian reasons that James Daly’s sentence was confirmed and carried out. Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy, remarked candidly that ‘we should find ourselves in a position of great difficulty in the future with regard to Indian troops if, in the case of British soldiers, we did not enforce the supreme penalty where conditions justified it’. And, later, when there was a campaign to free those imprisoned, the impact of such leniency on Indian troops was the reason most often cited in denying pleas for clemency. The fact was that the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers had mildly shaken British rule in India, not Ireland, and the mutineers had to suffer accordingly.
Within a few years the Connaught Rangers and five other Irish regiments were disbanded, and in January 1923 the imprisoned mutineers were finally released from the rigours of British gaols. They had claimed political status and thus set in train a grim cycle of bread and water punishments, solitary confinements, hunger-strikes and force-feeding. The men arrived home to equal amounts of public adulation and private penury. A long and dispiriting campaign was embarked upon to obtain pension rights from the Irish government comparable to those forfeited as a result of the mutiny. However, the Irish government of the 1920s having executed six members of the National Army for treachery during the Civil War and faced down an army mutiny in 1924, was, understandably, not enamoured of mutineers, and progress was slow. Eventually some money was paid out to the survivors. Later there was further recognition when a Connaught Rangers Cenotaph was unveiled at Glasnevin cemetery in 1949. Finally, in 1970, James Daly’s body and the bodies of the two men who had been killed during the raid on the arms store were brought back from India: Daly was buried at Tyrellspass and the others were reinterred at Glasnevin. It was not deemed appropriate to repatriate the remains of a fourth mutineer, John Miranda, who had died in prison in India. The problem here was that he had been born in Liverpool, albeit of a Spanish father and an Irish mother, and despite the protest by a member of the National Graves Association that there was ‘nothing unusual in that!’, his bones remained in India. The original mutineer, Joseph Hawes, then aged seventy-seven, was present at Daly’s reinterrment and pronounced him to be ‘as brave a man as ever stood before a firing party’. The mutiny of the Connaught Rangers was at last laid  to rest.

Thomas Bartlett is Professor of Irish History at NUI, Dublin.


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