The Irish War of Independence was a conflict that took in a broad range of arenas, be they the Dail and Westminster debate chambers, speaking tours of the United States, or ambassadors soliciting support for the Republic throughout the world. In the summer of 1920, another arena became apparent, in one of least likely places in the world: the British military presence in India, where one of the most renowned of the Irish “named” units was then based.
The Connacht Rangers had come through the First World War, with its various battalions having served just about everywhere, from the titanic struggles of the Western Front to the lesser remembered fights in Eastern Europe. Casualties has been heavy and this, in combination with inevitable peacetime reductions, left the regiment with two battalions in 1920. In line with British leaderships efforts to negate any potential trouble as the War of Independence really began to kick-off, both of these battalions were stationed away from Ireland, the 2nd in Dover, and the 1st in India.
India at the time was still under the rule of the British Raj, though it was well on its way to falling apart. Unrest from numerous quarters had become acute during the war, and nationalism movements were on an inevitable path towards fulfillment, something that would take another 27 years to do. In the meantime, the British felt obligated to maintain a substantial military presence, which contributed to unrest: in April 1919 over 300 people were killed in the Amritsar Massacre, when British troops opened fire on protesting crowds. Service in India could be a stressful thing, with garrisons isolated, conditions often difficult in baking heat and with the soldiers often operating in increasingly hostile surrounds: not unlike the British military serving in Ireland.
The Rangers were, in the summer of 1920, stationed in the Punjab region, in Jalandhar, in the far north of the country. In June, the Rangers based there began to receive word about conditions back in Ireland, in letters from home, from soldiers who had been there on leave and in newspapers that were reporting the actions of the Black and Tans in detail. The majority of the men in the 1st Battalion were long-time veterans, who had been involved in the Great War from its very first day, but they were still Irish: as such, many of them were unhappy to hear about what was occurring in their homeland.
It is also necessary to point out this was not the only reason for what occurred, though it has become common to claim so. Plenty of British military units exhibited mutinous behavior in 1919 and beyond, a response to rapid demobilisation, being stationed in unattractive areas, pay delays and general difficulties with adapting to a peacetime environment. But the mutiny of the Connacht Rangers undoubtedly carried a strong political element, even if other factors also played a part.
On the 25th June, a Private Dawson presented himself to the barracks guard room and asked to be placed under arrest, claiming that he would no longer follow orders as a form of protest against what was happening in Ireland. His immediate superiors did their best to cover the incident up, confining Dawson and concocting an excuse that the man was suffering from sunstroke. A meeting of several rankers on the 27th, where the events in Ireland were discussed, set larger things in motion. The following day four privates of the battalion presented themselves to the barracks guard room and, like Dawson, asked to be placed under arrest.
Events quickly spiraled out of control. That many men protesting in such a fashion could not be hushed up, and soon the entire battalion based in the barracks knew about what was happening. The spirit of solidarity was in the full effect, and when officers ordered the company the four men had come from to parade, they were refused. When another company was ordered to arrest the first one, it only enlarged the mutiny. Bonds that had been forged in the trenches could not be so easily denied, with some men of English origin even joining he mutiny. Elected spokespersons, part of a chosen committee with a Lance Corporal Flannery taking the closest thing to a leadership role, would relay a consistent line to anyone that they spoke to: that the mutineers had fought the Great War under the belief that they were doing so for the rights of small nations, and that they could no longer be soldiers for Britain if their own country was being treated as it was.
But there were other reasons to consider as well: the unhappiness with being stationed in the Punjab, at the time undergoing its hottest weather of the year; poor relations between officers and the ranks; and the boredom that often comes with such garrison duty. Despite the nationalist accouterments that the mutiny gathered, like Sinn Fein pins and tricolour flags, it has been suggested that unhappiness over the Black and Tans was an unlikely motivation, as mass reports over their activities had only just begun.
Things proceeded, for the moment, with remarkable civility. The men were organised by NCO’s, and no violent action was undertaken against any superior or officer. The tone of the affair was one of passive resistance, with an emphasis on the maintaining of discipline: the leadership seem to have been acutely aware of how important it was that they be perceived not as riotous rebels, but as protesters with a legitimate grievance. Arms and ammunition were handed in and then keep locked up (with the mutineers doing the guarding, unarmed), access to alcohol was kept to the usual standards (lest the usual Irish stereotypes be used to dismiss the mutiny) and promises made that the soldiers would not act inappropriately, either towards officers or the Indian staff stationed at the barracks also (there were some threatening letters sent to disliked officers, but that was all). They went as far as maintaining traditions of military discipline you might not expect from self-proclaimed mutineers, such as the saluting of officers.
The question must be asked as to what the goal of the mutineers was. They must have known that they were risking their lives in what they were doing, and that the chances that the British administration would actually act on their grievances were low to the point of being non-existent. But still, they felt strongly enough about what was happening in Ireland, and with their situation in India, to do what they did. According to accounts written down later, hope was expressed that the mutineers’ actions would shine a light on Britain’s actions in Ireland internationally. They may have also hoped that notoriety would help in protecting them from any retribution. The consequences for their actions at this point could have been severe enough, but it was what happened next that really made the mutiny the event that it is remembered as.
The day after things began, the situation escalated. As was standard practice in the summer months, a large proportion of the battalion was temporarily stationed away from the barracks, in the mountainous region near Jalandhar, and thus did not know anything about what had occurred. Some were hesitant to try and involve these companies, fearing what might result if they were seen to be trying to undermine the entire British military position in the region. In the end, elements of the Jalandhar mutineers left without orders, travelling to the outpost of Solon where more of the Rangers were stationed, there informing them of what had been happening. As in the initial mutiny, rancorous sentiment spread quickly, and soon 70 or so Rangers, under the leadership of a Private James Daly, were refusing to obey orders.
Unlike in Jalandhar, in Solon things got out of control. The Rangers could not be completely compelled to give up their arms, especially when other units that they were stationed with were not similarly compelled to hand in their guns. Amid worries that they would be left without the means to defend themselves from retribution, and without the restraint of the battalion brothers elsewhere, they armed themselves with bayonets and attempted to storm the magazine when their guns were held. Those defending the magazine fired warning shots to no avail, then fired into the advancing Rangers, killing two (one of whom was not involved in the mutiny, and just happened to be walking by at the wrong time) and wounding one. The mutineers backed down. The next day more regulars, from English regiments, arrived, and the Solon mutineers were all arrested.
In the meantime, the British leadership in the region began transferring other battalions to Jalandhar, enacting a partial encirclement of the mutinous barracks. When those who had traveled to Solon returned, they were arrested, nearly starting a riot among the Rangers, who were just about restrained by their NCO’s. On the same day as the deaths at Solon, English regiments marched into the Jalandhar barracks – it lacked walls, so was hardly defendable anyway – and the mutiny came to an end, its leadership and ranks taken into custody without a struggle. Between the two points, nearly 500 men had been involved.
The mutineers were held in a makeshift camp in squalid conditions, with at least one account claiming that vengeful British officers came close to carrying out summary executions when they continued to disobey orders. The British split them up and after a few days of being held in the heat and with limited food and water, most of the men took the offered opportunity to “become loyal” again. Just under a hundred refused to do so, and were taken into more formal confinement for the purposes of court martials.
These were to be acrimonious. Mostly taking place in Britain, there were some acquittals, but many of the men were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment, some to as much as twenty years. Mutineers who had returned to loyalty were used as witnesses for the prosecution, and some of the leadership, including Lance Corporal Flannery, claimed they had only gotten involved to stem any possible violence. 14 men were sentenced to death, with 13 of these sentences commuted. The unfortunate odd man out was James Daly, adjudged the most responsible for the Solon bloodshed, who was executed by firing squad on the 2nd November 1920. Though not the last man in British uniform to be executed upon conviction for crimes, he was the last to be shot.
A few years later, after the establishment of the Irish Free State, those mutineers still imprisoned were released and allowed to return to Ireland, where they would later be awarded state pensions (some had applied for release so they could fight for the provisional government in the Civil War, making their later embrace as republican heroes somewhat ironic). The bodies of those who had been killed, including Daly, were later repatriated. As for that portion of the Connacht Rangers they remained in India until the disbandment of the named Irish regiments in 1922, a story for another day.
The Ranger mutiny was, as noted, not a singular event in the history of the post-war British military, but it is certainly notable in the context of the Irish revolutionary period. Rightly or wrongly, the mutineers were held up as paragons of the cause by some. The impact that they had on the British position in the Raj was largely immaterial, but this is besides the point really. The incident shows that what was happening in Ireland was now manifesting itself in unexpected and unwelcome ways for the British. Even if the Ranger mutiny was a failure, a fatal one for James Daly, it did contribute to the cause of the Republic in its own unique way.
The War of Independent had now reached an important point. In the next entry, I want to take a look at a few different incidents that took place in July 1920, as the situation in Ireland continued to deteriorate.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.