‘ When I drop this handkerchief, fire and spare no man’

Week II

Members of the Ist battalion of the Connaught Rangers in India. James Daly is bottom right (Photograph at King House Museum, Boyle).

Members of the Ist battalion of the Connaught Rangers in India. James Daly is bottom right (Photograph at King House Museum, Boyle).

Perhaps fearing that the refusal by Irish soldiers to carry out army duties in Wellington Barracks at Jullundur, northeast India, on June 27 1920; and that the mutiny would spread to an already sympathetic native population, leading to a general protest such as at Amritsar the previous year, the army authorities quickly took decisive action. The commanding officer, Lt Col Leeds, strode into the crowd of excited and rebellious soldiers, demanding to speak to its two leaders John Flannery and Joe Hawes. He warned the men that they could be shot for this; that such behaviour only excited the natives to rebellion. Hawes, smoking a cigarette, replied that he would rather be killed by an Indian bullet than by a British one (His disrespectful attitude to his commanding officer was noted ).

For four days the mutiny continued. The men, numbering about 400, sat around singing songs, refusing to carry out any army duties. Then on July 1 two battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders, and South Wales Borders, along with a company of machine gunners, and a battery of artillery arrived in full battle order. They confronted the mutineers. Major Johnny Payne was angry. He demanded that the leaders step forward. When they refused, he sent some of his own men into the crowd to forcibly remove them. There was a scuffle as the leaders were held back among the mutineers. Now, really angry, Major Payne called his men forward and gave the order: ‘Five rounds, stand and load.’ He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and said, in a violent rage ‘ I am going to shoot ye fuckers.’ Turning to his men he said: ‘ When I drop this handkerchief, fire and spare no man. Shoot them down like dogs.’

At this moment the 70 year old army chaplain, Fr Livens, a Belgian priest, rushed over and asked what was going on. The major replied that these men were a disgrace to the army, and he was going to teach them a lesson. Fr Livens moved in front of the mutineers. He said that if they were to be shot he would die with them.

This brave gesture defused the situation. Anyway by this stage, many of the Irishmen were exhausted, hungry and suffering from heat-stroke. Their spirit was broken. They allowed themselves to be taken away, and locked up in prison at Dagshai, to await a court -martial.

Ran away

The mutiny in near-by Solon did not end so smoothly. The leader there was James Daly, a young man with soldiering in his blood. He was born at the home of his maternal grandmother in Ballymoe on the Galway-Roscommon border. He was the fourth son of James Daly sr, a former British soldier, who moved his family to Tyrerllspass where he earned a living as a baker. At the outbreak of war, he and three of his sons immediately joined the army. His youngest son, James, also joined up. Although he was only 16 and underage, he was accepted as he said he was 18 years old. But his mother did not want all her men going to war. She (Katherine, nee Crean ), successfully petitioned the war office to have him sent home. But James ran away to Galway, and was accepted into the Connaught Rangers.

A ‘broken man’

The mutiny at Solon followed a similar pattern as at Jullundur. Most of the Irish solders, upset and angry at events in Ireland, refused to obey orders. For four days they entertained themselves, ignoring pleas to get back into uniform and military duties. After reinforcements arrived at Jullundur, the men at Solon heard all sorts of rumours about the treatment of the mutineers there. When Daly heard the rumour that men had been shot, he immediately called a group of his men together and rushed to the armoury to get weapons. But such a move was expected. The armoury was well guarded. They opened fire on the approaching mutineers, killing private Peter Sears (of the Neale, Co Mayo ), and private John Smyth; while another, private John Miranda, was wounded, and would later die from his wounds.

The situation immediately changed. While awaiting orders what to do, a certain tolerance was extended to the mutineers. After the shooting that tolerance quickly ended. The mutineers were rounded up at gun-point, and locked up. John Oliver, from Loughrea, was among those who had rushed to the armoury. His previous poor record in the army was probably noted.

In the court-martial which followed in August, some were acquitted, but most of the mutineers were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. An incredible 14 were sentenced to be shot by firing squad, John Oliver among them. They awaited their fate in Dagshai prison. In the event, however, only 21-years -old James Daly was shot there on November 2 1920.

After his sentence was commuted, Oliver was shipped back to serve his time in Maidstone prison. But events in Ireland were moving rapidly. Following the establishment of the independent Irish Free State in 1922, the Connaught Rangers, along with five other Irish regiments, were disbanded.

John Oliver managed to write a few brief notes to his friends the Walls on Patrick Street, Loughrea. He told Cissy (the sister of his school days friend Tom Wall ), that he was still alive, and would be home some day. On January 3 1923, after 18 months in prison, John was granted an amnesty, and freed. He was provided with the fare for the boat back to Ireland, and arrived in Loughrea a ghost of the man who had left to join the army and see the world 18 years previously. He came to the Wall’s house. They were appalled when they saw him. John Oliver was a totally broken man.

Next week: John Oliver’s tragic end; and the disbandment of the Connaught Rangers.

NOTES: Sources for this story are gleaned from A Coward If I Return, A Hero If I Fall - Stories of Irishmen in World War I, by Neil Richardson, published by The O’Brien Press, on sale €19.19, Walking History (The Connaught Rangers’ Mutiny in India ), and other Google sites.

A memorial to the mutineers can be seen at Glasnevin cemetery, and another to Daly at Tyrrellspass. After lengthy negotiations the bodies of Daly, Smyth and Sears were flown home to Ireland October 30 1970.

The execution of private Daly was the subject of Len Deighton’s short story: Twelve Good Men and True, from his Declarations of War, published 1971.

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