Irish Soldiers in India

These are some incidents involving Irishmen in India. Included are extracts from an article by Thomas Bartlett, with pictures from various sources.


Father Victor stepped forward quickly and opened the front of Kim's upper garment.
'You see Bennett he's not very black. What's your name?'
'Or Kimball?'
'Perhaps. Will you let me go away?'
'What else?'
'They call me Kim Rishti Ke. That is Kim of the Rishti.'
'What is that - "Rishti"?'
'Eye-rishti - that was the regiment - my father's.'
'Irish - oh, I see.'

(from Kim, by Rudyard Kipling)

It was no accident that Kipling chose to give his eponymous hero an Irish military background. Kimball O'Hara's father, we learn, had been a colour sergeant in the 'Mavericks' (regimental crest: 'a great Red Bull on a background of Irish green'), and when time-expired had stayed on working on the Sind, Punjab and Delhi Railway. But he had subsequently lost heart and taken to "loafing up and down the line", finally succumbing to opium and dying "as poor whites die in lndia". The orphaned Kim, a child, took to the roads of Lahore as a vagabond but later met up with his father's old regiment which took him in, found him an education, and gave him a role to play in the 'Great Game' of nineteenth-century India - British/Russian intrigues along the North-West frontier. Kim's dilemma (born to an Irish regiment, white certainly, but reared as a native) was, however, scarcely resolved by his new career as an English agent: "I am Kim. I am Kim', he wails, "And what is Kim?"

The adventures of Kimball O'Hara, and the many short stories by Kipling featuring Private, sometimes 'Corp'ril', Terence Mulvaney (motto: "Hit a man an' help a woman, an' ye can't be far wrong anyways") make the simple point that almost from the beginnings of British involvement in India, the archetypal Irishman on the sub-continent was neither missionary nor merchant, neither doctor nor administrator, but soldier. C. J. O'Donnell's claim in 1913 that "India was the great prize of a Gaelic-speaking army recruited by the East India Company exclusively in Ireland under Irish generals" was, no doubt, grossly exaggerated: but it did contain a modicum of fact, for Irish soldiers and Irish generals had made (and continued to make) a disproportionate contrbution to the 'steel frame' around which the Raj was built.

Hussar and sepoy

A private of the Royal Irish Hussars on horseback, with a sepoy, around 1857.

The Army

From 1783 to 1806 men enlisted for life in the ranks of the British Army. Between 1806 and 1829 enlistments were seven years in the infantry and ten years in the cavalry. Sappers and gunners had a minimum enlistment of twelve years. In 1829, Parliament restored enlistments for life. In 1847 it was reduced to twenty-one years which still amounted to life in the ranks. In 1870, a short service was introduced and men who enlisted for twelve years spent three to eight years under colours, and the balance in the reserves.

Sir Henry Wilson, himself an Irishman, said, "...jack frost is the best recruiting sergeant we have." Many men joined the army to put warm food in their bellys, clothes on their backs, and to have a roof over their heads.

The lot of the Indian soldier, in comparison, wasn't as good as their European counterpart. For example, at one stage in the Bengal Army the 140,000 Indians who were employed as "Sepoys" were completely subordinate to the roughly 26,000 British officers. These sepoys bore the brunt of the First Britsh-Afghan War (1838-42), the two closely contested Punjab Wars (1845-6, and 1848-9) and the Second Anglo-Burmese War. They were shipped across the seas to fight in the Opium Wars against China (1840-42) and (1856-60) and the Crimean War against Russia (1854). Although at constant risk of death, the Indian sepoy faced very limited opportunities for advancement - since all positions of authority were monopolized by the Europeans.

The Duke of Wellington

Born Arthur Wesley in Dublin in 1769, he was the sixth child of Lord Mornington, professor of music at Trinity College. Young Arthur was sent to a school near Dangan Castle, their country home, and later to Eton. He appears to have been an indifferent student and a worse athlete, so his mother had him tutored and then sent to Brussels to improve his French. It was thought that he would be following his father into the music business, but his mother, deciding that he was "food for powder and nothing more," found him a position in an undemanding military school at Angers in France.

He was also indifferent to a military career but allowed his oldest brother, Richard, to arrange a low-ranking officer's commission in the British army. His mother then used her own influence to have him selected as an aide-de-camp to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and promotion to lieutenant in a regiment in Ireland near home.

Arthur's regiment was sent to India when his brother was appointed Governor-General of India. He insisted that Arthur change his last name to the more respectable-sounding Wellesley--"Wesley" had an unfortunate association with Methodism.

At the time, British India was a very small part of the whole and the French looked to be assembling a strong position there. The princely state of Mysore under its sultan, Tippu, was a particular danger. Colonel Wellesley, as he now was, was given command of one of the columns sent to end the threat, but walked right into an ambush.

He did a little better north of Mysore in hunting down a Maratha warlord and, over a number of expeditions, learned his army trade, at one point beating a 40,000-strong French-trained Maratha force with 10,000 men.

He returned to England in 1805 and was appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, with offices in Phoenix Park in Dublin.

In 1817, two years after Wellington defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, a monument was erected to him in the Phoenix Park. At 62.5 m, it is the second highest obelisk in the world (being exceeded only by the Washington Monument).

Drawing by Pat Liddy of a bas-relief on the pedestal of the Wellington Monument in Dublin.

A bas-relief on the pedestal of the Wellington Monument in Dublin, dipicting a battle scene from the Duke's India Campaign.

Massacre at Vellore

This incident was a consequence of underestimating the religious and cultural sensitivities of the sepoys, not always understood by British officers but ignored at their peril. In November 1805 the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, Sir John Cradock, son of the Archbishop of Dublin, ordered a change in head-dress from turban to `round hat', and the removal of beards, face-painting and joys' (jewellery). Caste-marks ornaments and beards often had religious significance, and `round hats' were regarded as synonymous with Christians in the eyes of the sepoys, so the new regulations were seen as an attack upon the troops' religion.

Vellore, in Southern India, was garrisoned by three Madras battalions (1st/1 st, 2nd/lst and 2nd/23rd), and four companies of the 69th Foot. The Indian regiments rose on the night of 10 July 1806, massacred the 69th's sick in their hospital, murdered officers and fired into the European barracks. By delaying to pillage the fort, they allowed the surviving British to congregate on the ramparts; and an officer who was outside the fort when the rising began went for help to the nearest military post, Arcot, the station of the l9th Light Dragoons and some Madras Native Cavalry, who were unaffected by the unrest. The l9th was commanded by Sir Rollo Gillespie, from County Down, one of the most capable and energetic officers in India, and he set out with a relief force within a quarter of an hour of the alarm being raised.

Gillespie dashed ahead with about twenty men, and arriving at Vellore found the surviving Europeans, about sixty men of the 69th, commanded by NCOs and two assistant surgeons, still clinging to the ramparts but out of ammunition. Unable to gain entry through the defended gate, Gillespie climbed the wall with the aid of a rope and a sergeant's sash which was lowered to him; and to gain time led the 69th in a bayonet-charge along the ramparts. When the rest of the l9th arrived, Gillespie had them blow in the gates with their galloper guns, and made a second charge with the 69th to clear a space inside the gate to permit the cavalry to deploy. The l9th and Madras Cavalry then charged and slaughtered any sepoy who stood in their way. No mercy was shown. About 100 sepoys who had sought refuge in the palace were dragged out, placed against a wall and blasted with canister shot until all were dead. Such was the nature of combat in India where the 'civilised' conventions of European warfare did not apply.

Gillespie later joined the 8th Royal Irish Light Dragoons and saw service in Java and Sumatra before returning to India where he was shot dead while leading his men in a war against the Gurkhas.

The "Great Mutiny"

On 10 May 1857, British rule throughout India was shaken to its foundations when the native troops or sepoys at Meerut mutinied, and a day later they captured Delhi. The revolt quickly spread. Native regiment after native regiment turned on its British officers, and the outnumbered European forces (26,000 regular army, 14,000 East lndia Company) sought to contain an Indian strength of perhaps 300,000.

The roots of the revolt lay in the relentless process of modernisation which British rule in India had unleashed since the early nineteenth century. Sacred Hindu and Muslim customs and beliefs were being swept aside with scant ceremony, and the caste system in particular had come under attack. Added to this seething unrest at what British rule might ultimately mean was the growing fear that service in the company's native regiments was a stepping stone to Christianity—a fear that some British officers conceded was wholly justified. Moreover, the blatant racism of British officers (though there were exceptions, such as General William Butler, from Bansha, Tipperary, who was sympathetic to the natives wherever he was stationed, though he spent only two years in India) towards their Indian colleagues, as well as the sepoys, and the widespread native perception that European forces were spread impossibly thinly throughout the country, helped set the scene. The Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army had been shaken by the reduction in the purchasing power of their pay since the beginning of the century to less than that of their offices' private servants. Their houses were filthy, with sanitation non-existent. This all led to the furious sepoy reaction to the introduction of the new Lee-Enfield rifle in 1857 and its controversial greased cartridge (supposedly using grease from pigs). In the crisis that subsequently engulfed the "Raj" (an expression invented by the BBC around 1947!), Irishmen and Irish soldiers were to play a vital role.

The Great Mutiny—as the British called it—found a number of Irishmen in key positions. The three Lawrence brothers held high office in Rajputana (George), the Punjab (John) and, significantly in Lucknow where Henry was Chief Commissioner. Under him, the siege of the residency at Lucknow was embarked upon, an epic that caught the imagination of the Victorian public. With Henry besieged (and soon mortally wounded), John set about disarming and breaking up potentially mutinous native regiments in the Bengal army. He was also successful in drawing a number of Indian princes into an offensive alliance, and at the same time he was instrumental in supplying the small British force still holding out near Delhi. The Lawrences had been educated at Derry, and they were inspired not to yield to the attacking forces by folk memories of the seventeenth-century 'Siege of Derry'. Henry's dying instruction to the Lucknow garrison was "No surrender! Let every man die at his post, but never make terms!"

An Indian painting of the executions Similarly imbued with the seventeenth-century covenanting spirit was that remorseless foe of the rebels, John Nicholson, who on news of the rebellion formed a Movable Column from British and Punjabi irregulars. Moving with great speed, he wreaked havoc wherever he led them in the Punjab: one tactic which he soon adopted was the blowing away of mutineers from cannon mouths. Lieutenant Frederick Roberts (later Lord Roberts of Kandahar and Waterford, and Commander in Chief in India)—the famous 'Bobs'—commented that Nicholson's methods were "awe-inspiring certainly, but probably the most humane as being a sure and instantaneous mode of execution". However that may be, "blowing rascals away from guns", as the Ulster-born Colonel James Graham put it, was also designed to have a major deterrent effect in that it challenged the Hindu belief in reincarnation.

Ryan and McManus carrying the wounded Arnold

In the event, these spectacular mass executions were soon curtailed as being a waste of gunpowder: resort was soon had to the usual methods of wholesale hanging, bayoneting and shooting. There were other excesses, which may be passed over, but it should be noted that such tactics were employed by Lawrence and Nicholson (and other British commanders) from an early date, certainly before news broke of the massacres of British soldiers and civilians at Cawnpore. Nicholson was killed leading the main assault on Delhi: stern, implacable and fearless to the end, he was a Victorian hero. His Sikhs loved him: indeed a cult had grown up around him during his life, and several of his followers committed suicide on his death. Kipling in Kim pays homage to Nicholson's memory when he has the old man sing "the song that men sing in the Punjab to this day: Ahi! Nikal Seyn is dead—he died before Delhi! Lances of the North take vengeance for Nikal Seyn."

Right, Privates Ryan, from Kilkenny, and McManus, from Armagh, were awarded the VC for saving wounded at Lucknow.

Irish soldiers, both in Irish regiments (the 75th Foot, the 53rd Foot, the 60th Foot, the 101st Foot, the 86th Foot and especially the 88th Foot—the Connaught Rangers) and in the East India Company forces, were much involved in the various battles and storms (notably the relief of Lucknow, the attack upon Jhansi, and the assault on Delhi) that brought the rebellion to a bloody end.

Lucknow Kavanagh At a critical time during the siege of Lucknow, when a relief force was said to be nearing the city, a tall Irish postal worker, Thomas Henry Kavanagh, volunteered to slip out of the Residency, make contact with the relief force and guide it back through the city to the compound. Kavanagh had gained a reputation for courage in the underground battles during the siege and his offer was accepted. Although over six feet tall and with red hair, he was disguised as a native. Kavanagh made his way past checkpoints, swam the river Gomti and made contact with the British army. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and acquired the nick-name "Lucknow" Kavanagh. The picture on the left shows Kavanagh (in dark jacket) with officers of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, who had a long history in India. They later became the Munster Fusiliers.

Everywhere the fighting frenzy of the Irish and their lust for booty became the stuff of legends. At the sack of the fabulous Kaiserbagh Palace at Lucknow, W.H. Russell, the famous war correspondent, described how one of the Irish soldiers of the 53rd Foot, "drunk with plunder", came at him through the smoke and flames.

"Look here! Look here!", he cried, "Holy mother of Moses, what will you give me for this iligant shtring of imeralds and jewls" [sic].

Sergeant Garvin

Right, Sergeant Garvin, from Tipperary, who was awarded the VC at Delhi.

And while it is true that the assault on Delhi was led by Nicholson whose death in action brought him entry to the Victorian pantheon of heroes, the conduct of his fellow Irish among the other ranks also brought fame of another kind. G.O. Trevelyan, later a noted advocate of army reform, described one incident in graphic terms:

Lord Roberts "The principal part in the capture of Delhi was played by a comic Irish sergeant who appeared to have emancipated himself from all discipline and - perhaps with unmerited distrust of the powers of the regulation rifle - went into action armed with a shillelagh. Among other feats, he danced the jig without hat or bonnet under the mid-day Indian sun - an act of daring which alone should have sufficed to procure him the Victoria Cross."

"Bobs" Roberts

He was born in India, though his family came from Kilfeacle, County Tipperary. He joined the Bengal artillery in 1851 and fought with distinction in the Indian Mutiny (1857-58), earning the Victoria Cross. By 1875 he was quartermaster general of the Indian army and a strong advocate of the -forward- policy of controlling the Himalayan passes to forestall Russian encroachments; this became the general defensive policy of the British in India. He became a popular British hero for the relief of Kandahar in the second Afghan War (1878-80).

In remembrance of the War, a special "Kabul to Kandahar" medal was struck (later known as the Roberts Star). The Roberts Star was presented to all who had taken part on his march, and Queen Victoria even gave one to Roberts' horse, Voronel, which also received the Afghan campaign medal with four clasps.

Roberts was made commander in chief of the Madras army in 1880 and of the entire Indian forces in 1885. In 1893 he came to England and wrote his reminiscences, Forty-one Years in India (1897). He became field marshal in 1895. In 1899, when the English were meeting reverses at the hands of the Boers in the South African War, Roberts was appointed commander in chief. Roberts reorganized the transport system, achieving a mobility that had been lacking. His son was killed trying to retrieve the guns in Colenso during the Boer War, shortly before Bobs took over as commander. By late 1900 the war seemed near a successful conclusion, and Roberts was brought home, awarded an earldom, and appointed commander in chief of the British army.

Along with Sir Henry Wilson (and of course most British Army officers) he was a vehement opposer of Home Rule for Ireland. He was asked to command the Ulster Volunteer Force to fight Home Rule, but felt he was too old, and proposed General Richardson, another Indian veteran, instead. He died of a chill caught visiting Indian troops in France in 1914.

Chota Imambara, Lucknow

Soldiers of the 1st Madras Regiment standing outside the gateway of the Chota Imambara, Lucknow, Summer 1858, which had been damaged in the fighting. Three of the four VCs awarded to the regiment during the recent fighting had been gained by Irishmen. This regiment later became the Dublin Fusiliers.

Charles Napier

The Napiers were a famous military family, one branch of which came to live in Oakley Park House, Celbridge, Co. Meath, in 1788. They had eight children and two of their sons, William and Charles, became world famous. They were first cousins of Lord Edward Fitzgerald from Carton House, Maynooth, who died a rebel in the United Irishmen Rising of 1798.

Charles Napier was a lieutenant in the army at the age of 13 years. He served with distinction in the Peninsular war but it was in the army in India that he was to achieve fame. He outraged his family by returning home from a long campaign in Greece with two daughters, born of an alliance with a Greek woman. Now in his sixties, he had made no secret of the fact that he had accepted command in India only to make enough money to see his daughters properly married. He was a superior strategist, always conquering with a minimum of British losses, and he also proved to be a remarkable pacifier, who brought a measure of good government to an area that had been periodically robbed by predatory hill tribes. Throughout the Sind he was known as "the Devil's brother". He was subsequently knighted and became Commander-in-Chief of the army of India, before returning home with his invalid wife.

Walter Hamilton, V.C.

Walter Hamilton Hamilton came from a well-known family from Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny. He was a great nephew of General Sir George Pollock who led the Army of Retribution in the First Afghan War. He arrived in India in 1874 and transferred to the Corps of Guides, one of the most famous and active Indian Army regiments. He won his VC at Futtehabad where he was obliged to assume command of two squadrons of Guides Cavalry following the death of Major Battye in a charge against 5000 Afghans who had streamed out of their defensive position behind breastworks at the top of a steep slope. Hamilton and his intensely loyal men were spurred on by a sense of revenge for their leader's death and drove the ememy back to the breastworks and scattered them. In the fight, Hamilton rescued a sowar (Indian trooper) from three tribesmen.

Cavagnari with sirdars The scene of Hamilton's last stand was the Bala Hissar, an enclosure within the city of Kabul. He commanded a small force of 20 Cavalry and 50 Infantry, all from the Corps of Guides, which formed a discreet escort for Sir Louis Cavagnari the Envoy who was to set up the ill-fated residency in Kabul following the Treaty of Gandamak (Cavagnari, in the centre of the picture on right, was the son of an Italian aristocrat and an Irish mother). This treaty was made with the Amir, Yakub Khan who resided in his palace 250 yards from the British Residency.

On 3rd September 1879, one of the Amir's Afghan regiments paraded without rifles to receive arrears of pay. When they realised that they were to receive half what they were expecting, they rioted and killed the Amir's General, Daud Shah. Hamilton and Surgeon Ambrose Kelly, from Dublin, were having breakfast at the time but were rudely interrupted by the crowd who entered the residency throwing stones at the troops. The troops fired back, whereupon the rioters withdrew and stormed the arsenal to collect weapons.

The crowd attacked the barracks and managed to set it on fire. They had also managed to set up two field guns to attack the troops. One of the Afghans' guns was positioned to blast a hole in the barracks where Hamilton and most of the Guides were. He led a brave attempt to capture the gun but had to fall back after killing the gun crew. Two other attempts involving Surgeon Kelly and the political officer, William Jenkyns, failed causing the deaths of both of them. Lt. Hamilton was the last officer remaining. He led another effort and managed to seize the gun but the other gun was in place. In a last ditch attempt, Hamilton shot and hacked his way through the rebels and placed himself between the gun and them where he finally succumbed to wounds and was cut to pieces. The remainder of his company were killed.

Although General Roberts did succeed in defeating Ayub in one more battle, the British had to admit that their time was up in Afghanistan. The various tribes still made it abundantly clear that as little as they liked each other, they liked the British still less. The North-West Frontier was still considered the wild frontier and caused headaches for British planners in India for a long time yet to come.

Massacre at Amritsar, 1919

Udham Singh was hanged in Britain in June 1940 for the murder of Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor who presided over the British suppression of the 1919 uprising in Punjab. Udham Singh was an orphan raised at Khalsa Orpanage. O'Dwyer was of farming stock from Tipperary. His killing marked the end of a chain of events that began at 4:30 p.m. on April 13, 1919, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, himself born in India, opened fire on an unarmed gathering in Jallianwala Bagh. Udham Singh was a witness to that carnage, which became a turning point in Indian history, and he waited twenty years to carry out his act of vengeance.

As in Ireland, nationalism was on the rise in India at this time. The actual issue that served to rally millions of Indians, arousing them to a new level of disaffection from British rule, was the government of India's hasty passage of the Rowlatt Acts early in 1919. These "black acts," as they came to be called, were peacetime extensions of the wartime emergency measures passed in 1915, against the unanimous opposition of its Indian members. There was a succession of protests in the Punjab against the detainment of opposition politicians, leading to the death of a handful of British residents in Amritsar. When Brigadier General Dyer arrived, his fellow British residents had convinced themselves that the events of 1857 were about to repeat themselves. A protest meeting was arranged at Jallianwala Bagh. It was a Sunday, and many neighboring peasants had come to Amritsar to celebrate a Hindu festival, gathering in the Bagh, which was a place for holding cattle fairs and other festivities. Dyer arrived there, along with two young officers, Briggs and Anderson, 50 Indian and British rifle-men, 40 Gurkhas, and two armoured cars. A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds were fired into the crowd. No warning was given to disperse before Dyer opened fire, and the crowd of men, women and children had no way of escaping the Bagh, since the soldiers spanned the only exit. About 400 civilians were killed and some 1200 wounded. They were left without medical attention by Dyer, who hastily removed his troops to the camp.

Sir Michael O'Dwyer backed Dyer's actions, as did many of the British establishment. Twenty years later he paid the price.

Mutiny by the Connaught Rangers

By 1920 a guerilla war had been waging in Ireland for several years against British rule, during which Britain sent irregular forces which carried out indiscriminate acts of violence against the civilian population. The 1st battallion of the Connaught Rangers had returned to India the previous year, after having seen action throughout the First World War. Astounded and disgusted by news of the brutalities being meted out to their friends and relatives at home, 'C' Company of the Rangers were so incensed that they refused point blank to carry out any more orders issued by anyone connected with the British Army. They were soon joined by others, and it became evident that their nickname 'the Devil's Own' had another side to it. Stubbornness was allied to their known courage.

All efforts to talk the continually growing group of mutineers into giving up 'their silly act' only intensified their feelings. They held a meeting and it was left open to any man among them to join the mutineers or not. Only some twenty men decided to opt out and no hostility was shown to these. A committee was selected; the Union Jack at Jullundur, on the North West Frontier, was replaced by the Irish tricolour, stitched together by men who had bought lengths of material from the local bazaars. The four hundred men of the Rangers, their average age twenty-two, continued their mutiny. They mounted sentry and did all that was required to keep their own position intact. They continually repeated their reasons for the mutiny to their officers.

When terms of surrender were eventually reached, the Rangers were marched to 'a new camp' outside the cantonment on the plain. Here they were subjected to the greatest of inhumanities - threatened with death by a squad of fully-armed troops and only saved by the inter- vention of a priest. They were made to live under canvas, something no British troops were ever expected to do in the broiling heat of India.

The mutiny spread to Solan where other companies of the Rangers were stationed, and it was here that one man stepped forward and calling out his name and number identified himself as the leader. Two of the mutineers died at Solan while attacking the armoury. When eventually the mutiny was put down and the long months of terrible hardship endured, those words of Private James Daly were well remembered. He was one of fourteen men sentenced to death for their part in the mutiny; when the sentences were reviewed Daly's was the only one left standing. T P Klfeather in his detailed book, The Connaught Rangers, begins his story at this point:

A private in the Connaught Rangers, Punjab

"It was ordered by Major-General Sir G. de S. Barrow, K.C.B., K.C.M.G. of northern command of the British Army in India, from his headquarters at Murree, that at six o'clock precisely on the morning of 2 November, Private James Joseph Daly, age 22 years, of the 1st battalion The Connaught Rangers, regimental number 35025, from Tyrrelspass, county Westmeath, Ireland, would be executed by a firing party at Dagshai prison."

The final act of the drama that began on that hot day in June now moved inexorably towards its conclusion. Daly, from a family all of whom had served with the British army, would get no reprieve.

The picture on right shows a private in the Connaught Rangers, Punjab.

Let's leave the last words on these soldiers to Emily Lawless, a poet and writer:

"War-dogs hungry and grey,
Gnawing a naked bone,
Fighters in every clime,
Every cause but their own."
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