From Coatbridge to the Punjab


Stephen Coyle

JUNE 28 marked the centenary of the event known as the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny in India, so it is fitting that the story of John Hughes who was the only Scot to have taken part in the mutiny, is featured in The Irish Voice.

John was born on May 28, 1893, at 21 Carrick Street in the industrial town of Coatbridge which was once known as the ‘Iron Burgh’ because of its many ironworks. His father Thomas was employed as an iron cutter. John had two older sisters, two younger sisters, and a brother. His mother Annie—whose maiden name was Cassidy—was born in Coatbridge, and his father was born in North Ayrshire. Their house had only one room.

In 1913 John joined the 2nd Battalion of the Connaught Rangers, an Irish light infantry regiment of the British Army whose nickname was ‘the Devil’s Own.’ He was discharged for wounds received to his shin and lower jaw in France in 1915 and was awarded a conditional pension of 20 shillings a week. He re-enlisted in 1919 in the 1st Battalion of the Connaught Rangers at Hamilton Barracks.

Mutiny background
On June 28, 1920, a company of the Connaught Rangers stationed at Wellington Barracks in Jullundur on the plains of the Punjab, refused to perform their military duties as a protest against the activities of the British Army in Ireland. On the following day, the mutineers sent two emissaries to a company of Connaught Rangers stationed at Solon, about 20 miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas. The soldiers there took up the protest, and like their counterparts at Jullundur, flew the Irish tricolour, wore ‘Sinn Féin’ rosettes on their British Army uniforms, sang rebel songs and named their hut Liberty Hall.

The protests were initially peaceful, but on the evening of July 1, around 30 members of the company at Solon, armed with bayonets, attempted to recapture their rifles from the company magazine. The soldiers on guard opened fire, killing two men and wounding another. The incident effectively brought the mutiny to an end, and the mutineers at both Jullundur and Solon were placed under armed guard. Sixty-one men were convicted for their role in the mutiny. Fourteen were sentenced to death by firing squad, but the only soldier whose capital sentence was carried out was Private James Joseph Daly. Daly was considered the leader of the mutiny at Solon and the man responsible for the failed attack on the magazine. On the morning of November 2, 1920 he was executed in Dagshai prison in northern India.

With the exception of one man—who died in prison at Dagshai—by the middle of the following year all of the convicted mutineers had been transferred to prisons in England to serve out the remainder of their sentences. The Connaught Rangers, along with three other Irish regiments, were disbanded in June 1922. Following negotiations between the Irish Free State and the British Government, the mutineers were released from prison and most of them returned to Ireland early in 1923. The mutiny had serious economic consequences for the men involved. Though many of them were veterans of the First World War, they were denied a military pension by the British Government. Some enlisted in the Irish Army, others joined the Garda; but many struggled to make a life in post-independence Ireland.

Following lobbying by a committee made up of veterans of the mutiny, the Irish Government announced in the Dáil in February 1934, that it had set up a Committee of Enquiry to consider the claims of former members of the regiment arising out of the mutiny. At the start of the enquiry the committee had advertised widely for claimants in Irish national and local newspapers.

After reading an article in the Scottish edition of the Irish Weekly and Ulster Examiner about the work of the Committee, John Hughes wrote to the Army Pensions Branch of the Department of Defence in October 1934. In his letter he states: “When the mutiny broke… I was with them from the beginning till the last not like a lot of shirkers who left us thinking we were going to get our backs against the wall; if they had been true poor Daly would not have met the death he got at Dangshai… where I was a prisoner at the time.

“I was sentenced to one year of hard labour. I done every day of it; 10 months in India in Silkot Prison—a memory I will carry to the grave. The torture that was meted out to me, from morning till night in the blazing sun of the Punjab haunts me ever since. But…I would gladly go through it all for the same purpose.

“It’s a strange thing that a Scotsman and the only one from Scotland should have stuck to my comrades, and Irish chaps to turn away, and not only that, turn around and give evidence against us, that was the most galling thing of all.

“Since my discharge in June 1921 which was from Woking Prison where I served the last few days of my sentence. I came back to Scotland to find that any job that was going only ex-service men need apply. I applied often but was always turned down when I produced my discharge papers. Discharged from His Majesty’s services with ignominy and so it has been ever since. I am just a mendicant.

“I enclose with this letter the summary of evidence used against us and you can trace from my name and number, the part I took in the mutiny, or if you get into contact with any of the lads whose names are on the schedule. These were the only chaps who really took part and were punished. There may be applications from others but please keep to the only names which are there. I am trusting to you people that the circumstances I am in through being one of the mutineers, you will give this your earnest consideration and approval, also you will return my papers when you have thoroughly gone through all investigations.”

Letters and support
Someone called John Gallagher wrote a letter on behalf of John Hughes whom he described as ‘a very personal friend’ to the Donegal TD Neil Blaney. He claims to have been at the formation of the Father Griffin Branch of Sinn Féin based in the Whifflet area of Coatbridge in 1920, and to have been vice-president of the branch when Hughes came back from India. He said they did everything to assist Hughes at that time seeing how he was treated and Hughes did much in return by singing at their concerts to raise funds for the struggle in Ireland. Hughes had received a grant of £5 from the Central Sinn Féin Fund in Glasgow in 1922.

Blaney wrote to the Department of Defence and was advised in a reply in September 1935, that compensation could not be granted to John Hughes until the necessary legislation had been enacted.

The outcome was relayed to Hughes who again wrote to the Department of Defence stating that ‘the suspense is terrible as you know I am practically isolated, as the only news we get here is small paragraphs in the Irish Press.’

Hughes received a reply from the Department of Defence in March 1936, stating: “I am desired by Mr Aitken to refer to representations made on your behalf by Deputy Neil Blaney, in connection with a claim made by you as an ex-member of the Connaught Rangers who mutinied in India in 1920, and to state that your claim and others of a similar nature are under consideration by the committee set up by the Government to investigate such claims.”

Pensions Bill
The Connaught Rangers (Pensions) Bill was introduced in the Dáil by the Minister for Defence on April 29, 1936, and was approved without a division after only one member, Frank McDermott, had spoken in any way critically about the mutiny. Politically, McDermott believed that the Irish Free State should remain part of the British Commonwealth. He was not objecting to the Bill or opposing it, he said, but did not want the public to get the view that what the mutineers did was entirely praiseworthy. In his view it had not been praiseworthy at all.

He went on: “They went into the British Army of their own free will, took the oath of allegiance of their own free will, took upon themselves the obligation of maintaining the splendid traditions of the Connaught Rangers, and yet in spite of that they mutinied while in the service of the Crown.”

McDermott did not consider that the notorious conduct of the Black and Tans justified these men going back on the oaths they had sworn, and in any case their protest had gone further. They had demanded that all the British forces should be withdrawn from Ireland and had flown the flag of the Irish Republic.

The Minster for Defence replying for the government said: “A number of these Connaught Rangers had joined up at John Redmond’s request to fight for small nations (Redmond was leader of the constitutionalist Irish Parliamentary Party at the start of the First World War). After the war they were given inducements to stay on in the British Army and were transferred to India. When they were serving in India they found that the British Empire, which had asked them to fight for small nations, had started to crush their own small nation… My opinion is that in the circumstances the Connaught Rangers were altogether praiseworthy in doing what they did. The British, who had originally invited a number of Irishmen to fight for small nations, at the end of the war, when it suited their purpose, started to crush this small nation, and use methods that even the Germans did not use against the Belgians.

After several amendments to the Bill, it finally passed into law in July, 1936 without further modification. All claims under its provision were dealt with from then on by the Ministry for Defence. In February 1937, it was revealed in the Dáil that there had so far been 105 applications under the Act, of which three had been granted and 102 were still under consideration. In reply to a parliamentary question during the following June, Frank Aiken stated that out of the 105 claims received by his department, 37 had been successful, eleven were being considered and the remainder had been refused. These included several Scots who had served in the Connaught Rangers, but were not court-martialled.

The Ministry for Defence were clearly encountering a certain amount of difficulty in verifying the personal details of the applicants under the new Act and in weeding out the spurious claims. It was therefore decided to enlist the assistance of the British Government, which as we shall see from John Hughes’s application, was to prove problematic.

In September 1936, John Hughes was sent an application form so that he could apply for a pension under the Connaught Rangers (Pensions) Act, 1936.

At the time of his applying Hughes was still living in Coatbridge. He stated that in addition to the summary of evidence that he had sent previously, his claim could be verified by former Corporal James Davis and Francis Kearney of the Connaught Rangers.

A copy of his British Army discharge papers sent to the Department of Defence in support of Hughes’ claim, states that he was discharged in consequence of ignominy. It stated that men who have been discharged from any part of His Majesty’s Forces for misconduct of any sort, or who have been dismissed attempting to re-enlist by concealing the circumstances of their discharge or dismissal, was liable to imprisonment with hard labour for two years. Hughes was discharged at Warwick after spending six days in Woking Military Prison.

The pension was to be based on the applicant’s service in the British Army. However, Hughes was unable to provide discharge papers for his earlier period of service from the March 1915 to June 1919.

Hughes was growing increasingly frustrated and desperate due to the lack of movement in his case. In a letter sent in March 1937 he stated: “Please determine what I qualify for without any more ado and let’s finish with the whole matter. Give me what I have to get one way or the other as I am on the point of starvation. I could have had five or six government jobs but my last discharge bars me almost from any kind of employment”.

Hughes tried writing to the Governor at Woking Prison to request official proof of his imprisonment only to discover that the prison closed in 1926. He then tried writing to the War Office in London, but his request was declined. He was told that it was not the general practice of the department to supplement the information given on a soldier’s Discharge Certificate.

The co-operation of the War Office was not forthcoming in endeavouring to confirm the sentence imposed by the Court-Martial following an approach by the Department of External Affairs to ascertaining particulars of the sentence imposed. The Minister in exercising of the powers invested to him by section 9 (4) of the Act demanded an affidavit from John Hughes former comrades who had personal knowledge of the facts.

His former comrades Francis Kearney, William Coote and James Davis made a declaration stating that they were personally acquainted with and knew John Hughes who was formerly a private in the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers when serving in India. They stated that he took part in the mutiny and was tried by general court martial in August 1920 and was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment and subsequently discharged from the army.

On the basis of his service and rank, the Minister of Defence, Frank Aiken proposed with the consent of the Minister for Finance, to grant John Hughes applicant a short service pension of 10/6d per week.

The National Graves Association, which was formed to restore and maintain the graves and memorials of Ireland’s patriot dead, erected a cenotaph in memory of the Connaught Rangers, paid for by the surviving mutineers, each of whom donated a share of his service pension. The cenotaph was erected in June 1949. After Requiem Mass had been celebrated, the congregation marched to Glasnevin Cemetery led by the Dublin Brigade of the IRA. Press reports stated that Joseph Haws the originator of the mutiny, Stephen Lally and Patrick Gogarty, all survivors of the mutiny were in the guard of honour.

The unveiling ceremony was carried out by Francis Kearney, the mutineer who had organised the occasion. In his speech, Kearney said that he and his comrades had decided not to serve in the army any longer in protest against the atrocities the British were carrying out in their homeland; they had torn down the Union Jack, the symbol of imperialism, and had raised the tricolour of the Republic in its place. The heroic men who had died in the mutiny, he went on, deserved commemoration among the long line of those who had given their lives for Ireland.

Before the laying-on of wreaths Hawes spoke a few words. He said he was glad that he had lived to see the day on which the memorial was erected. The headstone recorded that James Daly had been executed for his part in the mutiny, Peter Sears and Patrick Smyth had been shot while it was taking place, and John Miranda had subsequently died in a prison hospital. It also listed the names of all the other mutineers

In April 1966 on the Jubilee of the Easter Rising, The Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser carried an article with the following headline ‘Coatbridge Man Recalls Facing Death Sentence Took Part in Irish Regiments Mutiny in India.’

It reads as follows: An Invitation to attend the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland was sent to Coatbridge man John Hughes, who, as a soldier, was under sentence of death for mutiny in 1920.

When news that Ireland was under British occupation reached the soldiers, four Irishmen refused to continue fighting in the King’s Khaki. The mutiny spread and John Hughes became involved, although he was a Scotsman.

“Responsibility didn’t belong to anyone in particular,” he told the Advertiser this week. “We were all in it together.”

It was a mutiny without bloodshed. Any breach of discipline would have been exaggerated to extremes by the commanding officer. To John fell the task of seeing this did not happen.

“I stood on a box and shouted at them,” he said. “All weapons and ammunition were entrusted to my care. Looting was forbidden.”

“There was no drunkenness, no brawling or rioting. The men accepted their self-inflicted privation and acted just as if under the officers’ control.”

But 40 of the mutineers were picked out and taken to Lucknow Detention Prison. “In the meantime, the remainder of us amused ourselves with cricket, football or boxing,” John went on. “Then on the sixth day of our protest four platoons charged our compound with fixed bayonets.

“We were marched two miles to an open-air compound and left without food under a savage sun that burned 120 degrees in the shade. The compound was surrounded by barbed wire and machine guns were posted at each corner.”

These precautions were completely unnecessary. The prisoners were thousands of miles from home, without food, weapons or ammunition. The jungle was all around, escape was suicidal.”

Next Hughes and 39 others were transported to another prison. Each man was given a cell and was allowed one hours exercise a day.

“We were kept there for 30 days before the general commanding the area visited us and asked if there were any complaints.” John continued. “We said we had none as we thought complaining might go against us.”

The rebel soldiers were again transported this time back to their original barracks. There they were charged with being present at and not endeavouring to suppress a mutiny in His Majesty’s forces, they were liable to be shot.

It took three weeks to complete the proceedings. Of the 70 men on trial, seven were acquitted and 63 were convicted. All of the latter, including John Hughes were placed in Dagshai Prison awaiting sentence.

“One morning in September I heard the clatter of boots in the corridor outside my cell. A slip of paper was pushed under my door. It said: ‘sentenced to death.'”

But the sentence was never carried out. Instead the men were lined up in the prison square and were sentenced to periods of imprisonment from 2 to 21 years.

One man, however, Private James Daly was put before the firing squad. “To this day it is not known exactly why Daly was shot,” John continued. “He was only 21, a shy, retiring man who never spoke a word in his own defence. He was executed on November 2, 1920 and buried at Dagshai, far from his native Westmeath.”

Now he is in Coathill Hospital, getting on in years, and unable to attend the anniversary of the Easter Rising. He concluded: “It’s a long time since all this happened. But the memory of it is pencilled on my brain.”

John Hughes survived for another nine years before dying on the September 8, 1975 in the Convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor at Roystonhill, Glasgow. His estate amounted to £5.97. The Irish Government paid out a funeral grant of £50 to his widow.

Stephen Coyle is the Secretary of the 1916 Rising Centenary Committee (Scotland)