In 1793, England needed soldiers to support a war with France. On Oct 3, they advertised in the Connaught Journal for volunteers to start a British Army regiment to be called the Royal Regiment of Connaught Rangers. That advertisement became an invitation to death for thousands of men of the Irish west who gained fame on international battlefields as the Connaught Rangers. It was a time when military service provided the only steady employment an Irishman could find that offered an escape from the serfdom of tenant farm life. Between Nov 1793 and Mar 1794, 30,000 Irish enlisted in the service of the Crown to form the nucleus of two regiments – the Rangers and the Royal Irish Rifles. Sent to Flanders, they returned in the summer of 1795 with only 222 fit for active duty. Replacements were hastily recruited.
When the United Irishmen rose in 1798, the Crown deemed it unwise to have armed and trained Irishmen around while atrocities were being committed in Ireland, so the Connaught Rangers were sent to India. From there they were sent to Egypt on a difficult campaign. Upon their return in 1803 they were billeted in Sussex, where they remained isolated from news that Robert Emmet was hanged, drawn, and quartered on a Dublin Street. The Rangers saw action when Spain declared war on England in 1804. In 1807, they were in Argentina and returned only when their ranks needed new Irish blood from the homes of the Irish west – England’s military reservoir in their battles with Napoleon. In 1808, the Rangers were leaving comrades on the battlefields of Talavera, Bussaco, and Fuentes del Onoro as they earned the reputation of the most gallant regiment in the British Army. Viscount Sir Arthur Wellsly wrote, whenever anything gallant or desperate is to be done, there is no corps in the Army that I would sooner employ than the Connaught Rangers.
As conditions worsened in Ireland during the years of the Great Hunger, the regiment was sent to Greece and the Barbadoes where they never knew what was happening in Ireland. Despite the insensitive attitude of British field officers who considered them cannon fodder, the Rangers added to their reputation for gallantry in the Crimean War in 1854. Often sent into battle poorly fed, ill clothed and short of ammunition, their superb bravery never faltered. They did what they were so miserably paid to do – win battles. Journalist T.P Gilfeather wrote that their Balaclava campaign was a pitiful tale of neglect and abysmal stupidity on the part of the noble and titled incompetents who were responsible for the organization and leadership of brave men. England maintained her empire by sending the unemployed youth of one colony to fight the unemployed youth of another; in 1857 a regiment of Irish youth who had chosen soldiering to starvation, sailed to India to shoot rebellious young men who opposed the civilizing influence of Victoria. Leaving 416 of their comrades in Indian graves, they were shipped to S. Africa to bring law and order to that part of the empire; in 1881, they were back in India; and in 1899 back in Africa where the Brits were trying to seize the land of the Boer farmers for its diamonds and gold. As the Rangers were shipped from hot spot to hot spot throughout the empire, new recruits from Ireland came to fill the ranks depleted by casualties. With the new recruits came news of home, of the Land League, of Parnell and Davitt, and the Fenian Brotherhood. Still leery of sending armed Irishmen to Ireland, the Crown sent the Rangers back to India in 1909 to await the next major conflict of the empire.
That conflict came in WWI; in that conflict the Rangers left 25,000 casualties on the bloodiest battlefields unaware of the events in their homeland. In 1915, when the Irish in Ireland were planning a rising, Irish Rangers in Gallipoli were dying in their thousands. These were men who volunteered to secure Home Rule for Ireland after the war and for that they risked all at Sedd el Bahr and Suvla Bay. No news of the Easter Rising reached the Rangers until it was well over and it was too late to do anything but mourn. The Rangers were sent back to India.
By June, 1919, 9,682 police and 58,362 British troops were in Ireland and the country was in turmoil. News finally reached the Rangers. They learned of the 1,000 or more raids in 1920 by Crown forces on the villages that they had left unprotected in order to secure England’s interests elsewhere. The final straw came on March 20 when Cork’s Lord Mayor Thomas MacCurtain was murdered at his home in front of his wife. An official inquest could not deny the evidence and ruled that the murder was carried out and organized by the RIC, officially directed by the British government and we return a verdict of murder against Lloyd George and 3 Inspectors of the RIC. England’s reaction was to introduce a force known as the Black and Tans on March 25. A period of brutality unparalleled in memory had begun and Ireland’s War of Independence was on.
As news of the English atrocities reached the Connaught Rangers, they felt shame for the uniform they wore. On June 28, 1920 a group at Jullundur Barracks, India, decided to protest the actions of English forces in Ireland. They demanded to be placed under arrest for refusing to obey orders; this was the traditional and accepted method of protest in the British Army. A Sergeant who demanded that they report for duty at once was told, We will soldier no more for England. The men were locked up as ‘C’ Company was called out for morning parade. ‘C’ Company learned what happened, and joined the protestors. The incident was reported to the Major who ordered ‘D’ Company to arrest ‘C’ Company, whereupon ‘D’ Company joined the protest. The Guardhouse could not hold all the protesting Rangers, especially when ‘B’ Company returned from morning rifle practice and joined the protest. Numbering more than 400, the protestors moved from the guardhouse to the theater where a committee of 7 was chosen to draft a formal protest. The Union Jack was lowered and an Irish Tricolor was raised in its place. Signs reading Stop the Murder Gang in Ireland and We Will Only Fight Black & Tans appeared on barracks walls. British Officers watched in horror as the men formed up and paraded under orders from their own committee of 7.
The officers appealed not to undermine the security of the Fort. Under promise of having their demands conveyed to the highest authorities, the Rangers agreed relocate to a larger compound where they would be held as prisoners. On July 1, true to their word, the Rangers grounded their arms and marched out under guard carrying an Irish flag and singing `God Save Ireland‘. Surrounded by loyal British troops they marched 3 miles to a 200-square-yard barbed-wire enclosure with machine-gun emplacements at each corner. The Brits tried to remove the few Scottish and English troops who had joined the protest, but without success. This should have tipped the Rangers that their betrayal was at hand, but they believed that their Officers were guided by the military fairness that they preached. However, the Rangers actions were more significant than they realized. The atrocities of the Brits in Ireland were causing embarrassment in the world media. News of a mutiny in India among Irish troops would provide fuel to the fire of sympathy that the Irish were getting from the U.S. and increase political pressure on Lloyd George from American politicians. The word came down: No word of this mutiny was to leak out! Break the spirit of the protest!
Heavy manual labor in the extreme heat of the summer sun and rations reduced to black tea and dry bread caused dozens to suffer heat stroke before Capt. Carney of the Royal Army Medical Corps threatened to make public a report if the mistreatment were not stopped. Finally, the men were ordered back to their barracks. As they marched the three miles back to camp, from their parched and bleeding lips came the faint but audible strains of God Save Ireland. Meanwhile at Solun Fort, 200 miles away, Pvt James Daly and several other Rangers learned of the protest and joined in. Pvt Daly organized the men and marched on the Officers’ quarters where he calmly announced that in protest against atrocities of the Crown forces in Ireland, the Connaught Rangers would serve the Crown no more. Under the promise that they would be treated as military prisoners in protest, the Rangers surrendered their arms. As soon as they had done so, armed troops were brought and three unarmed Rangers were shot down. They were marched off to the notorious Dagshai Jail where they were joined by mutineers from Jullindur. Dagshai was a condemned building so badly suited for its purpose that a large number of prisoners had already died there. On a diet of dry bread and tea twice a day, they were kept in their cells for 23 out of every 24 hours. From these horrible conditions, Pvt Daly and 5 others made their escape, but instead of fleeing, they traveled six miles to Solan Fort, broke into the canteen, confiscated food and returned to Dagshai where they broke back into the prison and distributed the food to the other prisoners. All promises to address their grievances were ignored. Charges were brought and 14 were condemned to death; the rest received up to 20 years at hard labor.
In London, the War Ministry and the Cabinet were well aware of the effect that the executions of the leaders of Easter Week had and the unifying effect of the recent deaths of Kevin Barry and Terence MacSwiney. No! The timing was bad; these 14 men could not die, but an example had to be made. At Dagshai Prison the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment for all but one of the prisoners – the brave young Private who had organized the protest at Solan because it was there that men had been killed. It mattered not that those killed were Daly’s comrades and that they were killed by British troops. Daly was the leader and Daly would die. On Nov 2, 1920, the 129 year old spirit of the bravest and proudest regiment in the British Army – The Connaught Rangers – died forever as Pvt James Joseph Daly of Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath was murdered by a firing squad at Dagshai prison.
Following the Anglo Irish Treaty of 1922 which created the Irish Free State, the regiment was formally disbanded by the Crown, but their memory never died. In April 1936, the same year that the Irish Free State finally abolished the office of England’s Governor General and removed all reference to the King from their constitution, Daíl Eireann awarded government pensions to the men of the Connaught Rangers who mutinied in India in 1920. Then, in 1949, the year that the Republic of Ireland was declared, a monument was erected to the memory of the Connaught Ranger mutineers in Glasnevin Cemetery among the graves of Ireland’s other patriots.