Lancashire gunner falls silent as India voyage ends in massacre

In the second part of his look back at the letters of Lancashire soldier Alfred Higginson, local historian John Grimbaldeston revisits the moment Alfred was caught in one of the great tragedies of the early 20th century

Thursday, 24th May 2018, 5:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 24th May 2018, 5:16 pm
Gunner Alfred Thomas Higginson, Royal Field Artillery pictured in India in 1919

Alfred Higginson, a farmer’s lad from Pilling, volunteered for the army in 1916 and some of his experiences on the Somme have already been documented, until late in 1916 when he was invalided home.

He crossed the Channel in the hospital ship the St George, and then went to Warrington, to the Lord Derby War Hospital, Winwick. After some home leave and recuperation in an army camp in Frome in Somerset he was considered fit for active service, but unfit for a return to the Front.

“I was unfit for France again, so I was put on an Indian draft to go and replace some old regulars that had not seen war service. They were sent to the Persian Gulf/Mesopotamia - very hot there, no shelter from the awful heat. We arrived at Lahore, stayed a few days there and were then sent to Jullundur under the same Brigadier-General Dyer.”

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Gunner Alfred Thomas Higginson, Royal Frield Artillery pictured in India in 1919 image and his diary

And it is there that Fred’s diary abruptly stops. He had no problem recording his experiences in France, despite the terrible sights he saw, but in India, he could not find it in him to write up his exploits. The story has to be pieced together from fragments of letters he wrote to a lifelong friend from the army, Tom Kay, from Manchester and then Wheelton.

They are formal yet friendly as they sign the letters by their full names, but address each other as “Old Sport, ” “Old Pal” and “Old Chum, ” and in a later letter Tom says “Amritsar, Jullundur, they all bring back memories, ” and there it is - they were witnesses to, if not participants in, one of the greatest British atrocities in India.

On April 13, 1919 General Dyer ordered 50 Gurkha riflemen to open fire on a group of peaceful Sikh protestors in Jallianwala Bagh garden in Amritsar. British sources put the dead at 379, Indian sources claimed the dead numbered more than 1,000. It isn’t known whether Fred played any part in the massacre, but he would have known about it, may even have witnessed it, and would have experienced the widespread outrage felt by the Indian population towards the British. The incident was re-enacted in the film Gandhi. This, briefly, is the story.

Reginald Dyer had been appointed to permanent command of the infantry brigade at Jullundur in the Punjab. Though India during the War had been relatively peaceful, a Commission under Justice Rowlatt recommended allowing the Viceroy to take special powers in any terrorist emergencies, including by-passing the usual legal process, and allowing the internment of suspects by provincial governors. The Government of India approved and implemented the Rowlatt Report.

Aftermath of writing in Armitsar after the massacre of April 1920

The Indian people opposed the measures, seeing it as poor reward for the loyalty shown during the War, and the Government made no attempt to appease the population. Mohanda K Gandhi, a barrister who led the Indian Congress Party and who had experience of mass opposition movements in South Africa and India, organised opposition through his civil disobedience movement.

The Punjab was in a sorry state: the Governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, ruled very strictly, refusing the educated Indian classes any political involvement and nipping any unrest in the bud through strong aggressive action. The population had been decimated by malaria and influenza epidemics, taxes and inflation were high, and the cloth industry, centred on Amritsar, was suffering as the price of cloth had come down with the end of the War. The Punjab was a powder keg of unrest; the Rowlatt Report was the fuse.

On the March 30, 1919 Gandhi’s supporters organised a Hartal, a closing of shops and businesses as a peaceful protest against the terms of the Rowlatt Report and in support of Gandhi’s movement. According to the official report of the build-up to the massacre that first protest remained peaceful, but the Government ordered the two local leaders, Dr Kitchlew and Dr Satyapal to be removed from the district.

When news of this got out, there was rioting, the official figure for the mob was given as 30,000, though one later historian estimated 50,000, and there was “great destruction.”

Aftermath of writing in Armitsar after the massacre of April 1920

The manager and assistant manager of the National Bank, both British, were beaten to death and the building ransacked; Mr G M Thompson, manager of the Alliance Bank, was also killed, but the Bank was spared as it was Indian owned. The report laid the blame for the situation getting out of hand firmly at the door of the Indian officers, condemned as “pointless and ineffective”.

On the evening of April 11, Brigadier-General Dyer arrived to take charge. There is no evidence that he had been ordered there, it is, therefore, possible he took it upon himself to take charge. He had 100 British and 100 Indian troops with him, supplemented later with two armoured cars and 20 men of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The day of the 11th had been tense, but without an outbreak of violence.

The town remained shut and there were no more public gatherings, though the Indian leaders announced that there would be a public meeting the next day at the Jallianwalla Bargh.

Dyer issued a proclamation warning the citizens of Amritsar against causing damage to property, and forbidding public meetings.

Aftermath of writing in Armitsar after the massacre of April 1920

At about 12.40pm on April 13, Dyer was told that despite his proclamation the proposed meeting was going ahead. The Bagh was an open area about two hundred yards long, slightly less wide, surrounded by high walls. It had five narrow entrances. After the rains it was used for crops, but at other times was a meeting place.

Neither Dyer nor the Deputy Commissioner thought to try to prevent the meeting; on the contrary, Dyer seemed to have welcomed the opportunity for confrontation, so as to subdue the masses.

The two armoured cars he had with him were unable to proceed as the gates were too narrow. Dyer’s column arrived at the Bagh after the meeting had started. His troops took up positions on a low bank to the west and without warning began to fire. The crowd surged towards the narrow exits, trampling people underfoot and presenting easy targets to the troops.

The official report, the Hunter Report, summarises Dyer’s motives as he explained them in a subsequent interview.

He fired on this meeting, and killed about 400 people and wounded about 1,200 because, in his view, they were rebels and he was “going to give them a lesson, ” and “punish them, ” and “make a wide impression, and “strike terror throughout the Punjab, ” and he “wanted to reduce the morale of the rebels”. That is why he began to fire on them without warning and without calling for them to disperse. He continued firing even when the people began to run away, and went on firing till his ammunition was nearly exhauste

Dyer’s action split public opinion at home. Churchill and Asquith in the House of Commons both condemned it and when the extent of the atrocity came out, the British press also turned on Dyer, and the Hunter Report unequivocally condemned Dyer’s actions.

General Dyer, left, the man responsible for the Amritsar massacre of April 1920, pictured with his wife and son in 1920

However, those in the military generally approved, and Rudyard Kipling pronounced Dyer “the man who saved India” and supported the benefit fund that the Morning Post organised, which in the end raised over £26,000. The families of the victims received the equivalent of £37.10s in rupees in compensation.

Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer thought Dyer acted firmly and honourably. O’Dwyer was assassinated in 1940 by Udham Singh, a witness to the events at Amritsar, and possibly injured there. Sing was hanged for his crime.

General Dyer was ill with jaundice and heart problems when the Hunter Report delivered its verdict on his actions in 1920. He was shortly after relieved of his command and in April of that year he and his wife returned to England. He died in 1927.

This was the story that Alfred chose not to tell, and what can’t be replicated here is the pressure Fred put on the pen while writing the last words of his war diary, “the same Brigadier, General Dyer, ” as though he was struggling to keep strong feelings at bay.