Churchill on Jallianwala Bagh Massacre 1919

WInston Churchill

Editor's note: In  April 1919, under order of General Dyer, troops opened fire on a crowd at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, killing 379 unarmed civilians and wounding over a thousand. The Commander-in-Chief in India recommended that Dyer should be ordered to retire, and the matter came before the Army Council for review. The Council accepted the recommendation, as did the British Cabinet.

Winston Churchill  defended the Cabinet's decision in Parliament, though he called the firing "a monstrous event." The editor has highlighted certain passages.

This is taken from

Following extracts taken from
Hansard House of Commons (U.K.) Proceedings
July 8th, 1920, Supply-Committee, Punjab Disturbances, pp 1719 - 1734

This includes Churchill's complete speech.


(Mr Churchill): I think it may make for the convenience of the Debate if I speak at this early period in the afternoon, in order to put the Committee in possession of the views taken by the War Office, and to offer a full explanation of the course they have adopted. I shall certainly endeavour to follow very carefully the advice which my right hon. Friend who has just spoken has given, that we should approach this subject in a calm spirit, avoiding passion and avoiding attempts to excite prejudice - that we should address ourselves to the subject with a desire to do to-day what is most in accordance with the long view of the general interests of the British Empire. There has not been, I suppose, for many years a  case of this kind, which has raised so many grave and wide issues, or in regard to which a right and wise decision is so  necessary in the general interest. There is the intensity of racial feeling which has been aroused on both sides of India. Every word we speak ought to have regard to that. There are the difficulties of military officers who, in these turbulent times, have been or are likely to be called upon to handle their troops in the suppression of civil disturbance. There are the requirements of justice, and fair play towards an individual. There are the moral and humanitarian conceptions which are involved. All these, combined, make the task of the Government and of the Committee one of exceptional seriousness, delicacy, and responsibility.

I will deal first with the action of the Army Council, for which I accept full responsibility. The conduct of a military officer may be dealt with in three perfectly distinct spheres. First of all, he may be removed from his employment or his appointment, relegated to half pay, and told that he has no prospects of being employed again. This may be done to him by a simple administrative act. It is sufficient for the competent superior authority to decide that the interests of the public service would be better served if someone else were appointed in his stead, to justify and complete the taking of such a step. The officer in question has no redress. He has no claim to a court or inquiry or a court martial. He has no protection of any kind against being deprived of his appointment, and being informed that he has no further prospects of getting another. This procedure may seem somewhat harsh, but a little reflection will show that it is inevitable. There is no excuse for superior authority not choosing the most suitable agents for particular duties, and not removing unsuitable agents from particular duties. During the War, as every Member of the Committee knows, hundreds, and probably thousands, of officers have been so dealt with by their superiors\; and since the War, the tremendous contraction of the Army has imposed similar hardships on hundreds, and possibly thousands, of officers against whom not one word of reproach could be uttered, and whose careers in many cases have been careers of real distinction and of invariable good service. This applies to all appointments in the Army, and, I have no doubt, in the Navy, too, and it applies with increasing severity in proportion as the appointments are high ones. From the humble lance-corporal, who reverts to private  by a stroke of the pen, from the regimental adjutant, if the colonel things he would prefer some other subaltern, up to the highest General or Field-Marshal, all officers are amenable to this procedure in regard to the appointments which they hold.

The procedure is well understood. It is hardly ever challenged. It is not challenged by General Dyer in his statement. It is accepted with soldierly fortitude, because it is believed, on the whole, that the administration of these great responsibilities is carried out in a fair and honest spirit. Indeed, when one thinks of the hundreds of officers of high rank who, in the last year, have had their professional careers brought abruptly and finally to a close, and the patience, good temper and dignity with which this great personal misfortune has been borne, one cannot help feeling a great admiration for the profession of arms to which those officers belong. That is the first methods by which military officers may be dealt with. Under it, the officer reverts automatically to half pay, and, in a very large proportion of cases, having reverted to half pay, he applies to be placed on retired pay, because, especially in the case of senior officers, retired pay is often appreciably higher than half pay.

It now come to the second method. The second method is of a more serious character, and it affects, not the employment of an officer, but his status and his  rank. Here is it not a question of choosing the right man for a particular job,  but of retiring an officer compulsorily from the Service, or imposing on him some reduction or forfeiture in his pension or retired pay. In this case the officer is protected, under Article 527 of the Royal  Warrant, by the fact that it is necessary  for three members of the Army Council to approve the proceeding, and by certain rights of laying his case before them. All the same, the Secretary of State for the time being, by virtue of his office, has the power to make a submission direct to the Crown, and advise that an officer be retired compulsorily, or simply that his name be removed from the list, His Majesty having no further use for his services.

Mr. BOTTOMLEY: What has all this to do with General Dyer - I mean with the specific case we are dealing with?

Mr. CHURCHILL: I have great respect for the Committee, and I do not believe it will refuse to allow a Minister or a Government to unfold a reasoned and solid argument to its attention and I am surprised that my hon. Friend,  who himself takes a not undistinguished part in Debates, should not appreciate the fact, and should not be willing to facilitate my doing so.

I was saying that that is the second method, in which the personal reputation of an officer is undoubtedly affected. The third method is of a definitely penal character. Honour, liberty, life, are affected. Cashiering, imprisonment, or the death penalty may be involved, and for this third category, of course, the whole resources and protection which judicial procedure, lawful tribunals, and British justice accord to an accused per- son are brought into play. Those are the three different levels of procedure in regard to the treatment of the conduct of officers. Although my hon. Friend has not seen the relevance of it, I think it right, at the outset, to unfold these distinctions very carefully to the Committee, and to ask the Committee to bear them  attentively in mind.

Coming to the case of General Dyer, it  will be seen that he was removed from his appointment by the Commander-in- Chief in India\; that he was passed over by the Selection Board in India for promotion\; that he was informed, as hundreds of officers are being and have been informed, that there was no prospect of further employment for him under the Government of India\; and that, in consequence, he reverted automatically to half-pay. These proceedings were brought formally to the notice of the Army council by a letter from the India  Office, which recommended, further, that he should be retired from the Army, and by a telegram from the Commander-in-Chief in India, which similarly recommended that he should be ordered to retire.

Mr. GWYNNE: What was the date?

Mr. CHURCHILL: That was about a month ago. At a later page it was brought publically to the notice of the Army Council by the published despatch of the Secretary of State for India, which stated that the circumstances of the case had been referred to the Army Council. The first step taken by the Army council was to direct General Dyer - we had an application from him that he desired to take this course - to submit a statement of his case for their consideration. That statement is, I think, in the possession of the Committee at the present time. We asked him to make that statement, and we accepted his request that he should be allowed to make it, because we felt that, if any action was to be taken against General Dyer, apart from removing him from his appointments and employment in India - which is a matter of selection - if any action under the second of the three methods I have described was to be taken against  him, it was essential that he should furnish a statement in his own behalf, and should be judged upon that, and not upon evidence which he had given as a  witness in an inquiry before which he had been summoned without having any reason to believe that he was cited as an incriminating party. The conclusions of the Hunter Committee might furnish the fullest justification for removing him  from his appointment -

Commander BELLAIRS: No, no!

Mr. CHURCHILL: I am expressing my opinion. When my hon. and gallant Friend is called, he will express his  opinion. That is the process which we call Debate. But if any question of retiring General Dyer from the Army was to be examined under Article 527, a  direct statement from him in his own defence was indispensable. I read yesterday to the House the conclusion which was reached by the Army Council. It was a conclusion which was reached unanimously, and it speaks for itself. It must be remembered, however, that the  Army Council must deal with these matters primarily, and, indeed, mainly, from a military point of view. They have to consider the rights and interests of officers of the Army, and they have to consider the effect of any decision which they may come to upon the confidence with which officers will do their duty in the kind of extremely difficult and tragical circumstances in which General Dyer and, I am sorry to say, a good many other officers of the Army have in recent times been placed. The Army Council have to express an opinion of General Dyer's conduct from what is primarily a service standpoint. Their function is one of great responsibility, but at the same time it is one of a limited and special responsibility.

Nothing could be more unjust than to represent the Army Council as seeking to raise a constitutional issue, or as setting themselves up against the paramount authority of the government of the  country. I very much regret to have seen that that suggestion has been made. It is quite unmerited and uncalled for. Asked to express their opinion, they were bound to give it sincerely and plainly from their special standpoint. Their conclusion in no way affected the final freedom of action of the Cabinet. The Cabinet has many interests to consider far outside and beyond the scope and  authority of a body like the Army Council, which as an administrative body, a subordinate body, and which is not at the same time a judicial tribunal. if the Cabinet, with their superior authority and more general outlook, took the view that further action was required against General Dyer beyond the loss of  employment, beyond the censure pronounced by the Hunter Commission, by the government of India, and by the Secretary of State's despatch, which was a  Cabinet document bearing the considered opinion of the Government - if it was thought further action of a disciplinary character was required, the Cabinet were perfectly free to take it without any conflict of powers arising between the sub- ordinate, administrative Army Council and the Supreme Executive Council of State. I made it perfectly clear to my colleagues on the Army council that, in assenting to the conclusion to which we came as an Army Council, I held myself perfectly free if I thought right, and if the Cabinet so decided, to make a  further submission to the Crown for the  retirement of General Dyer from the Army.

Liet.-Colonel CROFT: And the converse may be true, also. The Cabinet may upset the whole decision also in the other direction?

Mr. CHURCHILL: Certainly. The Cabinet can certainly alter the employment of any officer. I now come to explain and to justify the decision of the Cabinet. This is the question I have been asking myself, and which I think the House should consider. Were we right in accepting, as we have done, the conclusion of the Army Council as terminating the matter so far as General Dyer was concerned, or ought we to have taken further action of a disciplinary or quasi-disciplinary character against him? Here, for the first time, I shall permit myself to enter, to some extent, upon certain aspects of the merits of the case.

However we may dwell upon the difficulties of General Dyer during the Amritsar riots, upon the anxious and critical situation in the Punjab, upon  the danger to Europeans throughout that province, upon the long delays which have  taken place in reaching a decision about this officer, upon the procedure that was at this point or at that point adopted, however we may dwell upon all this, one tremendous fact stands out - I mean the slaughter of nearly 400 persons and the  wounding of probably three to four times as many, at the Jallian Wallah Bagh on 13th April. That is an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.

Collisions between troops and native populations have been painfully frequent in the melancholy aftermath of the Great War. My right hon. Friend has reminded the House that in this particular series of disturbances there were 36 or 37 cases of firing upon the crowd in India at this particular time, and there have been numerous cases in Egypt. In all these cases the officer in command is placed in a most painful and difficult position. I agree absolutely with what my right hon. Friend has said, and the opinion he has quoted of the Adjutant-General in India,  of the distasteful, painful, embarrassing, torturing situation, mental and moral, in which the British officer in command of troops is placed when he is called upon  to decide whether or not he opens fire, not upon the enemies of his countrymen, or who are citizens of our common Empire. No words can be employed which would exaggerate those difficulties. But there are certain broad lines by which, I think, an officer in such cases should be guided.

First of all, I think he may ask himself, Is the crowd attacking anything or anybody? Surely that is the first question. Are they trying to force their way for- ward to the attack of some building, or some cordon of troops or police, or are they attempting to attack some band of persons or some individual who has excited their hostility? Is the crowd attacking? That is the first question which would naturally arise. The second question is this:  Is the crowd armed? That is surely another great simple fundamental question. By armed I mean armed with lethal weapons.

Sir W. JOYNSON-HICKS: How could they be in India?

Mr. CHURCHILL: Men who take up arms against the State must expect at any moment to be fired upon. Men who take up arms unlawfully cannot expect that the troops will wait until they are quite ready to begin the conflict.

Mr DONALD: What about Ireland?

Mr. CHURCHILL: I agree, and it is in regard to Ireland that I am specially making this remark - or until they have actually begun fighting. Armed men are in a category absolutely different from unarmed men. An unarmed crowd stands in a totally different position from an armed crowd. At Amritsar the crowd was neither armed nor attacking. [Interruption.] I carefully said that when I used the word "armed" I meant armed with lethal weapons, or with firearms. This is no dispute between us on that point. "I was confronted," says General Dyer, "by a revolutionary army." What is the chief characteristic of an army? Surely, it is that it is armed. This crowd was unarmed. These are simple tests which it is not too much to expect officers in these difficult situations to apply.

Sir W. DAVIDSON: How many men had General Dyer with him?

Mr. CHURCHILL: My hon. Friend is as closely acquainted with the case as I am. I have read all the papers on the subject. When he rises to continue the Debate he can perfectly well bring that forward. But there is another test which is not quite so simple, but which nevertheless has often served as a good guide. I mean the doctrine that no more force should be used than is necessary to secure compliance with the law. There is also a forth consideration by which an officer should be guided. He should confine himself to a limited and definite objective, that is to say to preventing a crowd doing something which they ought not to do, or to compelling them to do something which they ought to do. All these are good guides for officers placed in the difficult and painful situation in which General Dyer stood.

My right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson) will say it is easy enough to talk like this, and to lay down these principles here is safe and comfortable England, in the calm atmosphere of the House of Commons or in your armchairs in Downing Street or Whitehall, but it is quite a different business on the spot, in a great emergency, confronted with a howling mob, with a great city or a whole province quivering all around with excitement. I quite agree. Still these are good guides and sound, simple tests, and I believe it is not too much to ask of our officers to observe and consider them. After all, they are accustomed to accomplish more difficult tasks than that. Over and over again we have seen British officers and soldiers storm entrenchments under the heaviest fire, with half their  number shot down before the entered the position of the enemy, the certainty of a long, bloody day before them, a  tremendous bombardment crashing all around - we have seen them in these circumstances taking out their maps and watches, and adjusting their calculations with the most minute detail, and we have  seen them show, not merely mercy, but kindness, to prisoners, observing restraint in the treatment of them, punishing those who deserved to be punished by the hard laws of war, and sparing those who might  claim to be admitted to the clemency of the conqueror. We have seen them exerting themselves to show pity and to help, even at their own peril the wounded. They have done it thousands of  times, and in requiring them, in moments of crisis, dealing with civil riots, when the danger is incomparably less, to consider these broad, simple guides, really I do not thing we are taxing them beyond their proved strength.

Commander BELLAIRS: What about the women and children?

Lieut.-Colonel CROFT: There are no women and children in the trenches.

Mr. CHURCHILL: I am bound to say I do not see to what part of my argument that remark applies. I say I do not think it is too much to ask a British officer in this painful, agonising position, to pause and consider these broad, simple guides - I do not even call them rules - before he decides upon his course of conduct. Under circumstances, in my opinion, infinitely more trying, they have shown them selves capable of arriving at right decisions. If we offer these broad guides to our officers in these anxious and dangerous times, if there are guides of a positive character, there is surely one guide which we can offer them of a negative character. There is surely one general prohibition which we can make. I mean a prohibition against what is called "frightfulness." What I mean by frightfulness is the inflicting of great slaughter or massacre upon a particular crowd of people, with the intention of terrorising not merely the rest of the crowd, but the whole district or the whole country.

Lieut.-Colonel CROFT: Was not the frightfulness started three days before? Was not the frightfulness on the other side?

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Sir E. Cornwall): Hon. Members will have an opportunity of catching my eye, and I would ask them to wait, and not try to deliver their speeches in fragments.

Mr. CHURCHILL: We cannot admit this doctrine in any form. Frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia. I yield to no one in my detestation of Bolshevism, and of the revolutionary violence which precedes it. I share with my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir E. Carson) many of his sentiments as to the world-wide character of the seditions and revolutionary movement with which we are confronted. But my hatred of Bolshevism and Bolsheviks is not founded on their silly system of economics, or their absurd doctrine of an impossible equality. It arises from the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practise in every land into which they have broken, and by which alone their criminal regime can be maintained. I have heard the hon. Member for Hull (Liet.-Commander Kenworthy) speak on this subject. His doctrine and his policy are to support and palliate every form of terrorism as long as it is the terrorism of revolutionaries against the forces of law, loyalty and order. Governments who have seized upon power by violence and by usurpation have often resorted to keep what they have stolen, but the august and venerable structure of the British Empire, where lawful authority descends from hand to hand and generation after generation, does not need such aid. Such ideas are foreign to the British way of doing things.

These observations are mainly of a general character, but their relevance to the case under discussion can be well understood, and they lead me to the specific circumstances of the fusillade at the Jallian wallah Bagh. Let me marshal the facts. The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. It was holding a seditious meeting. When fire had been opened upon it to disperse it, it tried to run away. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran madly this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8 to 10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.

Commander BELLAIRS: That is absolutely denied by General Dyer.

Mr. CHURCHILL: It stopped only when it was on the point of exhaustion, enough ammunition being retained to provide for the safety of the force on it return journey. If more troops had been available, says this officer, the casualties would have been greater in proportion. If the road had not been so narrow, the machine guns and the armoured cars would have joined in. Finally, when the ammunition had reached the point that only enough remained to allow for the safe return of the troops, and after 379 persons, which is about the number gathered together in this Chamber to-day, had been killed, and when most certainly 1,200 or more had been wounded, the troops, at whom not even a stone had been thrown, swung round and marched away. I deeply regret to find myself in a difference of opinion from many of those with whom, on the general drift of the world's affairs at the present time, I feel myself in the strongest sympathy\; but I do not think it is in the interests of the British Empire or of the British Army for us to take a load of that sort for all time on our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.

I shall be told that it "saved India." I do not believe it for a moment. The British power in India does not stand on such foundations. It stands on much stronger foundations. I am going to refer to the material foundations of our power very bluntly. Take the Mutiny as the datum line. In those days, there were normally 40,000 British troops in the country, and the ratio of British troops to native troops was one to five. The native Indian Army had a powerful artillery, of which they made tremendous use. There were no railways, no modern appliances, and yet the Mutiny was effectively suppressed by the use of a military power far inferior to what which we now possess in India. Since then the British troops have been raised to 70,000 and upwards, and the ratio of British to native troops in one to two. There is no native artillery of any kind. The power and the importance of the artillery has increased in the meantime 10 and perhaps 20-fold. Since then a whole series of wonderful and powerful war inventions have come into being, and the whole apparatus of scientific war is at the disposal of the British Government in India - machine guns, the magazine rifle, cordite ammunition, which can- not be manufactured as gunpowder was manufactured except by scientific power, and which is all stored in the magazines under the control of the white troops. Then there have been the great developments which have followed the conquest of the air and the evolution of the aeroplane. Even if the railways and the telegraphs were cut or rendered useless by a strike, motor lorries and wireless telegraphy would give increasingly the means of concentrating troops, and taking them about the country with an extraordinary and almost undreamed-of facility. When one contemplates these solid, material facts, there is no need for foolish panic, or talk of its being necessary to produce a situation like that at Jallianwallah Bagh in order to save India. On the contrary, as we contemplate the great physical forces and the power at the disposal of the British Government in their relations with the native population of India, we ought to remember the words of Macaulay -

"and then was seen what we believed to

be the most frightful of all spectacles, the

strength of civilisation without its mercy"

Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base our- selves only upon it. The British way of doing things, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, who feels intensely upon this subject, has pointed out, has always meant and implied close and effectual co-operation with the people of the country. In every part of the British Empire that has been our aim, and in no part have we arrived at such success as in India, whose princes spent their treasure in our cause, whose brave soldiers fought side by side with our won men, whose intelligent and gifted people are co-operating at the present moment with us in every sphere of government and of industry. It is quite true that in Egypt last year there was a complete breakdown of the relations between the British and the Egyptian people. Every class and every profession seemed united against us. What are we doing? We are trying to rebuild that relationship. For months, Lord Milner has been in Egypt, and now we are endeavouring laboriously and patiently to rebuild from the bottom that relation between the British administration and the people of Egypt which we have always enjoyed in the past, and which it was so painful for us to feel had been so suddenly ruptured. It is not a question of force. We had plenty of force, if force were all that was needed.

What we want is co-operation and good- will, and I beseech hon. and right hon. Gentlemen to look at the whole of this vast question, and not merely at one part of it. If the disastrous breakdown which  has occurred in a comparatively small country like Egypt, if this absolute rupture between the British administration and the people of the country had taken place throughout the mighty regions of our Indian Empire, it would have constituted one of the most melancholy events in the history of the world. That it has not taken place up to the present is, I think, largely due to the constructive policy of His Majesty's Government, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India has made so great  a personal contribution. I was astonished by my right hon. Friend's sense of detachment when, in the supreme crisis of the War, he calmly journeyed to India, and remained for many months absorbed and buried in Indian affairs. It was not until I saw what happened in Egypt, and, if you like, what is going on in Ireland to-day, that I appreciated the enormous utility of such service, from the point of view of the national interests of the British Empire, in helping to keep alive that spirit of comradeship, that sense of unity and of progress in co-operation, which much ever ally and bind together the British and Indian peoples.

I do not conceal from the House my sincere personal opinion that General Dyer's conduct deserved not only the loss of employment from which so many officers are suffering at the present time, not only from the measure of censure which the Government have pronounced, but also that it should have been marked by a distinct disciplinary act, namely, his being placed compulsorily upon the retired list. But we have only to turn to page 20 of the statement of General Dyer, we have only to cast our mind back to the most powerful passage in the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend (Sir E. Carson) to see that such a course was barred.

It is quite true that General Dyer's conduct has been approved by a succession of superiors above him who pronounced his defence, and that at different stages events have taken place which, it may well be argued, amount to virtual condonation so far as a penal or disciplinary action is concerned. General Dyer may have done wrong, but at any rate he has his rights, and I do not see how in face of such virtual condonation as is set out on page 20 of this able document, it would have been possible, or could have been considered right, to take disciplinary action against him. For these reasons the Cabinet found themselves in agreement with the conclusions of the Army council, and to those moderate and considered conclusions we confidently invite the assent of the House.


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