From the Field Marshals, Generals and Admirals who conquered the globe right down to the vital Private soldier, the Irish impact upon the British Empire was nothing short of astounding. In the 1830s, a whopping 42% of the British Army was Irish. As Ruth Dudley-Edwards noted, they were ‘overwhelmingly Catholic young men, although Protestants were better represented in the officer classes.’ In the Crimean War of the 1850s, 13 of the 22 Victoria Crosses awarded went to Irishmen. By the last decades of the 19th century, 17.5% of British officers were drawn from the Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. During the Great War, perhaps as many as quarter of a million Irish men and women served in its army, navy and airforce.
By the 1880s, British recruiting officers had worked out that if a regiment carried the name of a specific geographical region, then men from that region were more likely to enlist. Hence, as part of the Cardwell-Childers Reforms, much of the armed forces went through a massive reshuffle as the old 17th and 18th century infantry regiments were banded together into all new regiments.
Amongst these were the 88th Regiment of Foot – apparently nicknamed ‘The Devil’s Own’ by Sir Thomas Picton, their somewhat tyrannical commander during the Peninsula War – and the 94th Regiment of Foot, which were amalgamated into the Connaught Rangers. The regiment also included the South Mayo Rifles Militia, the Galway Militia, the Roscommon Militia and the North Mayo Fusiliers Militia.
The Connaught Rangers formed two battalions, with 1,000 men in each. Some joined out of patriotism to the empire. Others enlisted for reasons of political motivation, moral conscience, economic necessity or a desire to see the world. Some of the older men were veterans of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny (or Indian War of Independence) of 1857. Their principal barracks and recruiting depot was King House in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, a former townhouse of the Kings of Rockingham, which the Ministry of Defence bought and converted it into the Rangers stronghold in 1870.
One battalion was always kept at home (in Britain or Ireland) to train, while another served abroad. One of the recruits of the 2nd Battalion was John Walsh, the 5ft 8¼ high grey-eyed, brown-haired son of another soldier from Auburn, Athlone, Co. Westmeath. Born in 1865, and christened in the Catholic church of St. Peter’s, Athlone, he was the son of John and Mary Walsh and he had two sisters, Maria and Rose. After an inspection in Galway on the 26th January 1887, he was accepted into the Regiment in Athlone the next day.
After the required 12 months training, John would have been posted out to the Mediterranean where, between 1889 and 1895, he spent six years on the British-controlled islands of Malta and Cyprus. Cyprus and Malta would have been considered ‘paradise postings’ for young men from Connaught as there was very little to do in the early 1890s but soak up the sun. However, their strategic importance was immense as it enabled them to keep well-trained regiments right on the doorsteps of potential trouble-spots in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
John Walsh returned to Britain during this time because on St. Valentine’s Day 1893, he was married in Pembroke, South Wales, to Mary Mason, with whom he had a daughter Selina Ellen Walsh six months later, on 17th August 1893. In June 1894, John was promoted to Sergeant which gave him the right to bring his wife and daughter to Cairo with him. They would have lived together in a married NCO’s quarters.
In October 1895 the 2nd Battalion was sent to British-controlled Egypt where there was mounting concern that an anti-British rebellion was about to erupt in neighbouring Sudan and spread into the ancient land of the Pharaohs. Only ten years earlier, a Mahdi uprising in Sudan had led to the death of the great British war hero General Gordon at Khartoum. Sergeant Walsh and his fellow Rangers were part of Kerry-born General Kitchener’s Anglo-Egyptian Nile Expeditionary Force which invaded Sudan. However, in November 1897, the British felt sufficiently confident of victory in Sudan to deploy the battalion onwards to India. The Mahdi were ruthlessly crushed at the battle of Omdurman in 1898. The Mahdi had two machine guns, Kitchener had 55. And the statistics ran accordingly. The British racked up 47 killed and 340 wounded, while the Mahdi mourned 9,700 dead, 13,000 wounded and 5,000 captured.
During his time in Egypt, John Walsh’s wife Mary had a second baby girl Kathleen Mary Walsh, born in the Citadel of Cairo on 22nd April 1896. However, Mrs. Walsh died in Cairo on 2nd July 1896. Given that John Walsh now had two small daughters in India, it seems likely they were sent back to live with relatives in Ireland. We do not know what happened to Selina Walsh but on the 1911 Census of Ireland, fourteen-year-old Mary Walsh was described as a ‘nurse child’ who had been born in Egypt. By then she was living with the family of John Brien and his wife Catherine (née Henry) at Barrymore just across the border from Athlone in County Roscommon. Their homestead lay right beside the railway line but has since disappeared. We do not yet know what became of Mary Walsh in later life.
Meanwhile, her father arrived in India shortly in January 1897. The Connaught Rangers were to spend the next 11 years on the sub-continent. Initially just south of Bombay, they were later stationed at Meerut, Nasirabad, Neemuch, Ahmednagar and Poona. They developed a reputation as one of the most respected and feared regiments in the Empire.
The Rangers served with distinction throughout the First World War and suffered hideous casualties. Most of the battalion were wiped out at the 1st and 2nd Battle of Ypres. At Gallipoli, nearly 1,000 Rangers were killed or wounded. At the conclusion of the war, the surviving Rangers returned to their posts in India. In 1920, the Connaught Rangers of India dominated the headlines when a number of them mutinied in support of Irish independence, hoisting the tricolour and demanding an end to British occupation of Ireland. The Connaught Rangers was disbanded in 1922 and a number of them joined the Free State army, providing vital experience to Michael Collins force. But others were appalled by how castigated they and other former British soldiers had become in the new Ireland and felt obliged to abandon their ancestral homeland.
Sadly John Walsh’s promising career ended in disgrace. On 13 March 1899, just a year before he completed his 12 years service in the army, he was arrested for what remains an unknown crime. He was tried and convicted by on 24th March and reduced in the ranks from Sergeant back down to Private. John Walsh returned to duty on 24 March 1899 and was restored to his proper pay six months later. On 18 April 1900, he completed his 12 years service and was discharged from the army. No more is yet known of his subsequent life, or of what became of his daughters Selina and Mary Walsh. Whatever his crime, it was evidently considerable to be so reduced (with a commensurate drop in pay) but we still do not know why he was court-martialed. Many of the papers relating to the Connaught Rangers were destroyed during the London Blitz in World War Two. One possibility is that he was somehow connected to the following incident recorded in The Times on 5th June 1899, perhaps as the Sergeant in charge of the four Privates:
BOMBAY, June 3. An affair in which British soldiers and natives were concerned, and which has from time to time aroused some public attention, has now been concluded. Four privates of the Connaught Rangers, one of them unarmed, while shooting near Meerut in December last, killed a peacock. The villagers were angry and thereupon attacked two of the soldiers, who first fired in the air, but being hard pressed were afterwards compelled to fire among the crowd, a native being wounded. These two men then effected their escape. The natives next attempted to seize the other two men, and one of them, the soldier’ who was unarmed, was severely mauled. As he lay on the ground his comrade came to the rescue and fired. Both then fled but were chased, and the man who had a rifle again fired several shots, killing one native and wounding another. Both the soldiers and the natives made a complaint at the nearest police- station. The investigating magistrate, after an elaborate inquiry, committed the natives for trial and discharged the soldiers, holding that they acted in self-defence. An application was after- wards made by the local government asking the High Court to call for the records, as it desired to satisfy itself whether a further inquiry was necessary. The judgment of the High Court upheld the magistrate’s decision and directed that the records should be returned without any order.’ *
With thanks to Phil Gilson, Brooklyn NY (Honorary Colonel of the 88th Brigade, New York Guard). Niamh Sammon, Mark Gavin and Oliver Walsh. For additional information, see the Connaught Rangers Association.
THE CONNAUGHT RANGERS AT MEERUT.
House of Commons Debates -16 June 1899 vol 72 c1335 1335
MR. HERBERT ROBERTS (Denbighshire, W.)
I beg to ask the Secretary of State for India whether his attention has been drawn to the shooting case in which four privates of the Connaught Rangers came into collision with some natives near Meerut in December last, and which has aroused considerable interest in India; and whether, in view of the frequent occurrence of such conflicts in India, due to the practice of British soldiers carrying firearms whilst off duty, he will consider whether more stringent regulations are required in the interests of the public peace.
THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR INDIA (Lord G. HAMILTON,) Middlesex, Ealing
I have seen with much regret a newspaper report of the occurrence referred to, and have observed that it was found by the High Court of the North-Western Provinces that the soldiers acted in self defence. As regards the second part of the question, the Government of India were consulted by me last year, and were of opinion that there was no ground for special measures. In this opinion I concur. The regulations for the grant to soldiers of shooting passes, which were revised in 1892 and 1895, are already very stringent. The hon. Member is mistaken in supposing that cases of collision between British soldiers and natives are of frequent occurrence.