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The Malabar Rebellion: The Last Campaign of the Leinster Regiment

Laois Local Studies > Articles > The Malabar Rebellion: The Last Campaign of the Leinster Regiment
Image courtesy of the National Army Museum, London                

by Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

In the spring of 1922, there were twelve battalions comprising the soon-to be disbanded six southern Irish regiments of the British Army – four of those battalions were stationed in India and had to return home from there for disbandment – they were the 1st Battalion Leinster Regiment, 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment.[1]  The regiments were officially disbanded in July 1922.

From August 1921 through to February 1922 men of the 1st Battalion Leinster Regiment were in combat against a rebellion in Malabar on the south-western coast of India, what is now a northern part of the state of Kerala but was then the western part of the Madras Presidency. 

This was the last fighting ever done by any of the southern Irish regiments. Ten Queen’s County men have been identified as having taken part, or at least taken part sufficiently to have received the bar ‘Malabar 1921-22’ to their general service medal, a further two gave next of kin addresses in the county, though they were born elsewhere. Although the Regiment had its main base in Birr, and its recruiting district was in adjacent counties, in practice people joined units, or better were offered posts in units, on a more promiscuous basis. The enlistment books are online on the National Army Museum website covering, for the years 1920-22, the Connaught Rangers, the Leinster Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Regiment, and the Royal Munster Fusiliers.[2] There one can find, for instance, Joseph Lawless of Green Road, Maryborough, in the Royal Munster Fusiliers – but he had been discharged and reenlisted in January 1919 – moving from one unit to another – as was the case for many in that year.

At the outbreak of the First World War the 1st Battalion Leinster Regiment had been based in India – so it left India for France in 1914 – and then after the First World War, in 1919, it was to return to India. Incidentally, while the battalion was in India before the Great War, the commander in chief of all the forces there was the Clareman Sir Garrett O’Moore Creagh. Interestingly five of Creagh’s ancestors had fought in the Battle of Wandiwash in 1760 – which was part of the decisive struggle for the status of paramount European power in India between Britain and France, Creagh’s ancestors had fought on the French side – and in fact at Wandiwash the French were commanded by Galway man Count de Lally and the British by Limerick man Sir Eyre Coote. The latter was related to the Cootes of Ballyfin House and to the Earls of Mountrath.

On the 21st of November 1919, 500 of the battalion’s troops disembarked in Bombay, then followed a train journey and distribution of the soldiers to different posts around the Madras Presidency, the southern and east coast province of British India. Two platoons of C Company formed the garrison at Calicut in Malabar on the south-western coast. They were reinforced due to growing discontent in the Malabar region. So, in the summer of 1921 garrison there consisted of all of C Company and two platoons of B Company – all under command of Captain Patrick McEnroy. Soon they would face insurrection in the mountainous rural interior of Malabar.

While the men of the Leinster Regiment were fighting in Malabar, their opponents, in crude colonial language the Moplah rebels, or better the Mappila rebels, were carrying the hopes of some Irish people back home. Mappila refers to the Malayalam-speaking Muslim community of northern Kerala. The most detailed Irish media report on the situation in Malabar was that in An t-Óglách, the newsletter of the I.R.A., of the 9th of September 1921.[3] An t-Óglách, meaning ‘The Volunteer’, was a fortnightly newsletter issued by the central command of the I.R.A. (aka G.H.Q.) to the rank-and-file members of the I.R.A., and which principally included tactical and operational advice but also commentary on important aspects of the political situation, both nationally and globally. 

This is something of what An t-Óglách had to say:

“There appears to be ground for supposing that at least a semi-concerted insurgent movement is beginning in India. The Moplahs in the South-West of the peninsula are in open insurrection, there has been fighting in Madras in the South-East, and there are rumours from the Punjab in the extreme North. Also, in Waziristan on the Afghan border there is chronic skirmishing.

It would be easy to exaggerate the significance of all this, for we must remember that India is as big as all Europe if Russia is left out, and as populous, with many races and languages. Unity is not easy in such a case, but there would certainly seem to be fire as well as smoke in the present case.

 The factors making for concerted action are (1) The Non-Co-operation Movement which, though peaceful in itself, is almost certain to lead to fighting, (2) The Islamic discontent caused by the English opposition to Turkey, (3) The huge number of disbanded soldiers, amounting to at least half a million, scattered all over the country. In these three factors there is certainly material for big events.

The Moplah Insurrection is an advantageous opening move from the Indian standpoint. The district is remote in the military sense, tactically strong, and but weakly occupied in peace time. On the land side the only important approach is the railway from Madras and Bangalore, the main English garrison in Southern India, the latter is 160 miles away even as the crow flies. The terrain is a coastal shelf about 20 miles wide backed all the length by the Western Ghats which reach 8,000 feet in places. Numerous streams flow into the Arabian sea from this great range, so that roads and railways pass over culverts every mile or so.  The country is well wooded also, which greatly assists road-blocking operations. Off the roads are soft rice-fields making heavy motor traffic impossible. As a result the insurgents dominate an area about as large as County Mayo; for their tactical measures — road-cutting, overwhelming small posts etc. have been those best suited to the situation.”

While An t-Óglách foregrounds nationalism and Islamism there was in fact a strong class dimension to the Malabar revolt somewhat obscured in this report. To a large degree the first and primary targets were Hindu landlords, whose power had been reinforced by British rule. Because of this intersection of class and religion the rebellion has often been dismissed as a communal one – that is something like what we would call sectarian in this part of the world. In a later Indian insurrection, that in the princely state of Hyderabad in the late 1940s, the roles were reversed, and the ruling class was Muslim. In this instance too there was Irish involvement – a major figure in the government of Hyderabad was Sir Richard Henry Chenevix Trench (grandson of the archbishop of Dublin, father of the popular historian, and, given the surname, possibly connected to Laois). Incidentally An t-Óglách references “chronic skirmishing” in Waziristan, where a young Irish officer of the British Empire’s Indian Army, and Victoria Cross recipient, William David Kenny, died in combat in January 1920. He is memorialised in his former school in Dundalk, amongst other places. 

Anyways back to Malabar: on the 1st of August 1921 there was a mobilisation against the major landlord in the Pookkottur area, who was the Sixth Nilambur Tirumulpad (aka Nilambur Raja), this was on a much larger scale than any previous anti-landlord mobilisation, and this causes the police and administrative authorities to effectively relinquish control over the area for three weeks. On the 3rd of August 1921 in Tanalur, a large and armed crowd assembled to successfully prevent the arrest of some people who had assaulted alcohol traders – i.e. people dealing in alcohol in contravention of the Muslim prohibition (Tiers or Thiyas or Their – a Hindu caste who were supposedly traditionally occupied in toddy-tapping, making an alcoholic drink from tree sap).[4]

So, there were these two successful acts of defiance of the state authority. The state response to this situation was to send in a joint military and police force to round-up the local leadership of the Khilafat movement – the people making the agitation around what An t-Óglách called “the English opposition to Turkey”.

At 05.30 hour on 20th of August 1921 there was to be a raid on Tirurangadi, with a unit comprising of 80 Leinsters, and a detachment of police.[5] They made three arrests but missed twenty-one other suspects and they missed Ali Mussaliar, secretary of the local Khilafat movement, who seems to have been the main target. Earlier in the summer Mussaliar had led a procession, some armed and in uniform, to the burial site of nineteenth-century rebels to offer prayers – which traditionally was the sort of act which proceeded a revolt.[6] The obvious Irish parallel here hardly needs stating.

Now according to the official report as part of the raid the Kizhikkapalle mosque was entered by Muslim police officers who before entering removed their boots, while the Mambram mosque was not even targeted.[7]  Nonetheless, the rumour went abroad – rightly or wrongly – that the mosques had been attacked – particularly the Mambram mosque which was of greater significance – by mid-day large crowds of Mappilas had assembled, one crowd marching on Tirurangadi from the west was held back by government forces on the outskirts of the town, another was involved in an altercation in the town centre – either at the same time or subsequently, depending on who you believe, and in that altercation two British officers were killed – one of the Indian police and one of the Leinster Regiment.[8] The police and army now had to retreat down the railway line – the nearest railway station had been sacked and the railway lines torn up – so they had to fight their way back three miles before they could get a train back to Calicut.  

Meanwhile all this meant that the government forces at Malappuram were cut off. The despatch of a naval cruiser H.M.S. Comus to Calicut freed up the forces there from the task of guarding the city and so allowed the formation of a relief column to Malappuram.  This force was sent back out from Calicut on the 24th of August – and again this was comprising of men from the Leinster Regiment and police and this was commanded by Captain Patrick McEnroy of the Leinster Regiment, who had also commanded the retreat from Tirurangadi. The result of this was a clash at a place called Pookkottur, wherein, if we can believe the British report, hundreds of insurgents were slain with only a few British losses (strangely though British casualties seem skewed towards the higher ranks).[9]  

Meanwhile another British column had come from the north, from Bangalore, reaching Tirurangadi, where armed clashes had begun ten days earlier, and on August 31st they re-took the town. The major part of that column was formed by men from the Dorsetshire Regiment or the Dorsets. The other regular battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment was at this time stationed in Derry, where it was making a notoriously partisan intervention into that city’s sectarian strike – backing up the local Protestants against the local Catholics. All the troops in Malabar – Dorsets and Leinsters – were under Colonel E. T. Humphreys, who was the officer commanding the 1st Battalion Leinster Regiment.

While all this was going on in Malabar there were also attacks on isolated police posts and on Hindu landlords, and destruction of telegraph posts and blocking of roads and railways. This continues from the beginning of September and there was little in the way of any further major clashes with the crown forces, rather a pattern of guerrilla warfare sets in for the next two months. This has petered out by February 1922 – the official ending of hostilities according to the imperial authorities. A decisive role was played by the deployment of a level of repression far in excess of anything which would have been experienced in Ireland in the same years. However, the revolt was also limited by its isolation to a relatively small Muslim minority – the mosque as a central organising hub, and the local traditions which gave the movement its strength, also made it harder to spread outside of the Mappila areas into the rest of south India, which was overwhelmingly Hindu. As An t-Óglách put it “[u]nity is not easy”. Additionally, like other local or regional revolts and movements from below, it was not supported by Congress, the main Indian nationalist organisation, or equivalent of Sinn Féin.[10]

[1] Kings County Chronicle, 16th March 1922.


[3] Thanks to Brian Hanley for making me aware of this source.

[4] Conrad Wood, The Moplah Rebellion and Its Genesis, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1987, pp. 162-3.     

[5] Wood 164; R.L. Hardgrave, Jr., “The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar”, Modern Asian Studies 11:1 (1977), 57–99, 77.

[6] Sukhbir Choudhary, Moplah Uprising (1921-23), Agam Prakashan, New Delhi, 1977, p. 21; Hardgrave 74.

[7] K. N. Panikkar, Peasant Protests and Revolts in Malabar, Indian Council of Historical Research, 1990, p. 336.

[8] Irish Times, August 26th 1921.

[9] Panikkar, p. 339.

[10] For more listen to the present author’s podcast or see his article in the July/August 2021 issue of History Ireland.