The Butcher of Amritsar

Havoc ensued. The crowd ran in terror in all directions but found few exits by which to escape. People crammed into the entrances to the narrow passageways, frantically seeking to force their way out

Without any warning to the crowd, Dyer gave the order to fire. The order was repeated by Captain Crampton, whistles rang out, and immediately the troops opened fire. 

Havoc ensued. The crowd ran in terror in all directions but found few exits by which to escape. People crammed into the entrances to the narrow passageways, frantically seeking to force their way out. The troops were directed to fire on these, killing many, and causing more to be trodden underfoot or crushed under the mounds of bodies that eventually built up ten or twelve deep. Many tried to climb the walls, and were picked off as they did so. Crowds huddled in the corners of the garden with no way out at all and were shot down where they stood. Retired soldiers in the crowd shouted out that people should lie on the ground to avoid the bullets, and many did so only to be shot as they lay. At times the crowd seemed to the troops to be gathering to rush forward at the firing line; Briggs drew Dyer’s attention to this perceived threat. “The men sometimes collected in knots instead of bolting and he thought they meditated attack.’ These knots of men were mown down. The firing ceased occasionally, whilst the men reloaded and targets were adjusted more whistles blew, and firing started again. Dyer ordered reloading the men emptied their first magazines, then ordered ‘independent rapid fire, personally directing fire at the densest parts of the crowd. By now the troops were kneeling or lying prone to get the best point of aim. 

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Although Briggs later denied that any soldiers hesitated or deliberately fired high to miss, many of the soldiers seem to have been severely frightened by what was happening. An officer of the 59th, R. Moray Graham, pieced together an account when his men got back to the Depot:

The small number of soldiers taken into the Bagh were [facing the mob] and they were very frightened. Who would not be? [The crowd] rushed to the gate where they saw the soldiers arrive only in the hope of being able to get out, away from the trouble. The soldiers, naturally enough, thought that they were being stormed by a riotous mob which vastly outnumbered them. And the mob were violently propelled forward by those who thought they could not run away out of the back of the Bagh.

Others with more experience were less easily frightened. Sergeant Anderson, standing alongside his brigadier, recalled:

When fire was opened, the whole crowd seemed to sink to the ground, a flutter of white garments, with however a spreading out towards the main gateway, and some individuals could be seen climbing the high wall. There was little movement except for the climbers. The gateway would soon be jammed. I saw no sign of a rush towards the troops ... After a bit, I noticed that Captain Briggs was drawing up his face as if in pain, and was plucking at the General’s elbow ... The fire control and discipline of the native troops was first class. The officer in charge kept his eye on the General, gave his fire and cease fire orders to his men, and they obeyed him implicitly: there was no wild sporadic firing ... Dyer seemed quite calm and rational. Personally, I wasn’t afraid. I saw nothing to be afraid about. I’d no fear that the crowd would come at us.

At least some of the Gurkha detachment were similarly unafraid. Two of them were later questioned by a member of the ICS they met in Darjeeling while they were on leave. Asked what they thought of the Jallianwala Bagh shooting, they said with relish, “Sahib, while it lasted it was splendid; we fired every round we had.

Under the hail of bullets in the Bagh, people tried to hide behind the well or to jump into it, many drowning and dying in the crush inside. Many of those who had lain flat to escape the bullets were shot when they tried to take advantage of a pause in the firing to make a run for it; Dyer directed firing at what he described as the ‘better targets’ of those who were standing, as well as at a peepul tree behind and around which many were trying to shelter. Some people in the surrounding houses were also hit, perhaps by ricochets, though there is evidence that some of the troops fired at the onlookers. Girdhari Lal, who watched the scene with binoculars from a nearby house, saw that “There was not a corner left of the garden facing the firing line, where people did not die in large numbers. Many got trampled under the feet of the rushing crowds and thus lost their lives. Blood was pouring in profusion’. Maulvi Gholam Jilani was caught in the firing:

I ran towards a wall and fell on a mass of dead and wounded persons. Many others fell on me. Many of those who fell on me were hit and died. There was a heap of the dead and wounded over me, under and all around me. I felt suffocated. I thought I was going to die.

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The firing continued for between ten and fifteen minutes. The noise in the Bagh was a cacophony of rifle crack, bullets thumping into flesh and walls, ricochets screeching off the brickwork, the screams of 25,000 people in terror and the cries of the wounded. So loud was the noise that Dyer and Briggs were later to maintain that they had some difficulty in stopping the troops firing, though this was denied by Sergeant Anderson. The sight was one of horror. The vast crowd staggered aimlessly; the air filled with dust and blood; flesh flew everywhere; men and children fell with limbs broken, eyes shot out, internal organs exposed. 

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When Dyer finally decided to stop the firing, which was only when the troops had only enough ammunition left, according to his calculation, to enable them to defend themselves during the march back to base, much of the crowd was still up against the opposite wall, trying to scrabble its way out of the Bagh. Those Gurkhas who were armed only with khukuris, which they now drew, were sent by Captain Crampton down to the hansli drain that crossed the Bagh to check on those hiding there. They were then ordered back. Dyer gave orders to withdraw, walked back to his car, then led his troops back to the Ram Bagh the way they had come. He neither inspected the destruction he had caused, nor made any arrangements to tend the wounded.

— Excerpted with permission of the publisher from: The Butcher of Amritsar: General Reginald Dyer by Nigel Collett. Rupa. Pages 608. Rs 795.

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