Lachlan's Homepage is at

Background and Commentary of Winston Churchill's 1920 British House of Commons Amritsar Massacre Speech

"It was compassion its absence, he said, which marked the difference between Englishmen and Bolsheviks."

Following extract taken from
"The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Visions of Glory 1874-1932"
by William Manchester, Copyright William Manchester 1983,
Sphere Books Ltd, 1984. pp 568-570.

No one, not even the gifted Lloyd George, could hold the House as Winston did. indeed, on one memorable occasion he accomplished a rare feat. Eloquence, wit, and charge have not been uncommon in that body, but seldom in its six centuries has a speech actually changed the opinion of the majority, transforming imminent defeat into triumph. Churchill did it on July 8, 1920, thereby vindicating England's honour.

The origins of that day's controversy lay in a shocking episode. A few months after the war an Englishwoman, a missionary, had reported that she had been molested on a street in the Punjab city of Amritsar. The Raj's local commander, Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, had issued an order requiring all Indians using that street to crawl its length on their hands and knees. He had also authorized the indiscriminate, public whipping of natives who came within lathi length of British policemen. On April 13, 1919, a multitude of Punjabis had gathered in Amritsar's Jallianwallah Bagh to protest these extraordinary measures. The throng, penned in a narrow space smaller than Traflagar Square, had been peacefully listening to the testimony of victims when Dyer appeared at the head of a contingent of British troops. Without warning, he ordered his machine gunners to open fire. The Indians, in Chruchill's words, were 'packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies'; the people 'ran madly this way and the other. When 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, and the fire was then directed on the ground. This was continued for eight or ten minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition had reached the point of exhaustion.' Dyer then marched away, leaving 379 dead and over 1,500 wounded. Back in his headquarters, he reported to his superiors that he had been 'confronted by a revolutionary army,' and had been obliged 'to teach a moral lesson to the Punjab.' In the storm of outrage which followed, the brigadier was promoted to major general, retired, and placed on the inactive list. This incrediably, made him a martyr to millions of Englishmen. Senior British officers applauded his suppression of 'another Indian Mutiny.' The Guardians of the Golden Temple enrolled him in the Brotherhood of Sikhs. The House of Lords passed a measure commending him. Readers of the Tory Morning Post, Churchill's old scourge, subscribed L2,500 [pounds] for a testimonial. Leading Conservative MPs took up his cause, and Lloyd George reluctantly agreed to a full-dress debate. Venetia Montagu's husband, Edwin, now the secretary of state for India, would open for the government, with Churchill scheduled at the end.

Montagu's speech was a calamity. He was a Jew and there were anti-Semites in the House. He had been warned to be quiet and judicial. Instead, he was sarcastic; he called Dyer a terrorist; he worried about foreign opinion; he 'thoroughly roused most of the latent passions of the stogy Tories,' as one MP noted, and 'got excited...and became more racial and more Yiddish in screaming tone and gesture.' with the consequence that 'a strong anti-Jewish sentiment was shown by shouts...Altogether it was a very astonishing exhibition of anti-Jewish feeling.' The Ulster MPs had decided to vote against Dyer. After Montagu's speech they conferred and reversed themselves. Sir Edward Carson rose to praise the general - who was watching from the Stranger's Gallery - as 'a gallant officer of thirty-four years service . . . without a blemish on his record' who had 'no right to be broken on the ipse dixit of any Commission or Committee, however great, unless he has been fairly tried - and he has not been tried.' Carsen ended: 'I say, to break a man under the circumstances of this case in un-English.' 'Un-English,' in the context of the time, was anti-Semitic - roughly the equivalent of 'kike.' MPs roared their approval. The government was in trouble. Lloyd George being absent, Bonar Law, the leader of the House, asked Churchill to speak immediately.

Churchill's approach was entirely unlike Montagu's. He called for 'a calm spirit, avoiding passion and avoiding attempts to excite prejudice.' Dyer, he said, had not been dismissed in disgrace; 'he had simply been informed that there was no further employment for him under the Government of India.' But the incident in Jallianwallah Bagh was 'an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.' He quietly observed that the number of Indians killed was almost identical with the number of MPs now sitting wihin range of his voice. An officer in such a situation as Dyer's, he said, should ask himself whether the crowd is either armed or about to mount an attack. 'Men who take up arms against the State must expect at any moment to be fired upon...At Amritsar the crowd was neither armed nor attacking.' Thus the general had not, as he claimed, faced a 'revolutinary army.' Another useful military guide, Churchill continued, was the maxim that 'no more force should be used than is necessary to secure compliance with the law.' In the Great War, he and many other members of the House had been British soldiers 'exerting themselves to show pity and to help, even at their own peril, the wounded.' Dyer had failed to follow their example; after the massacre, his troops had simply sung around and marched away. Churchill knew, and many members of Parliament knew, of many instances in which officers, in 'infinitely more trying' situation than the one in Bagh, had, unlike the general, displayed an ability to arrive 'at the right decision.' Then, as if with a stiletto, Churchill knifed Dyer; 'Frightfullness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.'

He twisted the blade. Dyer's most vocal champions agreed with Churchill's stand in Russia. It was compassion and its absence, he said, which marked the difference between Englishmen and Bolsheviks. His own hatred of Lenin's regime was 'not founded on their silly system of economics, or their absurd doctrine of an impossible equality.' It arose from 'the bloody and devastating terrorism which they practice...and by which alone their criminal regime can be maintained.' It was intolerable in Russia; it was intolerable in Amritsar. 'I do not think,' he said, 'that 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 upon our backs. We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.' He quoted Macaulay: 'The most frightful of all spectables [is] the strength of civilisation without its mercy.' England's 'reign in India, or anywhere else,' Churchill continued, '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 ourselves only upon it. The British way of doing things...has always meant and implied close and effectual cooperation with the people. In every part of the British Empire that has been our aim.' As for Dyer, Churchill himself would have preferred to see the general disciplined. Instead, he had been allowed to resign with no plan for further punishment, 'and to those moderate and considered conclusions we confidently invite the assent of the House.'

He sat and they rose crying, 'Hear, hear.' After five more hours of debate they voted for the government, 247 to 37. Carson's motion for mild approval of Dyer was defeated 230 to 129. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote Curzon that Churchill's speech had been 'unanswerable.' the Times called it 'amazingly skilful' and declared that it had 'turned the House (or so it seemed) completely round...It was not only a brilliant speech, but one that persauded and made the result certain.' Winston, the editorial concluded, had 'never been heard to greater advantage.'