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Fixing accidental git submodule changes

2022-08-107 minutes readgit

Finally, you are done making all the chagnes to implement a feature. You care about git commit hygiene. You split your work into self-contained commits. You push it to your git hosting provider, create a merge/pull request, and then, the terrifying moment comes. You look at the changes in your MR/PR and see an unintentional change to a git submodule you have in the repository.

Oh no...

You think to yourself and start looking for a guide how to clean it up to keep your commits pristine.

If you found yourself in such a predicament, or are interested in how to solve such a situation, read on.


I will assume the MR/PR is targeted at the main branch and use that name in the commands/descriptions.

I will also assume that the git submodule that was accidentally modified is located at the src/py path of the repository.

The options

To revert that change we have 2 options:

  1. Remove the submodule hash change from the commit that introduced it in the first place.

    This rewrites history. The benefit is that there will be no trace of the submodule being modified by you.

    This is the solution you want if you can modify the history of your branch. If the change is already merged into your main branch, then it is best to avoid modifying history so others do not have to follow suit.

  2. Add a new commit that changes the submodule hash back to the one from main.

    This would leave you as one of the people who modified src/py, even if unintentionally. This would manifest itself in git log and git blame commands, to name a few.

    This solution does not rewrite history, so it is viable even after the commit in question is already merged into main.

Since the MR/PR is not merged yet, it is safe to rewrite history. This is a superior solution, so let's see how to do that.

Which commit modified the submodule

First, we need to know which commit modified the src/py submodule.

On your branch, from the root of the repository execute the following:

$ git log origin/main.. -p -- src/py
commit 56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae
Author: You <>
Date:   Fri Aug 5 20:31:01 2022 +0000

    Implement time to money conversion

Δ src/py

This gives us the list of commits that modified the src/py path. The range of such commits is limited to the ones leading from origin/main to your branch (in essence, the ones "on your branch", or, in other words, what your MR/PR contains). There is only one such commit (56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae).

Reset the submodule hash

To reset the submodule hash to the one that exists on main, let's execute:

$ git checkout origin/main -- src/py
$ git status
HEAD detached at a64e77589
Changes to be committed:
  (use "git restore --staged <file>..." to unstage)
          modified:   src/py

          Changes not staged for commit:
            (use "git add <file>..." to update what will be committed)
              (use "git restore <file>..." to discard changes in working directory)
                      modified:   src/py (new commits)

$ git diff

Δ src/py

$ git diff --staged

Δ src/py

Weird, right? git status says there is a staged change to the src/py submodule, and an unstaged one. The staged change reverts the submodule back to 41ba349 (on main). The unstaged change is exactly the same as you accidentally committed.

This is because we told git that the submodule should be the same as on main, but due to how submodules work, it didn't introduce the changes to the filesystem yet. To do that, we need to do git submodule update --recursive

$ git submodule update --recursive

$ git status
HEAD detached at a64e77589
Changes to be committed:
  (use "git restore --staged <file>..." to unstage)
        modified:   src/py

$ git diff --staged

Δ src/py

$ git submodule status
 8b2083ae4cb2d37701183fab36f6fa608108bc00 docs (remotes/origin/HEAD)
 41ba34962738db754a791f905003d1df02c50e77 src/py (v0.3.12-2-g41ba3496)

Now, it is correct. The submodule is checked out at the same commit as on origin/main and we have that submodule hash change staged in git.

Fixup-committing the revert

Now we need to amend the commit that accidentally changed the submodule (56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae) with the staged changes.

If it was the latest commit, it would be as simple as doing git commit --amend.

What if it is not the latest one? We need to commit the staged changes into a separate commit and then do git rebase to fixup the commits:

$ git commit -m "fix accidental src/py submodule change"
$ git rebase -i 56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae~
# move the "fix accidental ..." commit below
# 56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae and change the command to fixup

Note the syntax used to specify the base commit of the rebase. We provided the commit hash that contains the unintentional submodule change suffixed with ~. This is a gitrevision that tells git to use the parent of that commit as the base.

Instead of doing the manual work of moving the commit to the right place in the rebase plan, we can let git help us here, since we know the hash of the commit we want to fixup:

$ git commit --fixup 56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae
$ git rebase -i --autosquash 56e170e0623fd44317d15d0c3d5fe9dba99866ae~

Notice that when git rebase opens the rebase plan, the new commit is already in the right place and its command is set to fixup. We can accept that plan and the rebase should be successful.

Since we didn't have to modify the rebase plan, we could leave out the -i (--interactive) interactive flag. I usually still review the plan before I execute a rebase, but with such simple fixups, you may as well omit it.


After we fixup that commit, we should no longer see src/py modified on our branch:

$ git log origin/main.. -p -- src/py
# empty output

Horray 🎉 There are no commits leading from origin/main to the current HEAD (the commit you have checked out) that modify src/py. Now it is just a matter of git push --force-with-lease (force, since we modified history) and we are done!

Keep in mind this is not the only way to revert an accidental change, but it is one that works reliably for me.