Sahib, p.25Richard Holmes
as we rode down to the disarming, a very few chiefs and yeo-men of the country attended us; I remember judging from their faces that they came to see which way the tide would turn. As we rode back friends were as thick as summer flies, and the levies began from that moment to come in.60
Even Edwardes’s critics acknowledged that his policy of maintaining good relations with the Afghans now paid dividends, and when John Lawrence, uncharacteristically buckling under the weight of bad news from so much of Bengal, suggested that Peshawar should be given up, he wrote a strongly worded letter affirming that Peshawar was ‘the anchor of the Punjab’ which would drift to destruction if the city was relinquished. Although the decision was eventually passed up to the Governor-General Lord Canning, Peshawar was held. The strain of keeping the northern Punjab secure, and recruiting levies to send down to Bengal, left Edwardes close to collapse. He did not get back to England until 1859 and though he received a well-merited knighthood, when he returned to India he was made commissioner of Umballa, an undistinguished post in which he spend three miserable years. Edwardes was then offered the appointment of Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, but, tired and ill, decided to take early retirement instead, and died in England in 1868 at the age of forty-nine.
The remaining member of Henry Lawrence’s young men to attain real eminence was Harry Lumsden. He had a great natural aptitude for languages, and went to Kabul with the Army of Retribution as an interpreter, and returned to tell his parents with delight that he was now the only officer in his regiment with a campaign medal. He was wounded commanding a company of 59th BNI at Sobraon, and, like several of his future colleagues, met Henry Lawrence after the battle. Lumsden led a successful reconnaissance mission through Hazara, and in 1847 was appointed George Lawrence’s deputy at Peshawar, where he also raised the Corps of Guides, a force of irregulars with a cavalry and an infantry contingent.
Lumsden was perhaps the most likeable of the whole group of what the historian Charles Allen has called the ‘soldier sahibs’, and the ideal man to raise an irregular regiment. He was bluff, brave, cheerful and gregarious, a fine shot, good swordsman and skilled horseman and, like Nicholson, he understood the hard rules of Pakhtunwali. His very ‘straightness’ made him attractive to men who Henry Daly described as ‘notorious for desperate deeds, leaders in forays, who kept the passes into the hills … ’. There was soon a waiting list for his Guides, and the corps speedily grew into one of the most distinguished in the Indian army. They marched to Delhi, by now under the command of Henry Daly, covering 580 miles in twenty-two days at the most trying season of the year, and three hours after arriving on Delhi ridge they were in hand-to-hand battle with the enemy, and, as Daly himself put it, ‘every single British officer was more or less wounded’. No less than 350 of their 600 men were killed or wounded in the siege, and their three British officers had been replaced three times over.
The apotheosis of the Guides came in Kabul 1879, when Lieutenant Walter Hamilton VC commanded twenty-five troopers and fifty infantrymen of the Guides as escort to Major Sir Louis Cavagnari, envoy to Amir Yakub Khan. Cavagnari, son of a French army officer and an English mother, was himself a political officer. Commissioned into 1st Bengal European Fusiliers in 1858, he had transferred to the Political Department in 1861, and was knighted after serving as political officer to the Peshawar Valley Field Force in 1878–79. When the Residency was attacked, Cavagnari and all the British officers were killed: Hamilton fell beside a cannon which his men had sallied out to capture. The Afghans now shouted that the survivors should surrender: they had no quarrel with them. The surviving native officer, Jemadar Jewand Singh, had a short conversation with the dozen or so remaining Guides. Then they charged out with sword and bayonet, and perished to a man: Jewand Singh hewed down eight Afghans before he fell.
Scarcely less telling is the story of a visit paid to the Guides’ headquarters at Mardan by John Lawrence, then Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, when Lumsden was colonel. Tact was never Lawrence’s forte, and he spoke sharply to Lumsden on parade. That evening Lumsden’s orderly came and told him that nobody, lieutenant governor or not, should speak to their colonel like that, and although Lawrence planned to return to Peshawar the following day there was no reason at all why he should arrive.
Lumsden, with his brother Peter, was on a military mission to the Afghan city of Kandahar when the Mutiny broke out. It was there that he received a letter from John Nicholson telling him that his youngest brother, William, had been killed when the Movable Column beat the mutineers at Najufghur on the road to Delhi. He returned to rebuild the Guides in 1858, commanded them on operations against the Waziris in 1860, and in 1862 went south to take command of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army. He died, a full general and a knight, at home in Scotland in 1896.
We have already encountered some of the other ‘soldier sahibs’ of the era. William Hodson, restored to favour, was killed in the Mutiny. Neville Chamberlain commanded the Punjab Frontier Force, receiving his seventh wound as a major general while leading his men up an Afghan hillside. He went on to be commander in chief of the Madras army, and was made a field marshal in 1902, two years before he died. Henry Daly commanded the Central India Horse, two regiments strong, and in 1867 became political agent at Gwalior. Here he was effectively ambassador and adviser to Maharaja Sir Jayaji Rao Scindia, whose kindly face and mutton-chop whiskers belied the fact that he was an absolute monarch. Daly wrote that:
There is an entire absence of individual responsibility in the heads of departments. There is neither council nor counsellor: the Maharaja rules everything. He alone is the government. In equity and administrative ability there is no one about him to compare with him, but many things are hid from him. Information trickles to him through crooked and narrow channels, not likely to bear many truths of current life.61
In 1870, Daly went to Indore – the size of England, Scotland and Wales, with a population of some 10 million – as the Viceroy’s agent. ‘What a rule is ours in India!’ he reflected.
As I move through the country with its scores of Chiefs, heads clans, brawny people, it seems how much our tenure and strength depend upon personality. Knowledge of India, like the knowledge of anatomy, makes one think of the wonders of the frame which works so quietly.62
Daly became a major general in 1871 and was knighted in 1875. He returned to England in 1881 but continued to work his way up the army list, reaching the rank of general in 1888. As master of the Isle of Wight Foxhounds he was ‘amongst the hardest riders in the hunting field’, and a severe fall out hunting broke open an old wound. A stroke followed, and he died in July 1895: ‘he was borne to his grave by men of a corps which he had joined nearly fifty-five years previously, 6,000 miles away’.63
By the time that Daly died the role of political officers had changed. They had often been very successful in areas where settled civil government was not yet established. But after the pacification of much of the country, and the establishment of the Indian Civil Service, with its rigorous entrance examination, there was increasing pressure on the Government of India to reduce the proportion of military officers in civilian posts. In 1876, soldiers were no longer accepted for further appointments in Bengal, the Central and North-West Provinces, and Oudh. Sind followed suit in 1885, the Punjab in 1903 and Assam in 1907. But well beyond the end of this period both Burma and the North-West Frontier province accepted military officers. There was some logic in this, for both remained lawless, and there was always the chance that a civil magistrate would have to become the very uncivil commander of an armed force.
As it was there were times, notably during the Mutiny, when civilian officials carried out what were unquestionably military tasks. John Low’s son, Malcolm, attended the Company’s college at Haileybury in 1855, and was assistant commissioner of revenue in Meerut when the Mutiny broke out. Wholly without military training, he became a temporary officer in 1st Punjab Cavalry. But he learnt fast. After the fall of Delhi he commande
We charged accordingly & a fine sight it was; the rebel infantry stood, but almost all their cavalry bolted. The result was that they were thoroughly beaten and dispersed, that upwards of 100 dead bodies were left on the field, while we lost 9 killed & wounded, 2 horses killed & 7 wounded.
Completely dispirited the rebels then betook themselves to their city, but the infantry were now well up & the place was, after considerable resistance, carried at the point of the bayonet, the cavalry outside cutting up numbers who attempted to escape.
He received a wound utterly characteristic of his new profession – ‘a cut just above the wrist, severing all the tendons and cutting well into the bone’ – and slipped back into his old one once the Mutiny was over.64
Perhaps the most extraordinarily military civilian was William Fraser. The son of a Scots family whose estate had been mortgaged as a consequence of unlucky investments, Fraser sailed for India to recoup the family fortunes, and his four brothers followed. He held a series of influential civilian appointments, lived an Indian lifestyle with no officially recognised wife but several acknowledged children, and developed a taste for irregular soldiering. He held the local rank of major in Skinner’s Horse, and when a campaign beckoned he always gave up his civilian duties and took the field. When the powerful fortress of Bhurtpore was besieged in 1825, it was Fraser who rushed the earth bank which kept water out of the ditch, and prevented it from being flooded, materially contributing to the success of the siege. ‘A better soldier … never drew cold steel in the world,’ affirmed Skinner, an astute judge of courage. Fraser was murdered in March 1835, apparently on the orders of Shams-ud-din Khan, the young Nawab of Ferozepore, formerly his good friend. (The Nawab himself was hanged outside the Kashmir Gate at Delhi before a large crowd, dying with great bravery. His composure was only ruffled when he suspected that the hangman adjusting the rope around his neck was an untouchable. He asked ‘Are you a mehter?’ but the trap was sprung too quickly for a reply.65 ) Fraser was also a patron of the arts, and helped his brother, James Baillie Fraser, a Calcutta merchant, collect the works of local painters and print-makers.
The Political Department had its share of tragedies. Perhaps the most striking was that of George Broadfoot, a pastor’s son from Kirkwall in the Orkneys, who joined 34th BNI in 1826, and later spent two years studying in Europe before becoming an instructor at the Company’s military seminary at Addiscombe near Croydon. He raised the sappers for Shah Shujah’s force, and distinguished himself on Robert Sale’s retreat to Jelalabad, where he commanded one of the most flamboyantly titled units in the Indian army, Broadfoot’s Sappers and Jezailchis. He protested vigorously against the plan to give up the town and fall back on Peshawar, and his firmness was widely credited with persuading Sale’s council of war to hold out. He served briefly as commissioner for the Tenesserim provinces in Burma and then returned to be the governor-general’s agent for the North-West Frontier, only to be killed at Ferozeshah. Hardinge thought him ‘as brave as he was able in every branch of the political and military service’. His brothers, William and James, were both killed in the First Afghan War.
At the other end of the scale, Captain Thomas Latter, a brave man and skilled linguist, was deputy commissioner at Prome in Burma. He was in pursuit of a noted dacoit, and took the dacoit’s ‘lesser wife’ to live with him, possibly as bait to attract the dacoit – or possibly not. One thing led, predictably enough, to another, and the affronted dacoit killed Captain Latter on his own verandah.
There were also failures in the minor key. One young officer saw a plump Indian riding along with his heavily laden wife walking behind. He at once unhorsed the man and put the woman in the saddle. After a time he noticed that she was weeping bitterly. ‘What’s wrong now?’ he asked. ‘You ride in comfort, and your husband walks, as he ought to do.’ ‘But Sahib,’ she wailed, ‘I do not know this man, and Your Honour is taking me away from my own home.’66
HORSE, FOOT AND GUNS
THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF, INDIA, had three types of unit at his disposal. There were HM’s regiments of horse and foot, and, in the 1750s and again after the Mutiny, British-manned guns of the Royal Artillery. Next, there were ‘the Company’s Europeans’, British-recruited units of infantry, artillery and, at the very end of the Company’s time, cavalry too. And last, but always most numerous, were regiments of native cavalry and infantry and companies of artillery. The balance between British and Indian soldiers changed considerably during the period, especially after the Mutiny emphasised, as the British saw it, the importance of maintaining a balance of around one British soldier to two Indians. In 1794 there were 16,000 British troops to 82,000 Indian; in 1805 this was 24,500 British to 130,000 Indian; 39,800 British to 226,500 Indian in 1857; but 74,500 British to 158,500 Indian in 1906.
At the start of the period there was one foreign-recruited regiment in the Company’s service, and, while strict logic should omit it from these pages, it is simply too interesting to leave out. The Régiment de Meuron had originally been raised at Neuchâtel in 1781 by Charles Daniel, Comte de Meuron, who had held a French commission during the Seven Years’ War. His regiment was first in Dutch pay and then, fighting for the French, faced the British at Cuddalore in 1794. The regiment was at Ceylon when the British took the island in 1795, transferred its allegiance to the British Crown, and ‘its officers were ranked with officers in the king’s service’. Colonel de Meuron was appointed brigadier general, commanding the troops in Ceylon, and his regiment was shipped to India, where it became part of the Madras establishment. In 1799 it provided its grenadier and light companies to the storming column which took Seringapatam. It was eventually disbanded in Canada in 1816. Lieutenant Colonel Henry David de Meuron, who died in 1804, lies in the garrison cemetery at Seringapatam. Not far away is: ‘Naizer Rettan, girl, native of Tallenga, deceased 1st Dec 1803, aged 23 years, by her good friend H. Miéville, Quartermaster-Sergeant of the Regiment de Meuron’.67 In 1782 one of the regiment’s sergeants was a young Gascon called Jean Bernadotte, who became a marshal under Napoleon and went on to become King of Sweden.68
If the British army of the early eighteenth century had been designed primarily for fighting on the continent of Europe, as the century went on it was increasingly deployed overseas, and in the long European peace that followed Waterloo it became, increasingly, an instrument of colonial defence: it was not so much the case of trade following the flag, but the red coat safeguarding trade. Very soon, as Sidney Smith was to put it, British troops were stationed ‘on every rock where a cormorant can perch’. HM’s regiments were posted to India at irregular intervals from the time Colonel Adlercron’s 39th Foot arrived there in 1754, earning for itself and its successors in regimental lineage the motto Primus in Indis.69
By January 1840 no less than twenty-nine British regiments of foot were stationed in India and its dependencies, almost a third of the total of troops in overseas garrisons and just under a quarter of the entire British infantry. Thirteen regiments had been in India for more than fifteen years: two of them, the 6th and 49th Foot, had been there since 1819, and were not to return until 1842 and 1843 respectively.70 Service in India provided enduring snippets of regimental iconography. The 67th Regiment served there from 1805–26, and from December of the latter year its officers commemorated the fact by having a Bengal tiger embossed on their shoulder-belt plates. When the Hampshire Regiment was formed by the amalgamation of the 37th and 67th in 1881, the tiger was added to the Hampshire rose to give the ‘cat and cabbage’ badge that lasted as long as the regiment. And when it was swept up into the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in 1992, the tiger lived on as an arm-badge and a nickname.71
There were far fewer British cavalry regiments in India. Of the twenty-three regiments of line cavalry which existed from 182
In 1881 the infantry was restructured, with the old numbered regiments of foot being combined to form new county regiments, most of which had two regular battalions. The ‘linked battalion system’ was optimised for colonial soldiering, and one of a regiment’s regular battalions normally stayed at home while the other served overseas. The length of tours of duty in India was reduced, but it was still possible for a battalion to be away from home for ten years. A regiment serving in India maintained its strength by receiving drafts of trained recruits from Britain, while time-expired men went home. Frank Richards had gone out to India in 1902, and returned from Burma in 1909, when his term of enlistment expired. He was heavily tattooed, but was delighted to have avoided the choice of some of his comrades, who ‘had tattooed on their backs a pack of hounds in full cry after a fox, with the fox seeking cover in the hole of the backside’. Richards became a miner when he left the army, and took his daily bath in a tub in the kitchen; this particular design, he concluded, would have had ‘every woman in the streets and the neighbouring streets whom the landlady was friendly with’ round to gawp.72
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