Sahib, p.26Richard Holmes
Sergeant Major John Fraser’s battalion of Royal Northumberland Fusiliers served in India from 1880–94, and when it left it had only eleven men who had arrived with the battalion: Fraser himself, two officers, three sergeants, one corporal and four privates. Most of its time-expired men had gone back to Britain and been replaced by recruits, but 232 men had died in India, most of them of natural causes.
Although the detailed establishment of a British battalion in India varied across the period, Kipling’s ‘Eight ‘undred fightin’ Englishmen, the Colonel and the Band’ is not far from the mark. Battalions were usually commanded by lieutenant colonels, although the vagaries of promotion by seniority might mean that a commanding officer might, like the future Duke of Wellington, who took HM’s 33rd Foot to Seringapatam, actually hold the rank of colonel. Sickness, leave and battle casualties might mean that comparatively junior officers could be ‘acting up’, with captains or even subalterns commanding. The commanding officer was assisted by his adjutant, a lieutenant until the very end of the period, a quartermaster, commissioned from the ranks once the nineteenth century was well under way, and the sergeant major, the senior non-commissioned member of the battalion.
A battalion had ten companies at the start of the period, each with a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign.73 There were no permanently constituted platoons until the early twentieth century, and companies broke down into two half-companies, each consisting of two sections commanded by sergeants. In 1813 the rank of colour sergeant was introduced, one for each company, with the task of assisting the captain in administration and discipline. Companies could be grouped together into ‘wings’ of four companies apiece, each commanded by a major or senior captain. For many years the British army, in common with most others, maintained ‘flank companies’. The tallest and most stalwart soldiers formed a battalion’s grenadier company, and its most skilled shots and skirmishers formed the light company. There were frequent complaints that the flank companies siphoned off all a battalion’s best men, leaving the dregs for the remaining ‘battalion companies’; they were abolished in 1862, bringing the battalion down to eight companies. Just before the First World War, British infantry went onto ‘double-company’ establishment, with four big companies instead of eight small ones. The new rank of company sergeant major distinguished the senior non-commissioned member of each of the new companies.
Cavalry regiments were smaller, at around 600 officers and men, and were also commanded by lieutenant colonels with the usual small staff. Their standard sub-unit was the troop, a captain’s command: there were ten per regiment until 1815, when two were removed in the climate of economy that followed Waterloo, and another two disappeared in 1822. Troops had often been grouped into squadrons in the field, and in the 1880s squadrons, with two troops apiece, became permanent. The cavalry had long maintained the rank of troop sergeant major as the senior non-commissioned member of each troop, and squadron sergeant majors were introduced when squadrons were established.
The organisation of the artillery varied even more greatly over the period, but at its start artillery companies were brought together with men of the corps of artillery drivers to form batteries, usually of six to eight guns. In 1793, horse artillery was introduced into the British army to form fast, mobile batteries which could keep pace with cavalry. By the 1880s batteries of artillery were ‘brigaded’ together to form what were in effect artillery regiments, although that term actually post-dated the First World War. There was a tiny Corps of Royal Engineers (just seventy-three officers in 1792 and 262 in 1813) who provided specialist advice to commanders and gave direction to soldiers of the Royal Military Artificers and Labourers, who evolved to become the Corps of Sappers and Miners in 1812. It was not until 1856 that officers and men were brought together in a unified Corps of Royal Engineers.
Engineers, both of the royal army and of the three presidencies, were extraordinarily important in the Indian context, because they were involved in all sorts of non-military tasks. Many of the great buildings of British India were designed by military engineers. Lieutenant James Agg, of the Company’s service, designed St John’s Church, Calcutta; Captain Charles Wyatt, Bengal Engineers, was responsible for Government House, Calcutta, and the distinctive dome of the Gola grainstore, at Patna in Bihar, was the brainchild of Captain John Garstin of the Bengal Engineers. Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sandys, a Royal Engineer at the very end of the period, affirmed that:
I have been compelled to imagine myself in turn an irrigation engineer, a constructor of dams and hydro-electric instal-lations, a road engineer, an architect, a railway engineer, a designer of steel and masonry bridges, a builder of docks and lighthouses, a scientific surveyor and explorer, a student of archaeology and geology, a layer of telegraphs, the head of a mint, a political officer, a financial advisor and a professor!74
Although we must be cautious about assertions that public works projects inevitably followed military conquest, Kipling was, once again, not far off the mark when he got one of his soldiers to muse that:
We broke a King and we built a road – A court-house stands where the reg’ment goed. And the river’s clean where the raw blood flowed When the Widow give the party … 75
The British army was – with a few notable exceptions – a body of poor men officered by rather richer ones. Throughout the period its ranks were filled with volunteers. There were a few genuine enthusiasts. Young John Shipp was an orphan, brought up by the authorities of his Suffolk parish.
One morning in the year 1794, while I was playing marbles in a lane called Love Lane, the shrill notes of a fife, and the hollow sound of a distant drum struck on my active ear … On arriving at the market place I found a recruiting party of the Royal Artillery, who had already enlisted some likely-looking fellows. The pretty little, well-dressed fifer was the principal object of my notice … The portly Sergeant, addressing his words to the gaping rustics by whom he was surrounded, but directing his eyes to the bedroom windows nearby, began a right speech … It was all about ‘Gentlemen soldiers, regiments charging and shouts of victory! Victory!’ At these last words the bumpkins who had just enlisted let their flowing locks go free, and waving their tattered hats, gave three cheers for ‘The King, God Bless Him’, in which I joined most heartily.76
He was so set on being a soldier that in 1797 he was sent to Colchester were he enlisted as a drummer in the 22nd Foot, and began a career which was to see him be commissioned from the ranks not once but twice.
Robert Waterfield, who often features in our story, saw ‘Her Majesty’s 32nd Regiment of Foot in full marching order’ at Portsmouth in 1842. He noticed an old friend amongst the recruits, and a sergeant suggested that he should go back to barracks for a chat:
After breakfast I went to the barracks where I had the opportunity of examining their appointments; clothing, bedding, rations, etc. The latter was of the worst description, the bread was black and unwholesome. I nevertheless still felt inclined to enlist … some of the old hands said the Regiment would leave Portsmouth in a short time, and that any other place they would get good rations and more pay to spend.
The bugle was now sounded for parade, and soon after a smart young sergeant named Creech, a Dublin man, came into the room I was in, and after a little conversation, in which he portrayed the army in such glowing colours, that after a little persuasion I took from him half a crown in the Queen’s name, and became a soldier … by the time the recruits had returned from drill I had undergone that disagreeable test called passing the doctor …
On the following morning, which was the 7th of April, I was taken before a magistrate and sworn to serve Her Majesty. They did not let me remain long idle, for I was taken to the tailor’s shop, where I was served out with a shell jacket which fit me like a ready-made shirt – the sleeves came to my finger ends.77
But for every young man whose enthusiasm or curiosity drew him into the army, there were perhaps two others who were compelled by what one 1913 recruit
There’s only one regiment for you, my lads, and that’s my old one – the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers. Finest regiment in the British Army. See their roll of battle honours. No regiment has a longer one, nor a better reputation extending over years and years. It’s the Fifth Fusiliers for you, my boys, and I’ll not take no. Your names are going down this very minute, and good luck to you both.
They were trained by Lance-Sergeant Sloper Burns – whose favourite oath ‘by all the goats in Kerry’ leaves little doubt as to his origin – and soon found themselves aboard HM troopship Crocodile bound for Bombay.78
Much earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars, members of the militia, normally a part-time reserve but then ‘embodied’ for full-time service, had been subjected to both financial inducement and military pressure to persuade them to enlist in the regular army. Magistrates were perfectly prepared to give some offenders the opportunity of serving the sovereign in a martial rather than a penal capacity. In 1778 the under-sheriff of Surrey told a government minister that he had many convicts in his jail who had been sentenced to death for highway robbery or horse stealing, but were ‘exceedingly proper fellows for either the Land or the Sea service’.79 However, it was sometimes possible to discover a genuine gentleman-ranker. Robert Cureton was an officer in the Shropshire Militia in 1806, but got into financial difficulties, faked suicide by leaving his clothes on a beach, and enlisted in the 16th Light Dragoons under the name of Robert Taylor. He was commissioned in 1814, worked his way up to colonel, and was acting as brigadier when he was killed at Ramnagar in 1849. For much of the period, officers’ commissions were bought and sold. Between 1660, when the regular army came into being, and 1871, when purchase was abolished, about two-thirds of commissions in the Guards, infantry and cavalry were bought. The practice was believed to be justified because, as Wellington put it, ‘it brings into the service men of fortune and character’; the military historian Sir John Fortescue thought it economical, secure and convenient. Officers’ pay was little more than the interest on the money they had paid for their commissions; the fact that they had ‘a stake in the country’ made them reliable; and a regular traffic in commissions ensured a steady flow of promotion. The system’s critics complained that there was no link between a man’s wealth and his military qualities, and maintained that many good officers soldiered on unpromoted.
Purchase became increasingly well regulated in the second half of the eighteenth century with the abolition of abuses such as the commissioning of children and the imposition of time limits to prevent the over-hasty rise of rich men. Each rank had a regulation price, which varied according to the arm of service, and smart regiments would add a non-regulation premium. An ensigncy would cost £450 and a cornetcy, its equivalent rank in the cavalry, £840. But although a cavalry lieutenant-colonelcy had a regulation price of £6,175, even a modest regiment expected a non-regulation addition of £1,400. In 1836, when Lieutenant Colonel Lord Brudenell, already a controversial figure because he had been dismissed from command of the 15th Hussars for bullying his officers, obtained command of the 11th Light Dragoons, then in Cawnpore, it was alleged that the regiment had cost him the staggering sum of £40,000. Not long after he arrived in India he heard that his father had died: he was now 7th Earl of Cardigan, with an income of £40,000 a year.
An officer who wished to sell his commission was obliged to offer it to the most senior officer of the rank next below his own, and if this officer was unwilling or unable to purchase then it would be offered to the next senior, and so on. The disappearance of a captain would open a vacancy for both a lieutenant and an ensign as officers of each rank were promoted to fill the vacancies created. Regimental agents, who looked after the financial affairs of their regiments, could help orchestrate a complex pattern of sales, transfers and promotions as agile officers with money in their pockets slid from regiment to regiment, buying out the weary here and paying off the ambitious there, so as to finish up in the regiment of their choice with the highest rank they could afford. Regulations, applied with increasing stringency, governed the time an officer had to spend in one rank before he could purchase the next.
A good-natured officer who could afford promotion might nonetheless let a deserving junior ‘buy over’ him. In 1799, Lieutenant George Elers of HM’s 12th Foot, then at Seringapatam, was:
very near getting a company by purchase. A company became vacant in England, and old [Lieutenant Colonel] Shawe gave out an order that those Subalterns wishing and able to purchase should send their names in to the orderly-room. I knew I had the money in England but the whole sum (£1,500) must be placed down immediately. It so happened that my name happened to be the first for purchase, and I believe the only one. Old Shawe sent for me, and said: ‘I persave, sir, that you are the first officer for purchase. Where is your money?’ ‘In England, sir.’ ‘That will not do: it must be lodged at a house of agency in Madras.’ ‘Very well. Sir.’ So I returned to my tent and thought of all my friends in India. None struck me so likely as my kind friend Benjamin Torin of Madras. I wrote to him explaining my situation … By return of post he sent me the kindest answer, saying he had lodged the sum of £1,500 for me in the house of Harrington and Co. in Madras.
There was in the regiment a very deserving young Irishman, and a great favourite of Colonel Aston’s [the former commanding officer, killed in a duel] … Major Craigie requested Eustace to go to me and to beg me to resign the right to purchase as Major Craigie would arrange the purchase for him. I did not like to take the advantage which I had over him under the peculiar circumstances and I resigned my right in his favour. I did not get my company for four years after this, and then by purchase, and Captain Eustace got his majority and lieutenant colonelcy for nothing, which I should have had if I had insisted on my right to purchase the company. Such is the lottery of our service.80
Henry Havelock was brave and pious, but perennially unlucky in the matter of promotion. Yet he too was good natured. In 1851, then a major, he wrote:
I suppose [Lieutenant Colonel] Byrne’s resignation will arrive via Southampton, and that in the listing thereafter I shall see a youth of some sixteen years standing in the army gazetted over my head as a lieutenant colonel. Major Mansfield is, as I am told, for I have never made his acquaintance, a good officer. I was purchased over … by three sots and two fools, so I must persuade myself that it is a pleasant variety to be superseded by a man of sense and gentlemanly habits. Be this as it may, the honour of an old soldier on the point of having his juniors put over him is so sensitive, that if I had no family to support … I would not serve one hour longer.
The episode was particularly exasperating because Havelock had the money put by for the lieutenant-colonelcy, but Mansfield had already slipped Byrne the non-regulation addition to its price. Havelock felt that he could not undo the deal without gross injustice to Byrne, who was ‘about half a degree more broken than myself’ or to Mansfield, who had paid up in good faith.81
Promotion by purchase did not always apply. Vacancies created by death were filled by the promotion of the next most senior officer, and this created a vacancy, also filled by a seniority promotion, in each officer rank below. In 1857, Lieutenant Colonel the Hon. Adrian Hope of the 93rd Highlanders was commanding a
the oldest captain in the regiment … and for long he had been named by the men ‘Old Daddy Cornwall’. He was poor, and had been unable to purchase promotion, and in consequence was still a captain with over thirty five years’ service. The bursting of the shell right over his head stunned the old gentleman, and a [shrapnel] bullet went right through his shoulder, breaking his collar-bone and cutting a deep furrow down his back … Daddy came to himself just as the men were lifting him into a dooly. Seeing Dr Munro standing by with the bullet in his hand, about to present it to him as a memento of Cawnpore, Daddy gasped out: ‘Munro, is my wound dangerous?’ “No, Cornwall,’ was the answer, ‘not if you don’t excite yourself into a fever, you will get over it all right.’
The next question put was, ‘Is the road clear to Allahabad?’ To which Monro replied that it was. ‘Then by—’ replied Daddy, with considerable emphasis, ‘I’m off.’ The poor old fellow had through long disappointment become like our soldiers in Flanders – he sometimes swore; but considering how promotion passed him over that was perhaps excusable … He went home on the same vessel as a rich widow, who he married on arrival in Dublin, his native place, the corporation of which presented him with a valuable sword and the freedom of the city. The death of Brigadier-General Hope gave Captain Cornwall his majority without purchase, and he returned to India in the end of 1859 to command the regiment for about nine months, resigning from the army in 1860, when we lay at Rawal Pindi.82
Sahib by Richard Holmes / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes