Sahib, p.27Richard Holmes
It was difficult to find enough junior officers, especially in wartime, for most families had reservations about laying out large sums to give a son or nephew the early chance of death or disablement. In 1810, with the army nearing a level of manpower which it would not exceed for more than a century, perhaps four-fifths of commissions were granted without purchase. They were awarded by interest and influence, and by the commissioning of gentleman volunteers or worthy NCOs. We have already seen Colour Sergeant Thompson of the 50th at Sobraon. He was commissioned from the ranks in 1852, and worked his way steadily up the officer grades of his regiment by seniority alone, filling death vacancies as they arose, to die a major general.
Once an officer had reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, either by regimental rank, or by brevet – essentially an honorific promotion for brave or skilful performance – all promotion was by seniority, and if he contrived to live long enough the ranks of colonel, major general, lieutenant general and general must eventually be his. Everything depended on those at the top of the generals’ list dying off sufficiently quickly to make room for aspiring colonels. Regular issues of the London Gazette, which carried formal notification of all officers’ promotions, included a handful of colonels promoted to major general by seniority. George Elers was on the march near Mysore with Colonel Arthur Wellesley in 1801 when news arrived from England that a Gazette had just elevated those at the top of the colonels’ list:
He was all hope and animation. ‘Do you happen to have an Army List, Elers?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and I ran to my tent and fetched it for him, saying: ‘I am sorry to tell you, Colonel, that it does not include you as a Major General. You are within about five or six of it.’ He said sorrowfully: ‘My highest ambition is to be a Major General in His Majesty’s service.’ This was uttered to me in May 1801. Fourteen years afterwards he had fought the battle of Waterloo, conquered Bonaparte, was a Prince, a Duke, a Knight of the Garter, Grand Cross of the Bath, a Grandee of Spain and a Grand Cross of, I believe, every order of knighthood in Europe.83
Gratifying though it was to become a major general, no general officer rank brought any pay unless its holder managed to get a suitable appointment: ‘unattached pay’ for generals came in only at the end of the nineteenth century. Inexorable seniority might promote an officer too early, forcing him to relinquish one post but not guaranteeing him another. No sooner had Havelock become a lieutenant colonel than it seemed that backdated seniority ‘would make me a colonel of the year 1850 … that is, put me at once up near the very top of the list, and bring me nearer the rank of major general than would be financially desirable for me … ’.84 Charles MacGregor, on active service in the Second Afghan War, recalled that he: ‘Slept last night in a tent with Major General J. Hills VC CB. He was detailing his woes from being promoted major general too soon. He now has to go home.’85
In both HM’s and the Company’s service the ranks of brigadier and brigadier general were temporary, not substantive. Brigadier was the title assumed by the senior commanding officer of a group of battalions brigaded together on campaign. Brigadier Shelton, promoted to command a brigade in the First Afghan War, was actually the lieutenant colonel commanding HM’s 44th Foot in his brigade. He was not one of the brightest lights of that ill-starred conflict and Captain George Lawrence described him as ‘having incapacity written on every feature of his face’. When the First Afghan War was over he reverted to lieutenant colonel, and was killed after falling from his horse in 1845.
Lieutenant Colonel John Pennycuick of HM’s 24th Foot was the senior lieutenant colonel in his brigade in 1848, and as his son Alexander (who had been born at sea on the family’s return from India in 1831) gleefully told his sister Jane:
I suppose you have heard by this time of our going on active service, aren’t I a lucky fellow no sooner in the country than off we go. Papa gets a brigade as he is so very senior … Can you fancy me ordering and pushing and galloping about in a red coat when you think of the little rogue that was always in some trouble or other, do you remember the time I gave Sarah the serious bump. Poor Papa has a good deal of work, writing and going about all day, so he cannot write just now, but sends his best of loves to you, Edward and your dear children.
Poor Papa, and poor little rogue too. Brigadier Pennycuick was mortally wounded at Chillianwallah. He had already lost his horse, but was striding along gallantly on foot, a little ahead of his own regiment ‘under a tremendous fire of round shot & grape’ when he was hard hit in the chest. Three men carried him to the rear, but he soon died. Major Smith wrote that:
Young Pennycuick had been on the sick list, was brought to the field in a dooly – there he insisted on going with the Regt into action – He retired with it, after the repulse, and, at the village, heard of his father’s fate. Immediately, he went to the front in search of the body, & it would appear was killed by its side, for the two were found lying dead together. The poor boy was apparently [shot] through the back, & the ball came out almost exactly at the spot where his father was struck in front and thus – side by side – we laid them together in their graves, in the mound at Chillianwalla.
The incident was widely regarded as being so shocking that Brigadier Pennycuick’s widow, already entitled to a pension of £200 a year for his twenty-five years’ service, was granted an extra £100 by the Queen.86
Lieutenant Colonel Showers of 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers was a notoriously ‘hard horse’ commanding officer. George Carter complained that when the regiment was on the move ‘he won’t allow the married peoples’ hackeries to be put under the shade in the heat of the day because it is not regular … ’. His ‘orderly rooms’ (where he attended to the administration of summary justice) went on all morning.87 In 1857 he assumed command of a brigade consisting of his own battalion and HM’s 75th. When Sir Henry Barnard’s force from Ambala neared Delhi in June it fought the very brisk action at Badli ke Serai. Lieutenant Richard Barter, adjutant of HM’s 75th, saw him at his business:
Brigadier Showers turning round in his saddle addressed a few short words of praise to the regiment; he then galloped round to the left flank and riding up to me enquired for the Colonel. I pointed him out on my right, and he said, ‘Tell him to give the word, prepare to charge’ … down went that long line of bayonets … a few more paces to steady the line, and then came the word to charge.88
Showers may have been an old fuss-pot, but he led the 75th right into a bravely defended redoubt, and is preserved for ever by a print-maker who caught him setting his pony at the breastwork.
The title of brigadier was easily obtained and as easily lost. That of brigadier general was slightly more formal, in that it sprang from a commission from monarch or Company temporarily promoting an officer for a specified duty. In 1856 Henry Havelock, still only a colonel, was commissioned brigadier general to command a brigade on the Persian expedition. The Mutiny was under way when he returned, and he retained the rank, attaining that of major general shortly before his death. A colonel could be temporarily promoted major general without passing through brigadier en route, but if seniority did not make him a general then he crashed back to colonel when the appointment ended. Charles MacGregor was promoted local major general when he became quartermaster general in India in 1881, and was knighted shortly afterwards. But when he relinquished the post in 1885 his seniority had not yet caught up, and, though he penned a dignified plea, citing good precedent, to be allowed to retain the rank he had held with so much honour, down he came. Terminally ill, he set off home, telling his wife:
I hope we will allow that I have died with a clean sheet and that no one can throw stones at my honour. I want only a stone (plain and rugged as the hills of the clan) to say, ‘Here lies C. MacGregor, of the old stock of Clan Gregor, who did his best for the old name.’89
In his last letter he admitted that ‘I am looking forward very anxiously to my promotion.’ It was gazetted on 19 February 1887, with seniority from 22 January: but he had died at Cairo o
The ‘gentlemen of the ordnance’, officers of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery, did not purchase their commissions. They were commissioned after training at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and thereafter their promotion tended to be slower than that of their comrades in horse and foot, for there was no commerce in their commissions, simply vacancies created by death, retirement, or the occasional expansion of the army.
Death, however, was common enough, especially in India. In the late 1750s, Lieutenant James Wood described the impact of the deaths of artillery officers at Bombay on the careers of his comrades:
Saturday 20th November 
Captain-Lieutenant Mason of the RA died and was buried the same afternoon. Lieutenant Whitmore had the firing party of 30 men. After interment the minute guns fired from the fort. Lieutenant Fireworker Whitmore made Lieutenant and Bombardier Davis Fireworker.
Wednesday 21 February 
Captain Lieutenant Winter made Captain, Lieutenant Lewes Captain Lieutenant, Lieutenant Chalmes First Lieutenant, and Lieutenant Fireworker James Wood Second Lieutenant by the death of Captain Northall.90
British regiments in India had much the same composition as the same regiments in Britain, though with a slight increment of extra officers. Although some senior officers, like Lord Cardigan, had an animus against ‘Indian’ officers with long service in the subcontinent, there were not generally wholesale transfers when a regiment was ordered to India, and the idea that regiments had two sets of officers, one for India and the other for Britain, is appealing but untrue. The Duke of Wellington, no doubt forgetting that as Colonel Wesley he had been so reluctant to go to India that his regiment sailed without him, harrumphed that an officer posted there must either ‘sell [his commission] or sail’. When the 22nd Foot was unexpectedly ordered to India in 1841 after a long tour of duty in Jamaica, both its lieutenant colonels, both majors and seven out of ten captains continued to serve. And when the 32nd Foot left for India in 1846 only one captain and four lieutenants left the regiment, and two of the latter seem to have only transferred to the regiment to sell out anyway.
The 16th Queen’s Lancers, whose natural milieu was certainly more Mayfair than Meerut, was sent to India in 1822 (where it would stay until 1846); its commanding officer sold out, to widespread relief, but most other officers stayed with the regiment. Interestingly, only one, George M’Dowell, completed the full twenty-four-year tour of duty. All the others were killed, died, sold out or were posted away: one found himself escorting convicts to New South Wales.91
There were certainly some officers who would have agreed with Second Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars that service in India was ‘utterly unattractive … useless and unprofitable exile’, but there were others who regarded a posting east of Suez, when a regiment would be augmented by a batch of junior officers, as an opportunity for promotion and profit too. Some youngsters were simply entranced by the prospect of service in the mysterious East. Lieutenant Walter Campbell recorded that news of his regiment’s posting to India:
fell like a thunderbolt on many. India was to them a land of hopeless banishment – a living grave – a blank in their existence – a land from whence, if they escaped an early death, they were to return with sallow cheeks, peevish tempers and ruined constitutions. And such, alas, was the fate of many. But to my romantic imagination it appeared a land of promise – a land of sunshine and perfume – a land of princes, palaces and pageants.92
NCOs and men had no option but to serve in India if their regiment was sent there. For most of our period enlistment was for life, which in practice meant twenty-five years, although shorter terms were offered in wartime. It was not until 1874 that the army introduced what it called ‘short service’ in an effort to encourage recruiting and to create a reserve which would inflate the army’s strength if it became involved in a major European war. The 31st Foot was at Rawalpindi when:
In February 1865 a draft of young soldiers arrived from the depot. These were principally men enlisted for six years’ colour service and six years in the Army reserve. The draft was in point of fact composed of men of good physique who turned out good soldiers, but they were received with much disfavour by the long-service men of the regiment, who, like all soldiers, disliked innovations.93
But in the first half of the nineteenth century a posting to India was effectively a life sentence for most of the soldiers posted there: more of them died in India than ever saw their homes again.
The East India Company maintained its own European units, with artillery battalions, including contingents of horse artillery, a corps of sappers and miners, and three single-battalion infantry regiments for each presidency, as well as three regiments of Bengal European Light Cavalry, these latter formed only in 1857. The European soldiers employed by the East India Company had enlisted in the certain knowledge that they would be sent to India, and signed up for twenty-five years’ service. While there were some similarities between the ‘East India Convicts’, as the Company’s Europeans styled themselves, from the letters EIC on their shako-plates, and men who joined the Queen’s regiments, there were some striking differences too.
The greatest similarity was in the use the Company made of Irish soldiers. Although the Indians themselves (who often used the word English, Angrez) and foreign observers tend to refer to an English army, for most of the period the army was, by legal status and actual composition, British. In the period 1795–1810, 42 per cent of soldiers were Irish; 21 per cent Scottish and the remainder were English and Welsh. By 1830, 42.2 per cent of the army was Irish and 13.6 per cent Scots. As emigration to America replaced enlistment into the British army, the Irish proportion fell steadily, dropping from 27.9 per cent in 1870 to 15.6 per cent in 1888 and 9.1 per cent in 1912 (roughly proportionate to Ireland’s share of the population of Great Britain). The Scots share also shrank, to 7.8 per cent in 1912, rather less than Scotland’s proportion of the population of the British Isles.
The Scots and Irish element of the army was often made more visible by distinctive dress, with the kilts and feather bonnets of the Highlanders as the most extreme example. There was often a clannishness that brought Scots and Irish together, quite regardless of cap-badge, half a world away from home. In the early 1850s two officers asked a buggy driver to take them to the hotel in Ghazepore. On their arrival the servants seemed terrified and there was no sign of the landlord.
Getting angry at this, they sat down on the table in the largest room, drummed on it with their feet, and abused the servants, the landlord and the country, when a gentleman entered suddenly and, white with passion, demanded ‘what the devil they meant by sitting on his dining table and making that row.?’ ‘You are a nice landlord,’ rejoined Stewart. ‘Here we have been for the last half-hour shouting for brandy-and-soda, and your brutes of servants do nothing but look at us round the corner.’ ‘Where do you suppose you are?’ said the newcomer. ‘Why, in the Ghazeepore Hotel’ said Stewart. ‘Then I beg to inform you that this is not the Ghazeepore Hotel; that it is not a hotel at all; it is my private house and the sooner you are out of it the better.’ Jumping off the table they made every apology and excuse they could, blaming the mistake on the driver of the buggy.
Nothing would, however, appease the wrath of the old Scotsman, whose anger seemed to increase rather than diminish. They were on the point of re-entering the buggy, when, from something that was said, the old man perceived that Stewart was a Highlander. He at once cooled down, wanted no apology, laughed at the matter as a first-rate joke, dismissed the buggy, and insisted on their staying at his house till next day, when they were obliged to rejoin their steamer.94
The Irish, too, were often distinctive, though in their case it was sometimes not the iconography of harps on colours and buttons that gave the game away. In 1885, Colour Sergeant John Fraser was enjoying tea in a gunner sergeant’s mess when he heard his battalion’
The Company’s Europeans, like HM’s regiments, included their fair share of Scots and Irish recruits too. It is no accident that the men of 1st Bengal European Fusiliers awarded the VC in the Mutiny were Sergeant J. McGuire, Private John McGovern and Private Michael Ryan. In 1st Madras Fusiliers the same coveted decoration went to Sergeant Patrick Mahoney, Private John Ryan, Private Thomas Duff and – perhaps for the sake of balance – Private John Smith. The historian Peter Stanley suggests that Irish recruits constituted between a third and three-quarters of particular drafts, and predominated in the late 1830s and late 1840s96 – the latter surge coinciding with ‘The Great Hunger’ caused by the failure of the potato crop. Nathaniel Bancroft, who was one of the celebrated ‘Red Men’, of the elite Bengal Horse Artillery, reckoned that in his troop in the 1840s, sixth-eighths of the men were Irish:
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