Sahib, p.28
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       Sahib, p.28

           Richard Holmes

  One-eighth English and one-eighth Scotch. The former were regarded by the majority of the troops as quiet, good-natured fellows, and favoured by the cognomen ‘duff-eaters’. The latter were stand-off-the-grass fellows, and awfully clannish, with a gift, however, of takin’ guid care o’ themselves.

  But the Irish! … They were the first in mischief, merriment, and devilment of all description, brave to temerity, never at a loss for an answer or an excuse, no matter how difficult the question or how grave the subject to be discussed … They certainly ruled the roost in the troop.97

  In 1856, 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers were in camp during a stint of marching. The officer of the day came to turn out the guard, and was met by Private Poynard on sentry-go.

  Sentry: ‘Who comes there?’

  Captn A. F.: ‘Officer of the Day.’

  Sentry: ‘Arrah, God Bless you, Major jewel, go home again, the boys are very tired & fast asleep.’

  They say that the officer did pass on without turning out the guard, and I know that Poynard was not confined or reported for neglect of duty to which he was liable or for insolence.98

  Yet if there were many Irishmen in the Company’s Europeans, just as there were in the British army, there is a strong case for suggesting that the Company attracted a better-quality recruit, and not simply men faced with the stark alternatives of serving or starving. Its recruiting sergeants, most of them retired sergeants of the Queen’s service, had little difficulty in making up their quotas: if the royal army was endemically under-recruited, the Company’s was not. The Company had more than its fair share of ‘broken-down gentlemen’ and there was a surprising 10 per cent of clerks amongst its recruits, twice the proportion of such men who joined the Queen’s army, and generally folk who were not enlisting as a last resort.

  Part of the appeal was certainly financial. Richard Perkes wanted a job: he told his brother that he ‘had good places and I could not keep them for my mind was vexed with rambling so much’. When he took the decision to sign on, he reported that ‘we are treated a great deal better than Line soldiers only we have to stop in the indias for 21 years then our pay is 2 shillings a day’.99 A private in HM’s service made half as much. In 1849, Private Lawrence Halloran of 1st Madras Fusiliers assured his father that the Company was an altogether better employer:

  I got a pass last August for four months to see John Ervin it is about four hundred miles from where I am he did not know me, but I knew him the moment I saw him he has not altered much in appearance he is tallish but very thin and delicate this Country do not suit his constitution he bears a good character in the Regiment

  The Company Service is a great deal better out here than the Queen’s, any man of good character can get 4 or six months passport but in a Queen’s regiment they can only get 3 or 4 days, you want to know if I am near the seat of war but no I am about twelve hundred miles from Lahore.100

  There was also the prospect of promotion, not simply through the ranks of the regiment, but sideways and upwards into the Company’s forces more widely. Each presidency maintained what was called a Town Major’s list, and once on it a man might ‘go for the blackies’, as it was said, getting the appointment of quartermaster sergeant or sergeant major in a sepoy regiment. Or he could become a warrant officer in the Ordnance or Commissariat Department. There were 150 sub-conductors on £9 a month, while conductors picked up £14 a month and deputy assistant commissaries were on the equivalent of officers’ pay. John Lyons, born on the Shannon in 1829, joined 3rd Bombay Europeans in 1854 and was a corporal a year later and a sergeant in 1858. In 1863 he joined the Barrack Department as a sub-conductor, was promoted to conductor in 1865, and eventually reached the honorary rank of captain. His most serious wound was a tiger bite, sustained while shooting, after his retirement, in 1887.

  I fired at him twice with a double-barrelled rifle, and struck him twice. Turning round to secure my spear I found it had gone. While so engaged the tiger came down upon me and knocked me over … Seizing me by the knee of my right leg he carried me off … so I gave him a blow on the head with my empty rifle, but taking the rifle in his mouth he made off with it.101

  Several of ‘the gallant nine’ who defended the arsenal at Delhi in 1857 had made their way through the Ordnance Department. William Crow, born in Tourden, near Berwick, in 1821, joined the Bengal Artillery in 1841 and quickly became a sergeant. He went to the Ordnance Department in 1849 as a laboratory man in the magazine at Dum Dum, and was appointed a magazine sergeant at Delhi in 1852 and given warrant rank as sub-conductor in 1854. He was officiating sub-conductor there when the Mutiny broke out, and was one of the five men killed when the magazine was blown up: ‘In recognition of his gallant conduct on this occasion he was, before the fact of his death had been ascertained with certainty, promoted to the rank of Conductor in the Ordnance Department.’102

  The grieving relatives of William Andrews, who died in Lahore on 17 July 1877, slipped an honorary-lieutenancy onto his tombstone, and noted that he had fought at Waterloo. A commentator with a more literal turn of mind, however, pointed out that although he had been a driver in the Royal Wagon Train in the Netherlands in 1815, he was not at Waterloo. His honorary-lieutenancy was also an error: at the time of his death he was simply Pensioned Sub-Conductor William Andrews, formerly of the Bengal Commissariat Department, although doubtless no worse a man for all that.103

  Sergeant George Carter of 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers complained that his regiment did not give him the opportunities he sought, and moreover he was:

  tired of the incessant marching in cross-belts and stiff work in the Regt: nearly all the old hands have either got away or given up the ghost & I think I shall break down with the hard work too. Fourteen years in India is enough to use up a marching soldier’s energy & I have had more than sixteen years in this corps which has been marching since ‘twas formed …

  He spent a convivial evening with his old friend Godfrey Leonard, who had left the regiment in 1852 and was ‘very comfortably situated in a good bungalow to himself’ as quartermaster sergeant in a native battalion, and ‘his pay is made up to 75/- monthly … ’. Carter managed to hand over his accounts as pay-sergeant and take the examination for the Town Major’s list. He duly satisfied the examiners in drill, writing, arithmetic and Hindustani. The Fusiliers offered him the post of schoolmaster to persuade him to stay, but he went off to serve as quartermaster sergeant and then sergeant major to 1st Assam Light Infantry.104

  To a young man making a calculated decision about his career in the 1830s, the advantages of the Company’s service were striking, though of course tainted by the prospect of an early death. An officer in the British army held a commission, elegantly engrossed on parchment and signed by the monarch (Queen Victoria only stopped signing commissions personally towards the very end of her long life, when the spate of new commissions from the Boer War became too much for her). It was at once negotiable currency and proof of gentlemanly status. The Company’s officers, however, were appointed by the Court of Directors of the East India Company, and after 1794 held a commission from the Commander in Chief, India, which gave them authority in the British army. The wording of such a commission, granted to a second lieutenant, emphasised that: ‘this Commission is granted to you in virtue of the Rank which you bear in the service of the East India Company’, and although the Commander in Chief affirmed that: ‘I do hereby Command all officers and Soldiers whom it may concern, to acknowledge and obey you as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Queen’s Army’, this authority applied ‘in the east Indies only’. West of the Cape of Good Hope the Company’s officers became private gentlemen, and: ‘No officer of the East India Company, no matter how much he had achieved in the service of the British Empire in India, could hope to appear at his sovereign’s court dressed in uniform.’105 The different commissions emphasised a contrast that was anything but subtle. As long as the Company ruled, there was tension between HM’s officers and the Company’s officers, and afte
rwards there were similar, albeit less severe, strains between officers of the Indian army and their counterparts in the British army.

  Part of the reason for the friction was the fact that the Company’s officers ranked junior to those of the same rank in HM’s service. William Hickey was at dinner in Calcutta in the 1760s:

  Some time after the cloth was removed the conversation unluckily turned upon the relative situation and clashing interests of the King’s and Company’s officers when upon service together. Several of the party (though there were some of His Majesty’s Army present) spoke upon the subject, observing how unjust as well as unpolitic it was to put quite boys of King’s officers over the heads of veterans of the Company, as frequently was the case upon the detached commands.106

  At the end of the Mutiny, Henry Daly, a Company’s officer, argued that HM’s officers were disadvantaged because they could not command irregular troops:

  In India, men of HM’s corps are without occupation; they become mess presidents, tiffin eaters, gamblers and billiard players; the field which yields so much honour, develops so much character, is closed to them. Hence it is that a Queen’s corps in India is usually a narrow, ignorant circle.

  He thought the problem could be solved by merging the British army with the Company’s forces so as to have a huge national army, which would be rotated across garrison duties worldwide. ‘If, on the other hand, the EIC army is simply transferred to the Crown, and kept up as an Indian army,’ he wrote, ‘the men comprising it will still keep up the loaves and fishes … but will eventually sink into an inferior service.“107 Fred Roberts, another Company’s officer, thought that:

  From the time of the establishment of a local army there had existed an absurd and unfortunate jealousy between the Officers of the Queen’s and the Company’s service and one of the best results of the Mutiny was its gradual disappearance. This ill-feeling influenced not only fellow countrymen, but relations, even brothers, that belonged to the different services … It is difficult to understand how so puerile a sentiment could have been so long indulged in by officers who no doubt considered themselves sensible Englishmen.108

  At one level the friction focused on assertions, on the one hand, that Queen’s officers knew nothing of active service and were over-promoted, and, on the other, that the Company’s officers had been worn out by spending too long in the tropics. Garnet Wolseley, a Queen’s officer, complained that a Company’s officer ‘had been in India almost all his service; he had seen next to nothing of war; besides, the sun had apparently taken all “the go” out of him’.109 John Low, though a Company’s officer himself, recognised that this was a very real possibility, and told one of the Company’s directors that it was important ‘to prevent our senior from becoming a set of worn-out apathetic old fellows, unfit for exertions either of mind or body … Even now the government … find the utmost difficulty in getting Brigadiers that are not quite infirm worn out old men.’110 However, Colin Campbell, a Queen’s officer, told the Duke of Cambridge that:

  An officer inexperienced in war in India cannot act for himself … it is quite impossible for him to be able to weigh the value of intelligence … he cannot judge the resources of the country, and he is totally unable to make an estimate for himself of the resistance the enemy opposed to him is likely to offer.111

  Sometimes personal friction obstructed good relations. Charles MacGregor thought that HM’s officers were simply insufferable, writing:

  What between being bullied by cockney hussar soldiers and those swell Rifle Brigade officers, who think that there is not a regiment like themselves on the face of the earth, this begins to be unbearable. Hussar officers who don’t know their right hand from their left try to teach you your duty, and by way of doing so come haw-hawing round your picket at night with a lantern! with their hands in those eternal peg-top trousers … 112

  Lieutenant Fred Roberts, a Bengal artillery officer, on the staff of the Movable Column heading for Delhi, visited Colonel Campbell of HM’s 52nd at Wazirabad to tell him that he was now under the command of Brigadier Neville Chamberlain, the column commander and an Indian officer. He found the good colonel,

  lying on his bed and trying to make himself as comfortable as possible with the thermometer at 117° Fahrenheit. We had not met before, and he certainly received me in a very offhand manner. He never moved from his recumbent position, and on my delivering my message, he told me that he was not aware that the title of Brigadier carried military rank with it; that he understood that Brigadier Chamberlain was only a Lieutenant Colonel, whereas he held the rank of Colonel in Her Majesty’s army: and that, under these circumstances, he must decline to acknowledge Brigadier Chamberlain as his senior officer.113

  Campbell added that ‘he had no wish to dispute the question of relative seniority’; the command of the column was his by right. He had the letter of the law on his side but, told that he could either waive his seniority and serve under Chamberlain, or stay behind in Lahore while his men went on, Campbell ‘who at heart was a really nice fellow’ agreed to take his regiment on the campaign. Henry Daly complained that ‘all these new Queen’s officers have to be taught their profession in the field. Whatever they may know of drill and dress, they know little of actual service.’114

  During the siege of Delhi, Lieutenant Arthur Lang, of the Bengal Sappers and Miners, noted that:

  Major Goodwin drew down the opprobrium of all our corps by resigning his appointment in a huff: so a Lt Lennox of Royal Engineers (hang them all, what do they mean by coming here) is our Chief Engineer: a very pleasant fellow, but fancy, an RE Lt Chief Engineer in an army in Bengal.115

  In August 1858, a Royal Engineer officer assured a colleague in England that both their own corps and the Royal Artillery were ‘under a cloud in India’, declaring that the absence of any mention of the Royal Engineers in Sir Colin Campbell’s Lucknow dispatch was ‘a thing never to be forgotten by the Corps’. He attributed this to the sharp differences between the employment of Royal Engineers and the Company’s engineers, which had led to the former being more narrowly military in their outlook, while the latter had wide non-military interests and abilities:

  HEIC Engineers in India partake far less of the military character than the Royal Engineers, and the Bengal Army regulations even recognise this so far as to lay down that their Engineer Officers are not available for garrison duties while our code particularly lays down the reverse. In time of peace Indian Engineers, with very few exceptions, are employed in the ‘Department of Public Works’ in which employment they cease to be under the military authority of the Commander in Chief … as the above Department embraces civilians, as well as officers of all arms and ranks, the whole of whom have seniority by date of entering the Department it is quite clear that the military spirit cannot be expected to flourish in it. It cannot therefore be said that Engineer Officers in India are unjustly charged with some lack of military discipline.116

  There were more fundamental reasons for the friction than simple professional jealousy or regimental clannishness. The two officer corps were noticeably different in social composition. Although this gap narrowed as time went on, even in 1914 commissions in the Indian army were much sought after because it was significantly cheaper than the British service, and an officer could serve in India without the need for private means to buttress his pay. Lord Roberts, as he had then become, observed that ‘all the best men at Sandhurst try to get into the Indian Army’.117

  Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that the Company’s Court of Directors initially resolved to employ no gentlemen as its servants, and in consequence it recruited some decidedly odd fish. In 1740 Lieutenant Stirling was promoted to the vacant captaincy in the Bombay garrison despite being illiterate which, it was felt, ‘might be inconvenient in an emergency’. So Lieutenant Thomas Andrews was appointed his assistant, and proved helpful in running the local rice trade, one of the perks of the captain’s office. It was averred that in 1753 one of the
Company’s officers had been a trumpeter in a travelling circus in England, and another had been a barber. The Governor of Bombay’s steward became lieutenant of the garrison’s grenadier company, but saw nothing incompatible in remaining steward as well.118 The well-turned-out George Elers of HM’s 12th Foot arrived in India in 1796 to find that he was expected to associate with some shabby fellows purporting to be officers:

  Nothing could be more ludicrous than the dress of the Company’s officers at that period, some wearing shoes and buckles on guard; others shoe-strings, their facings not more than two inches broad; epaulettes not fastened to the shoulder, but hanging down upon their breast. One of their Generals I have seen with a pair of black silk smalls, and stockings to match, white waistcoat and a General’s red coat. The name of this officer was Sir Eccles Nixon.119

  The Company sought to improve the status of its officers by taking on some King’s officers who had been made redundant by the disbandment of their regiments after the Seven Years’ War. At times of particular crisis, officers and men of HM’s regiments whose time in India was up were allowed to exchange into the Company’s service, and both bounties and promotion were on offer. In 1757, some of HM’s 39th transferred to what was then the Bengal European Regiment, with a bounty of 10 gold pagodas (35 rupees) a head. On a far larger scale, in 1764 two lieutenants obtained captaincies and four ensigns were promoted lieutenant on transfer from HM’s service to the Madras European Regiment, and twenty-five sergeants, 545 rank and file and sixteen drummers followed them.120 Some transfers reflected individual tragedies that we can only guess at. In December 1768, William Hickey sailed to India aboard the Plassey, and:

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