Sahib, p.30Richard Holmes
When Private Frank Richards arrived in India in 1903 there were still a number of old Company soldiers about, much bemedalled, full of war stories and with an apparently limitless thirst. One assured him that ‘the soldiers under the old John Company before the Mutiny were far better off than what we were’. Taken, not unwillingly, to the canteen, he announced:
Sonny, soldiers of the old John Company drank rum and not shark’s p—s. In my old days it was a common sight by stop-tap to see practically every man in the Canteen as drunk as rolling f—s: yet if they had not been put in clink meanwhile they would all wake up in the morning happy as larks.139
All officers now bore the Queen’s commission: Addiscombe was closed down, and cadets who sought to join the Indian army trained alongside their British army peers at Sandhurst.140 The Secretary of State for India inherited the Company’s patronage, and from 1862 had the right to nominate twenty ‘Queen’s India Cadets’, the sons of worthy Indian officers and officials, to Sandhurst. Regimental promotion was ended by the formation of the Indian Staff Corps, an officers’ pool for each presidency, from which officers were selected to fill regimental, staff and political posts. Timed promotion now took an Indian army officer to captain after eleven years’ commissioned service, major after twenty, lieutenant colonel after twenty-six and colonel after thirty-one years. Pay depended not simply on rank, but on appointment too, so that a lieutenant colonel might pick up 827 rupees a month as the pay of his rank and another 600 rupees as commanding officer of an infantry battalion. The three staff corps became one in 1891, and were abolished altogether by Lord Kitchener in 1903: thereafter officers were simply ‘Officers of the Indian Army’.
Although this is not a history of the Indian army, it would be incomplete and unjust without some reference to those locally recruited units which, start to finish, constituted the bulk of British military forces in India, and without whose courage and devotion none of this story could be told. The bulk of Indian regiments were infantry: in 1857 there were seventy-four in Bengal, fifty-two in Madras and twenty-nine in Bombay, as well as several irregular battalions. Until the Mutiny, regular infantry battalions had ten companies, each containing two British officers. After it there were eight companies in each battalion, with six British officers at battalion headquarters and one commanding each of the battalion’s two four-company ‘wings’. In the 1890s the Indian army led the way into the double-company organisation (a good decade earlier than the British) with four companies, each with a British company commander and one other British officer.
At the time of the Mutiny the Bengal army had ten regiments of regular light cavalry, with eight in Madras and three in Bombay. These regiments had some twenty-four British officers and 400 men, with each troop commanded by a British captain assisted by one other British officer. In addition, there were eighteen separate regiments of irregular cavalry in Bengal and seven in Bombay. The Madras army’s active campaigning had largely come to an end with the defeat of Tipu in 1799 and it raised no irregular horse of its own, although it could rely on the four regiments of cavalry in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s Contingent, a separate British-officered little army. Irregular regiments had only four British officers – commandant, second-in-command, adjutant and surgeon.
Irregular regiments were organised on what was called the silladar principle. Each trooper was paid more than his comrade in a regular regiment, but had to supply his own horse and equipment. In practice the regiments themselves furnished a recruit with horse and equipment of regulation pattern, for which he paid a sum called the assami. When he left the service he could keep his horse or have his assami refunded: if he deserted or was dishonourably discharged the money was forfeited. Monthly deductions were made from his pay to help him meet the cost of a new mount when the need arose. Horses which died or were killed on active service were replaced using a regimental fund to which all troopers subscribed. After the Mutiny the reorganised Indian cavalry followed the irregular pattern, and by 1903 all but three of the thirty-nine regiments were silladar. They consisted of a headquarters with a commanding officer and adjutant, and three squadrons (four from 1885) each with two British officers. The silladar system broke down during the First World War, and disappeared after it.
Although, as James Wood’s experiences have shown, there were members of the Royal Artillery in India in the 1750s, from then until the watershed of the Mutiny most guns in India were manned either by European or Indian soldiers in the Company’s service. Originally Indians were recruited only as golandaz (‘ball-throwers’) or the even less glamorous gun-lascars, carrying out a good deal of rough and dangerous work but not actually serving the guns. By the early nineteenth century, however, Indian-manned battalions were established in all the presidency armies, and during the Mutiny Indian gunners often served their pieces bravely and well. So much so, indeed, that after the Mutiny Indian-manned units were disbanded, and almost all guns in the subcontinent were manned by British soldiers of the Royal Artillery. The exceptions were light batteries, converted to mountain batteries in 1876: there were twelve of these by 1914. Each presidency maintained its own corps of engineers, consisting of staff officers and technical specialists, while their corps of sappers and miners carried out the varied tasks of field engineering and bridging. These three corps survived until after the First World War, by which time the Madras Sappers and Miners contained virtually the only soldiers recruited in that presidency.
There were three separate ordnance departments, responsible for the production of some arms and munitions and the care of all magazines, depots and arsenals, which became a single Indian Ordnance Department in 1884. The task of commissariat officers was complicated by the variety of rations needed because of the different dietary requirements even amongst Indian troops, as well as by the sheer scale of the subcontinent and its geographical diversity. For its transport the Company, and the Crown after it, followed the local practice and made widespread use of local contractors to reinforce the three small presidency transport departments. Sometimes this worked well. Brinjarries, a tribe of hereditary grain-carriers, would undertake to furnish grain and salt as required, and usually did so most reliably. In 1824 Bishop Heber wrote that:
We passed a number of Brinjarries who were carrying salt … They … all had bows … arrows, sword and shield. Even the children had, many of them, bows and arrows suited to their strength, and I saw one young woman equipped in the same manner.141
They were still going strong in Walter Lawrence’s time in the 1880s:
fine men and women, but too busy to talk on the march – six miles a day and every day. Too busy to sit down to a meal: so busy that children have been born on the marching bullocks; almost as busy as the British in India.142
During the Second Afghan War the contract system broke down badly, with a shocking loss of animals, particularly the all-important camels. After it the three transport departments were merged into one, nicknamed the Rice Corps, and further reorganisations saw the creation of extra locally based mule, camel and pony-cart units. There was even a fascinating reversion to Mughal practice with the raising of four jagirdari corps in barren areas, where Crown revenues were given up in return for military service.
It may come as no surprise to discover that each presidency had, from the 1760s, maintained its own medical establishment, consisting of surgeons, physicians, apothecaries and medical administrative officers. In 1896 this became the Indian Medical Service, a body which did not simply attend to the medical needs of armies in barracks and in the field, but provided officers to the civil medical administration. (Members of the Indian Medical Service were responsible for several notable discoveries. Perhaps the best known was by the Indian-born Sir Robert Ross, who discovered, in 1895–98, that malaria was carried by the anopheles mosquito.) Wounded were recovered from the battlefield by their comrades or regimental bearers, and generally taken in doolies to regimental hospitals, which might be centralised on campaign. In 1902 the Army Bearer
The remaining military organisations in India were what were termed Indian States Forces, the small armies allowed to native rulers. These ranged from the Hyderabad Contingent, an all-arms force of almost divisional strength and for long a source of well-paid employment for British officers (‘Nizzy will pay’ was their cheery watchword), to tiny forces that were little more than bodyguards. In 1885, when war with Russia seemed probable, many Indian rulers offered their troops to the Government of India, and four years later the Imperial Service Troops were authorised. Rulers undertook to raise, train, arm and equip their contingents on the same lines as the Indian army, although, as with the Indian army there was concern about ensuring that they were never as well-equipped as British regiments. British officers acted as military advisers to rulers who subscribed to the scheme.
The French had led the way with the recruitment of regular Indian units, but the British quickly followed suit, and Stringer Lawrence, the first Commander in Chief, India, really deserves recognition for his role as a trainer and drillmaster. For the first century of British rule the older sepoy regiments harked back to their origins by associating themselves with the name of their first commanding officer. Thus 2nd Battalion 21st Bengal Native Infantry, raised by Lieutenant Martin Johnson, styled itself Jansin ki Pultan, and when Captain Tetley took the 2nd Bengal Volunteers into the Bengal line as 1st Battalion 18th BNI in 1798, it clung to the title Titteelee ki Pultan. One commanding officer enlisted a large number of laundrymen (dhobi-wallahs), and his regiment thereafter rejoiced in the name Dhobi ki Pultan. When 56th BNI seemed stuck fast at the battle of Maharajpore in 1843, Gough asked his staff: ‘Will no one get this sepoy regiment on?’
Havelock at once offered his services, and, riding up, inquired the name of the corps. ‘It is the 56th Native Infantry.’ ‘I don’t want its number,’ replied he. ‘What is the native name?’ Lamboorun ki Pultan – Lambourne’s regiment. He then took off his cap and, placing themselves in their front, addressed them by that name; and in a few complimentary and cheering words reminded them that they were fighting under the eye of the Commander-in-Chief. He led them up to the batteries, and afterwards remarked that ‘Whereas it had been difficult to get them forward before, the difficulty now was to restrain their impetuosity.’143
The Indian historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee maintains that regiments which mutinied in 1857 sought to obliterate their former identities: ‘In the moment of mutiny the sepoys cast off the markers with which an alien power had sought to regiment them and thus set them apart from the peasantry from which they were recruited.’144 And yet orders issued in rebel-held Delhi directed that: ‘Regiment 57th, Pultan Lord Moira, will send its left wing to the Kabul gate, and, in company with the soldiers of Hamilton ki Pultan, will defend that gate.’145 Many sepoy regiments kept their bands with them (the bandsmen, generally Eurasian Christians, were in an impossible position) and infuriated their opponents by striking up old favourites like Cheer, Boys, Cheer at inopportune moments. At least two Victoria Crosses were won by British soldiers who captured colours off sepoy regiments, which had continued to carry them despite the Mutiny. The sepoys also retained some of their English words of command: Henry Daly remembered being challenged ‘Who Kum Dar?’ by a picket. There was something about the regimental system which survived even the mutiny of its component parts against the very power that had raised them.
Recruiting policies in the three presidencies differed. In both Madras recruits were drawn from a broad base, and no single community dominated their ranks.146 In Bombay, in contrast, high-caste men tended to predominate, and this played its part in the Mutiny. After the Mutiny, the basis of recruiting shifted towards the Punjab and the lower-caste men from other areas, but from the early 1880s onwards the whole balance of recruiting began to tilt to the north. The ‘martial races theory’ held that men from the south were smaller and less inherently martial than men from the north. When Roberts served as commander in chief in Madras he concluded that
the long years of peace, and the security and prosperity attending it, had evidently had upon them, as they always seem to have on Asiatics, a softening and deteriorating effect; and I was forced to the conclusion that the ancient military spirit had died out in them.147
When he became Commander in Chief, India, Roberts accelerated the shift to recruiting in the north, a process continued by Kitchener when he was Commander in Chief. It is interesting that Lieutenant General Menezes, himself a distinguished Indian officer, referred to the process as ‘the cult of Grecian features’, for, as the historian David Omissi has shown, the whole concept was caught up with notions of racial purity, with illustrated recruiting manuals categorising men as if they were horses or dogs.148
Just as, for most British recruits, the decision to become a soldier was the consequence of balancing a number of factors, not least the need for gainful employment, so Indian recruits made a considered decision to sign up. Sometimes, where families were big and the land was poor (it is hard to ignore parallels with Ireland and Scotland) military service provided an economic lifebelt for whole communities. There was a strong mercenary tradition in India long before the British arrived, although at its best this was a tradition which emphasised the reciprocal keeping of faith between patron and client. Rates of pay and costs of living varied across the period, but sepoys were comparatively well paid and, moreover, were granted pensions (either in cash or as a jagir) after forty years’ service, reduced to twenty-one years after 1886.
Status was also crucial, and for Rajputs in particular their self-image was closely related to their role as warriors. Indian soldiers could be as nice about matters of dignity as could Spanish noblemen. Perhaps the most telling incident followed a mutiny in Bengal in 1764. It involved the Lal Pultan, the red battalion, the oldest regiment in the Bengal line. Twenty-four men were sentenced to be blown from guns, a Mughal punishment which involved the victim being tied across the muzzle of a field gun loaded with powder but no shot, and blown into eternity. The guilty men were to be blown from four 6-pounder guns on parade before their own battalion, with two other sepoy battalions and some European troops looking on. Four were already tied up when four other condemned men stepped forward. They were members of the grenadier company, they declared, and were always given the most dangerous tasks in battle: they now demanded the right to lead in death as they had in life. Major Hector Munro, commanding the force, accepted the men’s plea, and the four grenadiers were the first executed that day.149
Family tradition, too, was significant. Sita Ram’s uncle Hanuman was a jemadar in an infantry battalion:
The rank of Jemadar I looked on as quite equal to that of … the King of Oudh himself; in fact, never having seen the latter, I naturally considered my uncle of even more importance. He had such a splendid necklace of gold beads, and a curious bright red coat, covered with gold buttons; and above all, he appeared to have an unlimited supply of gold mohurs. I longed for the time when I might possess the same, which I then thought would be directly I became the Company Bahadur’s servant.150
Sita Ram’s uncle took him to his battalion where he was signed on. In the fullness of time Sita Ram’s own son, Ananti Ram, also joined the army, but his story had a tragic ending: captured at Lucknow, he was shot by firing-squad. It was Sita Ram’s turn to command the firing parties that day, but a kindly major spared him the task and later allowed him to perform the funeral rites over his son. ‘He showed no fear,’ wrote Sita Ram, ‘but I would much rather that he had been killed in battle.’151
Sita Ram retired as subadar, one of the ranks of Indian officer. From the very beginning the Company had relied on Indians to carry out some military duties which would have been carried out by junior officers in the British army. For much of the period they were promoted from the ranks of their regiments by the remorseless process of seniority and, especially before the Mutiny, were often too old. Sita Ram became a jemadarat the age of
Private soldiers in Indian units were termed sepoy in the infantry and sowar in the cavalry. Infantry NCOs rose from naik, or corporal, to havildar, or sergeant.153 There was no precise cavalry equivalent of corporal. The NCOs who carried the regiment’s guidons were termed nishanbardars; daffadars roughly equated to sergeants; and kot-daffadars to troop sergeant majors. Indian officers went from jemadar to subadar and on to subadar-major, the latter the senior Indian officer in a battalion, for the infantry. In the cavalry jemadars were the most junior officers; there was a woordie-major, or Indian adjutant; with resseidars and ressaldars, and a ressaldar-major as the regiment’s senior Indian officer.154
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