Sahib, p.34Richard Holmes
Fighting in India was not simply European war writ slightly differently. Its logistic challenges were immense, and only commanders who had a thorough understanding of supply in an unforgiving landscape could hope to succeed. Indeed, the logistic apprenticeship served in Mysore and the Deccan by Major General Arthur Wellesley was fundamental to his military education. There is a good case for saying that the battle of Waterloo was won, not on the playing fields of Eton (a place young Arthur had hated in any case), but on the plains of India. In January 1803, when he was planning his advance into Maratha territory, a long memorandum went into deep but essential detail:
For the European troops, 90,000 of salted meat will be required, also packed in kegs well fortified, 45 lbs in each keg, besides pickle, &c; and the same quantity of biscuits in round baskets, containing 60 lbs each; these baskets to be covered with waxed cloth. Slaughter cattle for 3,000 Europeans for one month, would likewise be useful …
In respect to food for our horses, I am afraid that that which they use is not procurable at Bombay, viz coulthee [one type of horse fodder]; but if coulthee is procurable, there ought to be 150 garces of grain in the depot; if not, an equal quantity of chenna [another type of horse fodder] …
Medical stores – we ought to have a 3 month’s consumption of these for 3,000 Europeans and 15,000 native troops, particularly bark, Madeira wine, mercurial ointment, calomel, and not forgetting nitric acid.8
Even when troops were actually on operations, terrain, climate and disease consistently inflicted more casualties than enemy fire, as Ensign Garnet Wolseley saw in 1858, when infantry advanced in column across an arid landscape beneath a pitiless Oudh sun.
The result was a most disastrous march, during which the men in the centres of these quarter columns absolutely stifled for want of air and the dense dust they inhaled, fell out by dozens, whilst the enemy’s cavalry, sweeping round our flanks, fell upon our dhoolies, already filled with soldiers in every phase of sunstroke. I regret to say the enemy’s sowars killed many of them, decapitating several of them as they lay in an unconscious state …
They seemed to know that they could no more stand against our men than our men could stand the heat …
It was the British soldier’s sheer endurance in the face of natural adversity that most affected Wolseley:
How my heart bled for him as I saw him trudge along, mile after mile, through dense clouds of dust over a parched and burnt-out country. What an uncomplaining fellow he is! In all my campaigning he stands out as that which I am proudest of, and as the character in the great play of my soldier-career that I admire most.9
The rules of war, often generally understood (if not always obeyed) by European adversaries even before their formal codification in the Geneva and Hague conventions, rarely applied in India. In September 1781, Sergeant Dempster, fifteen private soldiers, and two boy drummers of HM’s 73rd Foot were forcibly circumcised by Hyder Ali’s jailers, and for years Hyder’s son and successor Tipu thoughtfully kept selected victims chained to pillars in a dungeon which flooded regularly. Shortly before his capital of Seringapatam was stormed, Tipu had captives of HM’s 33rd Foot killed by having spikes hammered into their skulls.10 A surgeon and some British gunners captured by the Marathas in the defeat of Colonel William Monson’s column in 1804 were brought before the Maratha chief Holkar, who was ‘intoxicated with victory and cherry-brandy’. When they declined to enter his service, ‘he ordered their hands to be smashed to atoms with the wooden mallets used for driving tent-pegs’.11 Although some British officers regarded their opponents on the North-West Frontier as ‘noble savages’, both sides routinely killed the wounded and Kipling’s advice that a hard-hit man should shoot himself and so ‘go to your God like a soldier’ showed a keen appreciation of the refined cruelties often inflicted on prisoners.
BROTHERS IN ARMS?
ONE OF TWO BROAD PRINCIPLES that dominated warfare in India across the period was that because the British soldier would always be a minority in British-Indian armies, India could neither be won nor held without sepoys.
The behaviour of the sepoy was often closely linked to the attitude of his employer, the example set by his officers, and the performance of British troops around him. Contemporary assessments of the fighting value of Indian soldiers varied radically, and would often reflect the commentator’s own military background. War correspondent William Russell discussed the issue with General Sir Colin Campbell and his chief of staff, Major General Mansfield – both Queen’s officers – at Lucknow in March 1858. Both declared that they had always had a poor opinion of sepoys.
God forgive me, it was the only time I ever wilfully lent myself to an untruth in my life, when I expressed myself satisfied with their conduct. Why did our officers lend themselves to such deceit? It is a long answer to an embarrassing question. It was ‘the mode’; more than that, an officer would be persecuted, hunted down and ruined, who dared tell the truth. I am assured that, in the old days, a Queen’s officer who ventured to express an opinion that the discipline of a sepoy regiment was not perfect would be insulted till he was forced to fight, and then had a host of enemies ready to put him under the sod with a bullet or stab him with their pens in the Indian press, which was quite dependent on the services, with a few exceptions, of volunteer writers and correspondents.12
Similarly, after the battle of Ferozeshah, Nathaniel Bancroft of the Bengal Artillery, struggling back wounded, expressed his dismay at the sight of:
hundreds of Native soldiers (unwounded) who had apparently no taste for the hard work of going on in front, and were marching to Ferozepore, amusing themselves as they marched by firing their ammunition in the air. On our march were seen one or two wells, and the sepoys freely indulging in refreshing draughts of water easily obtained by them with their bundles of cordage and their lotahs, but they positively refused to give the unfortunate Europeans on the elephants a drink unless they paid for it! The writer not being in possession of the quid pro quo – in other words, having nothing to give – both himself and his horse had to go without.13
Some British officers, whilst not commenting adversely on their Indian comrades, nevertheless damned them with faint praise. Arthur Wellesley’s report on the battle of Assaye referred several times to his British troops. While there is no doubt that the performance of the British here was admirable, it was equally clear that without Company’s troops there would have been no battle and no victory and, as we have just seen from his planning figures, his Indian contingent was five times bigger than the European element of his force. One of the few eyewitness accounts of Assaye, written by an unknown officer, gives the laurels of the decisive cavalry charge to Indian regiments. And well he might, for there was only a single British cavalry regiment, HM’s 19th Light Dragoons, in the battle.14
In sharp contrast, other officers were devoted to the sepoys. In 1834 Albert Hervey, an officer of the Madras army, wrote:
Behold the sepoy in the field, on the line of march, in the siege, on board a ship! – in any position, he is still the soldier. How patient under privations! How enduring of fatigue! How meek and submissive under control or correction! How fiery in action! How bold in enterprise! How zealous in the performance of his duty! How faithful to his trust! How devotedly attached to his officers and colours.
The more I saw of the sepoys the more I liked them: those of the—th particularly; they were a fine body of men and seemed to be very fond of their officers. Such smart fellows, so well dressed and set up, and so handy with their weapons.15
In 1846 Henry Lawrence told his daughter that: ‘I have now several times seen European troops under fire with sepoys alongside of them, and, believe me, the more I see of sepoys the more I like them; properly disciplined, they are the best troops in the world. Some John Bulls would hang me for saying this.’16 Arthur Lang, a Bombay engineer who saw a good deal of war’s hard edge, thought that soldiers of the Corps of Guides:
fought beautifully. They never throw a
British men (and women too) found they had particular favourites amongst the Indians. Surgeon Home most admired the Sikhs. When he was marching on Lucknow with Havelock, his horse got stuck in a nullah swollen by recent rains.
Happily, before the turbulent torrent became too deep and impetuous, several of ‘Brayser’s Sikhs’ came to my aid. Two of them dashed in and quickly found a place at which we could clamber out. Everyone knows what splendid soldiers real Sikhs, the ‘Khalsa Log’, make, and how invaluable their services in the Mutiny were; but not many know how readily and how courteously their services were given in acts of kindness, like that stated above – ‘it was their nature to’.18
Lieutenant Griffiths regarded the Sikhs as ‘the beau-ideal of soldiers. Tall and erect in bearing, wiry and well-knit, and of great muscular development, their whole appearance stamps them as men who look upon themselves as “lords of the soil”, whom it would be difficult to conquer.’19 Captain Mackenzie had returned to camp after a sharp action in the Mutiny, and:
had no sooner placed before my tent the doolie in which lay the body of my poor orderly than his father, a fine old Sikh, who was also a sowarin the regiment, and who having remained in camp on that occasion, was in complete ignorance of our losses, came up to me with a smile on his handsome old face to ask after his son. My heart was too full to speak. I could only point to the doolie, the curtains of which were closed. Lifting one of them up, he looked in and knew his bereavement. The proud old soldier set his face hard, drew himself up, saluted me and said: ‘My son’s “nokri” (service) is over. Let me take his place. I will be your orderly now Sahib.’ I am not ashamed to say that this touching act of simple, unaffected Spartan fortitude completely unmanned me.20
Arthur Lang held the Punjabis in high regard, and considered it remarkable how they in turn got on so well with the Scots.
The Punjabis fraternise with them mostly, and delight in the pipes. As I walked home from mess last night after the pipers had finished playing I found knots of mingled Hielanders and Sikhs and Afghans each jabbering away in his own language, not in the least understood by one another, but great friends, one going on ‘Weel, weel, and ‘Hoot mon’ and the other ‘Hamne Matadeenko kub mara [I killed lots of Mata Deens]’ and so on; a great shaven-headed Pathan would be trying on a Hieland bonnet … 21
Violet Jacob, a Scotswoman married to an Irish officer in the 20th Hussars, wrote from Mhow in 1895, clearly impressed by the physiques and sheer dandyism of some Punjabi soldiers:
I wish you could see the Punjabi Mohammedans belonging to the native infantry regiment [probably 20th BoNI] here as they go walking about, sometimes hand in hand, and often accompanied by their tame partridges which they take out walking as if they were dogs. They keep them for fighting, as Englishmen used to keep gamecocks, and the birds run after them like little well-brought up terriers; when one had had enough exercise his master, who is carrying the cage dangling from a ring on his finger, picks him up and puts him back in it as a nurserymaid in Kensington Gardens … These Punjabis are grand-looking men, generally tall and brawny, with high cheek-bones and gold rings in their ears. They are more of a walnut than a mahogany brown and many of them are not much darker than a dark Englishman; they are the most masculine looking creatures I have ever seen and, oddly enough, their earrings and the straight petticoat they wear reaching their ankles makes them look more masculine still, as they accentuate their bold faces and their stride. For looks they beat any race of men I have ever seen, especially when they are clean-shaved. I really must stop this rigmarole now … 22
There was absolutely no question that Indian soldiers could fight hard, regardless of whose side they were on. The experienced Lord Lake conceded after his victory at Laswari that:
all the sepoys of the enemy behaved very well, and had they been commanded by their French officers the result would have been very doubtful. I never was in so serious a business in my life, or anything like it. The gunners stood to their guns until killed by the bayonet. These fellows fight like devils, or rather heroes.23
There are few better examples to illustrate the potential fighting qualities of the sepoys than the action at Koregaum on 1 January 1818. On the previous day Captain Staunton of the Bombay army had been told to march to the assistance of Colonel Burr, forty-one miles away, who was in danger of being swamped by the Marathas. Staunton set off with 400 men of 1st Battalion 1st Bombay Regiment, 250 newly raised irregular horse, and two 6-pounder guns with European gunners and Indian drivers and gun lascars. The little force covered twenty-seven miles during the night, and was preparing to camp for the heat of the day, when the main Maratha army, almost 30,000 strong, was sighted. Staunton hoped to hold the stone-built houses of the village of Koregaum, but both sides reached the village at the same time and there was ferocious close-range fighting.
That evening the Marathas offered terms: the four surviving British gunners might have accepted, but Staunton and his sepoys swore to fight to the last man. Even the seven unwounded gun lascars, normally regarded as labourers rather than combatants, manned one of the guns when all its British gunners were dead or wounded. At last they cleared the village and were able to draw water from its well. The Marathas drew off the following day, probably because they had heard that Burr’s force was on its way. The infantry had lost one hundred and fifty-five killed and wounded, and the cavalry ninety. Amongst the British officers only Staunton, a subaltern and the doctor were unwounded, and just four gunners survived unhurt. The survivors marched to the nearest garrison, and halted outside to dress their ranks before marching in with drums beating and colours flying.
And there was equally no doubt that Indian soldiers were prepared to work hard under the most arduous conditions. Lieutenant W. G. L. Benyon of 1st Battalion 3rd Gurkha Rifles was principal staff officer to the tiny force, based on 34th Pioneers, which trekked across from Gilgit to Chitral in 1895 and actually relieved the besieged outpost before the arrival of the main division trundling up from the south. When it seemed impossible to get their two mule-borne mountain guns across the 13,000-foot Shandur Pass in deep snow, the Indian officers declared that the men would carry them, and when Lieutenant Benyon arrived:
the guns, wheels, carriages, and ammunition had been told off to different squads, about four men carrying the load at a time, and being relieved by a fresh lot every fifty yards or so. Even thus the rate of progression was fearfully slow, about one mile an hour, and the men were continually sinking up to their waists in snow. Added to this, there was a bitter wind, and a blinding glare, while the men were streaming with perspiration … Nothing, I think, can be said too highly in praise of this splendid achievement.
Here were two hundred and fifty men, Hindus and Mussulmans, who, working shoulder to shoulder, had brought two mountain guns, with their carriages and a supply of ammunition, across some twenty miles of deep, soft snow … at the beginning of April, the worst time of the year. It must also be remembered that these men were carrying their own rifles, greatcoats and eighty rounds of ammunition … 24
Unfortunately some British found it hard to grasp aspects of Indian culture. Despite his own experience of India, Bancroft had neglected an important truth. Many sepoys were high-caste Brahmins, to whom ritual
British soldiers often failed to understand the fundamentals or significance of caste, or looked upon it as a ridiculous superstition, and this certainly obstructed good relations between British and Indian soldiers. Albert Hervey saw the light company of a British battalion scamper past his own exhausted men ‘in real soldier-like style, some of them shaking hands with the sepoys as they went by, giving them a hearty “How are ye my boy Jack Sapay, how are you?” at the same time’. But although Hervey’s regiment later enjoyed a good game of cricket with a British battalion, the tea afterwards was rather less successful:
‘Come along, boys, and take a bit of something to eat and a glass of beer!’
‘No sar! No can eat, no drink!’ Replied a havildar of ours.
‘Arrah, honey!’ exclaimed an Irish grenadier, ‘we’ll take no excuses, ye shall have a raal drop of the crater, too! Come along!’
‘No, sir! I Hindoo mans! I neber drink! I lose caste ‘spose I take the rack!’
‘Well, thin, lave the drink! Come in and take something to eat; do that now, there’s a darlint, Jack Sapoy that ye are.’
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