Sahib, p.35Richard Holmes
‘No, sar! salam, sar! Main Mussulman hoon: makin ki sukta.!’ (I am a Moslem: I cannot eat.)
‘But ye are all a queer set of fishes, that ye are!’ exclaimed the disappointed soldier. ‘By the butt-end of my Brown Bess, what is it that ye will do?’
‘We go whome!’ replied a Sepoy; ‘go to camp. Roll-call feade got, we go, sar, salam, sar, salam.’26
Hervey believed that sepoys from Madras were not as strict in their religion as those from the other presidencies, and an old subadar once told him: ‘We put our religion into our knapsacks, sir, whenever our colours are unfurled, or where duty calls.’27 During the Mutiny, J. W. Sherer also found Madrassis a little more flexible:
The batteries in the entrenchment were very interesting, being worked by different races, one by Sikhs, one by Madrasees, and so on. I formed the acquaintance of one Madras artillery soldier. He was a little chap, but wiry and strong enough. He spoke English well, and was, I suppose, a Roman Catholic. He said: ‘You have never seen, I dare say, a native soldier like me. We are much nearer the English than the fellows up there. There is very little difference; we can eat any meat we choose, and drink wine.’ ‘And fight, I suppose?’ I said; ‘the English are thought to be very fond of fighting.’ ‘Oh fight,’ he cried, ‘I should think so. We are just like the English over again, only a different colour.’28
Sometimes such a warm relationship was forged between British and Indian units that even the requirements of caste and religion proved no barrier to comradeship. During the Second Sikh War the British 14th Light Dragoons and Indian 5th Light Cavalry became so close that when Gough presented the 5th with 500 rupees in approbation of their behaviour they spent it on giving a dinner to the 14th. Lord Dalhousie recorded in his diary that: ‘Their religion forbade their partaking of it themselves, but they stood by, superin-tending the feast, and literally dispensing their hospitality to their guests. When such is the feeling, troops will do anything and everything.’29 In Afghanistan in 1842 some cattle were given to the 35th BNI to supplement their rations, but they at once declared that ‘meat was not as necessary for them as for their white brethren’ and begged that the animals should go instead to their comrades in Robert Sale’s brigade, HM’s 13th Light Infantry, ‘between whom and themselves there existed a romantic friendship which ought not to be forgotten’.30 At the siege of Lucknow, the 93rd Highlanders formed a strong bond with men of 4th Punjab, and the Gurkha Kumaon battalion became so fond of HM’s 60th Rifles that its men asked to wear some token of their brothers in the 60th, and it was said that ‘the 2nd Gurkhas are very proud of the little red line in their facings’.
There is nothing inherently puzzling in the contradictory views expressed by contemporaries on the fighting quality of Indian soldiers. Battlefield performance was in part circumstantial. Sepoy regiments were not at their best in the Sikh Wars, and the agonies of the Mutiny did not encourage measured judgements. Henry Lawrence uttered a general truth, as applicable to British as to Indian soldiers, when he affirmed that courage went very much by opinion, and men tended to behave, either as heroes or as cowards, as they were expected to behave. Pride and self-confidence – izzat in the Indian context – mattered a great deal. So too did good leadership. Garnet Wolseley thought that the British soldier was ‘a magnificent fighter when he is well led. But he must be well led … ’.31 It is often easy, in the context of imperial soldiering, to suggest that this necessarily meant brave leadership, and to imply that this could not be obtained locally: that sepoys could be turned into good soldiers but required ‘men of an alien race’ to lead them.
But there was certainly no deficiency in the bravery of many Indian leaders. Nazir Khan, one of the leaders of the Mutiny, was treated by his captors with a savagery which the dreadful events of 1857 can explain but never excuse. A British officer told how:
that pukka scoundrel Nazir Khan was brought into camp bound hand and foot upon a charpoy. No wild beast could have attracted more attention. He was for ever being surrounded by soldiers who were stuffing him with pork and covering him with insults. He was well flogged and his person exposed, which he fought against manfully, and then hung, but as usual the rope was too weak and down he fell and broke his nose; before he recovered his senses he was strung up again and made an end of. He died game, menacing a soldier who rubbed up his nose with, ‘If I had a tulwar in my hand you would not dare do so.’32
What did undermine the effectiveness of Indian armies was not the individual capacities or courage of the warrior but more the collective qualities of discipline and cohesion. During the Mutiny, whatever their feelings about enemy sepoys, British officers often remarked that although they often manoeuvred badly, they fought bravely as individuals: ‘many of the enemy stood to the last and received the charge with musket and sword,’ wrote Daly of one little action. ‘They were sabred or shot.’33 The fugitives from a broken force would often stand and fight to the last when the pursuit caught up with them. Lieutenant C. J. Griffiths fought at Delhi, and affirmed that:
It speaks well for the prowess of the mutineers, and proves that we had no contemptible foe to deal with, that so many sorties and attacks were made by them during the siege. They amounted in all to thirty-six – all of them being regularly organised actions and assaults – besides innumerable others on isolated pickets and advanced posts. They seldom came to close quarters with us, and then only when surprised, but nothing could exceed their persistent courage in fighting every day, and though beaten on every occasion with frightful loss, returning over and over again to renew the combat.34
The same was true on, and beyond, the North-West Frontier. At Charasia in Afghanistan in 1879, twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant Ian Hamilton, who did not let the fact that he was actually an infantry officer, in the Gordon Highlanders, prevent him from leading a troop of 5th Punjab Cavalry, found that when the Afghan army was broken its survivors remained dangerous.
It was in ‘the cavalry pursuit’ … that I first learnt that the sword is no good against an Afghan lying on his back twirling a heavy knife. The dust clouds of the Chardeh Valley – the 5th Punjab Cavalry – red pugarees – blue swords flashing; the galloping line, and I also galloping with that sensation of speed which the swiftest motor car can never impart … Afghans in little knots, or else lying on their backs whirling their big knives so as to cut off the legs of our horses, a hell of a scrimmage in fact, until the sowars got to work in couples, one with sword uplifted, the other pulling his carbine out of the bucket and making the enemy spring to their feet to be cut down or be shot as they lay.35
British officers and men on the frontier always ran the risk of assassination by men who were prepared to get close enough to make certain of their shot or knife-thrust. When Francis Yeats-Brown joined the 17th Cavalry at Bannu in 1905, one of the first things he was told was that:
a fanatic had murdered our Brigade Major … The ghazi hid in some crops by the roadside, waiting for the General, presumably, who was leading a new battalion into cantonments. The General dropped behind for a moment, so the Brigade Major, who was riding at the head of the troops, received the load of buckshot intended for his chief. It hit him in the kidneys and killed him instantly.36
Colonel Valentine Blacker, who fought the Marathas in the Deccan, believed that discipline and cohesion were the key factors that enabled small British armies to beat bigger Indian ones time and time again. His point is valid for much of military history, and is just as appropriate for Macedonian cavalry crashing into Persian foot soldiers as for a regiment of the Company’s cavalry charging a glittering cloud of Marathas.
The sheer size of a large body of Maratha horse prevents the attack of a small but compact corps from being otherwise than partially parried, and, as an equal front of an irregular body can never stand such a shock, the part menaced must give way. The body is then broken, and each part acts on the principle of avoiding exposure to the sole brunt of the action, while the part immediately attacked flies. Did the rem
It was, therefore, no want of individual courage which produced the misbehaviour of the enemy, but the apprehension, however paradoxical it may appear, of being obliged to contend against odds. Our cavalry were too few in number to attempt the experiment of loose skirmishing. If that had been tried it would soon be found that these horse, now so despicable a body, would be formidable in detail.37
In 1857 a native officer of the 4th Punjab Cavalry claimed that British officers were essential to his comrades, telling Fred Roberts: ‘Sir, we fight well but we do not understand military arrangements.’38 A recent reflection on the outcome of the Mutiny draws the same conclusions: ‘fighting morale was nine-tenths organisation and only one part courage. As such they were embodied in the British officer corps.”39
One of the things that made both the Marathas and the Sikhs so formidable as opponents was the fact that both had been taught ‘military arrangements’ by their foreign advisers, many of whom had formerly been in the Company’s or HM’s service. Some were not a great deal of use. Robert Dick, illegitimate son of Major General Sir Robert Dick, who was killed at Sobraon, had held a commission in the Gwalior forces, and then been a local lieutenant in Skinner’s Horse, which he left (or from which, perhaps, he was dismissed) in 1831. In 1834 he was commanding a small force for the amirs of Sind, but fell out with his second in command, a subadar.
The subadar, Behari Lal, and Mr Dick are constantly fighting and abusing each other, and in consequence Mr Dick has been given orders to reside at Kutri, on the opposite bank of the river. He and the subadar constantly abuse each other, even in durbar, and sometimes fire guns across the river.40
Dick died of a combination of drink and fever in 1835.
Matthew Ford, paymaster of HM’s 16th Foot, fled across the Sutlej in 1837 when he got into a muddle with his accounts. Court-martialled in absentia, he was cashiered and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, but Ranjit Singh, despite British protests, gave him a battalion to command. Alas, he was no luckier with soldiers than he had been with rupees. His battalion soon mutinied in Hazara, and he was mortally wounded.
Others proved far more valuable. Captain John Harvey Bellasis had been in the Company’s engineers, but was then ‘impelled by pecuniary embarrassments to retrieve his fortunes in the service of the native princes’ – in his case a Maratha chieftain – and died bravely commanding a band of troops – the ‘forlorn hope’ – in the storm of Sounda. ‘Thus fell poor Bellasis,’ lamented a brother officer, ‘an ornament to society and an honour to his nation.’41
In about 1810 a traveller reported that:
At Sujanpur I was met by Mr O’Brien, an Irishman in the Raja’s service. Mr O’Brien is a strong, stout man, about 40 years of age, and was a dragoon in the 8th, or Royal Irish. It is said that, having gone on guard without some of his accoutrements, he was reprimanded by the officer, and on his replying insolently, the officer struck, or touched him with his cane. O’Brien knocked him down with the butt end of his carbine, and then put spurs to his horse and galloped off. Not daring to return to his regiment, he wandered about the country for some time, and at last found service with Sansor Chand, for who he has established a factory for small arms and raised and disciplined a force of 1,400 men.
There is also an Englishman named James in Sansor Chand’s service. He has been a soldier, but denies ever having been employed in either the king’s or the Company’s service in India. He is illiterate with some practical skill in gunnery. Both these men are of use to the Raja and might be more, but there means are limited, and their habits not of the most temperate description.42
James, who appears as ‘James Sahib, Feringhi’ in contemporary accounts, was almost certainly James Shepherd, who had jumped ship in Calcutta. After falling out with O’Brien, he entered Ranjit Singh’s service, where he commanded an artillery brigade. He died in 1825, and his brigade was taken over by another Englishman, William Leigh. A British soldier of fortune called Jones was instrumental in enabling Ranjit to take the fort of Kharpur near Multan: ‘The defence was most obstinate and the attack threatened to end, like all former ones, in failure, when an adventurer named Jones, in the Sikh service, took charge of the guns, advanced them up to the citadel and breached it, enabling the Akalis to storm.’43
Another adventurer, Gordon or Carron by name, commanded a brigade of cavalry in Ranjit’s service.
The men were dressed in red jackets and pantaloons and had red puggeries. They were good looking men and well mounted. The horses were also in good order. The first regiment had sabres and carbines slung in the usual manner along the right side and thigh. The 2nd Regiment was dressed and accoutred in the same manner but with matchlocks instead of carbines. The two regiments were commanded by Mr Gordon, a half-caste in the Raja’s service. After the review he came up and saluted the Raja and said something about the long arrears due to his men. He was told that pay would be issued soon.44
Gordon was dismissed after a row with Ranjit in 1832 (we may surmise that pay lay at the bottom of the dispute) but was soon reinstated, and was killed at Jumrood, at the foot of the Khyber Pass, in 1833.
Without doubt, however, the most important foreigners in the Sikh service were not British, but were Jean François Allard, Claude Auguste Court, Jean Baptiste Ventura and the inimitable Paolo di Avitabile, who had left the Neapolitan militia in 1815 and become first a trader and then a soldier of fortune. Avitabile was a hard man, though he possessed what passed for a sense of humour. Ranjit sent him six well-connected thieves to whom he felt obliged to show forbearance, and told Avitabile to be sure that they did not escape. They were hanged within the hour.
The Maharajah sent for Avitabile in high wrath; all his friends trembled for him, and when he appeared before Ranjit, he was asked how he had dared to hang six Sikhs who had been given into his safe keeping. Avitabile answered that he thought it was the surest means of preventing their escape, and obeying the Maharaja’s command. The king laughed at this answer; the event was not further taken notice of.
The Sikh who told us the story seemed to think it a good joke, and all the people regard him with reverence.45
Appointed Governor of Peshawar, Avitabile immediately set up gallows. He hanged ‘fifty of the worst characters in Peshawar’ overnight, and, he wrote, ‘I repeated the exhibition every day till I had made a scarcity of brigands and murderers.’
Although some foreign adventurers sought to sever all connections with the land of their birth, others regarded their national origin as important as their current military obligation. In 1800, Major General Wellesley was trying to corner that vexatious free-booter Dhoondiah Waugh, self-styled ‘Lord of the Two Worlds’. The river separating Mysore from Maratha territory provided a potential refuge, and so Wellesley wrote to the local Maratha commander:
Doondiah Waugh is now on the south bank of the river; his object is evidently to cross it and avoid the troops under my command. It is in your power to prevent this … As I understand you are an Englishman, I address you in English, and I shall be obliged if you will let me know what steps you intend to take with a view to compliance with the wish when I have an opportunity of mentioning your services to the British government and to that of Poona.
Colonel Robert Sutherland (actually a Scot cashiered from HM’s 74th Foot) replied that ‘though circumstances have placed me under the direction of a native prince, I still consider myself bound by every principle of honour … to watch for every opportunity of rendering service to my fellow-countrymen … ’. He had told his subordinate, Captain Brownrigg, to arrange matters so as ‘to render most service to the common cause’.46 On 10 September, Arthur Wellesley caught Dhoondiah, who could not now cross the river, and charged him with two regiments o
In August 1803, a British colonel noted that Brownrigg, by then a major, ‘is attached to Colonel Dudrenc’s brigade and in fact commands it, he being a very active good soldier whereas the colonel has not a military idea’.48 Brownrigg entered the Company’s service that year, and was killed in 1818 at the siege of Sirsa. Robert Sutherland had already left Maratha service. Another Maratha officer was Colonel William Henry Tone, brother of the Irish patriot Theobald Wolf Tone. He had served in the Company’s army and then spent some time in Europe before his father was ruined by a law suit and he took service with the Marathas, where he was reported to be ‘as brave as Caesar and devoted to soldiering’. He was killed in 1802.
Majors Vickers, Dodd and Ryan flatly refused to serve against their fellow countrymen in the Second Maratha War. They were beheaded, and their heads were stuck on pikes outside Jaswant Rao Holkar of Indore’s tent. Most other British officers serving the Marathas accepted the government’s offer of compensation if they left Maratha service: Captain Hyder Hearsey, one of George Thomas’s former officers, accepted 800 rupees for doing so. Major Louis Ferdinand Smith claimed that by leaving the Marathas:
I have lost the hopes of an independent fortune, which I would have acquired from my rank, the result of my long service … We should have been wanting in principle, and in duty to our country, had we continued to serve its enemies.
He acknowledged, however, ‘the liberal provisions’ made to British officers who had quitted Maratha service. But he might have spared a rueful thought for his brother, Captain Emilius Felix Smith, who had left HM’s 36th Foot to serve with him, only to fall mortally wounded in 1801. He died after asking: ‘Ah, why did I not fall on the plains of Egypt with my regiment. I should then have died without regret.’49
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