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Thursday, 28 April 2016

A British Army for the First Sikh War


The four pillars of British rule in India were control of the economy, military discipline, fire power and political intrigue.  Before we move on to military considerations we can note a little about the economy and intrigue.

The wealth extracted from India by the Company was colossal. The control of the Company was entrusted to members of the British elite who moved seamlessly (mainly) between Government and Company and back again. The tension between General Sir Hugh Gough a valued and proven military commander (an old Peninsular man) and Governor General Sir Henry Hardinge (also a Napoleonic Veteran) an actual member of the elite was informed by that reality.

From the time of Plassey political intrigue had been a major element in British sub-continent military operations.  In India’s shifting kaleidoscope of loyalties key elements of the opposition forces could be bought off before the decisive clash. 

As we learn from Sir Richard Burton’s diaries this had, on the eve of the Sikh War, been done to enable the conquest of Scinde.  It is therefore surprising to note the hostile and contemptuous post war attitude of British officers towards the Sikh generals who did so much to enable a British victory in the Punjab.

British military might on the sub-continent relied on the Company’s army and various Queens regiments posted to India as part of the garrison.  For major campaigns irregular troops, mostly cavalry would be signed up. Ghurkhas were of course already highly valued auxiliaries.

The shadow of the Duke still hung around the army.  Senior staff had often served under him, infantry formed square to repulse cavalry and the sight of the French tricolour at the head of the Sikh infantry must have jolted a few memories.  A couple of volley’s and at them with the bayonet was still a military reality.



At the end of the war much criticism was made of Gough’s “Tipperary tactics”.  When Gough said it was better the army all died than it retreats, it was cited as evidence of his limitations as a military leader.  Yet Sir Colin Campbell said much the same about the retreat of the Guards in the Crimea.




I’m inclined to think Gough knew exactly what he was doing. General Sir Hugh “Paddy” Gough was an Anglo Irishman and as such I think he knew just how tenuous the Company’s hold on India was. The sight of a British army running away from the Khalsa might well have been the beginning of the end.  A British army fighting to the last man was a different matter.

By the time of the Sikh War the old British way of life in India was passing away and a racially defined muscular Christian society was taking its place.  The old Colonel with his chillum pipe and Indian wife or even wives was becoming a figure of fun. 



These attitudes impacted upon the military. The Queen’s regiments were regarded as superior to the Company’s white regiments who in turn were deemed superior to the Sowars and Sepoys of the native regiments.  

Such categorization, and it extended to the relative seniority of white officers, had little foundation in reality. Company officers and troops often had much more experience of active service than their equivalents in the Queen’s regiments. A study of the career of the very capable General Nott, a Company officer, is very instructive in this regard.


Accordingly, we won’t be using that tripartite division of military assets here, rather the starting point will be that the British Army in India in its entirety was a good professional army.

5 comments:

  1. Great post OB, the Bengal Cavalry.....are they actually Bengal cav figures, if so who makes them?

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  2. Thanks Ray, ahem... I'm afraid I'm going to have to kick the office boy.

    The boys in the picture are Madras cavalry and they are QRF. The Bengal cavalry who we'll meet next time are also QRF codes HI39 and 40 from the Maharatta and Sikh Wars range.

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  3. That is the problem with QRF - when they took over Freikorps they re-catalogued the figures by topic rather than date, so in the Indian wars you have troops from all over the sub-continent and throughout the first half of the century - in fact, longer! So, unless you have a pretty good grasp of what the soldiers looked like, it's quite possible to end up with the wrong armies jumbled up together.

    ReplyDelete
  4. That is the problem with QRF - when they took over Freikorps they re-catalogued the figures by topic rather than date, so in the Indian wars you have troops from all over the sub-continent and throughout the first half of the century - in fact, longer! So, unless you have a pretty good grasp of what the soldiers looked like, it's quite possible to end up with the wrong armies jumbled up together.

    ReplyDelete