Sepoys

In 1756 native troops trained by, and attached to, the British army (named sepoys) were issued red uniforms, which created a very effective esprit de corps, and European-standard training and weapons were introduced readily to these units. The British forces were clearly separated into three East India Company entities by this time: the Bombay, Madras, and Bengal Armies, each with its own command and responsibilities. Some British army units were also present in the country, but the proportion of Indian to European soldiers remained high; at the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 the Bengal Army consisted of approximately 225,000 Indians and 40,000 Europeans.

Three major factories were established in India: at Bengal on the northeastern coast, Madras near the tip of the subcontinent, and Bombay on the western coast. It was the men hired to protect these three trading centers that were to form the basis of the military force operated by “John Compa- ny” and that finally became the Indian army. Bengal’s first troops were an ensign and 30 men along with a gunner and his crew hired in the late seventeenth century. At Madras, the watchmen and security guards were the basis of the military unit headquartered there. Most of the men recruited into these small units were native Indians who served under the leadership of Englishmen, a practice that remained in effect until Indian independence in 1947.

John Company was not the first to hire local men, however, for the French (also trying to establish an economic presence in India) first conceived of the idea. As the ruling Mogul Empire was in its final days and power vacuums existed across India, the French and other Europeans learned that even a small force trained in European tactics, armed with European weapons, and led by European officers could defeat Indian armies vastly superior in number. The first large-scale armies, therefore, were private ones raised by local princes and sultans to protect their territory and expand at the expense of their neighbors. French, as well as English, officers officially and unofficially offered their services to local rulers, not only to profit personally but to give their respective countries a foothold in local politics. This would provide them with leverage in trade con- cessions as well as physically challenge other European competitors, like the East India Company.

In 1748, the first regular European force in British service was officially formed from the three fledgling units raised by the three factories. They had now, however, established themselves to such an extent that the British government set up local administrations under the direction of officials sent from London, and the result was the presidencies of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal. To show their interest in maintaining the strongest presence in India, and certainly to intimidate the French, the British government sent a regiment of the British Army to serve with John Company, the Thirty-ninth Regiment of Foot(infantry).

If the First Carnatic War had seen indigenous forces coming to the aid of Europeans, however ineffectively, the Second witnessed the renewal of European conflict in India through the vehicle of indigenous power struggles. It is both fitting and ironic, therefore, that the dates of the Second Carnatic War (1749-1754) lie between those of the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War (1755-1763). The death in 1748 of Nizam ul-Mulk, the nabob of Hyderabad, precipitated the Second Carnatic War. Taking advantage of the confused political situation, Chanda Sahib moved against the pro-British Nabob of Arcot, and with the aid of French forces under the Marquis Charles de Bussy, easily overthrew him. Chanda was then challenged by Mohammed Ali, the slain nabob’s son, who was in turn supported by the British. Through 1749 and 1750, Ali was supported by Nasir Jang, who had succeeded his father as nabob of Hyderabad. For his part, Chanda received the aid of Muzaffar Jang, Nasir’s son, who in 1750 succeeded as Nizam after the murder of his father.

As the bloodshed within the palaces seemed to settle, matters came to a climax on the battlefield. In September 1751, Chanda laid siege to Ali at Trichinopoly, supported by 1800 Frenchmen under de Bussy. It was clear that if Ali fell, British interest in the region went with him. Yet it was equally clear that the British lacked the resources to break the siege. Ali therefore urged that what forces were available be used to attack Chanda’s capital at Arcot, thus forcing him to lift the siege on Trichinopoly. On 22 August 1751, 200 Europeans, 300 sepoys, and three cannon, under the command of Robert Clive, set out from Madras. Arriving on 1 September, they found Arcot deserted by its garrison. It was not until 22 September that Chanda’s son, Raza Sahib, arrived with 4,000 men, plus 150 Frenchmen, and opened a 50-day siege that failed to drive Clive from the citadel.

The loss of his capital inflicted great damage to the prestige of Chanda and his French allies. It likewise encouraged the British to go on the offensive. On 3 December, Clive, commanding a force of European and native troops, defeated superior numbers under Raza at the hard-fought battle of Arni. Chanda’s forces were not entirely broken, however, and in February 1752 Raza besieged Madras. Though the British succeeded in holding the city, at Kaveripak (28 February) Clive only narrowly averted annihilation when his forces were ambushed by Raza. Despite this, it was only a matter of time before Chanda’s forces were forced to withdraw from Trichinopoly, and his French allies were forced to surrender to the British at Srirangam (4 June 1752).

Defeat at Srirangam meant the end for Chanda Sahib. Captured shortly after the battle, Chanda was summarily strangled and beheaded. Though fighting would continue intermittently for the next year, with the recall of Dupleix to France in August 1754 both companies quickly agreed to end the war.

The units raised by European officers now fought each other not just for the local influence of a ruling monarch, but for European influence as well. The key battle in this conflict in India was Plassey in 1757, when British- led forces under Robert Clive defeated French-led forces in an engagement that determined the European dominance of India for almost two centuries. Although this broke French power in India and led to the eventual total withdrawal of the French from the subcontinent, it marked the beginning of serious expansion of the military forces in India. Although foreign competition was banished, local resistance to British expansion was widespread. Even where the Indian rajahs or princes did not actively antagonize the British, the overriding view of John Company was that peace was good for business. That meant that if a prince in a territory adjacent to British- dominated lands was oppressing his people or waging war against his neighbors, then British intervention was necessary to maintain order. By maintaining order from one province to another, the British expanded their influence across most of India. Expansion was never the official policy of the British government: It “just happened.” Thus, through the end of the eighteenth century, the armies of the presidencies grew.

By 1795, a general reorganization was needed to set up the Company’s army along the same lines as that employed by the British Army. In that year, some 13,000 Europeans lived in India, both civilian and military, while 33,000 Indians served in the Company’s armed forces. Three separate commands were retained, but this move established a regular army, although still owned and operated by a private business. In Bengal, the forces consisted of three battalions of artillery, three battalions of British infantry, four regiments of native cavalry, and 12 regiments of native infantry. In Madras, two battalions of British infantry, two battalions of artillery, four regiments of native cavalry, and 11 regiments of native infantry made up the contingent. All the forces accepted recruits from across India, as well as some Afghans. The stigma of fighting against one’s own people was no obstacle to these men, for most of them were misfits or exiles. In many cases the recruits were of the lowest castes in Hindu society and viewed the army as the only way out of a hopeless future. Most of the native cavalry units were made up of refugees from the private armies of defeated princes. For all of them, the promise of regular food and pay was something they could not achieve any- where else. Moreover, as India was so divided among ethnic, religious, and political factions, rarely did one fight “one’s own people.”

The turn of the nineteenth century incited a new fervor in British administrators in India to grasp a firm hold on the subcontinent, as the rise of Napoleon in Europe threatened European interests worldwide. When Napoleon conquered a country in Europe, he immediately assumed control of all its colonies. This gave him opportunities to harass British colonies around the world. This, in turn, gave the British the excuse to “temporarily” occupy the colonies of other European nations, especially those of the Dutch in Africa and the Far East, in order to deny them to the French. Troops of the Company’s army in those years served for the first time outside of India, establishing a precedent that lasted through World War II. Within India, French agents roused independent aristocrats to challenge British power, and they found sympathetic ears in the province of Mysore and among the Mahratta Confederacy in central India. Under the direction of Marquis Wellesley, the Governor-General of the entire colony, British-Indian forces commanded by Wellesley’s brother, Arthur (soon to be- come Duke of Wellington), along with those under Commander-in-Chief General Lord Lake, soundly defeated the native forces arrayed against them and established British control in the middle of India in 1803-1804. This experience brought Arthur Wellesley not only valuable command experience but official notice, both of which resulted in his transfer to Spain and victory against Napoleon’s armies in Europe. Another war against the Mahrattas in 1817 destroyed the remaining pockets of discontent.

In the period of relative peace that followed, the Company’s army was once again reorganized, and the new table of organization showed a vast increase in its size. Of particular interest in this larger, reorganized force was a huge disparity between the numbers of Indian regiments and British regiments, with the Indian infantry regiments outnumbering the British by nearly 24 to 1. In spite of this fact, all the Indian regiments had British officers. Also of note was the introduction of Indians to units of artillery. This had been avoided up until this time, as the British did not wish to share that decisive technology. But the need for artillery had proven so important that Indian units were organized. However, when the Sepoy Rebellion broke out in 1857, the Company had reason to regret their new policy of inclusiveness. In that rebellion, Indian artillery units in the rebel forces caused such great harm to the British and loyal Indian units that one of the first changes made after the rebellion was to ban all Indian artillery forces.

Through the decades of the 1820s through the 1850s the Company’s army continued to grow and fight within India, maintaining order. Service in the military now was not just an escape for black sheep, but had become a respectable profession. It was the only organization in India, until the opening of the Civil Service to Indian employees, that took recruits from any background and mixed men of all social and religious standing. The only caste system inside the army was that of rank and of the British overlords and the Indian subordinates. As new provinces came un- der British control or influence, the best soldiers of that region were incorporated into the Company’s forces. The army grew to include Mahrattas after the two wars against them, Sikhs after the two wars against them, and Gurkhas after the war against them-all in the four decades prior to 1857. The armies of the three presidencies enlisted men from every region and ethnic group in India. Men of ethnic and religious diversity recruited from a particular region usually served together. Furthermore, the Indians were not only trained in European tactics and weaponry, but they also wore European uniforms. Prior to the Sepoy Rebellion, most of the Indians wore the same red coats and white pants as their British counterparts. Later they adopted a variety of impressive and colorful dress uniforms. It was also in India, among the frontier units, that soldiers first began to wear khaki, a cloth that would come to be part of military dress worldwide.

The army of the East India Company lasted until the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. By that time it numbered more than 311,000 Indian troops and just under 40,000 British troops, both regular army and Company soldiers.

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