Sepoy Perceptions about EEIC Military Effectiveness


The Bengal Army was the brain child of Lord Clive’s military genius. The Bengal sepoys related to each other by blood relationship and caste bonds had served the EEIC for some 100 years when they rebelled in 1857. These men had a very close contact with the British and had observed them from very close quarters. Any neutral and unbiased account of the events of 1857 clearly proves that the Britisher as an officer was never disliked by the sepoys. As an officer who served in Pakistan Army I can state with conviction that the British provided excellent leadership to the Indians. They definitely knew how to lead and inspire the Indian, leading them from the forefront which I am afraid few of at least our native post 1947. Generals did either in Burma or in 1965 or in 1971. The sepoy admired and revered the British officer. In 1857 he was rebelling against the system instituted by the EEIC. Against policies formulated by men constituting a board of directors in far off England. The greasing of cartridges with pig or cow fat similarly was also an administrative decision. The sepoy perceived the British officer as a fair and brave leader and many British officers reciprocated these feelings. One of the British commanding officer committed suicide when his native infantry regiment was disbanded. Many others resisted disbandment of their units. One troop of 3rd Light Cavalry the most crucial unit of Bengal Army Sepoys as a matter of fact loyally fought for the British in 1857.

It appears, however, that sepoy perceptions about EEIC military effectiveness changed from absolute faith in the invincibility of the EEIC as a military machine to skepticism from 1804 to 1857. Before we proceed further we must state that the first major reverse or defeat which the EEIC suffered in India was in 1780 at the hands of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan who were heading forces whose fighting Hector Munro and Baillie in 1780 were defeated in a manner which was described by Fortes Cue the official historian of the British army in the following words, “The blunders had been flagrant and from a military point of view, Munro must be held solely responsible for one of the greatest calamities that has ever befallen the British arms”469. But this happened with the Madras Army. The Bengal Army sepoy realized for the first time in 1804 that the that EEIC was not invincible. This happened while dealing with the Mahrattas and not the Afghans who came much later. In 1804 five battalions of sepoys and about 3000 irregular horse left by the C in C Bengal Army Lord Lake to keep the Mahratta Holkar in check under the command of Colonel Monsoon were forced to make a disastrous retreat from Central India to Agra470. The results of this reverse were short term since Lord Lake immediately assumed personal command and defeated the Mahrattas. However, the harm had been done and the myth of invincibility of the EEIC as far as the Bengal Army was concerned was challenged for the first time. Monsoon’s retreat was followed by a much more serious reverse which for many years shattered the EEIC myth of invincibility. This happened at Bhurtpore, the Hindu Jat fortress which is the only fort in British Indian history which a British army in India failed in a siege to capture. Leading the EEIC army in this case was a man of no less a stature than Lord Lake who had previously captured Delhi and destroyed Mahratta power in North India in battle of Laswari. (It must be remembered that  Panipat – 1761 checked the Mahrattas, but this was temporary since within few years they recaptured Delhi. It was at Laswari on 01 Nov. 1803 that one European infantry regiment and a couple of Bengal Army Regiments composed of roughly 3/4 Hindu soldiers and 1/4 Hindustani Muslims destroyed the Mahratta Army) 471. In 1805 Lake failed to capture Bhurtpore. He made a first assault in January 1805 but failed to capture the fort. The British troops became so demoralised that the three European regiments i.e. HM 75 Foot, HM 76 Foot and the 1st Bengal Europeans refused orders to attack and withdrew 472! Almost a thousand casualties were suffered but repeated British assaults were repulsed. At last on 24 February Lord Lake withdrew his army from Bhurtpore. Subsequently, the Hindu Jat Raja sued for peace in 1805 due to reasons of political expediency; but the fact remained that militarily this Hindu Jat Raja had not been defeated! The EEIC never forgot this defeat and later on they did capture Bhurtpore but this was much later i.e. on 18 January 1826. The force used at Bhurtpore this time was larger than the one the EEIC used to recapture Kabul in September 1842473 in the first Afghan War. Another reverse which the EEIC suffered was in the Nepal war of 1814-16. Here their initial advance into Nepal was repulsed. Nepal was subsequently defeated using the Bengal Sepoys but again the harm had been done. The sepoy’s confidence in the British officer was a little shaken. The EEIC retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad in the first Afghan war was not a big disaster keeping in view the numbers involved. There were only 700 Europeans in some 5000 troops in the weak and Stan brigade which withdrew from Kabul in January 1842 and which was destroyed by an overwhelming force of some 30,000 Afghans taking advantage of harsh weather and shortage of food in this EEIC force. The EEIC troops largely composed of Bengal sepoys did subsequently recapture Kabul in September 1842. But the human mind is not a computer and the net significant impression produced on the sepoy was that the EEIC had been forced to retreat. The extremely tough resistance of the valiant Sikhs in the First and Second Sikh wars again produced a strong impression on the mind of the Bengal Army Sepoy. At Mudki the main British army survived just because the Sikh general Taj Singh did not attack them,474a otherwise their destruction was certain. This was a battle fought on absolutely plain land, unlike Afghanistan where the Afghans bravery had a deep connection with adverse mountainous terrain. The impressions of the Sikh wars were the deepest in convincing the sepoys that the British were not invincible. In Afghanistan the mountains, the adverse weather and the small numbers were an excuse; but at Chillianwala everything favoured the British and yet they failed!

All these disasters from 1804 till 1849 certainly had an influence on the mind of the Bengal sepoy and reinforced his decision to rebel in 1857. The sepoys felt in 1857 that they could meet the Europeans on the battlefield as an equal. Their perceptions were however erroneous in one area. This was about realising that the principals force multiplier of sepoy efficiency was superior leadership of the British officer. Without British leadership the military effectiveness of the sepoy reduced by some 75%. Since the British suppressed the initial rebellions in Punjab they were able to use Punjab and Frontier’s manpower to create new regiments or in using comparatively new regiments raised in 1846-49 which were used with as much effect at Delhi as the Bengal sepoy units at Kabul or Ghazni or at Gujrat. The British officer of 1857 was the greatest force multiplier of military effectiveness by virtue of leadership which was far superior to be “Rebel” leadership in terms of “Resolution” “Tactical Efficiency” reinforced by an iron frame administrative organisation created by the EEIC during its 100 year rule in India and its eight year old rule in the Punjab.

Lack of Foreign Intervention

It has been said that “French” intervention in support of the American rebels during the American war of Independence played an important role in the success of the Americans against the British. The French navy played a decisive role in blocking British reinforcements and in movement of British ships from one part of America to the other. Similarly, in 1971 the Indian intervention played an important role in the otherwise just and righteous struggle of the Bengalis against West Pakistan oppression. The Vietnamese may not have succeeded the way they did against USA, had the Chinese and USSR not helped them the way they did. Similarly the Afghans against USSR may not have been so successful had the USA not aided them. The foreign intervention factor plays an important role in the success of a rebellion. In 1857 no such thing happened. Afghanistan was the only country which could have made the rebellion a success by invading India. But we must remember that contrary to the prevalent myth about Afghan invincibility, these gentlemen had been so severely mauled by the EEIC in September 1842 that they did not dare to attack the EEIC in 1857, which as a matter of fact was a golden opportunity for them to attack India. The EEIC was at its lowest ebb and the Governor General of India and the Chief Commissioner of Punjab were seriously contemplating about surrendering all area upto river Indus to Afghanistan. In June – July 1857 John Lawrence the EEIC Chief Commissioner of Punjab (including present N.W.F.P.) had become so demoralised due to the siege of Delhi that he had informed Edward’s the Commissioner of Peshawar that due to fear about security and survival of the British army at Delhi he was thinking about sending all British troops in Peshawar valley to Delhi and to invite the ruler of Afghanistan Dost Muhammad Khan to occupy the Peshawar valley upto the Indus on the understanding that if he proved faithful (which he certainly was!), the Peshawar valley would be ceded to him in perpetuity474. But Dost Muhammad was happier with the money EEIC was giving him every year. Secondly, Edward’s the EEIC man at Peshawar was a man of immense resolution. Edwardes declared that rather than obeying such a defeatist order to abandon Peshawar “he would feel bound by conscience to resign and explain his reason to the government”475. Lord Canning the Governor General to whom Lawrence had requested for clearance regarding the proposal to cede Peshawar also realised that psychologically and politically such an action would be fatal since it would be perceived in NWFP and in Afghanistan as a withdrawal and defeat on the EEIC part. Canning therefore, decided in favour of Edwardes. Edwardes was right in understanding the true worth of Dost Muhammad Khan the so called “Amir of Afghanistan”! Dost Muhammad Khan’s price was an annual subsidy of 12 lakh or 1.2 million Indian rupees per year 476! Just look at the difference in perceptions. The thoroughbred Britisher, the man who saved the Punjab in 1857 is thinking big. He thinks that “Dost Muhammad” the King of Afghanistan, the ruler of a proud race which became independent only in 1722 will accept nothing less than Peshawar valley from Khyber till Indus! Edward is a better judge, he beautifully appreciates that 12 lakh an year will do. Was there any difference between Bahadur Shah Zafar who was drawing a similar allowance as Dost Muhammad of Afghanistan? It was Afghan loyalty which saved India for the British more than Punjab or NWFP loyalty! I give full marks to he EEIC General Pollock who in 1842 on his own initiative decided to capture and burn Kabul, despite contrary orders from Ellenborough the Viceroy of India477. Thus on his orders Kabul was captured and burnt on September 1842. This was a good job since it was this severe mauling received in 1842 which most probably restrained Dost Muhammad from attacking India. Afghanistan thus lost probably the last chance to regain Peshawar! Thus we find our brave Muslim Afghan neighbours concluding an offensive defensive treaty with the EEIC while the Hindu Raja of Ballabghar and the Mahratta Tantia Topi were fighting alongside their Muslim Bengal Army Sepoys! Just Rs. 12 lakh per year, cheap isn’t it! Thus Canning telegraphed Lawrence478:-

“Hold on to Peshawar. give upon nothing”

Money makes the mare go! The Khilafat Leaders of 1918-23 had not read the history of Afghans and thus naively hoped that the Afghans would invade India! The Afghans lost a golden opportunity of attacking British India during the First World War once the pure white troops holding India were as following479:

  1. Eight Infantry Battalions
  2. Thirteen Batteries of Artillery
  3. Two Cavalry Regiments

A total of some just 15,000 troops! Foolishly the Afghans did attack India in 1919 when a new king came into power and were quickly pushed back by the British Indian forces who were back to the pre war strength.


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