The Forgotten Mutiny

Whilst researching a Mutiny medal, I chanced on the fact that the 5th Bengal European Regiment had been removed from the army list, but could find little or no explanation of this anomaly. Curiosity set me scouring through the sheaves of original documents held in the India Office Library. The seaarch led to the story of a British regiment broken up in disgrace less than three years after its' formation. The following is an attempt to recount that episode.

The shock of the Indian Mutiny prompted the East India Company to order the raising of three extra European regiments for the Bengal presidency in May 1858, ironically at the very time that the Company itself was under threat of political extinction. Embodies in the autumn, the 4th, 5th and 6th Bengal Europeans were to bolster the facade of European power giving a strength in depth which would help alleviate the continuing tensions. The three new units took no part in the mopping up operations as evidenced by their having no mutiny medal recipients, but their presence on station gave the more experienced troops greater freedom of movement and enabled them to campaign at full strength with their rear areas secure.

The 5th were formed at Berhampore around a core of men from the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers and received the first of nine drafts of urgently requested recruits in October. The gravity of the situation in India meant that although physical standards were relaxed, traditional recruiting areas were not able to supply such numbers in the time and consequently many of the new men were drawn from rising industrial towns and brought with them experience of industrial disputes.

The end of the Company's Raj was decreed in November 1858 when the home government assumed control of the Compay's affairs in India and its' soldiers were designated Her Majesty's Indian Forces. There was widespread discontent among Company troops following this announcement as they felt they should be given the option of discharge or the bounty that every other new recuit received. Furthermore, men had enlisted on the premise that they would only be liable for service in the Company's Indian possessions, but would now be subject to the vagaries of political chance and could be sent anywhere the home government saw fit.

Opinion was sharply divided between the Horse Guards and the Court of Directors over the necessity for a local army in India. The sheer size of the country meant a large native force was essential and the Company's Europeans had provided its' backbone. The disparity of numbres always required that British rule be based on consent and a good relationship with the native population was therefore vital. Sir John Lawrence (later Governor-General) and Sir James Outram believe dthe transition from a committed local force to a disinterested line service would destablize that relationship by weakening ties to the country. This in turn would undermine British rule.

It was argued that a volunteer local corps was cheaper and preferable to line troops who often viewwed an Indian posting with dismay and as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. Then there was the high mortality rate among newly arrived troops to balance against that of an acclimatized permanent local force. As the arguments raged back and forth, definite arrangement for amalgamation with the Queen's army were slow to materialise. All the old soldiers knew was that the Company they had fought to preserve had been superseded and plans laid to transfer them to the crown. Many considered it an insult that they had not been consulted an ffelt aggrieved at a perceived injustice. Officers were unsettled as they knew many would be displaced in the restructured army. New men began to feel that their attestation had been invalidated.

Unease grew into a demand for an option to discharge. in May 1859, Bengal was afflicted with a wave of mutinous behaviour in all arms of the service. The 5th staged a prolonged protest at Berhampore in mid June, deposing its officers and electing replacements. Order was only restored by the appearance of 500 British troops backed by artillery. The widespread character of the dissent shook the government and left it with no option but to give in to the men's demands, which it did in a General Order on June 20th, although those who had recently enlisted for the Indian service were excepted and had no right of recourse.

The exodus was startling. Only a few months earlier the Company's troops had been at the apogee of loyalty, pride and self-belief. Now, they were so disillusioned with their treatment that over 10,000 of them (nearly two-thirds of the total), took advantage of the general amnesty and opted for a free passage home. However, the future of those who remained was still unclear. The uncertainty was prolonged for nearly another year and a half whilst the position was considered in Britain.

Meanwhile, new recruits brought newspapers frm England which contained speculation about the amalgamation process and the prospects for discharge. These were widely read and discussed, fuelling an unstable situation with hopes that had no basis in fact. Many of the newly enlisted 5th Bengal Europeans hoped for official confirmation of the newspaper reports, aware that many senior officers sympathized and that Palmerston had told Parliament back in February 1858 that dissenters would be entitled to their discharge.

Nothing to this effect was contained in the provisions of the General Order. Immediately after hearing it read on the morning parade of September 20th 1860, many of No. 4 company asked for their savings to be released, apparently fearing a repetition of events at Berhampore where the canteen had been ransacked and their savings lost. The following day, the General Order was read to all units at Dinapore's general evening parade. As the 5th dismissed to barracks there was evident anger with much shouting and whistling. No calming action waqs taken, even though the CO was present on parade. The NCOs roll was then called, most then going to married quarters or to the guard room. Soon after, iwth the coast now clear, some 50 men broke out of No. 4 hut and rempaged through the camp picking upmor emen as they cahrged over to the artillery barracks to try and incite them to join in the rising. The artillery picket met the mob with drawn swords and seized two fo the leaders, whereupon the rest sullenly withdrew.

Only after all quiet was reported was the commanding officer informed of events. The subsequent court martial handled the situation very delicately as under the 40th Article of War, the whole regiment was theoretically liable to the death penalty, either for taking part, failing to attempt to suppress a mutiny or to report any prior knowledge of one. Even so, eleven men were sentenced to penal servitudee (two for life), and two others to transportation. Following this a special enquiry was convened in October to investigate the culpability of the commanding officer and to establish whether he should be court martialled.

It lasted ten days and exposed some surprising and unpalatable facts (apart from the privies being next to the cookhouse). the RSM was also the canteen sergeant and was able to keep a coach and four on the profits he made from watering the rum. He seldom went to bed sober and encouraged his NCOs to drink to excell which did nothing for regimental discipline. Both he and the NCOs were from the founding draft who were collectively criticised and described as useless.

The adjutant was universally disliked, and the Colonel was seen as decent but inexperienced having been a staff wallah his whole career. Both were blind to the RSM's failings. Few of the officres had held European commands of any length. Into this unhappy mix were pitched the undersized young recruits. There was an uneven leavening of old hands, among the companies as when the regiment was sized, most of the younger and therefore shorter men were concentrated in the middle (centre) companies. The officers could only cite total inefficiency or negligence as the reason that not one report of disquiet had been made to them by any NCO. All agreed that the outbreak was confined to the younger men and was at least partly due to the discharge question.

Overall, the enquiry concluded that although the outbreak was spontaneous and possibly due to excess drink, the regiment was afflicted with a spirit of insubordination, communication had broken down, and the NCOs were at best sub-standard. As the Colonel was plainly responsible for the well being of his command he was culpable along with the adjutant who had a talent for aggravating people. Both were suspended from duty but no further action was taken against them. After several months' deliberation of the enquiry's findings, it was thought wiser not to try either officer as there had been a succession of court martials which had givne surprisingly lenient verdicts. An acquittal would have been divisive and damaging to the army. A light sentence would have had a similar effect in view of the severity of the punishments given to the men.

All this would have been bad enough, but on the penultimate day of the enquiry another incident occurred which was to seal the regiment's fate. Private Johnson refused an order while on duty, and two other men refused to arrest him. They were swiftly tried and Johnson was sentenced to death with a recommendation for mercy on grounds of youth.

Sir Hugh Rose, the C.-in-C., decided to go to Dinapore and see the regiment for himself. His opinion of the situation is best given in his own words: "the condition of the Corps was so hopelessly bad, the mutinous conduct of this year so intimately connected with that of last year, the spirit of insubordination so deeply rooted and spread throughout the Regiment, and the means of restoring or of creating discipline would, in His Excellency's opinion, only be a source of embarrassment, if not of danger, to the Government." He therefore requested permission to disband the unit.

He confirmed the death sentence on Private Johnson who was executed by firing squad on the day of the regiment's dissolution, November 12th, 1860. The orders for both measures were read on every station in the Presidency as an example to the army. The NCOs were reduced to the ranks, and in view of the regiment's volatile modd, the men were to be disarmed before they were dispersed amongst the remaining five European regiments of the Presidency. This further shame was to avoid a repeat of the previous year's outrages when discharged troops had terrorized the country on their way to the coast.

So the ill-fated 5th disappeared. The combination of untrained undisciplined recruits, inexperienced NCOs and prevailing uncertainty had weighted the scales agains tthem from the start. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Europeans became respectively the new 101st, 104th and 107th foot during 1861, volunteering starting in May. Those men who declined either to be discharged or to enlist in the new line units because they considered themselves bound only for Indian duty, were transferred to the 4th Europeans which was to remain as a local corps along with the 6th if there proved to be an overspill.

The remaining Company dominions , such as Malaysia, were finally handed over to Imperial control on April 1st 1867. The Local European Infantry appear in the records until 1868, by which time they werre only a paper force consisting of men who were simply serving out their last year. The inevitable attrition of men volunteering to othre units or being pensioned and not replaced ensured that the last active remnant of the East India Company's European army was run down and the amalgamation completed.

West Bengal 1859 - 1860

This article is based on the following documents held in the India Office Library at Blackfriars:


The quote from Sir Hugh Rose is from a Crown copyright document also in the Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library and appears by permission of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Reproduced from Soldiers of the Queen, issue 82

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