Raising the Indian Mounted Infantry Corps for Service in South Africa 1900

"Play the Game" (1)

The colonies' assistance in the British Empire's struggle against the Boers in South Africa, supplying both men and equipment, is well known. In total, 80,000 colonials served in South Africa.2 Of these, some 50,000 were South African, 16,500 Australian, 6,500 New Zealand and a similar number Canadian. India's contribution was small: the Indian Army was not permitted to send any regular service units as many believed that to have Indian soldiers fight a European enemy would undermine the basis of British imperial power. A corps of volunteer mounted infantry known as Lumsden's Horse was raised and, although only 300 strong, made a useful contribution in South Africa. As Lord Roberts stated in a telegram to the Viceroy when the Corps was returning to India:

"It has been a pride and a pleasure to have under my command a volunteer contingent which has so well upheld the honour of the Indian Empire. " (3)

The Corps was equipped not merely by the European planter and merchant classes from which it was largely drawn, but also by donations from a range of communities in British India. The Corps' formation provides an insight into turn of the century British society in India. Specifically, its formation highlighted the division between the official and unofficial British, and within the latter the division between those involved in commerce in the major cities and the planters up country.

The Initial Steps

The driving force behind raising an Indian volunteer corps was Lt Col Dugald McTavish Lumsden, a former tea planter born in 1851 who, at 22, obtained a job on the Borrelli Tea Estate in Tezpur, Assam. He was closely involved with the Assam volunteer movement from its inception: holding a captaincy in the Darrang Mounted Rifles in 1887, and becoming CO of the Assam Valley Light Horse (AVLH) by the time he left India in 1893. Lt Col Lumsden was a man who firmly believed it was the duty of British subjects everywhere to rally to the Empire in its hour of need. Whilst travelling in Australia in December 1899, Lumsden heard of the reverse of British arms in South Africa during Black Week and, perhaps inspired by the mass of Australian volunteer units which were already being raised, began to consider raising an Indian volunteer unit . Unsurprisingly, his mind turned to the hard riding planters who lived rugged outdoor lives throughout India, particularly in the North East. These were men he felt could make a useful contribution to the British war effort. On 15 December 1899 he cabled Sir Patrick Playfair, the head of one of Calcutta's biggest trading firms:

"Offer Government fifty thousand rupees and my services in any capacity towards raising European Mounted Infantry Contingent, India, service Cape. Wire Melbourne Club, Melbourne. Leaving nineteenth, due Calcutta January 9. Do not divulge name till my arrival. " (4)

Without waiting for a reply, Lumsden set off for India. Fortunately, his journey was not in vain for Playfair immediately took to the idea. He approached General P T Maitland CB, the Military Secretary to the Government of India, who was personally supportive, but advised he would need to consult the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, and obtain approval from the War Office in London. Unfortunately, both Curzon and the Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, Sir William Lockhart were on tour. Undeterred Maitland contacted Curzon, who characteristically supported the idea, and informed Lockhart. The latter approved an approach to the War Office, having first clarified with Playfair the number of volunteers envisaged. Playfair thought between 250 and 300.

Whilst these initial developments were taking place Lumsden was steaming towards Calcutta, cabling for information at every opportunity, but with no concrete news of whether his offer had been accepted. When he finally arrived in India, details of his generous offer had leaked to the press, despite his request for anonymity. As he steamed up the Hooghley river he was given a hero's welcome. There can be little doubt that this reception helped quicken the Government's response leaving them in no doubt about the British community's enthusiasm for the idea. Many British in India would have already had relatives serving in South Africa and must have been frustrated at the lack of opportunity to serve whilst the rest of the Empire flocked to the flag. Lumsden's offer struck a chord at clubs across the length and breadth of India. Although the War Office had yet to approve the formation of the Mounted Infantry Volunteer Corps, British India had already assumed Lumsden would command it and the press had christened it "Lumsden's Horse". Sure enough, some days after Lumsden's arrival the War Office caught up with popular feelings, cabling:

"Her Majesty's Government having accepted the offer of the Government of India to provide a force of Mounted Volunteers for service in South Africa, two companies of Mounted Infantry, to be called the Indian Mounted Infantry Corps (Lumsden's Horse) will be raised immediately in Calcutta under the command ofLt Col D McT Lumsden, of the Volunteer Force of India, Supernumerary List, Assam Valley Light Horse." (5)

Raising the Horse

Having obtained the go-ahead, Lt Col Lumsden and Sir Patrick Playfair organised an Executive Committee, made up of Lumsden, Playfair, Col George Money, the Assistant Adjutant General, the Hon. Col Buckingham CIE, Major Eddis and Mr Harry Stuart, to arrange Lumsden's Horse's recruitment and dispatch. Sir Patrick Playfair took charge of the subscription list. Mr Stuart, a former executive manager of the Bengal State Railway, set about arranging the messing of the various detachments as they arrived in Calcutta whilst Lumsden set about recruiting his Corps. On 10 January 1900, he advertised in major English language Indian newspapers for volunteers to serve the flag for either one year or the duration of the war, which ever was shorter. Recruits had to be aged between 20 and 40, "good riders", and single, although it should be noted that some married men were subsequently selected.

Applications flooded in, and Lumsden would have had no difficulty recruiting 1,000 men. He was assisted in selecting personnel by the COs of the leading Bengal volunteer cavalry units, the Calcutta Light Horse, the Assam Valley Light Horse, the Surma Valley Light Horse and the Behar Light Horse, as well as the Punjab, Mysore and Rangoon Volunteer Corps. Volunteers were accepted from the numerous European volunteer corps that had sprung up since the mutiny more than forty years before. When Lumsden finished selecting his men for his Horse, some described them as a "Corps of Planters", and the British Indian press perpetuated this view. However, evidence only partially supports this. In A Company the first and second sections largely consisted of indigo planters, and the third of Assam tea planters. In B Company the majority of recruits in the first, second and third sections were tea and coffee planters. Yet the fourth sections of both Companies presented a far more varied picture, with a mixture of urban and rural dwellers. The same was also true of the transport section. In addition, the Maxim Gun detachment, commanded by Captain BW Holmes, and manned by artificers of the East India Railway Company, were urban dwellers. Of 192 volunteers whose professions are detailed in Henry Pearse's History of Lumsden's Horse, the breakdown is as follows:

Indigo Planters 55 (28.6%)
Tea Planters 61 (31.8%)
Coffee Planters 31 (16.1%)
Planters (No 5 (2.6%)
Civil Servants 16 (8.3%)
Bank Assistants 3 (1.6%)
Railway 12 (6.3)
Medical 3 (1.6%)
Mercantile Marine 6 (3.1%) (6)

This data suggests that only 20% of Lumsden's Horse were probably urban dwellers. Almost inevitably, given the number and mix of volunteers, the limited size of the corps and Lumsden's connections with Assam, acrimonious accusations of bias soon arose from amongst the 'box wallahs' of Calcutta. Infamous amongst these was a letter to the Editor of The Englishman:

Sir, I hope I am in time to draw the attention of the Government of India to the "Bahadur" (7) style in which the selection to the 'Indian Yeomanry Corp" of Volunteers is being conducted. Because a man is the son of his father and owns a few ponies and a few hundred rupees, is he to be given a preference as a fighting unit? There are today in India even in the City of Calcutta, men of unquestionable merit, men who are sons and recipients of a heritage of blood shed in England and her Most Gracious Majesty's cause from fathers who bled and died for England and England's prestige, and I beg to ask you, Sir, are these men to be shelved to suit the convenience of a few planters? I am not a planter, and, as an outsider, I put my claims forward in a test of merit. I am willing to shoot a match up the range with the best man selected from Behar, run him a given distance, ride him on a strange nag (catch weights), and in the end with my weight and other recommendations beat him. (8)

The figures show this bullish boxwallah's criticisms were to some extent justified, but the fact remains that the planters of Assam and elsewhere were probably better suited to fighting a rugged war against Boer Commandos in the veldt than urban dwellers, given the former's experience of polo, pig sticking and big game shoots. In addition, there is no data to show how many urban dwellers volunteered for service in comparison with those from up country.

Once selected, the volunteers began to converge on Calcutta. Many who had been chosen as troopers had previously served as officers in their parent volunteer units. In some cases this caused problems as Lumsden's officers were selected on merit, hence some officers did not receive a rank commensurate to that which they had held in their original unit. For instance Major Eden C Showers, formerly a Lt Col and the CO of the Surma Valley Light Horse accepted demotion to serve as Lumsden's second in command. Lumsden chose four volunteer captains as senior subalterns, 4 volunteer lieutenants and a volunteer medical officer and vet. At Lumsden's request a number of regulars were also seconded to the corp: the Adjutant (who also served as the Quarter Master), each of the company commanders, and all the senior NCOs, as well as other specialists, such as farriers.

Equipping the Horse

Concurrent with the selection of personnel for Lumsden's Horse, the Committee set about raising funds to ensure that India's finest were dispatched to the Cape with the best equipment available. The Government of India agreed to provide transport, daily rations, weapons, munitions, and basic pay at the rate of l/2d a day. The Ordnance Department also agreed to provide Lumsden with an indent at regulation prices. However, all the tents, horses, saddles and clothing had to be funded by subscription. Lt Col Lumsden's donation of 50,000 rupees was not going to be enough. In consultation with General Maitland, General Wallace (the Director General of Ordnance), Sir ER Ellis (the Adjutant General), Sir Alfred Guselee (the Quarter Master General) and Surgeon General Harry it was decided that at least 1,000 rupees per man, three lakh (300,000 rupees) was needed in all. To raise this money a subscription list was formed and it soon included many of the leading lights of Indian society from the Viceroy down. Some 227,000 rupees were donated, together with a further 100,000 rupees worth of goods. One Zemindar, Ku mar Radu Prosad Roy, donated 5,000 rupees, though he was doubtful whether this uninvited donation would be accepted. Naturally it was. Another, Mohammed Muzanullah, sent two horses, a mule, donkey and two small tents , along with a simple letter: "They are all I have to help conquer the enemies of the great White Queen" The Maharajah of Bhavnagar gave 50 Arab horses from his stud plus saddlery, whilst other Maharajahs gave similar donations. One gentleman donated 7,000 boxes of matches! The railway and navigation companies carried all the volunteers and their equipment to Calcutta free of charge. Significant contributions were also made by many of the major Anglo-Indian companies. Messrs Henry S King & Co of London, Calcutta and Bombay donated 10,000 rupees and Messrs Apcar & Co, 5000 rupees. Other companies gave in kind with the Elgin Cotton Mills in Cawnpore providing tentage for the whole unit.

Although Lumsden's Horse was celebrated as a contribution from all India to the Empire in her hour of need, a drawing together of the various communities, the available evidence suggests this was not the case. Rather, it was fundamentally supported by the unofficial British elite of India, those who could to a large extent be seen as and probably saw themselves as subjects of the Empire and committed to global British interests. This was underlined by the corps itself, many of whose volunteer planters would have identified more with the Empire and other settlers in it, than India. Lumsden himself can clearly be seen as a subject of the Empire, travelling as he was in Australia at the time of his first inspiration.

The other major supporters of Lumsden's Horse were the Princely States, the Indian political elite who had everything to gain from British rule and a show of patriotism to the Empress. To a lesser extent, as vassal states it is likely they felt some obligation to Queen Victoria and contributed in lieu of contingents from their own forces. By comparison, the Government contributed only the most basic equipment although a few individual members of the Establishment did put considerable personal effort into supporting and assisting Lumsden and his committee. This was probably as a result of a mixture of personal support and a recognition that the Government of India had to be seen to be enthusiastic about the idea, even if it was unwilling to provide the resources required to turn Lumsden's Horse into a useful contribution to the Empire's war effort. Far too often the Government and Military Establishment assisted only after others had taken the initiative. Even at the beginning it had only been Lumsden's offer that had caused decisive action to be taken in the raising of an Indian volunteer corps.

The prodigious efforts of the Committee ensured that unlike many of the volunteer units going out to the Cape who were poorly supplied, India's Corps was properly equipped. The original intention had been that a transport column of Indian drivers, would accompany the Corps, and rugged ponies were specially collected from the foothills of the Himalayas, Tibet and the Hill Tracts of Assam. Unfortunately at the last moment this was blocked by the War Office in London. Luckily, despite social prejudices of the time, there was no difficulty finding European volunteers to fill the gaps. A further 26 European volunteers were glad to have the opportunity to serve in this least glamorous of roles, even though they had little experience in tasks which no respectable Anglo-Indian would ever have performed.

Popular support for the Corps was strong and Curzon became their Honorary Colonel, perhaps reflecting his personal commitment to an Imperial ideal, if not the enthusiasm of his Government. Lady Curzon also became involved, becoming the patroness of the Calcutta Ball Committee in honour of Lumsden's Horse. There were also six vice-patrons including HRH the Maharani of Cooch Behar. Miss Pugh was the Hon. Secretary. In addition to organising the spectacle of the Calcutta Ball (where one can imagine many of the fishing fleet lost their hearts to the dashing volunteers), the Committee also made the Corps' woollen comforters for the cold nights on the veldt ahead!

As the volunteers flooded in, Lumsden's Horse camp on the Maidan in Calcutta grew and it soon became the place for fashionable elements of Calcutta society to visit on Sunday afternoons.

Daily Routine

For the troopers encamped on the Maidan, time must have passed quickly. They were kept busy, training in full campaign kit much of which was probably unfamiliar. On a normal day the rouse would sound at 6 o'clock, followed by a bugle call at 7 o'clock calling them to saddle up. At half past seven the men fell in on the Maidan ready for their first parade of the day, formed up in two companies of 120, each consisting of four sections, subdivided further into subsections of four each. This was followed by grooming of their mounts, no doubt a challenging experience for the Anglo-Indian who had always had a syce to do this. This was followed by training, particularly on the Lee-Metford rifle and short bayonet, most of them having only ever used the Martini-Henry carbine before. Many of the volunteers were not impressed with their new rifle as it had no "kick to it." Tiffin commenced at 1 o'clock, and was followed by an afternoon parade at half past four. Bed was supposed be at half past nine but the planters from the mofusil made the most of their time in Calcutta, enjoying bathing at the Swimming Club, tiffin at Pelite's, dinners at the Bristol, Continental and Grand, and a host of other amusements; it seems unlikely that many retired by this time.

The Farewell

On Wednesday 4 February Lumsden's Horse formed up at the maidan and, escorted by the band of the Royal Irish Rifles, marched to the Cathedral for a farewell service attended by all the great and good of Calcutta, including the Viceroy. Bishop Welldon of Calcutta preached what was described as a "long sermon" and suitable hymns such as "Onwards, Christian Soldiers" and "Fight the Good Fight" rang through the aisles. (9)

Following the farewell service, the troop ships taking Lumsden's Horse to the Cape were delayed, leaving the Corps to spend the rest of the month in further preparations and training. They were also given a medical examination by Major Pilgrim of the Indian Medical Service. Before being allowed to depart they were expected to clear outstanding debts, no doubt to the relief of many Calcutta tradesmen. The men were formally inspected by General Leach, who commanded the Presidency Division, in place of Sir William Lockhart who was by this stage virtually on his death bed at Fort William.

Finally, on 26 February the SS Lindula was ready to receive the Corps Headquarters, A Company and the Maxim Gun detachment at Kiddlepore Docks. The Corps marched to the docks to rapturous cheers, escorted by the populace of the city. At the docks a crowd of at least 5000 had gathered to bid them farewell. All the senior officials were there to observe the departure of the first European volunteer unit ever to leave India to serve the Empress of India. Having loaded their equipment on board the Lindula, Lumsden's Horse were inspected by the Viceroy. The Viceroy then mounted the dais and addressed the volunteers:

I consider myself the mouth piece of public opinion throughout India which lias watched the formation of this Corps with admiration, which has contributed to its equipment and comfort with no illiberal hand, and which now sends you forth with an almost parental interest in your fortunes [...] All India applauds your bravery in going. Col Lumsden and men, on behalf of your fellow countrymen and your fellow subjects throughout Indian, I bid you farewell. (10)

Mrs Pugh presented each officer and trooper with a prayer book as moral sustenance for the coming months. Then the Corps marched on board the ship as the band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me", the moorings were cast off and "Auld Lang Syne" played as the Lindula steamed down the Hooghley bound for the Cape.

B Company had to wait a few more days before their departure. The men of B Company filled their time by taking the officers to dinner and on 2 March the officers returned the compliment, taking their men to the Hotel de Paris. The Company returned to the Maidan in the small hours of 3 March. They were soon woken by reveille at four thirty, no doubt nursing rather sore heads. They then proceeded to the docks with another large escort. The Lt Governor of Bengal, Sir James Woodham and the Bishop of Calcutta were there to say a few words before they departed on the SS Ujina which was decked out with flags ("not too clean") (11). The band once again played "Auld Lang Syne" and the last of Lumsden's Horse departed for South Africa:

These sons of Britain in the East Fought not for praise and fame They died for England, and the least Made greater her great name. (12)


On arrival in South Africa Lumsden's Horse made a useful contribution to the Empire's war effort. During the conflict they were mentioned in Lord Roberts' dispatches three times and in Lord Kite ener's once. By the end of the war one CB, one CMG, two DSO's and five DCM's had been awarded to members of the unit.


1. Motto of Lumsden's Horse

2. Stirling. P. X.

3. Stirling. P. 334.

4. Pearse. P. 7.

5. Pearse. P. 12.

6. Pearse. P. 21.

7. "In Anglo-Indian colloquial parlance the word denotes a haughty or pompous personage, exercising his brief authority with a strong sense of his own importance." Hobson - Jobson.

8. Pearse. P. 12.

9. Burns - Murdoch. P. 28.

10. Pearse. P. 59-60.

11. Burns - Murdoch. P. 34.

12. From tablet presented by Lord Curzon in Calcutta Cathedral in memory of those from Lumsden's Horse who fell in South Africa.


Burns-Murdoch, JH, Lumsden's Horse Agin the Boers, Taunton, 1901.

Edit. Pearse, HHS, History of Lumsden's Horse, A complete record of the Corps from its formation to its disbandment, London, 1903.

Pugh, Maj. HO, Lumsden's Horse South Africa 1900 and Jubilee Memorial Repister 1900¬1950, Aberystwyth, 1950.

Stirling, Capt. J, The Colonials in South Africa 1899-1902 Their Record Based on Dispatches, Edinburgh. 1907.

Yule H and Burnell AC, Hobson-Jobson, The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, Wordsworth, 1996 (Reprint).

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen, issue 96, March 1999 

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