Having looked at the history of the Royal Irish Regiment through most of the 19th century, we must take some time to have a look at the experience of some other “named” Irish regiments, with a particular focus on one of the most famous upheavals in the British Empire.
India had gradually come under a greater and greater amount of British control throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, through both the efforts of their own military and the immensely powerful semi-state actors epitomised by the British East India Company, corporations that had their own armies. By 1857, the Company had control over a huge proportion of what we would recognise as India today, either directly or through client states and Kingdoms. The rebellion of 1857 saw its genesis from multiple issues, mostly based around local “sepoys” recruited into the Company’s military.
Concerns over the mixing of castes, the loss of privileges as Company domination advanced and requirements that Indian soldiers be available to serve overseas all caused resentment, until the final pivotal spark was caused by a flagrant piece of disrespect showed to the religious beliefs of India’s Hindu and Muslim populations. New rifles distributed to troops came with balls wrapped in greased paper, derived from cattle and pigs. Though some British commanders recognized the problem this would cause to Hindu and Muslim soldiers, and made moves to change things, the act inflamed rumours that the British were out to destroy India’s dominant religions and force Christian conversion. In late April and early May of 1857, open revolt broke out around Meerut and Delhi, by Bengal Army troops in Company service.
The rebels seized towns and besieged others, with the conflict springing up throughout India, taking in Company client Kingdoms and other states. The initial British response was muddled, owing to their limited military capability – once you discounted potentially treacherous sepoys – and the large size of the land they had to try and re-take. The British government, stepping in when it was clear the Company was incapable of dealing with the problem alone, was soon sending a sizable force to put down the rebellion, most of which arrived in 1858. The campaign to re-take the parts of India in revolt mostly consisted then of small battles, brief sieges and the occasional assault, with the advanced co-ordinated forces of the British mostly riding roughshod over the rebels, with a few exceptions. With the main centres of the revolt confined to just a few territories, the British victory was more a matter of time than anything else. In line with some units already stationed in India, this effort drew in a surprisingly large amount of named Irish regiments. Some, like the 86th Royal County Down Regiment of Foot or the 27th Inniskilling would have unexceptional service that is largely forgotten, but others would make their mark.
The two most notable named Irish units to be engaged in India during this time were probably the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars, a cavalry force, and the 83rd Regiment of Foot, mostly recruited from around the Irish capital, and soon to carry Dublin’s name. The 83rd was already in India on garrison duty when the rebellion started, its various companies scattered across a wide area. In the face of the sepoy revolt, they soon coalesced into a more cohesive unit, stationed around the Mount Aroo area, spending their time disarming Indian soldiers and resisting piecemeal attacks. Reinforced in mid-September, they struck out offensively, with mixed results.
A larger group, backed by local horse artillery, advanced towards the town of Awah. They were met by unexpectedly fierce resistance from locals and sepoys, and fell back after an unsuccessful attack on 18 September. Clearly, the rebels were not going to be as big a pushover as the British would have hoped, at least in certain areas. The 83rd refocused and successfully attacked the rebel held village of Nimbhera on the 20th September before breaking into the rebel held fort at Jeerun the following month. Unfortunately, the isolation of the 83d again became a problem at this point, as they were themselves besieged by Indian troops. The siege lasted just over two weeks, from the ninth to the 23rd of November, before the garrison was relieved by a force sent from Mhow.
Secured, the regiment concentrated at Nusseerabad, and after further reinforcements had arrived, it moved to once again attack the fortress at Awah. The 83rd began a siege operation there on the 19th January 1858, and the defenders were obliged to abandon the fortress just four days later, whereupon the 83rd destroyed what defences still existed, lest counter-attacking rebels were able to retake it. The regiment then joined the two newly arrived British brigades brought together to attack the town of Kotah; this operation took in the latter part of March, when the city was finally captured after a three-pronged assault, one part of which was led directly by the 83rd.
The 83rd’s final significant act in the rebellion ties into the experience of the 8th Hussars, and their role in the significant fighting at Gwalior. Lakshmibai, a queen of Jahnsi State, had become one of the most notable leader of rebel groups fighting the British, until an expeditionary force under Sir Henry Rose seized Jahnsi and forced the queen to flee. A serious of failed engagements with British forces followed, culminating in the fighting at Gwalior, a city and fort of great strategic significance, that the rebels were unable to adequately defend from British attack. The 8th Hussars were engaged directly against a force of Indians commanded by Lakshmibai, in a brutal cavalry attack that left thousands of Indians dead, among them Lakshmibai herself. She has become somewhat of a mythical figure for Indian nationalists. A European equivalent would perhaps be someone like Joan of Arc or Boudicca. And it is likely that she was shot down by an Irish cavalryman.
In June and July sections of the 83rd was sent to protect towns from rebel forces retreating from Gwalior, with battles fought at Sanganer on 8 August and Kotharia on 14 August. Another detachment was sent east fighting at Seekur and Koshana during the close of the campaign, that ended in a total British victory.
Gwalior was one of the more spectacular moments of an otherwise confusing morass of military operations that equate to the British put-down of the rebellion. By the middle of 1859, the fighting was essentially done, though, as in so many places in the British Empire, the lingering resentments that birthed the revolt and were exacerbated by the counter-attack would only ferment more unrest down the line.
The Irish experience in the revolt is, as demonstrated, somewhat limited in terms of historical and popular remembrance: there were few moments of epic clashes or glorious victory to be found in the fighting and the Irish, whether in British or Company uniform, have seen their service ion the sub-continent mostly forgotten in the larger historical context of the 19th century. But the revolt did have one very important consequence for the named Irish regiments and other units. In the aftermath, and continuing for the next few decades, the British Army began the process of absorbing the Company regiments, and then combining them with pre-existing units. For many of them, this would mean standardizing their names based on their primary recruiting areas. Ireland was about to get some new regiments.
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