The Indian Mutiny of 1857-59 was a major, but ultimately unsuccessful, uprising in India in 1857–58 against the rule of the British East India Company, which functioned as a sovereign power on behalf of the British Crown. It began as a mutiny on 10 May 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions.
A total of 7 Victoria Crosses were awarded for conspicuous gallantry during the Indian Mutiny to the 7th and 8th Hussars.
The Passage to India
On 19th July 1857 The 7th Queen’s Own Light Dragoons (Hussars) received new firearms. 500 Sharps breech-loading carbines and 21 new pattern rifled pistols for the use of privates and NCOs. The issue was timely because they were about to embark for India to help quell the Mutiny of Indian troops who had served in the East India Company army. On 9th August they handed over their horses at Aldershot and entrained for Canterbury. There they took on 183 extra men drafted in from 15 other cavalry regiments.
On 27th August the regiment, sailed from Gravesend on the ‘Lightning’ and arrived in Calcutta on 27th November after a 3 month voyage that, because of adverse trade winds, had taken them close to the east coast of South America.
The regiment was under the command of Lieut-Col James M Hagart the younger brother of Colonel Charles Hagart who had commanded the regiment up to this point, although there seems to be some period of time in India during which there was joint command.
The 8th King’s Royal Irish Light Dragoons (Hussars) whilst in England the their strength was increased by 3 troops and they were issued with Sharpes breech-loading carbines.
In October 1857 they sailed to Bombay on the steamship Great Britain, 28 officers and 489 other ranks. They received horses on their arrival which had to be broken in but by March 1858 they were involved in the siege and capture of the fortress of Kotah.
From Calcutta the 7th Hussars went to Allahabad and received horses which needed to be trained up. On 18th January they marched to Cawnpore and crossed the Ganges on 3rd and 4th February. They escorted convoys for most of Feb but half of the regiment was attached to Hope Grant’s cavalry division in action at Meangunge.
They were brigaded with the 2nd DG, Hodson’s Horse and 1st Punjab Cavalry. The column failed to catch Nana Sahib at Futtapore Churassie but burned and destroyed the place. They moved on to Meangunge which was a fortified town where mutineers offered resistance. Hope Grant’s force was stronger than the enemy’s, having 2,240 infantry, and several artillery guns. The walls were breached with the guns and the 53rd Foot stormed the town, causing the enemy to flee.
The 7th, along with the rest of the cavalry killed many of the rebels, and captured more. Five men of the regiment were wounded.
Sir James Outram commanded a force that was under attack in the area of Alum Bagh south of Lucknow. Three efforts had been made against them and a fourth took place once the 7th Hussars and other reinforcements had arrived.
The 7th Hussars was commanded by Colonel Charles Hagart and consisted of 2 squadrons and the headquarters, 92 men in all. The rebels were between 20,000 and 30,000 strong and supervised by the Begum mounted on an elephant. The enemy force split into two halves, one part moved on the fort of Jellalabad and the other positioned itself on the British right flank.
The 7th Hussars were part of the British force under Olpherts sent to prevent the attack on Jellalabad. The Begum’s men tried to encircle them but the British artillery opened fire causing the Begum to retire. The 7th along with some Sikh cavalry forced them back.
Meanwhile Outram had driven off the other half of the enemy and it seemed that the battle was nearly over, after nearly 8 hours. Three hours later, at around 5.30pm the Begum attacked the British left. Outram held them in check but they did not retreat, and the struggle continued through the night.
By dawn, however, the rebels withdrew. The 7th Hussars had not suffered any serious casualties.
The 7th Hussars were at the siege and capture of Lucknow from 2nd to 21st March.
On 19th the Musa Bagh was attacked by Sir James Hope Grant’s cavalry. The rebels escaped from there and took refuge in a nearby mud fort. Lieutenant-Col James Hagart took a Troop of the regiment, 2 guns and some men of the 78th to extract them.
The Troop commander, Capt Slade was wounded as well as Lieut Henry Wilkin. Cornet Bankes was brought down from his horse and was being hacked at with swords so Lt-Col Hagart charged in and saved him, but Bankes’s injuries were so bad that he died within 18 days.
Cornet Bankes was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.
The rebels were all killed in the action and the 7th returned to their previous positions until Lucknow capitulated.
Grant, with a force of 3,000 men, was ordered to apprehend a rebel leader called the Moulvi at Barree. As they advanced, the rebels attacked his column and took off with 2 captured guns, but they were chased by a Troop of the 7th Hussars under Captain Richard Topham who retrieved the guns.
This Troop were in action twice more when further attacks were made. Topham and 6 men were injured in these skirmishes. By the time they reached Barree the enemy had fled.
A force of 16,000 rebels was gathered at Nawabgunge and Hope Grant marched his men on the Fyzabad road, including the 7th Hussars, the 2nd DG, Hodson’s Horse and 1st Sikh Cavalry as well as the 3rd Rifle Brigade and artillery.
They managed to surprise the rebels and confront the centre of their position. The enemy force was not a cohesive unit but 4 separate groups which made Grant’s task easier.
Great bravery was shown by rebels of Zemindaree who sent two men forward to plant green standards by their guns to inspire their followers. Four of the RA guns were brought forward to within 500 yards of the enemy and fired grapeshot ‘which mowed them down with terrible effect, like thistles before the scythe.’
The 7th and the riflemen were then sent in but met with brave resistance. The 7th charged twice under the leadership of Sir William Russell and went through them successfully, killing all they came across.
The battle lasted 3 hours and 6 of the enemy guns were captured. They had killed 600 rebels but Grant’s men also suffered casualties. Many of the dead had died of sunstroke. The British loss was 67 killed and wounded; 33 deaths from sunstroke and 250 more men stricken down and obliged to be sent into hospital.
The mutineers had gained control of the strong fortress of Gwalior, which lies more than 100 mile south of Delhi, and two separate British columns advanced towards them.
The 8th Hussars were in a column led by Brigadier M W Smith. They arrived at nearby Kotah-ke-Serai on the morning of 17th June. On emerging from a narrow defile they were faced with the rebel army deployed over a large plain. It was decided to send a squadron of the 8th against them under covering fire from the 95th.
The squadron of nearly 100 men was led by Captain Heneage and they charged with great bravery but they advanced too far without support. However they managed to capture several guns and bring them back under heavy fire.
The commander’s report stated that: ‘Captain Heneage was certainly quite black in the face and unable to speak, although still on his horse. It was a gallant charge.’
In the course of the action one of the hussars killed the Rani of Jhansi, an Indian heroine who was leading her troops in battle.
Seven men were killed and seven wounded while one officer died of sunstroke.
Many acts of great bravery occurred that day. It was laid down in the 1856 Royal Warrant instituting the Victoria Cross that the medal could be awarded by election.
With some difficulty, four men were chosen by the men of the 8th Hussars.
Captain Heneage, Sergeant Ward, Farrier Hollis and Private Pearson.
Crossing of the Goomtee River
The next objective was the rebel town of Sultanpore on the river Goomtee where the enemy had gathered an army of 14,000.
The British force had been split up with one part under Brigadier Horsford and the other under Grant. But they came together at the bend of the river where it was decided they should cross.
Because of the depth of the river, boats were needed but all that could be found were 9 canoes. These were tied together to make 3 rafts to transport the guns. The enemy had enough men to command a 30 mile stretch of the river so the point of crossing was critical. The cavalry had to swim across with the loss of only 2 horses.
Two days were spent on the crossing and on the 28th Aug there was a battle but it was very brief and the enemy fled.
On 5th September the 8th Hussars was in action again at Beejapore against a force of 800 rebels.
A further Victoria Cross was won by Troop Sergeant Major James Champion who received a severe gunshot wound but fought on with his pistol, killing several of the enemy.
The regiment’s service in India was fraught with difficulty due to the intense heat. Battles like this one and Gwalior in June were so exhausting that the men could barely sit in their saddles.
There was also plenty of hard marching in pursuit of Tantia Topee in Sir John Michael’s force, which involved 10 days coverage of 241 miles.
On top of this, the men suffered from a complaint called guinea worm which affected the legs and feet causing great pain. They also risked catching cholera and dysentery.
When the 8th was transferred to the Bengal presidency after the Mutiny, reaching Meerut in February 1861, they very soon lost 2 officers and 31 men in a cholera epidemic.
Battle on the River Raptee
Sir William Russell, who was now the commanding officer of the 7th Hussars, was put in command of a cavalry force sent to pursue Nana Sahib.
His force included the 7th, 1st Punjab Cavalry and RHA. The 7th were split into two wings of 2 squadrons each, Major Francis Horne led 3rd and 4th squadrons and Russell led 1st and 2nd.
The enemy were forced out of a jungle, pursued over a plain and down to the River Raptee. The RHA were held up by a wide and difficult nullah but the cavalry continued.
The rebels crossed by a ford but it was covered by Nana’s artillery. Russell and his squadrons had to dash along the river to the next ford, under a heavy fire from enemy guns. Horne’s men were already there and the order to charge was given.
They galloped into the river but met with great difficulties in the form of submerged rocks, trees and holes in the riverbed.
When Russell arrived he tried to halt the charge but many casualties had been sustained including Major Horne who was missing. His body was found later under the trunk of a tree with two dead sowars clasped in his arms. Two other privates of the 7th were found dead in a similar way, indicating how various death struggles had occurred in the treacherous waters.
It was here that the wounded Captain Fraser won his Victoria Cross when he swam out to a sand-bank in the river to rescue Captain Stisted and two others.