Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Strength of Sepoys in the rebnellion of 1857-59

Sepoy Strength Exaggerated by the British writers

Since there was no military account written by the “Rebels” of 1857, all we are left with are the British accounts. These too are again based on military records despatches and reports written by participants who were mostly very keen to win the newly introduced “Victoria Cross”! In this exercise these participants indulged in an effort to inflate sepoy strength in each and every action.

We have earlier discussed how Michael Edwards, an otherwise respectable historian tried to fit 30,000 Rebels in a space which was not more than 600 or 700 yards wide as per the British Survey Map of the battle in case of the Battle of Badli Ki Serai!

The sepoys were essentially plain soldiers led by the Subedars and Risaldar Native Officers, and were without any officer cadre or the shackles of military discipline. Two factors played an important part in reducing the strength of every sepoy unit. The first was that many soldiers after a successful mutiny and the initial looting spree deserted their regiments and retired to their villages. This happened immediately after every outbreak. The most glaring out of all these was the case of the 10th Native Infantry at Fatehgarh which after rebelling and looting simply dispersed to their villages; with the exception of very few individuals who went to the Nawab of Farkhabad. This was a fairly documented fact; and thus when the 41th Native Infantry reached Farkhabad in September 1857; the Nawab gave them the colours of the old 10th Native Infantry to carry551. The second major problem was that with the passage of time as it became more and more clear that the British are winning; particularly after the recapture of Delhi; many soldiers deserted and simply went to their villages. Thus it is most likely that but the time the British launched their assault on Delhi the sepoy strength at Delhi may not have been greater than 6,000 or 7,000.

Many regiments came to Delhi from distances exceeding 200 to 300 miles; some came from as far as 500 miles. Many of these regiments were pursued or obstructed on their way to Delhi by British troops or loyal troops; specially those who came from Ferozepur Jallandhar and Phillaur. These we have the example of the 3 Nl, 36 NI, 61 Nl and 6th Light Cavalry who crossed the Sutlej on their way to Delhi from Jallandhar *36 Nl, 61 Nl, 6 LC) and Phillaur (3 Nl) in July 1857. Keeping in view their total on paper, strength theoretically should have consisted of some 3,500 men (3,000 infantry and 500 cavalry). As per the British account however; which is this case in somehow factual the strength of these regiments was 1,600 552.

In any case no unit of a army has complete strength at all times; since many men are on long leave (which in India as a policy was compulsarily given for economy measures for a period of two to three months annually). Even Fortescue who was a very conservative and pro establishment historian observed at many places in his History of British Army that the Sepoy strength was exaggerated by many British officers who fought against the sepoys in 1857.

Another aspect of the whole affair was the motivational aspect. Every regiment had a hard core of men who stayed together till the end; but similarly every regiment had a hard core of men who stayed together till the end; but similarly every regiment had many who simply preferred the safety of their village; after the initial outbreak was over. This is a very simple aspect in a rebellion in which the coercive authority of a stable peacetime state to apprehend deserters has lapsed.

Another very simple calculation of sepoy strength which may have been initially available on the first day of each regiments successful rebellion is as following:-

a. Total Bengal Army Native Troops Strength -118,663 553
b. Sepoy Strength in Bengal -29,000 554
c. Sepoy Strength in Punjab -65,478 out of which 37,257 were Hindustanis.
d. Total Remaining Sepoy Strength
excluding those in Bengal and Punjab - 24, 185

Calculation of number of Rebels which may hypothetically have fought against the British:—

a. Punjab:— A total of 6 Infantry and 2 Cavalry units rebelled and successfully reached Delhi to fight against the British. This comes to a figure of a maximum of 4,100 men as per the following calculation:-

(1) Jullundhur Brigade and Phillor Rebels:— These were four units i.e. 3 Nl 36 Nl, 61 Nl & 6 Light Cavalry ------------------ 1,600556

(2) Ferozepur Brigade:— These were two units i.e. 45 Nl & 10 Light Cavalry And these could not have been more than 1,500 if we being very liberal to the British unrealistically agree that all posted strength rebelled and all reached Delhi some 300 miles away!

(3) Ambala Brigade:- 5 Nl and 60 Nl rebelled towards September but a large Number as per the Gazetteer were killed or jailed557 and two companies of the 5th Native Infantry never rebelled. If we are very liberal we may state the figure of rebels which reached Delhi from Ambala at 1,000 men!

b. Bengal:- As per the Cambridge History, above quoted there were 29,000 Sepoys in Bengal. Out of these as per our calculation four infantry and two cavalry units successfully reached Rebel Held areas. This meant that a maximum of 4,800 men out of the total of 29,000 could have fought against the British at Lucknow, Banda or Cawnpore.

c. Total Hypothetical Maximum Strength of Rebel Sepoys:— 24,185+ 4,100 + 4,800 = 33,085. A Total of 33,085 regular troops could have possibly fought against the British in total, if we believe the figures advanced by the Cambridge History and Lord Roberts as true!

Summary of all units of Bengal Army and major state force units behaviour in 1857

Type of UnitLoyalLoyal but DisarmedDisbanded or destroyedPart Rebelled and part loyalSuccessfully rebelled and fought later
Regular Infantry 74 Units46272.534.5
Irregular Infantry 35 Units23--0.511.5
Total Infantry27627346
Regular Cavalry--5-5
Irregular Cavalry934110
Total Cavalry939115
Total Bengal Army36936461
State Infantry Units---17
State Cavalry Units----2
Total State Units---19
Grand Total Units 156 Units36936570

J.W Fortescue the author of the classic is “A History of the British Army” and a very pro Establishment and conservative historian admitted the fact that many British accounts about 1857 were highly exaggerated. Fortescue thus said; “This impression, moreover, is heightened by the accounts of the hundreds of engagements with various forces of the rebels. Their numbers were always superior, they had plenty of guns, they had the climate in their favour, and they frequently fortified positions or buildings for a resolute defence. Yet, a commander had only to attack them otherwise then as they desired to be attacked (which was not very difficult), and they invariably gave way without inflicting any great loss. We hear frequently of their stubborn resistance, yet the lists of the British casualties rarely, if ever, suggest any severe struggle”.558

Around 2,500 cavalry at Delhi, around 8,000 infantry and around 3,000 cavalry at Lucknow and around 3,000 infantry and 400 cavalry at Cawnpore. The figure for Delhi is comparatively lower keeping the total number of regiments in view; however this is so because the rebels arrived at Delhi more slowly and from far off places and in between a long period involving four months; figure at Lucknow is comparatively more stable; because most of the regiments which came to Lucknow came from a 100 mile radius around Lucknow; stretching at the maximum to 200 miles with the exception of the Dinapur brigade or the Segowlee cavalry. The strength at Cawnpore is comparatively higher; since 3 out of four regiments which fought at Cawnpore were part of the Cawnpore garrison and did not march from anywhere outside Cawnpore.

  • It is human to exaggerate the odds against a unit in order to magnify the battle performance of a unit or an individual commands.
  • In order to perpetrate the “White man’s superiority” myth. They succeeded in doing so at least till the Russo Japanese invasion of Malaya!
  • To get the newly instituted Victoria Cross!

Block Region wise analysis Summary of Bengal Army units behaviour in 1857-58

RegionTotal RegimentsRebelled & FoughtDisarmed Disbanded or loyal

Bengal Bihar & Orrissa31933.5-15.5
Benares Region17-1.515.5
Oudh and Rohailkhand6215.517.50.53.5
Doab & Agra21128-3
Delhi Region140.540.5-
Punjab & Frontier2138241934
Central India & Rajputana517515-2

Note:-- Where a unit has partly rebelled it has been assumed for simplicity that half of it remained loyal and half remained.

Table showing regions of original location and regions where rebel units fought in 1857

Location where the regiment initially fought in the rebellion

Original LocationTotal Regiments involvedDelhiLakhnowCawnporeKalpiBanda

Bengal Bihar and Orrissa33.5--13--1-0.50.5
Benares Region-1.5---1------
Oudh & Rohailkhand5.517.50.55512.5------
Doab & Agra2813--------
Delhi Region0.540.54--------
Punjab & Frontier2424--------
Central India & Rajputana51527----36-2
Total 71 Units1853.5623616.5154612.5

Summary of Bengal Army unit behaviour-1857

RegionTotal RegimentsRebelled SuccessfullyLoyal & also those who were loyal but were disarmed
Destroyed or disarmed and later disbanded or immediately disbanded








Punjab38 21421412207
New Provience43103187151
Central India and Rajputana1751552---