As the last knot of mutineers stood against the charge of the 10th Bombay Native Infantry, there must have been many who marvelled at the regiment’s bravery. Kotah-ki-Serai in June 1858 was the stiffest fight that the 10th experienced in the so-called ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. Bengal troops – trained, armed, dressed, and equipped just like the 10th – fought with great ferocity against their East India Company masters.
The mutineers were supported by swarms of local fighters – undisciplined, but full of the same desperate courage. Both sepoys and civilians had come to hate the British and their vassals from distant Bombay. But, as volleys from the new Enfield rifles scythed through them, and as bayonets stabbed flesh and butts smashed bone, there were many in the rebel ranks who wondered at the steadfastness of the 10th.
Although there was no sign of it in this bitter fight, only a few months before, 800 miles away to the south, these same troops had been paraded and disarmed by the Queen’s regiments now fighting alongside them. At that moment, the British had stared down their barrels, fingers on triggers, expecting to fire into their comrades at the least sign of unrest. Then, as the 10th stood and sweated in the sun, the court-martial’s sentence was passed on three comrades who just days before had been arrested on suspicion of planning mutiny. All were found guilty. One was to be transported, but Havildar Sayad Hussein and Sepoy Mangal Cadiya were to face the executioner.
The area in which the 10th Bombay was to fight was in Mahratta country, far from insurgent Meerut and Delhi. There had already been several bloody wars against this proudly independent people, the last sparked as Britain was distracted by the First Afghan War. Then, in the 1850s, resentment had been rubbed raw by the clumsiness of London and Calcutta, while the mishandling of the campaign in the Crimea suggested that the colonial power was vulnerable once again. Maharajas such as Nana Sahib chose his moment at Cawnpore, while around Gwalior – the northern heart of the Mahrattas – other leaders watched and waited. It was to this distant country that the 10th Bombay Native Infantry were sent in October 1857, with many of the British wondering just how reliable and loyal they would prove to be. By boat and boot, the 10th covered hundreds of miles into Bengal before meeting their first, serious opposition at the entrenched village of Rowa on 6 January 1858.
Another test awaited the 10th Bombay’s resolve a few days later on 23 January. Forced marches had brought the column to another enemy stronghold at Awah. Again, this was an action against large numbers of poorly armed mutineers and local men who had nothing but a belief in the Mahratta cause to sustain them. The town fell without much fighting, but over 170 prisoners were taken, all of whom were tried by summary court-martial. Now the penalty for being ‘taken in arms and in open rebellion against the state’ was unequivocal: death. Twenty-five men were found guilty, and it fell to the 10th to carry out sentence. One wonders if this was another test of loyalty, for British troops could have been detailed for the task Then came the much more serious challenge of the fortress of Kotah, which had to be taken by storm at the end of March, the 10th providing one of the assault parties.
Under cover of over 60 guns, the assault troops moved forward at about 11am on 30 March, the whole force penetrating the rebel stronghold via the Kettenpore Gate, which had been undermined by British sappers. Unfortunately, the mine exploded another that had already been placed by Singh’s men, the blast utterly destroying the gateway and stunning the assault troops.The 10th quickly recovered, though, and were soon skirmishing through the alleys and walled enclosures of the town, hunting out their quarry. The 10th Bombay’s last real battles of the Mutiny were in mid June, when the fabulous Rhani of Jhansi fell at Kotah-ki-Serai and the final Mahratta stronghold of Gwalior was sacked.
The glamorous female warrior, the Rhani of Jhansi, was (and still is) much written about; indeed, she is the subject of a very popular Indian TV series. In her bejewelled hands lay the only hope of a restoration of her people’s sovereignty, yet she was killed by the 8th Hussars, with whom she clashed on 17 June, sword in hand and dressed in mail. This fateful skirmish was within sight of the 10th Bombay, who were pressing forward over sandhills and scrub under heavy fire and a roasting sun towards their next objective – the great fortress of Gwalior. Here the 10th were seen to drive the enemy further into the Lashkar [a suburb of Gwalior], capturing a small brass howitzer and a mortar. Captain Roome was ordered to send on part of a company to disable the guns by knocking off a wheel, [while the rest of the regiment was] one hundred yards in the rear firing while lying down. The struggle at Kotah-ki-Serai and the fall of Gwalior were to prove the dénouement of the whole Mutiny – and the 10th Bombay were in at the death. Their brigade commander said in his despatches:
I cannot speak too highly of the steady and soldier like conduct of both officers and men… of the 10th Bombay NI, who, though exhausted by fatigue and want of food, stormed the heights under a burning sun and a heavy fire.
In less than a year, the regiment had gone from disgrace to distinction, proving their bravery and loyalty beyond doubt. Curiously, despite the steadfast conduct of the Madras and most Bombay troops during the Mutiny, the British afterwards decided that recruiting for all three presidencies’ armies would be concentrated in the Punjab and northern states. The ‘martial races’ of the north were considered better material than those of the south! After many changes and amalgamations, the 10th Bombay emerged as Rajputana Rifles, earning laurels around Cassino in Italy in 1944.
This is an extract from an article that appeared in issue 71 of Military History Monthly.