January 2015 – The Siege of Bhurtpore 1825
In February, 1819, the 11th Light Dragoons sailed for the east and the regiment’s first time as part of the garrison of India. In the early 19th century this was far from an easy posting: in 1820, for example, 25 men died in a three-month trip by boat along the Ganges; in 1821 169 men were lost to sickness; and in 1821, one officer and 28 men died of disease.
However, replacements were received regularly from England, and
when war broke out in 1825, the Eleventh were ready. Bhurtpore (now Bharatpur) was, at the time, a massive fortress, about 30 miles west of Agra and was considered impregnable. In 1805 a British army led by Lord Lake had besieged the fort and attempted four times to storm it – each time with huge loss of life. The bones of many of his men still lay in the sun.
In 1825, the Rajah of Bhurtpore had died and a rebellion broke out, attracting many Indians resistant to the increasing power and influence of the British. The Rajah’s nephew, Doorjan Saul, seized the throne, excluding the rightful heir, the Rajah’s son, Bulwant Singh, who favoured the British.
Negotiations failed, and the British sent a force to subdue the area, under the command of Lord Combermere. The army comprised 30,000 men. Most were Indian sepoys, but the 11th Light Dragoons and 16th Lancers were present in a Cavalry Division under the command of a former 11th Light Dragoon, Colonel Sleigh.
The fort was 8 miles in circumference, and was enclosed by 35 semi-circular bastions, made of clay mixed with horse dung, set in layers and allowed to dry rock-hard in the sun. This was considered impervious to artillery fire even before it had been strengthened with tree trunks buried upright. A dry moat, 150 feet wide and 59 feet deep, circled the fort (and could be flooded by cutting an embankment from a nearby lake).
Finally, a new bastion, The Futteh Boorg (said to be built on the bones of the men who had fallen in 1805) supplemented a 144 foot-high citadel. The whole was surrounded by jungle.
In December, Combermere’s force began skirmishing to keep the garrison isolated. It was thought the fortress contained only 2,500 men, but with artillery and other weapons, and was made up of the cream of the region’s soldiers.
Initially the attack was traditional: on 23rd December the first parallel was completed. This was a line of trenches, parallel to the defences, allowing the attackers to get close to the fortress. Then a mine was dug to place explosives under the defences, but was exploded before it reached its target.
A second mine was counter-mined by the enemy, and on 8th January 1826 20,000 lbs of gunpowder was blown up by a shot from the defenders. However, two mines were completed successfully on the 16th and on the 17th a massive mine was completed at the north-east angle of the defences – the attack was planned for the 18th.
At 8.00 a.m. the charge was ignited and was completely successful in destroying the defences. Too successful, in fact – falling stones and earth killed and wounded many of the attackers. Despite this, the attack was wholly successful, and by midday the ramparts had been taken, with the gates of the citadel captured in the afternoon.
The cavalry, including the 11th Light Dragoons, were not involved in the assault, but were used to prevent the defenders escaping, being positioned mostly to the west of the fortress. Doorjan Saul himself was captured by the Indian 8th Light Cavalry: he had with him his wife and two sons, and £3,200 in gold.
Also captured was a British deserter, Bombardier Herbert. Herbert had joined the rebels in December and helped direct their artillery – very well, in fact, as he had almost killed Lord Combermere. He was unceremoniously hanged.
61 British and 42 Indian soldiers were killed, with 283 Europeans and 183 Indians wounded. The 11th lost two men and four horses killed and one officer, 12 men and 22 horses wounded. It is estimated that 4,000 died from the garrison, mostly in the explosion of the great mine.
As was common in those times, booty was taken in vast quantities and allocated on the basis of rank. The Commander in Chief received 595,398 rupees, with each Sergeant receiving 80 rupees, and Privates receiving 40. 50,000 rupees had been deducted from the amount given to officers in order to be given to widows and children of men killed.
In HorsePower Museum is one of the regiment’s most prized possessions – the Bhurtpore sword. This was given in the late 19th century by Major Esmè Harrison, DSO, having been taken in the fighting at Bhurtpore. For many years it was the model for dress swords worn in the regiment and is, together with the Balaclava Trumpet (used in the Charge of the Light Brigade, and also in the museum) one of the most cherished items inherited from the 11th Hussars.