A Young British Officer in India

A Young British Officer in India

Peter Harrington (ed.)
4 Mushroom Heads
In1845 the nineteen year old Ensign Charles Nedham, HM's 10th Foot(later Royal Lincolnshire Regiment) set out by sea to India to join his unit. He kept a journal and in 1849 made a fair copy of it, less whatever pages had been mislaid on his travels. The result has been edited for publication by Peter Harrington.

The story is in two parts - the journey from Portsmouth to Calcutta and then onwards by boat and later by palanquin (this took 23 weeks) to Meerut; and participation in the 2nd Sikh War including the siege of Multan and the battle of Gujarat, both vividly described, and the whole illustrated with various elegant sketches of buildings, boats and so forth encountered on Nedham's travels, and tactical plans of engagements. The other units involved all get a mention.

Unlike military memoirs of retired generals, which focus on the later years and are sometimes self-serving, this is a raw account of exactly what it was like to be a green young officer on campaign in India, with a great deal of social as well as military detail - the two necessarily converge - as Nedham tries to live on his pay while employing servants and paying his mess bill and lodging. He is censorious of many of his seniors and justifies this as he goes along, with particular loathing for his CO, Colonel Franks, a petty and egotistical man with no concern for his troops as shown, for instance, by his incurring quite unnecessary casualties by making them keep their red coats on while route marching in over 100ºF sun.

Following the murder of two British officials at Multan and the Sikh rebellion there, the Lahore Division of which the 10th was part was deployed to sort things out. The journey of about 200 miles, by boat and foot,took over three weeks. The detail includes, for a total force of4,600 effectives, the hundreds of hangers-on, the elephants, the draught bullocks, the thousands of camels and so forth that made up the slow moving (2 mph) cavalcade. The first attempt at a siege in early September 1848 failed - with many casualties - due to bad intelligence. The 10th then bimbled around nearby until reinforcements arrived. The Division tried again at the end of December. After four weeks the Multan fort surrendered. The force then marched to administer a final beating to the enemy at Gujarat a month later. The war was over and the Punjab had joined the Raj.Little could the participants have thought that their Raj had less than a century to run.

Nedham's social attitudes are of his time; there is no mention of any Other Ranks at all; and his contempt for the natives is writ large, and given some explanation.

The 80 pages of the journal itself give a fascinating niche picture of British military life in India shortly before the Mutiny. The editor's introduction could I think have been shorter - the extensive quotation rather marred my enjoyment of the actual text. Also, the book would have benefited from a couple of good maps to show the places mentioned on the journey up-country from Calcutta, and those encountered on the marches from Lahore to Multan and then Gujarat,many of which receive a vignette description. However these cavils should not obscure the enjoyment and education I gained from reading Needham's experiences. The book is a useful addition to the corpus of literature about British India.
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