Indian Army - Early History

India's present-day army has emerged from the land forces set up by the British between the 1600's and the 1800's. But there have been many other Indian armies throughout the nation's history. India has been ravaged by internal wars and invasions, and a number of warlike people have come to prominence over the centuries, most notably the Rajputs and the Sikhs.

The roots of the modern Indian army are traced to the forces employed by the English (later British) East India Company, chartered in 1600, and the French East India Company (Compagnie des Indes Orientales), established in 1664. The British East India Company arrived in India in 1607. It formed armed troops of men to act as factory guards in Madras (now Chennai) and Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1662. By 1708, the three presidencies of Bengal (Calcutta), Madras, and Bombay were formed, and each established its own armed forces. British units were divided into three armies corresponding to the company's centers of Bengal (headquartered at Fort William in Calcutta), Bombay (or Mumbai in the Marathi language), and Madras (headquartered at Fort Saint George). The French, headquartered at Pondicherry (Puduchcheri) by the 1670s, were the first to raise Indian companies and use them in conjunction with European soldiers. The war between France and England in 1744 forced a reorganization of the East India Company's forces, and artillery and an ordnance service were introduced. Subsequently, in the 1740s, the British started to organize and train Indian units.

In 1748 the East India Company armies were brought under the command of Stringer Lawrence, who is regarded by historians as the progenitor of the modern Indian army. Under his guidance, British officers recruited, trained, and deployed these forces. Although formally under a unified command, the three armies in practice exercised considerable autonomy because of the great distances that separated them.

In 1796, the company had 18,000 Europeans and 84,000 Indians in its uniform, and these numbers had been expanded to 37,000 and 223,000 by 1830. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the vast majority of the soldiers of each army was composed of Indian troops known as sepoys (from the Hindi sipahi, meaning police officer, or, later, soldier). Sepoy units had Indian junior commissioned officers who could exercise only low-level command. British officers held all senior positions. No Indian had any authority over non-Indians. In addition to these all-Indian units, the British deployed some units of the British Army. The forty battalions of which which the Madras army was composed was homogeneous, the men of each regiment being recruited generally from the southern parts of the peninsula. The Bombay Army was smaller than that of Madras, consisting of only thirty battalions of infantry, with a little over 20,000 men. The whole of this force is raised generally from the districts occupied by it. The Bengal Presidency was not garrisoned wholly by the regular army.

By the middle of the 19th Century the armies of the Native States looked formidable on paper, for they were said to number altogether about 380,000 men, of whom 69,000 were cavalry and 11,000 artillery, with some 4,000 guns. These figures were very deceptive. A small portion only of these so-called armies had any military organization. They consisted for the most part of men who could hardly be called soldiers. The majority of them are maintained for purposes of display, without the least idea that they can ever be used for fighting. The so-called array includes multitudes of the armed retainers of the chiefs and nobles, and nearly the whole of the men whom we should class as police.

There were only two cases in which it seemed possible that the armies of the Native States might become causes of anxiety to the Government. The first was the army of Gwalior. Among all the armies of the Native States this was the most completely organized. It consisted of about 11,000 men, of whom about 6,000 are cavalry, all fairly drilled and disciplined, with several fully equipped batteries of artillery. The largest of the armies of the Native States was that of the Nizam of Hyderabad, also a foreigner in the country belonging to him. It was so heterogeneous a body that it was difficult to state its numbers, but that part of it which may with some reason be called an army consisted of about 45,000 men.

The troops of the Rajputana States consisted, on paper, of more than 100,000 men, with 1,400 guns, but these figures had no military significance. The men were not, for the most part, soldiers in the service of the State, but the members of a military class. None of the guns were equipped for service.

The troops of the Sikh States were composed of good material; they were well officered, and have on occasions done excellent service for the British Crown. They are devoted to their chiefs, who are conspicuously loyal, and bound to the British Government by mutual goodwill and good offices, which had extended over many years.

The troops of no Native State possessed arms of precision ; they had no breech-loading rifles, no rifled ordnance, and very little organized artillery. They were, for the most part, an un-drilled, wretchedly armed rabble, and two or three British regiments, with a battery of horse artillery, would disperse 50,000 of them. With the few exceptions named, they could not cause the British anxiety. They were not armies in the ordinary sense of the term.

Field brigades were organized, then divisions, until at last, just before the Mutiny of 1857, the British had 311,000 native troops, forming, with the European forces, 40,000 strong, three 'presidential ' armies, and various local forces and contingents. These separate armies, belonging to the presidencies of Fort William in Bengal, Fort St. George in Madras, and Bombay, had grown up into almost independent forces. The total strength of the Indian army, in 1857, the year before the mutiny, consisted of 45,522 Europeans, and 282,224 natives.

Join the mailing list