The Sutlej Campaign and The Worcestershire Regiment

The 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot, founded in 1694, was one of only four British regiments to carry an English motto (‘Firm’). They were one of just two regiments to use the elongated garter star and having a naval crown on their badge. They also had the curious nickname of ‘The Ever Sworded 29th’, as since the time when the regiment was ambushed at night by Native Americans in the 1740s, all officers wore swords even when off duty and in the mess.

However, the Worcestershire Regiment was not only unique in terms of regimental tradition. It also had a distinguished military record. The 29th and its successors have played an important role throughout their history, from distinguishing themselves in the Peninsular War to raising twelve battalions in the Second World War. One particularly significant role was that undertaken in India during the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1845-46 and 1848-49.

Britain[1] had had good relations with the Sikh Empire, based in the Punjab, when it was under the leadership of Ranjit Singh.  However, six years of anarchy following his death in 1839 resulted in the Sikh army gaining substantial power. Gradually, relations between the British and the Sikhs broke down, and war broke out.

On 11th December 1845, an army of 50,000 Sikhs, led by Lal Singh, crossed the Sutlej River which separated the Punjab from British India. They were met by a British force, including the 29th, who had marched an astounding 170 miles from Ambala in just nine days. Despite the terrible heat and thirst from which they suffered, not a single man dropped out.

The day of their arrival marked the start of the Battle of Ferozeshah. As Major Congreve, a senior officer in the regiment, explained in a letter to his father: ‘at about 2pm [they] first came in sight of the enemy’s cavalry skirmishers, who opened a wild and harmless fire upon [them].[2]

As the British attacked the entrenched enemy camp, they were outnumbered about 3:1. The 29th manoeuvred to the right. 185 of the regiment’s men were wounded, including Major Congreve who was twice injured. In his letter he wrote that ‘no hail storm ever fell so thick and heavy as the Sikh’s shot, among [them]. ‘[3]

Fighting continued until midnight, with harassing fire and explosions of mines. By dawn the Sikhs had withdrawn, but the British casualties had been heavy. The Worcestershires alone had lost 250 out of its 785 men.

The Battle of Sobraon began on 10h February 1846, with a British force (again including the Worcestershires) advanced towards Sikh positions under heavy fire. After two failed attempts, they forced their way into the enemy’s entrenchments and captured their guns. The Sikhs lost 13,000 men whilst the British lost a comparatively small 2000. The 29th regiment alone suffered 186 casualties out of their remaining strength of 552.

Ten days later, a treaty was signed at Lahore, reinstating Dhuleep Singh as Governor of The Punjab, thereby creating a sovereign friendly to the British.

The commanding officer of the 3rd Brigade of the British forces, Colonel Charles Cyril Taylor, was one of the many killed in action at Sobraon – shot in the head while personally leading the third and decisive charge against the Sikh positions. Taylor appears to have been well liked and respected within the army. Congreve expressed his sadness that: ‘poor Taylor, [their] colonel…was shot dead when gallantly leading the advance.’[4] It is Colonel Taylor who is depicted on the Sutlej Campaign Memorial in the north aisle Worcester Cathedral.

Colonel Taylor's effigy on the Sutlej Campaign Memorial in Worcester Cathedral

Colonel Taylor’s effigy on the Sutlej Campaign Memorial in Worcester Cathedral

However, the involvement of the 29th regiment in India doesn’t end at Sobraon. They also played a key role, three years later, in the Second Anglo-Sikh War – particularly at the battles of Chillianwallah on 13th January 1849 and Goojerat on 21st February of that same year. The 29th were part of a 13,000 strong British force fighting 30,000 Sikhs, resulting in 1 out of 3 of British troops being killed or wounded.

DSC00180

The bravery, courage and strength of the men of the Worcestershire Regiment was indeed commendable; fighting in difficult conditions far away from home, often with little food, water and sleep. Although the fighting was savage and brutal between both sides in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, both sides developed a mutual respect for the other’s martial prowess.

Amelia Ireland

 

[1] Here, for sake of simplicity, the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘The British’ are used as a convenient short-hand, while recognising that The British East India Company was the primary policy driver in the region, rather than the British government, and that the East India Company’s armies were comprised of a mixture of British and Indian troops. Similarly, terms such as ‘The Sikhs’ are used as a convenient short-hand, while recognising that the Punjab and surrounding areas were and remain a place of great religious, ethnic and cultural diversity.

[2] Congreve Letters, 30th December 1845

[3] Congreve Letters, 24th March 1846

[4] Congreve Letters, 14th February 1846

Bibliography

Congreve, Colonel George CB, Letters, available at: http://www.worcestershireregiment.com/h_29th_Foot_Congreve_letters.php [accessed 22/07/2014]

Everard, Major H, XXIX (Worcestershire) Regiment, Worcester, 1891

Gale, R, The Worcestershire Regiment, Barnsley, 1970

National Army Museum’s webpage on the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot: http://www.nam.ac.uk/research/famous-units/29th-worcestershire-regiment-foot [accesed 05/08/2014]

 

 

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