During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, a column of troops led by the commander of the 24th Regiment of Foot was dispatched to Rawalpindi and Jhelum to disarm Bengal Native Infantry battalions suspected of mutiny. The 58th Bengal Native Infantry was disarmed peacefully at Rawalpindi, while the 14th Bengal Native Infantry's two companies rejected the attempt with force. The British, loyal native troops, and the local community soon defeated these two units. The concurrently timed disarmament at Jhelum, which was also garrisoned by the 14th, was far more savage. Thirty-five British soldiers of the 24th Regiment of Foot (of later Rorkes Drift fame) were slain (or died of their wounds) by mutinous sepoys of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry, along with a number of Loyal Indian troops. When the mutineers learned that they, with the exception of the Sikhs, were about to be disarmed, they revolted and fought back against the troops dispatched from Rawalpindi to disarm them. The following night, a large number of mutineers managed to flee, but the majority were apprehended by Kashmiri authorities, into whose territory they had slipped.
The Indian Mutiny, also known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, has a complicated history that begins with the Hindu members of the British East India Company Army of the Presidency of Bengal (although the British view after the mutiny was that it was largely driven by Muslim members). Each of the three "Presidencies" that the East India Company divided India into for administrative purposes had its own army. The Army of the Bengal Presidency was the largest of these. Unlike the other two, it attracted a large number of high-caste Hindus and affluent Muslims. Muslims made up the majority of the Bengal Army's 18 irregular cavalry units, while Hindus were mostly found in the 84 regular infantry and horse regiments. As a result, the sepoys were heavily influenced by the concerns of landowners and traditional sections of Indian society. The Bengal Army, which recruited its regular soldiers almost exclusively among the landowning Brahmins and Rajputs of Bihar and Awadh in the early years of Company administration, accepted and even encouraged caste privileges and rituals. Purbiyas were the name given to these soldiers. The sepoys had grown accustomed to high ceremonial status and were particularly sensitive to accusations that their caste might be tainted by the time these practices and privileges were threatened by modernising administrations in Calcutta from the 1840s onwards.
The sepoys got disgruntled with different aspects of army life over time. Their pay was poor, and after Awadh and the Punjab were annexed, the troops were no longer entitled to extra pay (batta or bhatta) for their service there because they were no longer considered "foreign missions." Junior European officers grew increasingly distanced from their soldiers, regarding them as racial inferiors in many circumstances. The Company issued a new Enlistment Act in 1856, which in theory made every unit in the Bengal Army subject to overseas service. Despite the fact that the Act was supposed to apply solely to new recruits, serving sepoys were concerned that it might be applied retroactively to them as well. In the tight surroundings of a wooden troop ship, a high-caste Hindu could neither prepare his own meal or build his own fire, and thus risked losing caste through ritual defilement.
The incident that appears to have sparked the rebellion of units within the East India Company Army involved the provision of new cartridges for the in-service weapon. The grease on these cartridges was rumored to have been manufactured from animal fat, notably beef or pig fat. This myth sparked controversy since troops had to put the cartridges in their mouths to rip them open, and cows were considered sacred by Hindus and pigs were considered dirty by Muslims. This erupted into open defiance in some units, culminating in a bloodbath in Meerut and Delhi.
Disarming of Native Units
As discontent grew as some units openly rebelled, the decision was made to disarm those Bengal regiments thought to be on the verge of mutiny. This does not appear to have been a consistent policy throughout the East India Company Army, and the decision to disarm regiments appears to have been made on a case-by-case basis at the local level. In some situations, such as at Benares and Allahabad, attempts to disarm units went horribly wrong or were botched, resulting in local revolts. As a result, orders to disarm other Bengal Native groups were carried out in a far more secretive manner.
Deployment of Forces
To avoid informing the Bengal Native Infantry battalions in Jhelum and Rawalpindi of preparations to disarm them, the decision was made to disarm both garrisons at the same time. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ellice led a small force that included three companies of the 24th Regiment of Foot (a Regular British Army unit rather than an East India Company unit), 260 men, three guns from Captain Cooke's Company of the Bengal Horse Artillery, and 150 men from Miller's Police Battalion on July 1, 1857. (an Indian unit). This force was ordered to proceed to Rawalpindi on sealed orders, and Mooltanee levies under Lieutenant Lind joined them en route. The officers and men had no idea what mission they were on, and many had imagined they would be deployed to Delhi.
The garrison at Rawalpindi was ordered out on parade on July 7th, presumably to hear regular instructions read out loud. Captain Millar's Mounted Police, the 58th Bengal Native Infantry, and two companies of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry were among the troops in the garrison at the time, along with the other half of the 24th of Foot and the remainder of Cooke's Company of the Bengal Horse Artillery. Brigadier Campbell of the Royal Artillery and commander of the garrison issued instructions for the two Bengal Native Infantry regiments to be disarmed during regular orders. This was done without the knowledge of the British officers in charge of these two troops, and while the 58th followed orders, the 14th's two companies took up arms and staged a combat withdrawal chased by the Mounted Police. Those from the two companies who made it into town were later apprehended by the locals, and their heads were given to the garrison the next day.
Charles Ellice's force arrived at Deenah on the morning of July 6th, one day's march from Jhelum, where he was to open his sealed orders. Ellice dispatched half of his mounted Mooltanee warriors ahead of the column, instructing them to cross the river and proceed through the low country and waddies in order to avoid notice and cover that flank. He then rode ahead to Jhelum and met with Lieutenant Colonel Gerard, commander of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry, to give him instructions on how he should work with his unit the next morning.
As events in Rawalpindi unfolded the next day (7 July), the three cannons of Captain Cooke's Bengal Horse Artillery and the remainder of the Mooltanee Cavalry took up positions to the right of the Jhelum Cantonment, cutting off communication lines. The infantry of the 24th of Foot arrived later that morning, advancing into the open outside the cantonment and forming a line. At this point, the 14th Bengal Native Infantry was lined up in a column on their parade square, with the Sikh soldiers of the unit to one side. When the 14th saw the British troops approaching, they realized they were about to be disarmed and began loading their guns and preparing for a fight. Their European officers tried unsuccessfully to reason with them and persuade them to put down their guns. When the Sikh troops and European officers realized they were in danger, they moved quickly towards the 24th Regiment of Foot, just as the 14th's surviving troops opened fire on them.
The mutineers began forming defensive positions and blocking the main route into the garrison, but were met by a charge headed by Lieutenant Lind of the Mooltanee Cavalry. The mutineers suffered a large number of fatalities as a result of the cavalry charge, but with Lieutenant Lind down (his mount shot out from under him) and the 14th in a solid defensive position, the cavalry were unable to pursue their attack. In ten minutes, the Mooltanees had lost nine people, 28 horses, and 60 horses. The Mooltanee Infantry and Millar's Police Battalion pursued the attack, which was backed up by the Bengal Horse Artillery's guns, but the battle ended in a stalemate.
Finally, Ellice led 50 of his men from the 24th of Foot in an assault, expecting to storm the enemy position, and he was successful in breaking past the mutineers' Quarter Guard. During the charge, Ellice was wounded in the neck and leg, but the mutineers of the 14th Bengal Native Infantry retreated to the 39th Bengal Native Infantry's adjacent camp. When an artillery shell hit the magazine, producing a big explosion, the mutineers were forced to evacuate from their new position, with roughly 300 retreating to the nearby settlement of Saemlee and preparing new positions.
The troops of the 24th of Foot uncovered the 39th's Mess and stores, including the alcohol, during a pause in the action. The men were difficult to restrain after a long march, and order was briefly disrupted, with only the Bengal Horse artillery and the Mooltanees staying disciplined and keeping an eye on the enemy.
Ellice regained command and authorized another attack after he had recovered sufficiently to do so. To prevent the mutineers from fleeing, the Mounted Police and Mooltanees Cavalry were stationed on the village's left flank, and the artillery was ordered closer to the village to commence a Grapeshot bombardment. However, because the range was so near and the mutineers were adequately hidden by the village's structures, the artillerymen began to suffer heavy casualties, being picked off by hostile Sepoys. Captain McPherson of the 24th tried a bayonet attack on the settlement but was forced to retreat.
Ellice ordered a withdrawal as ammunition ran out and the artillery suffered heavy losses in men and horses. One of the guns could not be hauled away due to horse losses and damage, and the mutineers captured it and tipped it into the river. Because it was getting late, the decision was made to postpone the attack on the settlement until the morning, and pickets were erected. As events unfolded, the events of the day were telegraphed to the Rawalpindi garrison, and a Colonel was rushed to replace the wounded Ellice, as well as a small column of reinforcements from the 24th under the command of Lieutenant Holland.
When the attack was to be resumed the next morning, the attackers discovered that the rest of the 14 Bengal Native Infantry's mutineers had slipped away during the night.
Despite the fact that a considerable number of mutineers managed to flee, they discovered that crossing the river was difficult because the Punjabi Police had controlled the important crossing points and boats. The Mooltanees patrolling the far side of the river or other troops further downstream seized the majority of those who managed to find some small boats. 100 Sikhs remained loyal out of 600 troops in the 14th Bengali Native Light Infantry located at Jhelum; 150 were killed outright in the combat, 180 were captured by British or East India Company forces, and 150 were detained by Kashmiri authorities and turned over to the British. Only 50 people were still missing. The 14th Bengali Native Infantry was destroyed as a regiment as a result of the battle at Jhelum and Rawalpindi.
On 1 January 1858, Lieutenant Colonel Ellice was Mentioned in Dispatches, awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal, and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.
The 14th Bengali Native Infantry's early success, however, had a far-reaching impact, sending shockwaves throughout the region and causing dissatisfaction among adjacent garrisons.