From Major Amin. A look at some factors that made the EIC so successful militarily. As usual, the Royal Navy gets a lot of credit.
Native troops played a significant role in the East India Company’s conquest of India. Certain aspects however made the military potential and effectiveness of East India Company’s troops stand out from their other opponents in India. The East India Company employed European officers trained in the European way of war to drill train and command native Indian troops.In addition in almost every battle native troops were grouped around a relatively much smaller nucleus of European troops. Another factor which played an important part in the East India Company’s conquest of India was naval power.Naval power gave flexibility to the operations of the East India Company. This meant that troops from Bengal Army could be swiftly transported from Bengal Presidency to the Madras presidency,thereby reinforcing the Madras troops in case of any serious military reverse. This happened many times during the Mysore Wars. Naval power also played an important role in logistically supporting the operations of land based armies. Three widely separated bases of the English East India Company which were interconnected with each other by sea meant that loss of any one of these could not defeat the company,since troops from one presidency could be switched to another quickly via the sea route. No single Indian power had common borders with all the three presidency and this meant that no single Indian power could destroy the English East India Company. The only way that this could be done was by an alliance of native powers and this was made extremely difficult since no two native powers could agree on anything for a long time. Above all the center of gravity of the English East India Company was naval power and no native power possessed naval potential to challenge British naval mastery. For sometime the French were in a position to do so,but the only opportunity to do so was lost during the Second Mysore War at Cuddalore when all the French squadron under Admiral D’ Orves had to do was to remain in position off the coast of Cuddaiore while the English East India Company’s main army under Sir Eyre Coote facing Hyder Ali of Mysore could have been starved into surrender. (1) Due to some inexplicable reason D ‘ Orves simply sailed away and the French lost their last decisive opportunity to defeat the English East India Company.
The origin of English East India Company’s native army were guards enrolled for the protection of their trading posts and factories in the seventeenth century. The French were the first European nation to employ natives as soldiers in India. In 1676 Francois Martin the French Governor of Pondicherry enrolled 300 Natives to beef up his very small force of European troops. (2) In 1740 Benoit Dumas another French governor of Pondicherry was employing a force comprising 4,000 to 5,000 Indian Muslims apart from the European troops. This force was led by one Paradis, described as a brilliant Swiss officer serving as a mercenary soldier of fortune in the army of the French East India Company may be noted that the superiority of the infantry-artillery team based European way of war , over the cavalry charge based Asiatic way of warfare, was, for the first time demonstrated at the Battle of Saint Thome in 1746, where the French-Native troops of the French East India Company, under the same Paradis , brushed aside the much larger and at least outwardly awesome cavalry heavy army of , Anwaruddin , the Nawab of Carnatic . Thus in words of the Cambridge historian “Cavalry could make no impression on troops that kept their ranks and reserved their fire . The terror of Asiatic armies had disappeared “ ! (3) Major Stringer Lawrence an officer of the Royal British Army is generally acknowledged by historians as tbe “father of the Indian Army”. He came to India in 1748 at the age of 51 Initially Calcutta was under the governor of Madras but in 1699 Bengal also became a Presidency (i.e. administered by a governor known as the President). Robert Clive later famous as Lord Clive was the first Englishman to organise Indian troops on pure European lines in June 1757,shortly before the decisive battle of Plassey.
Plassey as a result of which the English East India Ccompany became the master of the revenue rich provinces of Bengal Bihar and Orrissa was a true Mughal Indian battle; which the English won by bribing the Muslim courtiers of the Muslim Nawab of Bengal ! Thus the Army of Nawab of Bengal consisting of 50,000 infantry, 18,000 cavalry and a very powerful artillery train was effortlessly defeated by a British-Indian Army consisting of 750 Britishers,200 Topasses and 2,100 Native Sepoys supported by just ten artillery pieces. The vast bulk of the Nawab’s army did not fight as its commanders were in league with Clive. The battle was basically a cannonade and an exchange of musketry fire which the English Company won at the cost of just 18 killed and 48 wounded. The battle is remembered as one of the most decisive battles of world (listed by J.F.C Fuller as one of the decisive battles of the Western world) because it enabled the English Company to raise and support a private army with which it subsequently captured the whole of India within the next eighty two years! Robert Clive the father of the modern Indian Army was neither from the British Army,nor a soldier by profession.; but a simple clerk in the English East India Company’s service. Clive won the appointment of an officer in volunteer infantry for a daring escape from French captivity in 1746. Clive was a man of crisis and won fame for a daring military manouevre during the siege of Trichinopoly in 175l. He landed at Calcutta in 1757 with a British-Indian force tasked to relieve Calcutta which was besieged by the Muslim ruler of Bengal. Clive raised the ” Bengal Native Infantry” in January 1757. At that time this unit was known as “Lal Paltan” because of the red coats which it wore. This unit consisted of volunteers from the Gangetic Plain. These consisted of Hindu Jats,Hindustani Pathan Rohillas ,Rajputs and even Brahmans.
Before Clive raised the Lal Paltan ie the first Indian regiment dressed trained and organised on pure European lines the Indian troops employed in Madras Bengal and Bombay were ill disciplined and dressed trained and organised on haphazard and adhoc basis. The Lal Paltan which later on came to be known as the Ist Bengal Native Infantry was organised trained and equipped just like any other European unit of that time and officered by Europeans. It may be noted that there were no Bengalis in this regiment which was largely composed as we have already discussed of Muslims and Hindus of Rohilla Jat Rajput and Brahman castes from areas west of Bengal proper.
Clive’s experiment was successful and immediately after the battle of Plassey in which the La! Paltan participated a second sepoy (English distortion of the Indian word “Sipahi” which means soldier) battalion was raised. In Madras six similar battalions were raised in 1759. Similarly in Bombay Native Companies were formed in 1760 and these were eventually reorganised as Native Battalions in 1767. Three factors played an important part in the rapid expansion of the Native Army.The first was availability of manpower , the second was the economic factor, and the third was East India Company’s intense military activity during the period 1757-177l. European manpower was not readily available in India during this period. On the other hand due to decline of the Mughal Empire many soldiers were forced into unemployment and the English East India Company had a very wide choice of excellent recruits who flocked to Calcutta to get recruited.
Some time after the acquisition of Bengal as a result of the battle of Plassey the East India Company was forced to meet a new military threat from the west i.e. the Nawab Wazir of Oudh. This necessitated raising of new regiments. Thus by 1766, 29 infantry battalions had been raised in Bengal presidency alone apart from the Lal Paltan. Three out of these battalions were disbanded for mutiny in 1764 in which 24 mutineers were blown by artillery guns . (4) There is no doubt that Robert Clive the ex clerk was the real founder of the British Empire and Bengal Army which conquered major part of India for their British masters. Clive is remembered only for Plassey,but it is forgotten that even after Plassey it was Clive who saved the East India Company by creating the Bengal Native Army trained on European lines. Clive performed the duty of the Commander in Chief of the Bengal Army and the overall East India Company army chief in India from December 1756 to 25 February 1760 and again from April 1765 to January 1767. While it was true that Clive won the battle of Plassey by bribery and treachery,no one can refute the fact that Clive laid the essential foundations of British rule in India by organising native infantry battalions on European lines. Had these native battalions trained equipped and organised on European lines not been there, the English East India Company could not have held Bengal during the period 1757-66 , and , would have been simply overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers of the army of the Nawab of Oudh.
Thus in 1763 shortly before war between the English East India Company and the Nawab of Oudh commenced ,the company had on its strength some 10,000 Native troops and approximately 1,500 Europeans (including 220 British Army Infantry) . (5) At the decisive battle of Buxar fought on 23 October 1764 as a result of which the invasion of Bengal by the Nawab of Oudh was defeated and Oudh became a vassal of the English East India Company there were only 857 Europeans out of the total force of 7,072 men. (6) The Native contribution to this battle may be gauged from the fact that out of the total East India Company Army’s 825 casualties,some 744 were Native J.W Fortescue the official historian placed the casualties suffered at Buxar at 847 out of which I03 were suffered by Europeans and 744 by Natives. (8) Clive had left India when Buxar was fought,but there is no doubt that without the Native Regiments conceived and created by Clive ,the East India Company would have been defeated at Buxar,and East India Company would have surely lost Bengal. There is no exaggeration in stating that the future British Empire of India was saved at Buxar by 857 European troops and 6,115 Native troops.
In August 1765 the military genius of Robert Clive again came into action when he reorganised the Bengal Army into brigades. Each brigade was a composite force of all arms , consisting of one regiment of the private European infantry of the English East India Company, one company of artillery, one rissalah of native cavalry (118 sabres),and the formidable cannonfodder i.e. seven infantry regiments(911 each) of Native Sepoys. Clive deployed three brigades of the above mentioned composition for the defence of Bengal, making it impossible for any opponent of the East India Company to militarily surprise it by a sudden invasion. Thus the First Brigade was stationed at Monghyr ,the Second Brigade at Allahabad in the territory of the Wazir of Oudh,who was now only an insignificant vassal of the East India Company, the Third Brigade was stationed at Bankipore again in the territory of the Nawab of Oudh. (9)
It may be noted that the ethnic composition of the East India Company’s Native Armies was quite diverse. These included Pathans,Hindustani Pathans, Muslim Rajputs, Hindu Rajputs, Arabs (mostly in Bombay Army) , Abbysinians (Bombay Army) and various categories of Hindustanis (inhabitants of the territory between Bengal proper and Ambala). Most of the native troops of the Bengal Army however were from the tract of country in between the Ganges and Gagra rivers located in modern eastern United province and Bihar province of India. The bulk of the infantry was Hindu Rajput and Brahman while the bulk of cavalry comprised Rohilla Mussulmans and Hindustani Pathan or Hindustani Rajput Mussulmans. (10) There is a common myth in Pakistan that bulk of East India Company’s army was Muslim. In reality this belief is the creation of the ridiculous imagination of some who think that the Muslims were the only fighting class in India,and that too from the area of Punjab and Frontier in modern Pakistan! As a matter of fact the pre British Mughal armies had a large proportion of Hindu Rajputs from the Gangetic plain. Notable among these were high caste Hindu Bhumihars and the Oudh and Bihar Hindu Rajputs,from the areas of eastern Oudh and Benares region. (11) It is important to note that in Mughal India the army was a purely mercenary force. There was no compulsion or no obligation on any Muslim to enter the army and the army was a purely volunteer army in which any man Muslim or Hindu could enroll. The army’s aim was not to conduct any holy war or Jihad but to fight for the Mughal Emperor against any enemy regardless of religion or ethnicity. Thus the Mughal Army was frequently employed against the Muslim Pathan tribesman just like the British Army in so many post 1849 frontier expeditions.