|Private John Brown, 1st Bengal (European Fusiliers) Regt.
John Brown was born about 1838 and enlisted at Glasgow on the 16th July 1856 for ten years service with the East India
Company’s European Infantry. He stated that he was a native of Coatbridge, Airdrie, Lanarkshire and had worked as a Cooper
prior to enlisting. His appearance was described as being 5 foot 5 ½ inches tall, with a fresh complexion, hazel eyes and dark
brown hair. He only stayed with the regiment for a short while before deserting on the 31st July 1856.
John Brown travelled south during the next month and then decided to enlist again, reporting at the East India Company’s
barracks at Warley, Essex on the 18th September 1856.
Here he was allocated to Bengal, arriving at Calcutta on the 9th October 1857.
The Honourable East India Company had lost its trade monopoly in India in 1813 and had ceased to be a trading concern,
acting as an agent for the civil and military government in India. It was a inefficient system of double government which
would soon cease. Rapid modernisation and change had created great fear amongst the Indian masses. The
Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal wrote in 1854 that:-
“Unless all breach and appearance of breach of religious neutrality can be avoided, a blow will be struck at our power in
India which in the course of time may prove fatal”
The military forces of the East India Company in 1857 consisted of 233,000 men. About 15,000 of those were in all European
regiments, which John Brown was on his way to join. They were however, outnumbered by nearly seven to one by Native
troops. They had been issued with the Enfield rifle in 1856 which used a new type of cartridge. Before the ball and powder
charge could be pushed down the barrel of the rifle, the end of the cartridge had to be bitten off. Word quickly spread
amongst the Indian Sepoy troops that the cartridges had been coated in grease from cows and pigs. The Sepoys suspected
that the Government, by making them contaminate themselves by touching the fat of these animals, intended to destroy
their caste and social position. On the 27th February 1857 the 19th Native infantry refused to accept the new cartridges.
On the 29th March the first shot was fired by Sepoy troops at Barrackpur. With unrest just below the surface and
spreading, it was inevitable that mutiny would break out, which it did on the 10th May at Meerut.
At Lucknow, in the territory of Oudh, preparations were being discreetly made against a possible revolt by Sepoy troops.
Arrangements were made to fortify the Residency and its surrounding area. Lucknow covered an area of twelve square miles,
with the buildings of the city being closely packed around the residency. By the end of May the revolt had begun, with the
small European garrison holding the residency while the mutineers were based in the surrounding countryside. On the 29th
June news was received that the mutineers were only ten miles from Lucknow and a force left the city to try and defeat
them. They were soon encircled and forced back to the city, suffering many casualties..
It was in this situation that John Brown was posted to the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers as a private soldier number 2907.
The regiment had recently gained a nickname of the “Dirty shirts” as they had taken part in the early action at Delhi in
Lucknow became besieged and a relief force was assembled to try and relieve the city. At the end of October, the
commander-in-chief in India, Sir Colin Campbell launched his attack, reaching the city on the 17th November. He then
decided to evacuate the garrison, leaving the recapture of the city until later. The medal roll confirmed that John Brown
was not involved on this particular part of the campaign, as his lack of acclimatisation and training would have been a
liability at that time.
On March 2nd 1858, John Brown’s commanding officer Captain Ellis Cunliffe, submitted a report to the Military Secretary to
the East India Company, which recorded the number of casualties suffered by the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers. From the
period commencing the 16th May until the 31st December 1857, it showed that the regiment had suffered 62 men killed in
action and 44 men died of wounds received. Alarmingly, it also stated that 76 men had died of disease, some of Dysentery
but mainly of Cholera. With losses of this nature, the drafts from England were quickly absorbed to maintain the strength
of the regiment.
By March, the regiment was stationed at Camp Alum Bagh, in readiness for the recapture of Lucknow from the rebels. News
was reported that there were 100,000 rebels in the city. They had constructed a defensive wall and three lines of
earthworks. However, they had made no attempt to fortify the north bank of the river Gumti, and it was here that Sir
Colin Campbell decided to launch his assault. On the 8th March 1858 siege and field artillery pounded the rebel lines,
while several regiments probed the strength of the defences. The 1st Bengal Fusiliers were in the 5th Infantry Brigade
which formed part of the 3rd Infantry division and suffered only two men wounded in this attempt to retake the city. A
further attempt was made on the 11th March which lasted until the 15th, the regiment never once removing their
accoutrements the whole time. During this attack the regiment suffered a further man wounded. On the morning of the
17th the regiment were withdrawn to Hossainee Bagh. The rebels put up a strong opposition to Sir Colin Campbell’s forces,
but slowly lost control of the city. A determined stand was made on the 19th March in one of the parks but the rebels
were finally driven out on the 21st March by heavy gunfire. Casualties to the 1st Bengal Fusiliers amounted to 8 men
killed, 3 officers and 21 men wounded.
The city was heavily plundered by the victorious troops. The prize agents estimated that the official total amounted to
£1,500,000 in value, but each private soldier who had served through the relief and capture of Lucknow received just the
official prize money of Rupees 17.8
It was not a complete military victory however, as large numbers of rebels had escaped and were ready to continue with the
Within days rebels were harassing the soldiers near Lucknow, and the 1st Bengal Fusiliers formed part of Major General
Sir J. Grant’s Lucknow field force. On the 11th April they marched towards Barree, where rebel forces were known to be
concentrated. On the 13th the advance guard were met by enemy cavalry. The cavalry was forced to retire but moved round
towards the rear of the column and made an attack upon the baggage. They were driven away by a troop of the 7th Hussars,
supported by the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, who had been ordered to cover the right rear of the column. During the attack,
number 5 and 6 companies of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers who were still formed in line, succeeded in defeating a charge of
enemy cavalry which had closed to within 30 yards. This exploit was noted in official despatches to the deputy adjutant
of the Army, as well as commending their commanding officer Captain Hume.
The field force arrived at Mamadabad on the 15th April and Ramnugger on the 19th, destroying fortifications but not
encountering any further rebel forces. Attempts to suppress their activities in the Lucknow region continued well into June.
The British Government had realised that the East India Company could no longer properly administer the country. On the
2nd August 1858, the Government of India act was passed, and the Crown assumed direct control. The act also called for
the liquidation of the East India Company and the absorption of its troops into the British Army and ships into the Navy.
Eventually the 1st Bombay Fusiliers were based at Fort Durriabad, where they continued to suppress any rebel activity. On
the 31st August, 400 troops of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers attacked the village of Gohemiya. Four companies dashed into the
occupied village and supported by a company of the 2nd Regiment engaged in a three hour contest for every inch of the
ground. It was reported that every rebel who had been present had been shot down.
Major Hume received a communication on the 17th September from Major Carnegie, the deputy commissioner of Durriabad,
that rebel numbers were increasing on an island at Buhmore Ghat, which was about 11 miles north west of the camp. Six
companies of the Bengal Fusiliers, together with 3 six pound guns, 120 cavalry and loyal native infantry moved out of camp
at 12 p.m. on the 17th September.It was decided that the men should march through the night and then rest before
attacking the island.
At 7.30 in the morning, two companies of Bengal Fusiliers were thrown out in skirmishing order, to sweep the five mile long
island. The enemy opened a brisk fire upon them which was returned, this action driving the rebels from their cover.
Lieutenant Hamilton Maxwell who was commanding the remaining four companies of the Fusiliers, galloped off to bring up the
Elephants, which had been positioned in the rear. He speedily returned with the Elephants, which passed over the troops and
then all advanced steadily, driving the rebels before them. The Fusiliers continued to advance until their front was clear and
then they were halted and placed under cover to avoid the scorching heat. They had been under arms for nearly twelve
hours and had advanced five miles against stiff opposition. They remained under the shade until 5 p.m. and then marched
back to Durriabad, arriving at 9 p.m. Fusilier casualties amounted to one N.C.O. and their regimental Bhistee killed and
four men wounded. Major Hume mentioned in his despatch that:-
“All Officers and men engaged throughout the day, cheerfully bore the great fatigue and necessary exposure to the
excessive heat on this trying occasion, my best thanks are specially due, and congratulate them on the result of their labours”
Major Hume received information from Mr Bradford, the assistant commissioner, on the 5th October 1858 that a body of
rebels had advanced and occupied Kintoor, which was about ten miles north east of Durriabad. He sent out a cavalry patrol
which reported that the rebels were likely to remain there. He assembled ten guns, 380 cavalry, 650 Native infantry and
150 Bengal Fusiliers, and left the camp at 2.30 in the morning. The Bengal Fusiliers were carried to Kintoor by Elephants
while bullocks drew the artillery. Halting a short time before daybreak, the enemies advanced picquet was distinctly visible.
He ordered his cavalry to drive the picquet in and to ascertain the exact position of the main rebel force. The artillery
opened fire and the rebels fell back, pursued by the cavalry. Major Hume stated that the infantry had not received any
opportunity to attack the rebels but the sight of them in the distance riding on Elephants had a wonderful effect on the
rebels, causing them to retreat rapidly. The Fusiliers suffered no casualties in their last action of the campaign.
Within a month of this action Private John Brown was dead. His death was reported as having occurred on the 3rd November
1858. He died intestate, leaving behind just Rupees 104.15 (about £13.75). The records show that he was not killed in action
or died of wounds. This only leaves the fact that his death must have been brought about by disease. The life expectancy
of a European soldier in India was less than half what it was in England. Cholera and Dysentery were by far the most common
killer diseases which the troops encountered. The excessive heat and poor sanitary conditions meant that a regular number
of men died each month from these diseases, which could kill in a few hours. Doctors did not really understand or know how
to treat them. It was considered that a flannel belt worn tightly around the waist would prevent Cholera. The recommended
treatment consisted of cold baths and friction applied with a rough towel. Dysentery was thought to be caused by miasmatic
influences connected with the nature of the soil and could be treated by doses of castor oil and opium. It was this ignorance
which was the most probably reason why Private 2907 John Brown died.
Two days before he died, a proclamation had been read throughout India announcing the rule of the Honourable East India
Company had ceased. It also stated that:-
“From this day, all men of every place and class who under the administration of the Honourable East India Company have
joined to uphold the honour of England, will be servants of the Queen alone”
This seemed to imply that the soldiers of the H.E.I.C had been transferred to the British army without any consultation. The
Companies soldiers soon showed that they were not prepared to be treated like this and the possibility of a further mutiny,
this time by European troops, manifested itself. In June 1859 a proclamation stated that every soldier could claim his
discharge and receive free passage home to England. Ten thousand men took the option, costing the Government more than
£250,000. Those that stayed found themselves serving in the 101st Regiment of Foot (Royal Bengal Fusiliers).
In 1859 a medal, the last one issued by the East India Company, was awarded to all soldiers who had participated in the
Indian mutiny. Over 270,000 were issued with a combination of five different clasps. John Brown’s medal with a clasp for
“Lucknow” was issued to his next of kin in 1863.
|The Indian mutiny medal|
with clasp for Lucknow.