19th Lancers

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Also known as 19th Light Dragoons


  • 1781 raised for service in India by Colonel Sir John Burgoyne as the 23rd Regiment of Light Dragoons
  • 1786 became the 19th Light Dragoons
  • 1816 renamed the 19th Lancers
  • 1821 disbanded
The 19th Light Dragoons
The following service history was part of the Family History in India website, designed by Cathy Day to help people research their European and Anglo-Indian family history in colonial India. It is a brief history of HM 19th Light Dragoons, from material that Cathy gathered from a number of sources, as there is no published Regimental History. Cathy has kindly allowed us to transfer this information to our wiki.

Service in British India

The Regiment Goes to India

In the year 1781 when Lord Cornwallis became governor general of India, he reported very badly on the European troops which were maintained by the East India Company. The only efficient troops in the Country were those which where called the King's troops and which were part of the regular British Army. But there was no cavalry, and successive Commanders in Chief were so persistent in demanding a Regiment of Cavalry that King George gave orders for the raising of a regiment for service in India. The 23rd Regiment of Light Dragoons was raised on 24th September 1781 and arrived in the East in the early part of 1782. This was the time when the British Empire was in the making, and when the East India Company was only one of a number of candidates for superiority in India. Consequently there was plenty of fighting, with the various powerful Princes, who were usually backed by France, then England's great rival in the world.

3rd Mysore War

Main article: 3rd Mysore War

The first occasion upon which the 19th took the field was in the war with Tippoo, the Sultan of Mysore in 1790. Tipu Sultan was the son of Hyder Ali, an old enemy of the Company, who had originally risen from a very humble position, seized the Kingdom of Mysore and set up a powerful Muslim state on the frontier of the Madras Presidency. Both father and son were in constantly recurring warfare with the English, and in 1789 Tippoo invaded the territory of the Raja of Travancore whom the English were bound by treaty to protect. Taking advantage of the presence of an incapable Governor of Madras who was unwilling to fight, Tippoo ravaged the country of Travancore, with great brutality, and it was not until 1790 that Lord Cornwallis, having removed the Governor and replaced him by General Medows, was in a position to advance against him.

Tippoo's army was a formidable instrument of war. He had early recognised the superiority of western methods of military discipline, and by means of employing European officers to train his men, he had created a force which he hoped would be able to crush the power of England in India. His Infantry and Artillery were tolerably good, and he possessed vast numbers of cavalry which "though they were quite unable to meet and repel the combined charge of British Cavalry, as irregulars were excellent; alike dangerous to an enemy from their rapid movement - the audacity with which their sudden assault was made - and the celerity when repulsed with which their retreat was effected" (Maxwell).

The presence of the 19th Light Dragoons, as the first and only European Cavalry in India, was to prove once and for all the superiority of a well drilled and disciplined cavalry, over the most perfect "irregular horsemen" which can possibly be brought to oppose them.

"Mysore ... is a high plateau from 2,000 to 3,000 feet above the sea, open towards the north, but fenced in towards the South by precipitous, cliff-like ranges that overlook the low country outside, and are only passable for an army at certain places." (Biddulph ).

The war consisted of three distinct campaigns which were fought before the occupation of Tippoo's capital at Seringapatam.

In the Year 1790 General Medows tried to effect his object by marching from Trichinopoly, occupying Coimbatore and invading the plateau from the south. He carried out the first part of his campaign with much success, and Tippoo retreated across the mountains. But Medows' line of advance was not formed on sound strategical principles, and he made the additional mistake of scattering his army for the reduction (i.e. destruction) of certain small garrisons, instead of keeping all his forces for the completion of his object, namely, the defeat of his enemy. The consequence was that Tippoo, seizing his opportunity, returned like lightning through the mountains, and placed himself on General Medows' rear in the neighbourhood of Erode and Cahoor. Medows marched in pursuit but could effect very little and the campaign ended with Tippoo in the French territory at Pondicherry, where he opened communication with the Government at Paris.

In the following year Lord Cornwallis took command of the Army in person, and decided to march direct from Madras to Seringapatam, by way of Bangalore. He had promises of assistance from the Mahratta Princes in the North and from the Nizam of Hyderabad; and he marched from Vellore near Madras on the 5 February 1791.

The effect of his advance was to bring back Tippoo from Pondicherry for the protection of his capital, for the Sultan was very alarmed at the entirely unexpected movement of the British Army. Lord Cornwallis occupied Bangalore on March 21st after very severe fighting in the assault, and on May 4th he began his movement towards Seringapatam.

But the luck was henceforward against him, so that he had to abandon his prize at the moment when success was almost assured. Tippoo laid waste to the whole country, and the promised reinforcements from the Mahrattas were not forthcoming. The army arrived within three miles of the capital, and Tippoo retired before it, but the exhaustion of the troops was so great, and the state of the camp so unsanitary that the General was compelled to begin his retirement (i.e. retreat) to Bangalore. He had only marched two days in retreat when he met with the 40,000 Mahratta horsemen who had been so long expected, and whose earlier arrival with plenty of supplies, would have changed the result of the campaign. But the siege train was already destroyed , and Lord Cornwallis had no alternative but retreat to Bangalore.

The 19th Light Dragoons were sent to Madras to recruit, and to obtain horses to make good the enormous wastage of the campaign. They then rejoined the army, which in the meantime had been strengthening its position at Bangalore, and collecting provisions for another advance.

Lord Cornwallis marched from Bangalore on the first of February, 1792, and, meeting with no opposition, arrived before Seringapatam on 5th February.

Tippoo relied for security upon the strength of his fortifications, but he had soon to learn that a British army takes very little account of obstacles. Tippoo's camp on the North of the town was captured on February 6th, and he was closely besieged in the Fort until the 23rd of February, when, as he could see no hope of a successful issue, he agreed to sign the preliminaries of peace.

The conditions exacted from him were most humiliating: one half of his dominions; the release of all prisoners; his two eldest sons as hostages, and an enormous subsidy in money; whilst his losses included 50,000 men, 800 pieces of cannon, and 67 forts.

"So ended this arduous and exhausting War, whereby for the first time the power of Hyder Ali's house was seriously shaken. One further war remained to be fought before it should be overthrown forever; but the narrative of these campaigns shows how formidable was that power when wielded by a crafty and tenacious prince, who shrank from no treachery, cruelty, nor devastation to preserve it. From a military point of view, the war is interesting chiefly as a study of the contest, so familiar to British Officers, between the posts on a long line of communications and a singularly mobile and efficient cavalry. The Mysorean Light Horse was superlatively excellent for purposes of partisan warfare. They veiled the movements of their own army in a cloud of mystery; they hung about their enemy like rooks upon a heron, hustling, threatening, swooping, always too far away to receive injury, always near enough to inflict it ..... To operate against such an enemy in small numbers was to court disaster, and Cornwallis no sooner took command than he made concentration the keynote of the campaign." (Fortescue's History of the British Army).

4th Mysore War

For the next seven years, England was at peace with Tippoo, although the Sultan was always waiting for a good opportunity of regaining what he had lost. In the year 1793, the French Republic declared war against England, and although, except for a few garrisons, there were no French troops in India, the French had considerable influence with the native chiefs, and naturally did all in their power to incite them to make war on the English. Nearly all the princes of India employed French Officers to command and train their armies, and these Officers frequently acted in accordance with instructions from the French Government. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt with a French Army, and when Tippoo Sahib wrote to him for his assistance in India, he replied that he was "full of the desire of delivering the Sultan from the iron yoke of England" and addressed his letter to "The most Magnificent Sultan, and our greatest friend, Tippoo Sahib." Encouraged by these negotiations, Tippoo became openly hostile in his dealings with the English Government, and because he returned unsatisfactory replies to the despatches of the Governor-General, the British force was ordered to march on Seringapatam.

The campaign which followed, in addition to its historical importance, is remarkable in two ways: it was the first occasion upon which a Galloping Gun formed part of the establishment of a Cavalry Regiment, as do our pom poms today, and it marked the first appearance in any important campaign of the great Duke of Wellington, then Colonel Wellesley of the 33rd Foot.

The British force consisted of a large army from Madras accompanied by a strong contingent supplied by the Nizam of Hyderabad; and of an army from Bombay commanded by General Stuart: the whole being under the command of General Harris. The Cavalry under Major General Floyd of the 19th Dragoons consisted of the 19th and the 25th Light Dragoons and four Regiments of native Cavalry, making 2,635 sabres in all.

The Madras army marched on the 14th of February and the Army under General Stuart on the 21st. The Sultan's army was thus between two fires. He was defeated by General Stuart at Periapatam on March 6th and by General Harris on March 27th at Mallavelly. It was at the last named battle that Floyd made a gallant charge at the head of the Cavalry, capturing six standards (i.e. regimental flags) and entirely routing the enemy.

After this defeat, the Sultan hoped to prevent the further progress of the British army, by laying waste the country as he had done in 1791; but General Harris marched south across the Cauvery river, where he could obtain abundant supplies; then moved west, effected his junction with General Stuart and invested Seringapatam from that side. Although defeated and at bay, Tippoo was confident in the impregnability of his Capital, and his defence was not skilfully conducted. He made very little attempt to annoy the besiegers by means of sorties of cannon, and contented himself with the defence of his walls. When the assault was made it was opposed with great obstinacy and bravery, but the British Troops fought their way into the place, and within a few hours the British Flag was flying over the Sultan's capital.

Tippoo was shot through the head while fighting in one of the gateways and endeavouring to prevent the entrance of the British. His body was found among a heap of the slain, and he was buried on the following day with all the ceremonies of his religion, his bier being escorted by British Troops.

The treasures and military stores captured in the city were of tremendous value, including jewels, bullion, horses and carpets to the value of 45,580,350 Star Pagodas. This does not take into account the value of goods plundered by the troops, of which no estimate was made, but which must have been enormous. Many men carried away jewels worth many thousands of pounds, and for many days afterwards the soldiers thought nothing of giving away about 16,000 pounds for a bottle of whiskey!

Thus fell the power of Mysore: the bloody Tippoo was dead, and thanks to the valour of British soldiers, one of the cruellest tyrannies in the history of the World was at an end.

During the next few years, the Nineteenth remained in India and in 1800 they were employed under Colonel Wellesley in running down and destroying the Brigand chief Dhoondia Wao, who had collected round him many of the followers of the dead Sultan and had become very powerful. This, however, was not a regular campaign and although the Regiment saw much hard fighting and hard marching, no honours were awarded so the operations do not come within the scope of the present narrative.

2nd Maratha War

The next occasion on which the 19th took the Field was the glorious campaign of Assaye, which victory the Regiment still celebrates on the 23rd of September.

After the Fall of Mysore, the most powerful native State in India was undoubtedly the Mahratta Confederacy. The Mahrattas were a race of fierce warlike freebooters who had established their superiority by force of arms, and had originally brought to an end the ancient Empire of the Moguls. Their territory covered more than 800,000 square miles in the centre of India, was divided into several states, each governed by its own Prince, who acknowledged as Chief of the Confederacy the Rajah of Satara. This suzerainty was however merely nominal, and the various princes were always quarrelling both among themselves, and with their Chief; and by their want of unity turning what might have been an all-powerful confederacy into a mere collection of rival monarchs. At his time the most important amongst them was Dowlut Rao Scindia, whose capital was at Pojain. He possessed a very numerous army which had been brought to a great state of efficiency by the European Officers in his Service. These men were natives of nearly every country in Europe, and they were in most cases good soldiers and capable instructors, who had been drawn to the East by the prospect of power and riches which was held out by the service of the native Rajahs. A great many of them were Frenchmen, and the chief command of Scindia's forces was at this time held by a subject of the French Republic, one M.Perron, who had become exceedingly powerful, and to whose natural animosity was due a great measure of Scindia's hostility to the English.

In the year 1802, two of the Mahratta Princes, namely, Scindia and the Peishwa, were at war with a third whose name was Holkar. During this contest, Holkar defeated his enemies under the walls of Poona, which was the capital of the Peishwa; whereupon that Prince left Scindia and put himself under the protection of the British Government. This was the beginning of the quarrel which led to the Battle of Assaye; but in addition to those already mentioned, there were other states which joined in the quarrel on both sides and, and finally an alliance was arranged between Scindia, Holkar and the Rajah of Berar, against the Peishwa, the Nezam of Hyderabad and the English Government.

Now, the territories of Scindia and of his ally covered an immense area of ground, and the British forces attacked him at several points in his frontier. At the beginning of the War, the British Commander in chief was with the main army at Cawnpore, and another force of 20,000 men was assembled at Hurryhur, under Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley. It is with this army that we have to deal, for with it marched the 19th Light Dragoons.

General Wellesley's first duty was to restore the Peishwa to his capital. He reached Poona on 20th April, reinstated the Peishwa, and then moved to Walkee. Negotiations with Scindia were still being carried on, but as he became increasingly hostile and there appeared no prospect of a peaceful settlement, the British troops were ordered to march.

It may be interesting at this point to quote a short passage from Maxwell's life of Wellington, which gives some idea of the appearance of a native army in India at that time :

"The coup d'oeil is grand and scenic - as lost in Jungle or ravine, and again displayed in glorious sunshine,

'Troop after troop disappearing,

Troop after troop their banners rearing'

until the whole 'battles magnificent array' covers some mighty plain with crowds of men and animals which in numbers appear interminable. The march of a European Army, imposing as it is, conveys but a faint idea of the gorgeous effect an Oriental one produces. A flood of crimson blends with the varied colouring of native costume, and the highland tartan is contrasted with the flowered caftans of the horsemen of Mysore. All is on a scale of magnificence. The field equipage, the park, the commissariat, appear to a European eye enormous - while animals without number from the stately elephant to the graceful Arab (horse), add to the splendid effect this mighty pageant exhibits." General Wellesley began operations by capturing the town of Ahmednuggur on the 29th of August. Then Scindia and the Rajah of Berar put their armies into motion, and moved southward through the Ajuntah pass, trying to make for Hyderabad. But Wellesley succeeded in heading them off, and they again retired northwards. At this time Colonel Stevenson, who was co-operating with Wellesley, was at Jalgaum where the General also arrived on the 21st of August. Here they arranged to move by separate roads until they could unite for the attack. But their information of the enemy's position was incorrect, and Wellington found himself face to face with Scindia, before the junction had taken place. He was in a difficult position. The enemy's army outnumbered his own by nine to one, and yet he could not safely retreat. It will be seen with what skill he manoeuvred, and by neutralising the effect of the enemy's masses, succeeded in winning one of the most glorious battles in the history of the Empire.

The Mahratta forces were drawn up in battle array, on the isthmus between two rivers, the Juah and the Kaitna. "The sight was enough to appal the stoutest heart. Thirty thousand horsemen in one magnificent mass crowded the right. A dense array of Infantry powerfully supported by Artillery, formed the centre and left; the gunners were beside their pieces; and a hundred pieces of cannon were in front of the line, stood ready to vomit forth death upon the assailants. Wellesley paused for a moment, impressed but not daunted by the sight; his whole force, as Colonel Stevenson had not come up, did not exceed 8,000 men, of whom sixteen hundred were Cavalry; the effective (i.e. healthy and able to fight) native British were not above fifteen hundred, and he had only seventeen pieces of cannon." (Alison's history of Europe).

The plan by which he succeeded in winning the battle, was skilful although not entirely free from danger. He crossed the river Kaitna between the villages of Waroor and Peepulgaon, bringing his army on to the narrow piece of land between the two rivers, and on the left flank of the enemy's line. The Mahratta Army was then compelled to change front in order to face its opponents, and it carried out the difficult movement in a manner which showed that the troops were no rabble host, but able to manoeuvre skilfully on a field of battle. But it will be seen that the vast numbers of the enemy were of very little use when they were hemmed in between the rivers which now ran on either flank, and that Wellington had to a great extent succeeded in neutralising the effect of his opponent's numbers. It is true that he himself had the rivers in his rear, and that consequently defeat to him would have been annihilation, but in the choice of two evils, he chose the least and the result was a triumphant success.

It is not part of our task to relate the details of the battle. The main feature was a steady advance of Wellesley's troops in the face of a terribly destructive fire. Owing to misunderstanding, there was some confusion in the British line, and the loss from the enemy's cannon was enormous : the General had one horse killed and another wounded, and of the small British contingent, over six hundred fell. But the Bravery of the Englishmen and of their native allies was such that the hosts of Scindia were not able to stand before them; and they were finally driven in confusion across the Juah River, leaving more than 5,000 of their number killed and wounded on the field.

To the 19th Hussars was due a great part of the success of the day. At one time, when the British Line was slightly broken, and things looked very bad, the Cavalry entirely changed the aspect of affairs by a well-timed charge against the Mahratta Horsemen. "Down went the Mahrattas beneath the fiery assault of the brave 19th and their gallant supporters the Sepoys; while, unchecked by a tremendous storm of grape and musketry, Maxwell (the Colonel of the Regiment) pressed his advantage, and cut through Scindia's left". (Life of Wellington).

But the joy of victory was tempered by sorrow for the loss of the Gallant Colonel Maxwell, who later in the day was killed while charging at the head of his regiment against a Brigade of Mahratta infantry. One hundred and two guns, seven stands of Colours and great quantities of stores fell into the hands of the victors. The army of Scindia was seriously crippled, and the battle marked the end of his enormous power. Although he had still a numerous following, his men began to desert, and on the 27th of September, Wellesley won another great victory at Argaum, which brought the war to a conclusion.

Thus it was that the 19th Dragoons gained the Royal permission to wear the badge of the Elephant with the word "Assaye" on colours and appointments, in commemoration of the gallantry displayed by the Regiment in the battle and during the Campaign.

The 19th Dragoons then spent time garrisoning various British outposts. In 1802 they were stationed at Cheyloor, in 1803 at Arcot, in 1804 in Bombay and they were again at Arcot from 1805 to 1806. The regiment was suddenly summoned to Vellore on the night of 10 July 1806, to rescue the 69th Regiment of Foot who were the victims of a bloodthirsty mutiny. Great slaughter was done when revenge was executed by the 19th.

The regiment embarked for England on 20 October 1806 and landed on 18 April 1807.

External Links

Historical books online

  • "The Twenty Third, Afterwards the Nineteenth Light Dragoons 1781-1822" from The Nineteenth and their times : being an account of the four cavalry regiments in the British Army that have borne the number nineteen and of the campaigns in which they served 1899 by John Biddulph 1899 Archive.org
  • Page 86 A Memoir of Major-General Sir R.R. Gillespie [by William Thorn] 1816 Google Books. On 7 May 1805 Robert Rolls Gillespie exchanged into the Nineteenth Light Dragoons, then in India, to where he proceeded overland from England. He then caused the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 to be put down. The Nineteenth Light Dragoons being ordered to Europe, Gillespie, on 16 April 1807 exchanged into the 8th Royal Irish Light Dragoons.