The First British Sikh Army
At the close of the First Sikh War in 1846 it was decided to conciliate the men of the defeated Khalsa Army and to enlist Sikhs in the Honourable East India Company's service. In April orders were issued to raise a Sikh irregular battalion, the Regiment of Ferozepore, for service with the Bengal Army of the East India Company.
A British officer, Ensign J. Brasyer, was lent to Sir Henry Laurence, Civil Commissioner of the Punjab, to assist in fostering friendship with the Sikhs and in obtaining Sikh recruits. Ensign Brasyer was thirty-six years old. He had enlisted as a private in the artillery of the East India Company and later was promoted to quartermaster-sergeant of the 26th Bengal Native Infantry. He fought with this regiment throughout the First Afghan War and First Sikh War and had been promoted to commissioned rank for gallantry and distinguished service in the field. He understood Indians, knew their customs and spoke Punjabi. It was for this reason that his services were placed at the disposal of the civil authorities in the Punjab.
On arriving in Lahore, Ensign Brasyer was immediately sent to tour the villages south of the Sutlej river in the districts known as the Malwa country. He visited many villages, where he harangued the Sikhs in their own language and, collected all able men who were willing to serve as soldiers in the Company's service. In less than two months Ensign Brasyer had collected four hundred men, many of whom had recently been fighting against the British. He brought them all to Ferozepore, where he handed them over to Captain Watt, who had been appointed to raise the Regiment of Ferozepore.
Ensign Brasyer claims to be the first to have collected Sikhs for the British forces and in his memoirs he writes:
- "Thus I had the honour of being myself the first to form the nucleus of that invaluable Seikh element of the Bengal Army, that has since served the British Government with so, much credit in every campaign since 1857".
Captain Watt and his other British officers could not speak a word of Punjabi; so he applied for Ensign Brasyer to be posted to his regiment. However, Captain Watt died in May and Captain Tebbs took charge and became the first Commandant. By August the Regiment numbered eight hundred and was formed into ten companies. A large proportion of Indian officers and non-commissioned officers were transferred from other native infantry regiments to assist in raising the new regiment. These were mostly Rajputs from Oudh and were men who had been promoted for gallantry in action. In September the Rajput officers and non-commissioned officers returned to their original units, and men of the Regiment, chiefly those who had served in the old Army of the Khalsa, were promoted in their place.
Although the Regiment of Ferozepore was an irregular battalion, its uniform and head-dress were similar to those of regular units of the Bengal Army. The men wore a red tunic with yellow facings and the Governor-General insisted that the men should wear the caps worn by the rest of the native army. This is contrary to the Sikhs' creed and the men were very opposed to wearing these regulation hats. However, Lieutenant Brasyer, who had undoubtedly gained the confidence of the Sikhs right from the beginning, persuaded them to adopt the hats, which they continued to wear until the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
In September, 1846, the Regiment marched to Ambala and recruits, both Sikhs and Mussalmans, from this district, were enlisted into the Regiment to complete the establishment. The Regiment commenced training in Ambala, but it did not receive its arms, smooth-bore percussion muskets, until January, 1847.
In December, 1846, the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gough, reviewed the Regiment in Ambala and presented the first Colours. In October, 1848, the Regiment moved by road to Agra, where it remained for two years, moving thence to Meerut.
Captain Tebbs died in January, 1852, and was succeeded as Commandant by Captain T. E. Colebrooke. Later in the year the Regiment was selected for active service in Burma and set off down the River Ganges for Calcutta. During the voyage a cholera epidemic broke out and sixty-six men died. The Regiment eventually reached Barrackpore in November, but they were not able to proceed to Rangoon and take part in the Burma expedition, much to the men's disappointment. The Regiment remained quartered in Barrackpore until the beginning of 1855, when it moved to Mirzapore.
Major Colebrooke left the Battalion on the line of march to go on pension, and Lieutenant Brasyer took over command. Whilst at Mirzapore the Ferozepore Regiment was ordered to garrison Dinapore while the brigade there was away on service in Bihar. After a short time at Dinapore the Regiment was sent to Patna on internal security duties, as it was expected that there would be communal troubles there during the Mohammedan festival of Moharrum. The arrival of the Sikhs in Patna had a quietening effect and there was no incident, so the Regiment soon returned to Mirzapore.