The account of a brave and dashing cavalry officer during the turbulent years of the Victorian age
'Billy' Johnson came from a well known family in Lincolnshire. He chose the life of a soldier in the Honourable East India Company's Bombay Army and travelled to the sub-continent to serve with both the 6th Bombay Native Infantry and the Guzerat Horse. He was the consummate sportsman and his accounts of tiger hunting and pig-sticking make riveting period reading. Ever keen to be in action, Johnson took the opportunity to join British forces in the Crimea where his actions attached to the 20th Foot at Inkerman brought him to the attention of his superiors. Promotion and transfer to the 1st Oudh Cavalry followed; which could have spelt disaster, had not his enthusiasm for campaigning taken him on the Persian Campaign—John Company's last war—just as the conflagration of the Indian Mutiny erupted within the heart of his own regiment. Returning to the fray—and always confident of his own ability to command native troops—Billy Johnson commanded the remnants of the 12th Irregular Cavalry—comprised of loyal Sikhs—and together they held the distinction of being the only native cavalry within the British force during the Lucknow campaign where they were ever in the thick of the conflict.
I write you a line, perfectly regardless of mail departures, but probably shall not have much time to myself for the next six or seven days, when I hope to be able to tell you we have relieved Lucknow. We are now going to cross the river; six guns, some Sikhs, and two companies of Highlanders are already across. But it is no joke crossing a river like this with such an army. A bridge was made across the river in three days, a bit of engineering that has never been done before in the face of an enemy. If it were only a month or two later, the weather would be beautiful; as it is now, it is awful for Europeans; but every one is in excellent spirits. I don’t think the work between this and Lucknow will be as severe as some people suppose, and I hope the 12th Irregulars will distinguish themselves. I’ve got the command, and they are the only native cavalry in the field; therefore, as you may suppose, I have a delicate game to play. They behaved very well the other day with the affair at the boats on the Ganges. Had we not been there the infantry would have seen nothing of them till they were well out of shot” (for particulars see Major Eyre’s and General Outram’s despatches of the 12th and 13th September3). “I think some of the 13th Irregular Cavalry have been given every encouragement not to serve the Europeans; but General Outram is much in my favour, and supports me. I am quite sure that it is of the greatest importance, that the native soldiers who have remained faithful, should now meet with every encouragement on the part of Government. The enemy over the river get only four pice a day; they are very short of large ammunition. They have several guns in position; we shall take them, Their bullocks, horses, and means of carrying away their guns are bad. I could write you such a long, amusing letter, with so much interesting news. My health is better. I hope to last till the relief of Lucknow. With the blessing of Providence, I hope we may get through this duty without any severe loss.<br>General Havelock has mentioned my name, for nothing except volunteering and making myself generally useful. . . . Outside, at the fight at Alumbagh, my men really had some fun, and behaved uncommonly well. When we left Cawnpore I had only about fifty men and native officers; and just before the action of the Alumbagh, on the 23rd, I was ordered to send half my detachment back to look after the baggage, which was threatened with cavalry; thus I was obliged to send poor Warren, my adjutant, back with half the men, greatly to my disgust and his too. No one seemed to care a straw about the baggage when we all expected a general action on ahead. Well, on we went— galloped through a bit of water with the Volunteer Cavalry, and took one gun, without the loss of a man, I believe, and then stood still to be shot at. I was under Barrow, who was my brigadier. We were not long before starting again; and I knew the next best thing to do was to take the next gun,which had been bowling 9-pounders at us for the last half-hour or so, down the road. So at it I went with my five and twenty men. Greatly to my relief, they never fired a shot as we came on; and we took the gun without much difficulty. We chopped up a few of the men, and the rest ran away. ... I only lost one man killed, and a few men and horses wounded: my own mare got a shot through the hock.