William Stephen Raikes Hodson


In the mid 19th century a number of men emerged who proved themselves to be fearless and charismatic leaders in India. They were employed by the East India Company which extended it's influence over the whole of India and beyond. Men like Henry Lawrence, John Nicholson, Dighton Probyn, Harry Lumsden, Henry Daly and William Hodson.

William was the third son of the Rev George Hodson born at Maisemore Court, 2 miles north of Gloucester on 19th March 1821. He was educated at Rugby where he excelled at games, and gained a BA in 1844 at Trinity College Cambridge. His first taste of military life was as a subaltern in the Royal Guernsey Militia, 1844-5.

In 1845 Hodson joined the 2nd Bengal Grenadiers, a native regiment in the East India Company. He took part in the First Sikh War 1845-6, fighting at Moodki and was wounded in the leg at Ferozeshah. He then exchanged into the 16th Grenadiers where he was in action at Sobraon, receiving another wound and spiking two enemy guns.

At around this time he met Sir Henry Lawrence who proved to be an influence and mentor to him. Hodson was impressed by his 'freedom from diplomatic solemnity'. Lawrence encouraged Hodson to learn Hindustani and taught him the use of the theodolite. He also exchanged into the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, but in October 1847 he was offered his dream job, as adjutant and 2nd in command of the Corps of Guides. This regiment was the first to wear khaki, years before it became the uniform of the British Army. Hodson was given the task of designing the uniform and clothing the men.

The unconventional methods employed by the Guides suited him well and he proved his worth at scouting and skirmishing, as well as using the skills he learned while working with Henry Lawrence in surveying. He fought with the regiment in the Punjab Campaign of 1848-9 including the siege of Multan, and as an active member of Lord Gough's staff at the battle of Gujerat.

In 1849 Hodson was appointed as Assistant Commissioner in the Civil Department in Amritsar but was not suited to the job so he was sent back to the Guides. Eventually in 1852 he took over as Commandant of the Corps but his life took a turn for the worse in the following year. First, his baby daughter Olivia died, and then he was accused of mismanagement of the regimental finances. Some of the officers, both British and Indian turned against him. One of the young officers called Turner was eager to see Hodson's downfall and accused him of waging a vendetta against the Pathans and Afridis in the Corps. A military court of enquiry was convened to hear charges of embezzlement of regimental funds and gross negligence. The enquiry was weighted against Hodson from the start and in 1855 he was removed from the Guides and sent back to 1st Bengal Fusiliers.

It seems that Hodson had made enemies in high places as well as amongst the junior officers of the Guides. The Commissioner of Peshawar, Herbert Edwardes, had never liked him and gave his blessing to the witch-hunt. However, in 1856 an investigation conducted by Major Reynall Taylor overturned the findings and cleared Hodson's name. This did not immediately help him because a Military Secretary in the office of the Commander-in-Chief buried the findings of Taylor's investigation. It wasn't until a new C-in-C, General Anson, took over that Hodson's career was revived.

But this was 1857, the year of the Mutiny, and Hodson's hour had come. Delhi was seized by the rebels and the action focused on retaking the city. He was appointed assistant quartermaster-general to the field force. General Anson considered that it was vital to find out what was happening in Meerut where the Mutiny began; nothing had been heard from there since. Hodson was sent with an escort of Sikh cavalry and a spare horse. He started on 20th May and covered 140 miles in two days, there and back, stopping at Meerut only for a bath and two hours sleep. The return journey was made worse because he was chased by rebels for thirty miles. Anson was so impressed that he asked Hodson to raise a regiment of irregular cavalry, and so was born Hodson's Horse on 27th May 1857.

While Hodson was making his famous ride to Meerut, the Corps of Guides was pushing itself to the limits with a record-breaking forced march to Delhi, 580 miles in 22 days, during Ramadan, and the hottest time of the year. Hodson was the first to meet his former regiment and, despite their fatigue, they swarmed around him, cheering him and weeping.

Hodson had been setting up an intelligence network, enjoying himself in the world of espionage and scouting, but the commandant of the Guides, Henry Daly, was wounded so Hodson was appointed to lead the Corps once more. This did not last long because the Commander of the Delhi force became concerned at the influx of fierce-looking freebooters who were signing up for Hodson's Horse. Hodson was asked to relinquish command of the Guides to bring some order to his cavalry regiment.

One of Hodson's last adventures was the capture of the King of Delhi and the execution of his two sons and grandson, with Hodson acting as executioner. This last was a controversial act that inspired many British officers to revise their poor opinion of him.

Finally at Lucknow on 9th March 1858, Hodson and his men were clearing a building of mutineers in the grounds of Begum Kothi, part of the palace of the Nawab of Oude. While breaking down a door he was shot in the chest at close range but lived until the following day. His detractors claimed that he had been looting but his widow only received #170 from the sale of his effects, proving that he did not profit from the battles he fought.

He seemed to have a charmed life, having come through many dangers. He was certainly brave and a good leader but he was not one to play the game. He was regarded with suspicion by the more rigid section of the military. At Delhi he lived life on the edge, flitting from one role to another, revelling in the murky business of information gathering, doing the Field Force's dirty work, spending much of his time huddled with mysterious native couriers and irregulars whose loyalties were uncertain. He was the black sheep of the British administration but his name will be remembered in India.

The portrait shows him in the uniform he designed himself. The red kummerbund and pagri were hallmarks of his regiment. The kurta is not quite the pink colour described by some. It has chains on the shoulders and he has a medal ribbon for the Punjab Campaign. Hodson was described as having a florid complexion with blue eyes and a droopy blond moustache. He was sensitive to light and was known to wear dark glasses.


Commanding Officers | Regimental details




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by Stephen Luscombe