Forgotten Voices of Empire: A letter from Burma 1887

In 1885 The British Empire invaded Burma, starting the third Anglo-Burmese War. The British claimed that King Thibaw Min (ruled 1878–1885) was a tyrant intending to side with the French, that he had lost control of the country, thus allowing for disorder at the frontiers, and that he was reneging on a treaty signed by his father.

The war lasted a little over two weeks with only sporadic resistance by the Royal army after intrigue at the Burmese court lead to conflicting orders being issued. The War ended with the British marching into Mandalay and the capture of King Thibaw Min.

The British immediately organised the looting of the palace and city of Mandalay. The proceeds were sold off at a profit of 900,000 of rupees.

King Thibaw being escorted to captivity by British soldiers, Burma, 1885

King Thibaw being escorted to captivity by British soldiers, Burma, 1885 NAM. 1974-03-148-5

Burma was annexed by the British on 1 January 1886 but an ongoing insurgency carried on until 1896. With the end of the war came the men of the Royal Engineers whose job it was to build roads, bridges and fortified posts to help pacify the country and allow easy transport not only of troops but also the vast resources so converted by the British merchants.

An officer with the Royal Engineers wrote on the 29th December 1886:

To say that I am worked off my legs is putting it mildly. I have just completed this post, and have three more to make at the same time, and about twenty miles of hill roads, with bridges innumerable, and I find no work goes on without my personal superintendence. I have occasionally to do twenty miles in a day and then work at the other end – and this in a country where roads are not even decent bridle-paths over rocks.

This morning I was up at dawn and out in the road superintending coolies, then  up the hill about 900ft higher than this to see arrangements for clearing jungle and preparing a site for a post; then down again for breakfast, after which I had to pay some men, and then went out to experiment with some dynamite upon rocks – work I did not much like as I had never touched the infernal stuff before. 

Minhla, after its capture by the British, mid-November 1885, showing death and devastation

Minhla, after its capture by the British, mid-November 1885, showing death and devastation. Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1837–1912).

Then I had to wander about looking for timber for a bridge. After this I wrote some officials, had a bath, and out open the road again some two miles out to see how the work was getting on, and explore a stream for a suitable place for a bridge. Then I came in and handed over some money and orders to an overseer, who had come out to assist me and make arrangements for marching out tomorrow morning for a six days trip (Not a pleasure one) to posts further out and arrange for carpenters and tools to come out with me. By that time dinner was ready, and I had a cheroot before a jolly log before sitting down to write. This is much the way I spend my days. Tomorrow I’m off to a post twelve miles further in the hills, about 1,200ft higher than this; and then on next day, or as soon as I can get the work into order, to a post further on at the end of the line.


British soldiers dismantling cannons 1885 Hooper, Willoughby Wallace (1837-1912)

I got into Mandalay on Christmas day by riding six marches in three days to bring in a report on a position, and had a good dinner at the mess, which was a relief after living on compressed beef and tinned things for a fortnight. Sometimes we can get beef out here- i.e, a calf, costing about 6s. English Money; but often, as is the case now, we can’t get fresh meat for love or money. However, I like the place, and plenty of work suits me. Of course I have had my goes of fever; but then I have seen two doctors carried out of the post in doolies quite unable to stand. About 300 men have gone down sick (since I have been here) into Mandalay- some to die, others to be invalided to India. We have only buried about six of them here. Many a day I have dined alone, the doctor and officer commanding both down with this blessed fever. However, the bad times are over, the weather is jolly and cool and thanks to five grains of quinine a day, I keep the fever off, and feel up to any amount of work. It is a lovely view from from here over Mandalay and the valley of the Irrawaddy, and the jungles are pretty in their way,

St James Gazette February 2nd 1887




Review of Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One.

This week the SOAS University of London in partnership with the UK Punjabi Heritage Association (UKPHA) launched their landmark exhibition Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War One.

Hosted at the Brunei Gallery London, this exhibition tells the story of the important, and at times crucial role the Indian Army and in particular the Sikhs played in World War One.

Using a range of exhibits the curator’s hope to bring this little known story to a greater audience and encourage modern Sikhs to investigate their own past and roles their ancestors may of played in World War One.


In order to give the visitor a greater understanding of the Sikh contribution the exhibition isn’t just limited to World War One.

It tries to give a brief history of the Sikhs themselves, starting in the 15th Century it follows the Sikhs journey from the creation of their own Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first clashes with the British Empire, to the immense contribution and sacrifice during both world wars and then finally to the calls for independence and partition.

The Exhibition hall is well laid out and as you move through hall, the exhibits follow a logical order, starting with early Sikh history, the outbreak of War, life on the Western Front etc each subject following seamlessly into the next giving the visitor a clear narrative and making it very easy to understand the chronological order of the history.

One of my favourite sections was about Sikhs in German POW camps. The Germans seemed to have been fascinated by the Martial nature of the Sikhs and even made sound recording of them which you can listen to.

Images of Sikh prisoners of War from German Sources.

Images of Sikh prisoners of War from German Sources.

The Exhibition has managed to secure some amazing items from the likes of the British Library, National Army Museum and even from the Queens private collection.

There are some real standout pieces on display and some of my favourites includes a gold embossed Sword and pistol owned and used by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and a stunning book of X-rays which shows the injuries suffered by some Sikhs on the Western Front.

The real star of the show, in my opinion is the stunning artwork and pictures that adorn the walls. With everything from colourful recruitment posters, calling the lions of the Empire to fight to a range of pictures showing life in the trenches they really bring to life the vast contribution that the Indian Army made during World War one.


As Amandeep Madra (chair of the UKPHA) said at the launch of the exhibition:

The British Indian Army’s contribution was actually far greater than the better-known efforts of the white commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand put together. The non-white Empire’s efforts have largely been forgotten and their heroism and sacrifices omitted from mainstream narratives, or left as somewhat forlorn footnotes of history.

And yet men from Undivided India in particular ensured that the Western Front wasn’t lost in those first vital months, and then went on to fight the war’s forgotten fronts in Mesopotamia, Arabia, Palestine, North Africa and beyond. Their contribution has never adequately been recognised or even told.

By telling the Sikh story we want to change that and remind the world of this wider undervalued contribution of the non-white British Empire. This is British history and a story that helps explain much about modern Britain as well as filling in a tragically missing piece of First World War history.

This exhibition certainly goes some way to rectifying that.

The Exhibition runs until the 28th of September 2014 and entry is free.

North Staffordshire Regiment 1908 Part One

One of the advantages and joys of running this blog is that from time to time I get  amazing pictures sent to me. This picture is a prime example of this, sent to my by Dan Jackson (@northumbriana) on Twitter.

It shows  the officers of the 2nd battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment in India 1908.

(With all pictures please click on them for a large view)

north staffordshire regiment officers 1908

Standing (from left to right); Lt E. M. Steward, Lt R. A Bradley, Lt H. H. Caffyn, Lt H. Etlinger, 2nd Lt A. Punchard, Lt H. V. R. Hodson, Lt C. A. W. Anderson, Lt N. Mosley, 2nd Lt B. S. Stone, 2nd Lt H. C. Bridges Seated; Capt H. H. Hughes-Haltett, Capt G. H. Hume Kelly, Capt J. J. B. Farley, Major W. A. Barnett D.S.O., Lt-Col H. Marwood, Lt & Adt C. H. Lyon, Capt F. E. Johnston, Capt H. C. Tweedie D.S.O., Lt J. H. Ridgway Seated on ground; 2nd Lt A. F. A. Hooper, Lt & Qr-Mr T. E. Lowther

This is one of the best pictures I have seen of British officers from the Victorian period, each face tells a story. As an added bonus it also listed the name and rank of each man, now this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss so I decided to find out what I could about each man.

1911 Census

My first port of call was the 1911 census (1). I found the The North Staffordshire Regiment stationed in Peshawar India. Eleven of the officers were still with the regiment. This now gave me there ages, year of birth and where they were born.



The Great War

My next area of research was the Great war (2), being that the picture was taken only six years before the start of the war it seemed a given that most of them would’ve seen service in the conflict.

A quick look at the history of the 2nd battalion showed that it spent the duration of the war on the North West Frontier in India. It seemed sensible to assume that losses on the Western front and the ambition of some officers would’ve of driven some of these men to transfer to units in the thick of the fighting.

Looking on the Commonwealth War Graves website (3) I found out that six of the men pictured above perished during the War.

Being officers, three of them are included in the De Ruvigny’s Roll of honour (4). This is a detailed biography of over 26,000 soldiers of all ranks who died fighting for their country. The records include more than 7,000 pictures of those men featured.

Regimental Records

A quick search of the National Archives website (5) found the record of Officers sevice book 83. This book from 1907 shows the service record of all officers attached to the 2nd Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment for that year.

This invaluable record has been digitalized so I could search it without leaving the comforts of home. Obviously this record is from five years before the picture was taken so some men are missing or of a different rank.

It gives information on the men’s DOB, Place of Birth, height, languages spoken and qualifications. On page two their service up to 1907 is detailed and any medals and honours awarded.

All of this information adds a personality to the men pictured and a great picture gets an added dimension when you add this to it.

The Men

Steward4 Bradley 3 Caffyn3 Etlinger3 Punchard3 Hodson3 Anderson3 Mosley3 Stone3

Part Two to Follow soon


(1) & (4)


(3) Commonwealth War Graves Commision 

(5) national archives UK