Bengal Army
Active1756–1895 (as the Bengal Army)
1895–1908 (as the Bengal Command of the Indian Army)
Size105,000 (1876)[1]
Part ofPresidency armies
Garrison/HQNainital, Nainital district (1895–1908)[2]

The Bengal Army was the army of the Bengal Presidency, one of the three presidencies of British India within the British Empire.

The presidency armies, like the presidencies themselves, belonged to the East India Company (EIC) until the Government of India Act 1858, passed in the aftermath of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, transferred all three presidencies to the direct authority of the British Crown.

In 1895 all three presidency armies were merged into the Indian Army.



The Bengal Army originated with the establishment of a European Regiment in 1756.[3] While the East India Company had previously maintained a small force of Dutch and Eurasian mercenaries in Bengal, this was destroyed when Calcutta was captured by the Nawab of Bengal on 30 June that year.[4]

Under East India Company

Bengal troops in the 19th century (1840s)
Bengal infantry on the line of march

In 1757 the first locally recruited unit of Bengal sepoys was created in the form of the Lal Paltan battalion. It was recruited from soldiers that had served in the Nawab's Army from Bihar and the Awadh (Oudh) who were collectively called Purbiyas. Drilled and armed along British army lines this force served well at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and 20 more Indian battalions were raised by 1764. In 1766, the Monghyr Mutiny, quelled by Robert Clive, affected many of the white officers of the Bengal Army.[5]

In his deposition, Lieutenant General Jasper Nicolls, who was an army commander stationed in India, stated of the Bengal Army's recruitment that:[6][7]

"It may well be said that the whole sepoy army of Bengal is drawn from the Company's province of Bihar and Oudh, with very few exceptions".

The East India Company steadily expanded its Bengal Army and by 1796 the establishment was set at three battalions of European artillery, three regiments of European infantry, ten regiments of Indian cavalry and twelve regiments (each of two battalions) of Indian infantry.[8]

In 1824 the Bengal Army underwent reorganisation, with the regular infantry being grouped into 68 single battalion regiments numbered according to their date of establishment. Nine additional infantry regiments were subsequently raised, though several existing units were disbanded between 1826 and 1843. On the eve of the First Afghan War (1839–42) the Bengal Army had achieved a dominant role in the forces of the HEIC. There were 74 battalions of Bengal regular infantry against only 52 from Madras, 26 from Bombay and 24 British (Queen's and Company). On average an inch and a half taller and a stone heavier than the southern Indian troops, the Bengal sepoy was highly regarded by a military establishment that tended to evaluate its soldiers by physical appearance.[9]

Skinner's Horse

A new feature in the Bengal Army was the creation of irregular infantry and cavalry regiments during the 1840s.[10] Originally designated as "Local Infantry" these were permanently established units but with less formal drill and fewer British officers than the regular Bengal line regiments.[11]

The main source of recruitment continued to be high caste Brahmins and Rajputs from Bihar and Oudh,[12] although the eight regular cavalry regiments consisted mainly of Muslim sowars from the Indian Muslim biradaris such as the Ranghar (Rajput Muslims), Sheikhs, Sayyids, Mughals, and Hindustani Pathans.[13][14][15]

Another innovation introduced prior to 1845 was to designate specific regiments as "Volunteers" – that is recruited for general service, with sepoys who had accepted a commitment for possible overseas duty. Recruits for the Bengal Army who were prepared to travel by ship if required, received a special allowance or batta.[16] Two of these BNI regiments were serving in China in 1857 and so escaped any involvement in the great rebellion of that year.[17]

The East India Company's Bengal Army in 1857 consisted of 151,361 men of all ranks, of whom the great majority - 128,663 - were Indians.[18]


A total of 64 Bengal Army regular infantry and cavalry regiments rebelled during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, or were disbanded after their continued loyalty was considered doubtful.[1] From 1858 onwards the Chamars(Outcaste)[19] and the actual high-caste Awadhi and Bihari Hindu presence in the Bengal Army was reduced[20] because of their perceived primary role as "mutineers" in the 1857 rebellion.[21] The new and less homogeneous Bengal Army was essentially drawn from Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Baluchis and Pathans, although twelve of the pre-mutiny Bengal line infantry regiments continued in service with the same basis of recruitment, traditions and uniform colours as before.[22]

A largely unspoken rationale was that an army of diverse origins was unlikely to unite in rebellion.[23]

Post 1857

End of the separate Bengal Army

The Bengal Presidency at its greatest extent in 1858
Soldiers of the 1st European Bengal Fusiliers, pre-1862
Sepoy of the 6th Bengal Light Infantry, c. 1890s.

In 1895 the three separate Presidency Armies began a process of unification which was not to be concluded until the Kitchener reforms of eight years later.[24] As an initial step the Army of India was divided into four commands, each commanded by a lieutenant-general. These comprised Bengal, Bombay (including Aden), Madras (including Burma) and Punjab (including the North West Frontier).[25] In 1903 the separately numbered regiments of the Bombay, Madras and Bengal Armies were unified in a single organisational sequence and the presidency affiliations disappeared.[26]

The Bengal infantry units in existence at the end of the Presidency era continued as the senior regiments (1st Brahmans to 48th Pioneers) of the newly unified Indian Army.[27]

Ethnic composition

The Bengal Army of the East India Company was mainly recruited from high castes living in Bihar and the Awadh.[28]

Prior to 1857, company military service was most popular in the zamindaris of North and South Bihar with the East India Company signing contracts to raise levies of troops from them.[29] Recruits from the Rajput and Bhumihar caste were common and they would use service in the Bengal Army as an opportunity to raise their wealth and status and for this reason, the Bhumihar zamindaris of Bihar became "prime recruiting grounds" for the Army.[29] In the 1780s, the Company maintained a major recruiting station in Buxar with six companies under a Captain Eaton. These recruiting stations in Bihar were kept as "nurseries" which supplied battalions when drafts were made. Other recruiting centres were located in Bhagalpur, Shahabad, Monghyr, Saran and Hajipur.[29]

Brigadier Troup, who served as the commander of Bareilly, stated of recruitment that the ‘Bengal native Infantry came chiefly from the province of Awadh, Buxar, Bhojpur and Arrah.’[29] In 1810, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton noted in his account of the districts of Bihar, that the number of men absent from Shahabad to serve in the Army was 4680. The Ujjainiya zamindar of Bhojpur also informed him that 12000 recruits from his district had joined the Bengal Army.[29]

Writing in The Indian Army (1834), Sir John Malcolm, who had a lifetime's experience of Indian soldiering, wrote: "They consist largely of Rajpoots (Rajput), who are a distinguished race. We may judge the size of these men when we are told that the height below which no recruit is taken is five feet six inches. The great proportion of the Grenadiers are six feet and upwards."[18]

Both prior to and following 1857, the Bengal Army included what were to become some of the most famous units in India: Skinner's Horse, the Gurkhas from the Himalayas and the Corps of Guides on the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.[30]



Regular regiments

Irregular units

Skinner's Horse at Exercise
Skinner's Horse Regimental Durbar
'7th Irregular Cavalry', 1841 (c)


The Bengal Artillery was divided into three 'sections', the Bengal Horse Artillery (affiliated with the Royal Horse Artillery), Bengal European Foot Artillery (European/white members), and the Bengal Native Foot Artillery (native Indians). Below is the list of those that were formed/active before their disbandment/absorption into the Royal Artillery and RHA. Units below will have their formation designation and then designation after joining the British Army.[33]

Bengal Horse Artillery

Bengal European Foot Artillery

Bengal Native Foot Artillery

Punjab Horse Artillery, Punjab Irregular Force



Regular regiments

Bengal Native Infantry 1846
Hindu priest garlanding the flags of the Bengal Light Infantry at a presentation of colours ceremony, c. 1847

Irregular units



Because the Bengal Army was the largest of the three Presidency Armies, its Commander-in-Chief was, from 1853 to 1895, also Commander-in-Chief, India.[36]
Commander-in-Chief, Bengal Command

See also


  1. ^ a b Raugh, p. 55
  2. ^ Shah, p. 97
  3. ^ Raugh, p. 46
  4. ^ Reid, Stuart (18 August 2009). Armies of the East India Company 1750–1850. Bloomsbury USA. p. 5. ISBN 978-1-84603-460-2.
  5. ^ Martin, Robert Montgomery (1879). Our Indian Empire and the Adjacent Countries of Afghanistan, Beloochistan, Persia, Etc., Depicted and Described by Pen and Pencil. London Print. and Publishing Company. p. 305.
  6. ^ Barat, Amiya (1962). The Bengal Native Infantry: Its Organisation and Discipline, 1796-1852. Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay. p. 119.
  7. ^ Parliament. House of Commons. Select Committee on the East India Company (1832). Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company: And Also an Appendix and Index, Volume 3, Part 1. House of Commons.
  8. ^ Mollo, pp. 13–14
  9. ^ Mason, Philip (1986). A Matter of Honour – An Account of the Indian Army, its Officers and Men. Macmillan. pp. 194–195. ISBN 0-333-41837-9.
  10. ^ Mollo, pp. 51-52
  11. ^ Creese, Michael (2015). Swords Trembling in Their Scabbards. The Changing Status of Indian Officers in the Indian Army 1757–1947. Helion Limited. pp. 26–27. ISBN 9-781909-982819.
  12. ^ Mason, Philip (1986). A Matter of Honour - An Account of the Indian Army, its Officers and Men. p. 125. ISBN 0-333-41837-9.
  13. ^ Defence Journal:Volumes 4-5. 2001. p. 66.
  14. ^ Sumit Walia (2021). Unbattled Fears: Reckoning the National Security. p. 125. ISBN 9788170623311.
  15. ^ Calcutta Review 1956. University of Calcutta. 1956. p. 38.
  16. ^ Wagner, Kim A. (2014). The Great Fear of 1857. p. 37. ISBN 978-93-81406-34-2.
  17. ^ MacMunn, Lt. Gen. Sir George (1984). The Armies of India. Crécy. p. 100. ISBN 0-947554-02-5.
  18. ^ a b Spilsbury, Julian (2007). The Indian Mutiny. Jouve, France: Orion Publishing Group. p. 9. ISBN 9780297856306.
  19. ^ Karsten, Peter (31 October 2013). Recruiting, Drafting, and Enlisting: Two Sides of the Raising of Military Forces. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-66150-2.
  20. ^ David, Saul (4 September 2003). The Indian Mutiny. Penguin Adult. p. 377. ISBN 0-141-00554-8.
  21. ^ Bickers and Tiedemann, p. 231
  22. ^ W.Y. Carman, pages 107–108, "Indian Army Uniforms" Morgan-Grampian Books 1969
  23. ^ Mason, Philip (1986). A Matter of Honour. Macmillan. pp. 320 & 326 & 359. ISBN 0-333-41837-9.
  24. ^ Gaylor, John (1992). Sons of John Company. The Indian & Pakistan Armies 1903–1991. Spellmount. p. 2. ISBN 0-946771-98-7.
  25. ^ "Northern Command". Retrieved 5 July 2013.
  26. ^ Gaylor, John (1992). Sons of John Company. The Indian & Pakistan Armies 1903–1991. Spellmount. p. 3. ISBN 0-946771-98-7.
  27. ^ Carmen, pp. 225-226
  28. ^ Hiltebeitel, Alf (1999). Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims and Dalits. University of Chicago Press. p. 308. ISBN 978-0226340500.
  29. ^ a b c d e Alavi, Seema (1995). The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770-1830. Oxford University Press. pp. 51–55. ISBN 9780195634846.
  30. ^ 'Lumsden of the Guides' (London, 1899) by P. Lumsden and G. Elsmie; p. 28.
  31. ^ Mollo, p. 93
  32. ^ Mollo, pp. 91–92
  33. ^ a b Frederick, pp. 453–6.
  34. ^ Frederick, pp. 428–30.
  35. ^ a b Carmen, p. 107
  36. ^ Raugh, p. 45


Further reading