Brevet Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson was the British leader of irregular light cavalry during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was known as "Hodson of Hodson's Horse."
Hodson is credited with being jointly responsible for the introduction of the khaki uniform. His most notable action was to apprehend and safely return the Emperor of India and, the following day, march into an enemy camp where he was heavily outnumbered and demanded the surrender of the Moghul princes who were leading the rebellion around Delhi.
In explanation of the fact that he never received the Victoria Cross it was said of him "that it was because he earned it every day of his life".
William Hodson was born on 9 March 1821 at Maisemore Court, near Gloucester, third son of the Rev. George Hodson. He was educated at Rugby School under Dr. Arnold and Trinity College, Cambridge. He accepted a cadetship in the Indian Army at the age of twenty-three; joining the 2nd Bengal Grenadiers he went through the First Anglo-Sikh War.
Unusually among officers of the time, William Hodson was a Cambridge graduate and keen linguist. A contemporary described him as tall man with yellow hair, a pale, smooth face, heavy mustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes… a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye. Hodson delighted in fighting and his favorite weapon was the hog spear. He was a brilliant horseman with the capacity to sleep in the saddle. He was described as 'the finest swordsman in the army'.
The initial assistance he gave in organizing the newly-formed Corps of Guides in December 1846 had been one of Sir Henry Lawrence's projects in which Hodson excelled. The Guides Corps had Lt Harry Lumsden as its commandant and Lt Hodson as adjutant. Significantly, among the duties assigned to Hodson was responsibility for equipping the new regiment which necessitated his choosing the regiment's uniform. Accordingly in May 1848 he liaised with his brother Rev George Hodson, in England, to send all the cloth, rifles and Prussian-style helmets required. With Lumsden's approval, Hodson decided upon a lightweight uniform of Khaki color - or 'drab' as it was then referred to. This would be comfortable to wear and 'make them invisible in a land of dust'. As a result Hodson and Lumsden had the joint distinction of being the first officers to equip a regiment dressed in Khaki. Many view it as the precursor of modern camouflage uniform. Within a short time he was not only commanding the regiment but established himself as the foremost intelligence authority in India.
He was transferred to the Civil Department as Assistant Commissioner in 1849 and stationed at Amritsar; from there he traveled in Kashmir and Tibet. In 1852 he was appointed Commandant of the Guide Corps. He was tried before a court of inquiry, 1855, on charges of dishonesty but on appeal, he was fully cleared.
At the outset of the Indian Mutiny he made his name by riding with despatches from General Anson from Karnal to Meerut and back again, a distance of 152 miles in seventy-two hours, through country full of hostile cavalry. This feat so pleased the commander-in-chief that he empowered him to raise and command an entirely new regiment of 2000 irregular horse, which became famed as "Hodson's Horse", and placed him at the head of the Intelligence Department. In his double role of cavalry leader and intelligence officer, Hodson played a large part in the reduction of Delhi and consequently in saving India for the British empire.
His major achievement was the capture the Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah II, but the most bitterly criticised action in his career, was the execution of the three Moghul princes: Bahadur's sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan and his grandson Mirza Abu Bakr.
The British knew that the old Emperor (or "King of Delhi") was proving to be a focus for the uprising and the mutineers, and that he, his sons and their army were camped just outside Delhi at Humayun's Tomb; however it was considered too dangerous to assault the enemy force. The General in command said he could not spare a single European. Hodson volunteered to go with 50 of his irregular horsemen, this request was turned down but after some persuasion Hodson obtained from General Wilson permission to ride out to where the enemy were encamped. Hodson rode 6 miles through enemy territory into their camp, containing some 6000+ armed mutineers, a quote from the time says:
"His orderly told me that it was wonderful to see the influence which his calm and undaunted look had on the crowd. They seemed perfectly paralyzed at the fact of one white man (for they thought nothing of his 50 sowars) carrying off their King alone."
Here he accepted the surrender of Bahadur Shah II, the last of the Moghul Emperors of India, promising him that his life would be spared. The capture of the Emperor in the face of a threatening crowd dealt the mutineers a heavy blow. As a sign of surrender the Emperor handed over his arms, which included two magnificent swords, one with the name ‘Nadir Shah' and the other the seal of Jahangir engraved upon it, which Hodson intended to present to the Queen. The swords he took from the Emperor were given to Queen Victoria as a symbol of the Emperor's surrender and are still held in the Queen's Collection.
The princes had refused to surrender and on the following day with one hundred horsemen Hodson went back and demanded the princes' unconditional surrender. Again a crowd of thousands of mutineers gathered, and Hodson ordered them to disarm, which they did. He sent the princes on with an escort of ten men, while with the remaining ninety he collected the arms of the crowd. On going after the princes, Hodson found the crowd was again pressing towards the escort. The princes were mounted on a bullock-cart and driven towards the city of Delhi. As they approached the city gate, Hodson ordered the three princes to get off the cart and to strip naked. He then shot them dead, in cold blood and at point-blank range, before stripping the princes of their signet rings, turquoise arm-bands and bejewelled swords. Their bodies were thrown in front of a kotwali, or police-station, and left there to be seen by all. The gate near which the murders were performed is called the Khooni Darwaza, or Bloody Gate.
On 11 March 1858 Hodson's regiment was in Lucknow and while storming the Begam's palace (Begum Kothi) he fell back shot through the liver. He had just arrived on the spot and met a man going to fetch gunpowder to blow in a door; instead Hodson rushed into the doorway and was shot. His last words were ‘I hope I have done my duty'.
On the evening of 12 March, his body was buried in the garden of La Martiniere Lucknow. His grave and memorial is still located within the grounds of La Martiniere College.
He is remembered today for a number of notable achievements in his lifetime. His military career won him respect and praise from many quarters; this included recognition from the Secretary of State for India, the Prime Minister and HM Queen Victoria. Those who served under him and the sons of those who served under him used to speak by the title given to him by the old Emperor of India "Hodson Sahib Bahadur."
Throughout his career Hodson was dogged by accusations of, at best, negligence in financial matters and, at worst, theft. He was investigated on more than one occasion but nothing was ever proved. His detractors claim he was a looter. His supporters say that these accusations came from those who disliked his manner and his military success. He had not followed the normal career path for an officer and he was renowned for his curt, brisk manner and was not afraid to step on toes or say what was on his mind. On the other hand the Rev. G Hodson states in his book that he obtained the inventory of his brother's possessions made by the Committee of Adjustment and it contained no articles of loot, and Sir Charles Gough, president of the committee, confirmed this evidence. This statement is totally incompatible with Sir Henry Daly's and is only one of many contradictions in the case. Sir Henry Norman stated that to his personal knowledge Hodson remitted several thousand pounds to Calcutta which could only have been obtained by looting. On the other hand, again, Hodson died a poor man, his effects, which included a ring, watch, Bible and Prayer book, and a miniature, were sold for only £170. General remarked "there was nothing in his boxes but what an officer might legitimately and honorably have in his possession." His widow did not have money enough to pay for her passage home and she had to apply to the Compassionate Fund for assistance, which was granted. She was given apartments by the Queen at Hampton Court, and left only £400 at her death.
In parliamentary speeches made on 14 April 1859 the Prime Minister Earl of Derby, and the Minister for India Lord Stanley, singled-out Major Hodson for his unique services to the country. Lord Stanley is quoted as saying: "Major Hodson, of the Guides, who, in his short but brilliant military career, displayed every quality which a cavalry officer should possess. Nothing is more remarkable in glancing over the biography of Major Hodson that has just appeared than the variety of services in which he was engaged, unless it be the energy and versatility with which he turned from one to the other. At one time displaying his personal courage and skill as a swordsman in conflict with the Sikh fanatics; then transferred to the Civil Service, the duties of which he performed as though he had passed his whole life at the desk; afterwards recruiting and commanding the corps of Guides, and, lastly, taking part in the operations before Delhi, volunteering for every enterprise in which life could be hazarded or glory could be won; he crowded into the brief space of twelve eventful years the services and adventures of a long life. He died before the reward which he had earned could be received, but he attained that reward which doubtless he most coveted — the consciousness of duty nobly done, and the assurance of enduring military renown."
The Prime Minister said of him 'Doubtless many have fallen who, if they had been spared, might have risen to greatest eminence and have held the highest stations in public service. I allude to Hodson a model of chiefs of irregular forces. By his valor, his rigid discipline, and careful attention to his men's real wants, comforts, desires, and even prejudices, he had obtained an influence which was all but marvelous. This enabled him to lead his troops so formed and disciplined into any danger and into any conflict as if they had been British soldiers. He has met a soldier's death. It will be long before the people lose the memory of Hodson'. General Hugh Gough said of him, "A finer or more gallant soldier never breathed. He had the true instincts of a leader of men; as a cavalry soldier he was perfection; a strong seat, a perfect swordsman, quick and intelligent". - This recognition of Hodson by the Prime Minister was reflected in the special pension granted his widow by the Secretary of State for India in Council, who declared it was 'testimony of the high sense entertained of the gallant and distinguished services of the late Brevet-Major W.S.R. Hodson' and Her Majesty Queen Victoria honored Major Hodson posthumously by granting his widow private apartments at Hampton Court Palace "in consideration of the distinguished service of your late husband in India".
The following verses by Sir Mortimer Durand appeared in India shortly after Hodson's death:
I rode to Delhi with Hodson: there were three of my Father's sons;
Two of them died at the foot of the ridge, in the line of the Mori's guns.
I followed him on when the great town fell; he was cruel and cold they said:
The men were sobbing around the day that I saw him dead.
It is not soft words that a soldier wants; we know what he was in fight;
And we love the man that can lead us, ay, though his face be white.
And when the time shall come, sahib, as come full well it may,
When all things are not fair and bright, as all things seem today,
When foes are rising round you fast, and friends are few and cold
And half a yard of trusty steel is worth a prince's gold
Remember Hodson trusted us, and trust the old blood too,
And as we followed him - to death - our sons will follow you.
Note though that Hodson, typical of other British of his time particularly favoured minorities in India and gave them preferential treatment, resulting in these minorities singing his praises, to the rank and file Indian, Hodson was a hated and feared figure.