Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson (9 March 1821–11 March 1858)
Above all the British officers who took part in the Indian Mutiny, Hodson’s record is the one that most inspired contemporary adventure stories. His irregular cavalry force – Hodson’s Horse – was the model for the fictitious Warrener’s Horse. The characters of Major Warrener and Major Hodson, however, have little in common. Warrener – upright, honest, with high moral integrity and generally compassionate (if you except the killing of the rebels before the assault on the Rajah of Nahdur’s castle) – is the opposite of Hodson’s. He had a reputation for haughtiness to his native troops and British colleagues, treated captured captured enemies mercilessly and his somewhat careless attitude to the money of others caused problems.
The third son of the Rev. George Hodson, he was born near Gloucester and educated at Rugby School under Dr Arnold and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He joined the 2nd Bengal Grenadiers as a cadet aged 23 and served in the First Sikh War (1845–46). His contemporaries variously described him as having a reckless daring, as being the finest swordsman in the army and a brilliant horseman who could sleep in the saddle; he had nerves of steel, and loved fighting – his favourite weapon being the hog spear.
As an adjutant, Hodson is credited with helping to form the Corps of Guides in 1847, and in equipping the new regiment with its uniform, being the first officer to settle on ‘drab’ or lightweight khaki clothing to make the men ‘invisible in a land of dust’. In time, Hodson’s innovation would completely replace the traditional bright red of British soldiers.
His outspoken criticism of the Sikh War campaign and many to follow made him many enemies, who made the most of the faults in his character. He was charged twice in 1855, first with the false imprisonment of a Pathan chief and then with stealing regiment funds, using abusive language and offering physical violence to his men. On appeal, a second inquiry found his financial accounts honest but irregularly kept. Those of his fellow officers who admired Hodson felt he was just careless and extravagant in money matters – a not untypical failing of many young upper-crust British officers of the time – emphasised when he spent a pay backlog owing to another officer and was then forced to borrow the money from a native banker.
Other concerns over his handling of money brought his career to the point of ruin – and then the Mutiny broke out and saved him. Men of Hodson’s fighting calibre were in sudden demand. He made his name at the very start of the uprising by riding with despatches from General Anson at Karnal to Meerut and back again, a round distance of 152 miles in 72 hours, through countryside teeming with rebel cavalry. For this feat, he was commanded to raise a regiment
of 2000 irregular horse – the famous Hodson’s Horse. In addition, he was appointed head of the Intelligence Department. In his double role of cavalry leader and intelligence officer, Hodson played a large part in the recapture of Delhi.
Hodson soon recruited a network of spies in and around Delhi, and was so successful in intelligence gathering that it was said he even knew what the rebels had for dinner. Among his informants was one of the most prominent sepoy commanders, a brigade major, who provided invaluable intelligence that helped enormously in the final assault.
His hand in the capture of the emperor and subsequently of the three sons and their summary shooting outside the gates of Delhi is well recounted in the novel, which accords with all the recorded facts of the events. However cold-blooded Hodson’s actions might seem today, among the troops who witnessed the three naked bodies lying on the ground over the next few hours, most supported the killings. ‘I was glad to see the, ‘wrote one, ‘for of their guilt there was not a doubt. I really believe…the king was a puppet in their hands.’ Another wrote: ‘I saw them that same afternoon, nor can it be said that I or others…felt any pity in our hearts for the wretches.’
Hodson was killed on the 11th of March 1858 in the attack on the Begum Kothi at Lucknow. He had just arrived on the spot and met a man going to fetch powder to blow in a door; instead Hodson, with his usual recklessness, rushed into the doorway and was shot.
After his death the controversy over his financial position continued. While in London the prime minister heaped extravagant praise on his memory in Calcutta there were rumours of vast amounts of loot in Hodson’s account, that he let Bahadar Shah Zafur live after receiving a hefty bribe, and so on. Whatever the truth, Hodson seems to have died poor. His effects were sold for £170 and his widow had to accept charity in order to book a passage home.
© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England
Hodson's grave stands in the grounds of La Martiniere College, Lucknow, not far from where he fell.
Appears in Chapter 17, 19, 21