This article covers the history of the Skinner's Horse Regiment, one of the most distinguished cavalry regiments of the Indian Army.
This article covers the history of the Skinner's Horse Regiment, one of the most distinguished cavalry regiments of the Indian Army.
Yellow Boys - Skinner’s Horse
Skinner’s Horse: – One of the most distinguished cavalry regiments of the Indian Army was raised by legendary Lt. Col. James Skinner in 1803 at Hansi. Regiment was raised as Local Horse, became an irregular unit in 1840 but due to its outstanding performance and defection of the entire Bengal regular cavalry during the Great Mutiny of 1857, it became a regular regiment in 1861.
A Frenchman Benoit de Boigne was the commander of forces of Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior state. James joined Scindia’s Army in 1805 & served for 8 years, first under de Boigne & after his retirement, under Perron. After de Boigne’s retirement, Perron became commander of Scindia’s forces & had a body of 5000 native horsemen, called Perron’s Horse¹. In Jan, 1800 in a battle of Unaira, Skinner was shot in the groin & considered dead was left in the battlefield where without food or water, he fought for his life for almost 24 hours, from early afternoon until the dawn next day. This is where he vowed to make a church if he survives. His prayers were heard & an untouchable woman found him in the battlefield. She gave him food & water. He was taken to the enemy camp where he was treated well & was released as soon as he recovered. James sent Rs. 1000/- to the woman who saved his life & fulfilling his oath, he built St. James church near Kashmiri Gate, New Delhi.
During Angelo-Maratha war of 1803, Skinner decided to remain faithful to Scindia but he was dismissed from the service for being a British! Then Lord Lake invited him to raise a regiment of Irregular Cavalry. Skinner accepted the offer but on one condition that he & his regiment will never be asked to draw their swords against his former master – the Maharaja of Scindia. After Scindia’s defeat in 1803 at Aligarh, 800 men of Perron’s Horse offered to join British forces. When they were asked to choose their leader, they unanimously shouted “Sikandar Sahib” & finest regiment of Indian cavalry started taking shape.
Regiment saw continuous action for next 6 months & after the battle of Malagarh, Capt. Skinner was placed in general command of the area between Aligarh & Delhi. But in 1806, Skinner was asked to disband the unit for economic reasons. He was allowed to keep a nucleus of the regiment & was given a grant of land & an income of Rs. 20000/- per annum. But this income was later reduced to Rs. 300/- per month!
In 1809, he was again ordered to re-raise the regiment. Strength of the regiment kept on changing till 1825 when James had 3000 men under his command & surprisingly he was holding rank of a Major. In 1826, he was to be made Companion of Bath but then it was realized that his rank was not high enough for the honour. Finally it was decided to promote him to Lt. Col. , not because he was the ablest cavalry commander of the Indian army but because King George IV himself decided to confer an honour on him. Now James was a Lt. Col. & had reached limit of his promotion prospects. He was holding rank of Brigadier locally. He once wrote “I imagined myself to be serving a people who had no prejudices against caste & color but I find myself mistaken”.
He was more Indian then European & had a large family with 14 wives! He had a mention in Delhi & country houses in Hansi & Bilaspore where he used to take great interest in farming. He was fond of delicious Indian food & hookah. He was more comfortable with Persian then English & spoke the local dialect fluently. He knew names & village of origin of all his men & would often invite his men of all ranks to feast with him and lay an old spoon next to his plate to remind him of his humble beginning. Deep information of his men, their language, culture and his leadership qualities made him the ablest commander of Indian cavalry. He dies in Dec 1841 & was buried at Hansi. Two months later, his remains were brought to his final resting place – St. James Church, New Delhi that he built with GBP 20000 of his own money.
The Regiment: - When Lord Lake asked James Skinner to raise a unit of irregular cavalry, 800 men of Perron’s Horse unit of Scindia were readily available (after Lord Lake had defeated Scindia’s forces). These 800 men were willing to join British forces & when they were asked whom would they choose as their new commander, they unanimously shouted “Sikander Sahib”. That’s how the finest cavalry regiment of the Indian Army born on 23rd Feb, 1803 at Hansi. By 1814, the regiment grew to 1st, 2nd & 3rd regiments of Skinner’s Horse & each regiment was 1000 men strong. 2nd Regiment was commanded by James’ younger brother, Robert Skinner & the 3rd regiment was commanded by Major William Fraser till it was disbanded in 1819. In 1815, establishment of each regiment was as follows: -
10 Naib Risaldars
10 Kot daffadars
In 1809, Galloper guns were attached to the regiments & 1 Havildar, 1 Naik & 50 Sowars were added to work with the guns. During the reorganization of 1861, 2nd regiment was renumbered as 3rd & it retained that number till 1921 when both the regiments were amalgamated to form 1st/3rd Cavalry regiment. Titles of 1st & 3rd regiments of Skinner’s Horse kept on changing from 1803 till 1947. Here is a list of the titles: -
Operational History: - Right after its raising in 1803, one of the Skinner’s Horse regiment was present on any scene of action. Let it be Malagarh (near Meerut), the Anglo-Nepal war, Campaign against Pindaris, the second siege of Bhurtpore (Bharatpore), First Afghan War, Sikh Wars, 1857 Revolt, Second Afghan war, Boxer Rebellion, North West Frontier, Third Afghan War, World War I & II.
1st Regiment: - After the victory of Malagarh in 1803, Capt Skinners was placed in general command of the country between Allygurh (Aligarh) & Delhi. After Scindia was defeated, British turned towards Holkar & Skinner’s Horse were part of the British forces. During this campaign, newly recruited sowars started deserting. James tried to persuade them but was unsuccessful. Finally James, in anger, called them cowards & several shots were fired upon him. Seeing this, his ‘Khas Rissala’ came rushing, shouting their battle cry, they cut 2/3rd of mutineers to pieces. Rest escaped to Raja of Hathras. All the shots fired by the mutineers had hit James horse & he himself had a narrow escape. Lord Lake was so impressed by James gallantry & SH’s service to British against the Raja of Hathras that he presented his own sword to James & Rs. 20000/- for sowars. During the same campaign, for Skinner’s Horse service against Holkar, Lord Lake presented a fine horse with silver trapping and a pair of his own pistols to Capt. Skinners. Lord Lake inspected the regiment & appreciated them with the memorable words, “By your service, you have established a claim for life on the British Govt, which shall never be forgotten and your bread is made permanent.”
The regiment performed so well while guarding the construction of the Ganges canal that Irrigation Department of United Province adopted yellow as the colour of their uniform as a mark of their respect.
During the second Afghan War of 1879-1880, a sowar from 1st Regiment, Mazhir Ali Khan, saved life of Lord Roberts in the battle of Kila Kazi. In 1900, the regiment went to China to suppress Boxer rebellion & made a brilliant charge cutting up the tartar cavalry, captured three standards & some cannons during their march up to Beijing. It also made a joint attack with a cavalry unit of United States, the first time when forces of India & the US served together on battle field.
During WWI, the regiment was in North West Frontier & remained there to take part in Third Afghan War in 1919. 1st & 3rd Regiments of Skinner Horse were amalgamated in 1921 to form 1st/3rd Cavalry.
3rd Regiment: - 3rd Regiment was raised at Hansi on December 7th 1814 by Capt. James Skinners as the “Second Corps” & was commanded by his younger brother Robert Skinner till his death in 1821. Capt. William Clinton Baddeley, an officer of 24th Bengal Native Infantry, assumed the command & the unit got the title “Baddeley’s Frontier Horse”, which changed to “4th (Baddeley’s) Local Horse” two years later. Regiment took part in capture of Khetal & Ghazni during 1st Afghan War, the Gwalior Campaign where they captured a standard of Maratha Army during the Battle of Maharajpore. Regiment fought all the battles of First Sikh War.
During the 1857 revolt, 1st Skinner’s Horse was in Multan & remained loyal to British, partly because of the outstanding commanders & partly because it was away from the center of revolt. But a part of the 3rd Skinner’s Horse stationed at Hansi mutinied but rest was loyal to British & took part in the mutiny suppression operations in Oudh & Bundelkhand. During Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, 3rd Skinner’s Horse regiment took part in advance from Khyber to Kabul and took part in 1897-1898 Frontier campaign.
During WWI, the regiment went to France as a part of the Meerut Cavalry Brigade & took part in all the battles fought by 2nd Indian Cavalry Division till 1916 when it came back to India on North West Frontier where 80 men of the regiment fought so well in the defence of Gumbaz Post that the action merited inclusion in the official list of battles of WWI. 1st & 3rd regiments of Skinner Horse were amalgamated in 1921 to form 1st/3rd Cavalry.
1st/3rd Cavalry: - In May 1921, during the reorganization of the Indian Army after WWI, 1st & 3rd regiments of Skinner’s Horse were amalgamated to form 1st/3rd Cavalry. The regiment got its more appropriate title “Skinner’s Horse (1st Duke of York’s own Cavalry)” in 1927. The regiment bade farewell to its horses in 1939 to become a motorized unit and moved to Sudan as 5th Indian Division’s reconnaissance regiment. Regiment began operating with Gazelle Force & fought, most certainly second last horse mounted battle³ when in early 1941, it was attacked by an Italian officered local cavalry unit. After beating back the Italian attack, sowars of the Skinner’s Horse regiment rounded up the abandoned horses of the Italian unit & rode them triumphantly. Commander of the Italian unit, Capt. Baron Amedeo Guiller, became a lifelong diehard fan of the Indian cavalry. When he became Italian Ambassador to Indian in 1970, he was made an honorary member of the 5th Indian Division.
The regiment then served in Egypt, Cyprus & Italy before coming home to serve in North West Frontier. After independence, regiment took part in Hyderabad Police Action in September 1948 to clear Bidar axis. In 1960, Lt. Col. Michael Alexandria Robert Skinner, great great grandson of the founder James Skinner, assumed command of the regiment. After 120 years, Skinner’s Horse regiment was commanded by a Skinner!
In 1965, equipped with Shermon tanks, unit’s B Squadron supported 50th Para Brigade near Dograi & 2 troops helped 3 Jat in the epic battle of Dograi. 3 Jat got the well-deserved Battle Honour “Dograi” but Skinner’s Horse was not awarded with the same. The regiment fought 1971 indo-Pak war with T-55 tanks & helped 1 Dogra in capturing Harar Kalan & received well deserved Battle & Theater Honour.
Ethnic Composition: -
1st Regiment: - During the early years (around 1803), 1st Skinner’s Horse recruited men from Haryana & Doab (area between Sutlej & Bias river) district. Most recruiters were Muslims (Moghuls & Syeds) with a few Rajput & Brahmins. But as there was space for any adventurer, Pathans & Baluchis also joined the regiment. At the end of the World War I, regiment had four squadrons of Hindustani Muslims each of Moghuls, Ranghars, Syeds & localized Pathans recruited from Delhi, Haryana & Western UP. It was a class muslim regiment.
3rd Regiment: - In the beginning, just like 1st Regiment, majority of the men of 3rd Regiment were muslims but in 1864, the composition of the regiment changed & it had one troop each of Muslim, Dogra, Sikh, Jat, Rajput & Brahman (in total, 3 squadrons). In 1885, a squadron (2 troops) of Sikhs were added & two years later, in 1887 the regiment had one squadron each of Sikhs, Jats, Ranghar and half a squadron each of Rajputs & Hindustani Muslims. Later the composition was changed to one squadron each of Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs (from Eastern Punjab & Jodhpur) and Muslim Rajputs.
1st /3rd Cavalry: - 1st & 3rd Regiments of Skinners Horse were amalgamated to form 1st /3rd Cavalry in May 1927. Old 1st Regiment was an entirely Muslim unit & 3rd regiment had mainly Hindus - Jat, Sikhs & Rajput. The new regiment (1st /3rd Cavalry) started recruiting Jats, Rajputs & Ranghars mainly from Gurgaon, Rohtak & Hissar.
Skinner’s Horse (1st Horse): - After independence, the regiment stayed with India as Skinner’s Horse (1st Duke of York’s own Cavalry) & then in 1950, its title was changed to Skinner’s Horse (1st Horse). In August 1947, the unit was posted in Dera Ismail Khan from where it moved to Ahmedabad. The painful part of that era was the division of the regiment. As per the settlement between two nations, irrespective of the feelings or willingness of the muslim squadrons of the cavalry, they were to be transferred to Pakistan, so Hindustani Muslim & Ranghar squadrons of the Skinner’s Horse were given to Pakistan Armoured Corp in exchange of a Sikh Squadron from 19th King George V’s own Lancers. Muslim & Ranghar squadrons of the Skinner’s horse did not want to leave their ancestral home where they have been serving the regiment since 1803. This hesitation proved costly to them as Pakistani authorities, suspicious that their loyalty was divided, broke up those squadrons into small segments & allotted them to 19th K.G. V. O. Lancers, 11th P.A.V.O. Cavalry & other units. After independence, the regiment started recruiting Jat, Rajputs & Sikhs.
Battle and Theatre Honours: - Bhurtpore*, Ghuznee 1839, Khelat, Afghanistan 1839, Candhahar 1842, Maharajpore*, Moodkee*, Ferozeshah*, Aliwal*, Kandahar 1880, Afghanistan 1879-1880, Punjab Frontier*, Pekin 1900, Frnace & Flanders 1914-16, North West Frontier India 1915, Baluchistan 1918, Afghanistan 1919, Agordat, Keren, Amba Alagai, Abyssinia 1940-41, Senio Floodbank, Italy 1943-46, Harar Kalan, Punjab 1971 (asterisked honours are now considered repugnant & theatre honours are italicized).
Uniforms: - Skinner’s Horse had one of the most fascinating uniforms in the entire British Commonwealth forces. Selection of the bright yellow colour added a unique flavor to the ceremonial uniform. During the second half of the 19th century, British officers were so fond of traditional ceremonial dress that they can be seen in those dresses in most of the photographs. Here are few painting / illustrations showing different ceremonial uniforms worn by different ranks at different occasions.
From left to right - Tunic, 1st SH; Mess jacket, 1st SH; Full Dress, Major, 1st SH, 1912; Risaldar Major, 3rd SH, 1912; Mess jacket, 3rd SH & Tunic, Lt. Col. 3rd SH, 1910.
Sowars, 1st Skinner’s Horse: - Uniform consists of red coloured pugri with yellow stripes wrapped around red khulla tied right over left with a paloo at the rear. Kurta is yellow in colour with 3 buttons opening on the front. Black coloured belt is worn on red cummerbund. Shoulders chains are bastion ended with small links and are supported by red coloured cloth. Breeches are white and boots seem to have detachable calf section. The spurs are steel with leather strap & foot chain.
Risaldar 1896: -This painting by Richard Simkin shows a Risaldar wearing a red pugri with yellow stripes wrapped around gold khulla tied left over right. Yellow kurta has a black central strip, with gold lace, behind three chest buttons. Collars & cuffs are also black laced with gold. Cummerbund is red in colour with Kashmiri embroidery. Shoulder chain is backed with red cloth. White breeches & black shoes complete the uniform.
Officer of 1st Bengal Lancer: - This native officer wears the full regimental dress. Pugri is yellow or golden with blue stripes wrapped around gold khulla tied left over right with a paloo at the back. Yellow kurta has black velvet facing. Front, chest, collars & cuffs are gold laced backed by red cloth. Cummerbund is black with gold & blue stripes on it. Officer is wearing a leather belt covered with black velvet with two rows of gold lace over the cummerbund. The sword was slung from two straps similar to the belt but slimmer than the belt, suspended on rings fixed to the belt. As per 1913 Army Dress regulations, the Pouch & Belt worn by this officer should have a silver star with monogram DYO & a scroll inscribed “Himmat I Mardan, Madad I khuda”; over the monogram, a mounted lancer & a scroll bearing the same motto in urdu; above the star, a Tudor crown & above that a scroll inscribed “Skinner’s Horse”; below the star, scrolls bearing regiment’s battle honours ‘BHURTPORE’, ‘CANDHAHAR 1842’, ‘ AFGHANISTAN 1879-80’ & ‘PEKIN 1900’. The Pouch should have a design of two crossed lances with a monogram DYO in center with ‘1’ above & a York rose below the monogram.
Major 1st Skinner’s Horse, 1914*: - This British officer wears full Regimental uniform. Black coloured pugri with golden stripes is tied left over right around gold & red khulla with a paloo at the back. Bright yellow kurta opens all the way down at the front & has a slit opening from the waist down, at the back. Front is secured by three buttons & collar by hooks & eyes. Buttons bear the design of crossed lances with York Rose at the intersection point. Facing are black velvet & front, chest, collar & cuffs are decorated by gold lace backed by red cloth. Cummerbund is black with its end, having black & golden stripes, is falling up to the length of the kurta. Belt plate has a design raised in silver consisting of crossed lances with monogram DYO in the center with ‘1’ above & York Rose below. Shoulder chain bastion ended with small links backed by black cloth. Boots are black with steel spurs, straps & chains. Breeches & gauntlets are while. Design of the belt has already been explained above. This dress was retained as Regimental ceremonial uniform after the amalgamation of 1st & 3rd regiment.
Risaldar Major, 3rd Skinner’s Horse, 1912*: -This beautiful ceremonial dress was worn by British & Indian officers. Pugri is dark blue with golden, white & blue stripes tied right over left around gold embroidered khulla. Pug is red in colour. Dark blue kurta opens all the way down the front & secured by 4 buttons (4th button is hidden by the cummerbund). Facing colour is Primrose Yellow & can be seen around the neck & below the buttons. Cummerbund is scarlet with Kashmiri embroidered end. Cuffs & chest area are decorated with gold braid forming a pattern of alternating loops & Austrian Knots. The pouch belt, waist belt & sword sling are gold laced. Waist belt has a raised silver design of a monogram E.R.I. surmounted by a Tudor crown encircled with a wreath of laurels & a motto “Dieu et mon Droit”. White breeches, white gauntlets & black boots with steel spurs & foot chains complete the uniform.
Lt. Colonel, 3rd Skinner’s Horse 1910*: -This British officer wears a European pattern full dress which is mentioned as optional in 1913 Dress Regulations. The helmet is white Wolsley pattern with brass fittings. The dark blue tunic has a primrose yellow collars & cuffs. Cuffs are decorated with Bengali knots. Chest is decorated with five plaited swags of gold cord each terminating in gold worked olivets. Base & front opening of the tunic also edged in gold cord. The twisted shoulder cords carry embroidered rank badge of a Lt. Colonel. The dark blue pantaloons had a 1.5 inch gold lace stripes down each leg. Black boots & white gloves complete the uniform.
Major, Winter Mess Dress, 3rd Skinner’s Horse, 1903*: -This is a painting of a Major of 3rd Skinner’s Horse wearing a beautiful mess dress. The jacket is dark blue with primrose yellow facing on collars & cuffs. The garment is edged all round with 1 inch gold braid. Base of the collar is decorated with gold cord. Shoulder cord is gold gimp & carry embroidered rank badge of a major. The front of the jacket is decorated with small gilt studs & secured at collar with loop of tracing braid. The beautiful waistcoat is primrose yellow coloured with the front & collar being decorated with intricate patterns of gold lace. Dark blue pantaloons with 1.5 inch gold lace stripes down each leg complete the uniform.
Sowar, 3rd Regiment of Bengal Cavalry, 1900*: -The sowar wears a dark blue pagri with golden, light blue & white stripes wrapped around a red khulla tied right over left with an embroidered paloo at the back reaching the waist. Dark blue kurta has 3 buttons opening; the collar is low & rounded at the front; three gold lace chevrons indicate long service & good conduct. Shoulder chains are large linked bastion ended backed with dark blue cloth. A broad scarlet cummerbund is worn under a sam browne kind of leather belt that has an ammunition pouch on right & a sword is suspended from leather sword sling on the left. White breeches & black shoes complete the uniform.
Lieutenant, cold weather mess dress, 1st Skinner’s Horse, 1908*:- This illustration shows British officer in cold weather mess dress. The jacket is bright yellow in colour with Collars & cuffs in black velvet. Thick gold lace decorates the collar, front opening, waist & the pointed cuffs. The front opening has a row of gilt studs but the jacket is secured at the throat by a loop of tracing braid. The interior is lined with drab silk & epaulettes are of gold wire lined with black with the rank stars embroidered in silver. The mess waist coat is of black velvet with five gold lace olivets fastening down the front, edged in gold gimp & finished in finer gold braid. The overalls had double gold stripes which was changed to yellow in 1913 Dress Regulations.
¹ Skinner’s Horse was eventually formed out of 800 men of Perron’s horse.
² Some historians believe that the Regiments title was “2nd Corps of Lt. Col. Skinner’s Irregular Horse” but James was not made Lt. Col. Until 1826.
³ The last horse mounted attack took place on 23 August 1942, at Izbushensky when 600 troops of Savoia Cavalry Regiment attacked 2000 Soviet soldiers.
*Photos have been taken from the book ‘Skinner’s Horse’ by Christopher Rothero.
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