They slow-marched through the streets of Bombay before they arrived at the Gateway of India. And then, after a sombre ceremonial farewell, they were gone.
Although independence had come to India the year earlier, 28th February 1948 was an emotional day for the newly independent country. The departure of the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry marked the departure of the last British troops on Indian soil. It was also the formal end of the British presence in India – a moment Indians had been dreaming of for a long time.
It had been more than 200 years since the first British troops had arrived in India, opening a tumultuous chapter in the subcontinent’s history. During that time, there was scarcely a corps or a regiment of the British Army that had not played a part in the building of what came to be known as the ‘Empire of India’ or the jewel in the British Crown.
The Somerset Light Infantry received its first India posting in 1822. Its first major engagement in India was during the Revolt of 1857, when Indian sepoys in the British Indian Army rebelled against the colonial brass. When the British Crown took over the reins of the subcontinent after the Revolt, ending the rule of the British East India Company, troops of the Crown government became the principal pillar of British power in South Asia.
However, for more than a century before 1857, Company troops had held sway in India, along with a limited number of Crown troops, just as they had at the defining Battle of Plassey in 1757. The Company’s ships and trading posts or ‘factories’ needed to defend themselves against pirates, marauders and the forces of hostile powers – both European and subcontinental. That’s why the Company had to raise its own armed forces. The three administrative regions of India – the Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal – each maintained its own army with its own commander-in-chief.
The Company armies comprised both Europeans and Indians but the officers were almost always European and the vast majority of soldiers or ‘sepoys’ were Indian. In addition, regiments of the British Army were loaned to the East India Company in times of need.
By 1857, there were a total of 34,000 European soldiers across ranks, and 257,000 sepoys. These numbers, and their ratio, changed soon after as a precaution taken by the British, against further revolts. In 1880, the standing British Indian Army consisted of 66,000 British soldiers and 130,000 Indians.
After the Revolt of 1857, the British Crown began to rule over India directly, aided by the Government of India Act of 1858. Much of the Indian subcontinent was now part of a single ‘empire’, comprising territories directly controlled by Britain and princely states subservient to Britain.
As many as 130 units of the British Army were stationed in India till a little before 1914. The British Indian Army – comprising Europeans as well as Indians – fought many historic wars such as the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the Boer Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. They also undertook expeditions to Sikkim and Tibet, and, of course, participated in the First and the Second World Wars.
Several Europeans in the British Indian Army had lived in the subcontinent for years, and many had made it their home. But with the churn of self-rule and Swaraj in the subcontinent, it was time to bid goodbye. As soon as India finally achieved its long-fought independence, the withdrawal of British forces began.
On 17th August 1947, the first army units and a large contingent of the Royal Air Force sailed from Bombay. But not every unit could leave at once. There wasn’t enough sea transport.
Concluding this phased withdrawal was the departure of the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, which after a ceremonial parade through the streets of Bombay halted at the Gateway of India. Here, a farewell ceremony watched by thousands awaited them.
Guards of honour were provided by the units of the newly formed Indian Army, including the Maratha Light Infantry, the 3/5th Gurkhas and the Sikh Regiment – many personnel assimilated from British Indian regiments. Both the Indian and British military bands exchanged salutes and played the other’s national anthem – God Save the King was followed by Jana Gana Mana.
The British were presented with parting gifts – an oil painting, the Indian tricolour and a silver model of the Gateway of India, a ceremonial arch built to mark the visit of King George and his wife Queen Mary to the subcontinent in 1911.
Raja Maharaj Singh, the first post-Independence Governor of Bombay, read messages of farewell and good wishes from Governor-General Lord Mountbatten and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Major-General Lashmer Whistler, General Officer Commanding in charge of the withdrawal of British troops in India, thanked him.
Then, to the tune of the popular farewell song Auld Lang Syne (translated from Scottish as ‘For Old Times’ Sake’), the last of the British troops stationed in India – the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry – marched out through the Gateway of India and boarded the Empress of Australia for their journey home.
It was a moving sight as the British Army finally stepped off Indian soil.
A similar drama had played out elsewhere. Just two days earlier, on 26th February 1948, the 2nd Battalion of Black Watch -- a Highlander regiment -- led by pipers in ceremonial attire, had paraded through the streets of Karachi and was the last British Army unit to leave Pakistan.
In 1782, the Black Watch had landed in Bombay to fight alongside Company sepoys in the Mysore Wars. On this day, however, they passed through the grounds of Government House for a royal salute to Pakistan’s Governor-General, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
These final withdrawal British troops not only marked the end of colonisation in the Indian subcontinent but also the beginning of the end of European political control of large parts of Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.
It was the end of an era.
Cover image courtesy: Toronto Public Library
This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.