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Hodson, William Stephen Raikes (DNB00)


HODSON, WILLIAM STEPHEN RAIKES (1821–1858), military commander, the third son of the Rev. George Hodson, afterwards archdeacon of Stafford and canon of Lichfield, was born at Maisemore Court, near Gloucester, on 19 March 1821. After a short time spent with a private tutor, the Rev. E. Harland, he went to Rugby, and in 1840 entered Trinity College, Cambridge, taking the degree of B.A. in 1844. He began his military career in Guernsey, where he obtained a commission in the militia; he left it in 1845 to enter the East India Company's service. He landed at Calcutta on 13 Sept. 1845, and after proceeding up the country to Agra, joined the 2nd grenadiers, then forming part of the governor-general's escort, and was at once engaged in the Sikh war, being present at the battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, and Sobraon. He was soon after transferred to the 1st Bengal European fusiliers, and was introduced to Sir Henry Lawrence by the Hon. J. Thomason, thus beginning a friendship which only ended with their lives. In 1847 he was appointed to the adjutancy of the corps of guides, and it was in the service that this involved that he gained the experience and displayed the powers which afterwards made him an unrivalled partisan leader. For his services in this capacity he received the thanks of the governor-general. When in 1849 the Punjab was annexed, he was transferred to the civil department as assistant commissioner, and was stationed for some time at Umritsur. Thence he went with Sir H. Lawrence into Cashmere, and saw a good deal of Thibet.

On 5 Jan. 1852 he married Susan, widow of John Mitford, esq., of Exbury, Hampshire, and by the first week in March had resumed his duties at Kussowlee as assistant-commissioner; but his heart was with his old corps, the guides, and in September 1852 he was highly gratified to receive from the governor-general the command of the corps. Of his arduous life on the frontiers in this command he has given a very vivid picture in his letters.

Up to this time Hodson's career had been uniformly prosperous; but his rapid rise had made some envious, and his scorn of pretence, his restless energy, and his outspoken criticism of those who neglected their duty, had made him enemies, and a storm burst upon him which at the time threatened to ruin him. There was confusion in the regimental accounts, and charges of dishonesty as well as of harsh treatment of the natives were brought against him. An inquiry was held before a special military court, which terminated its sittings in January 1855. The report was unfavourable, and he was removed from the command of the guides. Against their decision he appealed, and a second inquiry was ordered, and entrusted to Major Reynell Taylor, who, after a long and patient investigation, reported on 13 Feb. 1856. This report fully cleared him of the imputations cast upon him. His words are: ‘The correctness of the whole account was established, and I was satisfied’ (Parry, Life of Reynell Taylor, pp. 214, 215, Lond., 1888). In Colonel Napier's words, ‘the investigation … fully justified the confidence’ he (Napier) had throughout maintained in his honour and uprightness. The second report was only sent in May 1857 to Sir Henry Daly, commandant of the guides, with a minute from Lord Canning expressing dissatisfaction and directing explanations. Daly was soon afterwards wounded, and Hodson, who temporarily took his command, took possession of the report, which was found in his trunk on his death.

Meanwhile Hodson rejoined the 1st fusiliers at Dugshai, practically beginning his military career over again, but discharging regimental duties with a zeal and energy that procured especial commendation. On 10 May 1857 occurred the outbreak at Meerut, followed by the massacre of Delhi. Hodson at once rose again to his proper place, and after going with the 1st fusiliers to Umbala, and then to Kurnal, the commander-in-chief ordered him to raise and command an entire new regiment of irregular horse. This was the body known throughout the mutiny as ‘Hodson's Horse’; it may be said that no single regiment did so much towards saving our Indian empire. Besides this, the intelligence department was put into his hands. In June 1857 he was before Delhi, and there met his old corps of the guides, who received him with extravagant enthusiasm. Of the details of the siege of Delhi, and the important share that he and his Horse had in its capture, his letters give a very clear and interesting account. It was taken on 20 Sept. 1857, and on the following day he obtained (with some difficulty) from General Wilson permission to pursue and seize the king of Delhi. He started with only fifty of his own men for Humayoon's tomb, where the king had gone after leaving his palace. The surrender followed, and Hodson brought the king back into Delhi, handing him over to the commander-in-chief, in spite of the thousands following, any one of whom could have shot him down in a moment. This, the leading the king a captive into his own palace, was perhaps the heaviest blow the rebellion had received.

On the following day (22 Sept. 1857), with a hundred picked men, he started again for Humayoon's tomb, where the Shahzadahs, princes of Delhi, had taken refuge. Hodson demanded their surrender; they came out and were sent away towards the city under a guard. The tomb was crowded with six or seven thousand of the servants and hangers-on of the palace and city. Hodson demanded from these men the instant surrender of their arms. In spite of the small number of his force, they obeyed, and, after leaving the arms and animals with a guard, he went to look after the prisoners. A large native mob had collected, and were turning on the guard. It was no time to hesitate; the question was between the lives of himself and his soldiers and those of the prisoners; and after appealing to the crowd saying that these were the butchers who had murdered and brutally used helpless women and children, he took a carbine from one of his men and shot the princes, one after another. The critical condition of things in India, and the absolute necessity at the moment of immediate action for the safety of his own life and those of his soldiers, gained for Hodson's action the approval at the time of all engaged in the work of putting down the rebellion. Yet he did not escape detraction. ‘The capture of the king and his sons,’ he says himself, ‘however ultimately creditable, has caused me more envy and ill-will than you would believe possible.’

Hodson's Horse was not suffered to lie idle after the fall of Delhi; it was soon after sent towards Cawnpore in charge of a convoy of supplies for the commander-in-chief's army, and went through a great deal of hard fighting and service of all kinds. One of Hodson's most brilliant exploits was his riding from Mynpooree to the commander-in-chief's camp at Meerun-ke-Serai to open communications between the two forces, when he rode seventy-two miles on one horse through a country swarming with enemies.

On 6 March Hodson was before Lucknow. On 11 March he advanced as a volunteer with his friend, Brigadier Napier, who was directing an attack on the begum's palace. While the soldiers were searching for concealed sepoys in the courtyard and buildings adjoining, he looked into a dark room, and was shot from within through the chest. He died the next day, 12 March 1858, and was buried at Lucknow. Sir Colin Campbell wrote of him to his widow as ‘one of the most brilliant officers under my command.’ Sir John Lawrence described him as ‘one of the ablest, most active, and bravest soldiers who have fallen in the war.’ Sir Robert Montgomery wrote: ‘I can find no one like him; many men are as brave, many possess as much talent, many are as cool and accurate in judgment, but not one combines all these qualifications as he did.’ These verdicts are beyond dispute. The accusation made against him, that he had accumulated ‘vast stores of valuables’ by looting, is refuted by the fact that all his property (save horses) was sold at his death for 170l. Moreover, his widow, who was in the receipt of two pensions, died in 1884 in Hampton Court Palace, and her whole property was sworn under 400l.

[Hodson of Hodson's Horse (1st ed. Lond. 1858, 5th ed. 1889), by Hodson's brother, the Rev. G. H. Hodson, is the chief authority. The introduction was written to remove imputations which were revived by Mr. R. Bosworth Smith in his Life of Lord Lawrence (1883), and Mr. G. H. Hodson, in a new edition of his memoir (1884), defended his brother once again. In an elaborate appendix to the sixth edition (1885) of his Life of Lord Lawrence, Mr. Bosworth Smith recapitulated the charges, but entirely failed, in our opinion, to substantiate them. Kaye and Malleson in the History of the Indian Mutiny (vol. iv.) take a favourable view of Hodson's character, but condemn his action in regard to the princes. Mr. T. R. E. Holmes, in his work Four Famous Soldiers (1889), and elsewhere, has renewed the attacks on Hodson, both as regards the unsatisfactory condition of his accounts while commander of the guides, and as to the proceedings at Delhi and the execution of Bisharut Ali as a mutineer. He gives implicit credit to whatever Hodson's enemies said of him, while neglecting the testimony of such friends as Lord Napier of Magdala, who wrote in November 1885: ‘I am now, as I have always been, fully convinced of his honour and integrity.’]

H. R. L.