William Stephen Raikes Hodson

William Stephen Raikes Hodson
William Stephen Raikes Hodson
William Hodson, engraving printed as frontispiece to his biography Rider on a Grey Horse, by B.J. Cork, 1958
Born 10 March 1821
Maisemore Court, near Gloucester
Died 11 March 1858
Lucknow, British India
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Bengal Army
Rank Brevet Major
Commands held Corps of Guides
Hodson's Horse
Battles/wars First Anglo-Sikh War
Indian Mutiny

Brevet Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson (10 March 1821 – 11 March 1858) was a British leader of irregular light cavalry during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (also known as India's First War of Independence or the Indian Mutiny). He was known as "Hodson of Hodson's Horse."

His most notable action was to apprehend the Emperor of India. The following day he rode to the enemy camp, heavily outnumbered by the rebels and demanded the surrender of the Mughal princes who were leading the rebellion around Delhi and killed them.[1]

Hodson is credited with being jointly responsible for the introduction of the khaki uniform.


Early career

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 at Trinity College, Cambridge.[2] 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 moustache, and large, restless, rather unforgiving eyes… a perfect swordsman, nerves like iron, and a quick, intelligent eye. Hodson delighted in fighting and his favourite 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'.[3]

The initial assistance he gave in organising 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 Burnett 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 colour - 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 which many view it as the precursor of modern camouflage uniform. Within a short time he was not only commanding the regiment but had established himself as one of 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 travelled in Kashmir and Tibet. In 1852 he was appointed Commandant of the Guide Corps.

Indian Rebellion

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. Following this feat, the commander-in-chief empowered him to raise and command a 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.

His major achievement was the capture of the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah II and the execution of the three Mughal 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. 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, who are said to have laid their arms to grounds when he ordered them to. This was highly symbolic of the decline of the Turks and Mughals which started after Aurangzeb.

The Emperor of Delhi surrenders himself to Captain Hodson

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.[4] 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 with the seal of Jahangir engraved upon it, which Hodson intended to present to Queen Victoria.[5] The swords he took from the Emperor were given to the Queen as a symbol of the Emperor's surrender and are still held in the Queen's Collection.

The sons of the king, the princes had refused to surrender and on the following day with few 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.[citation needed] 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 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 where they were killed is called the Khooni Darwaza, or Bloody Gate.

This action was controversial at the time, the future Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts, then a junior officer serving in the Delhi campaign would later call it a "blot" and criticized "an otherwise brilliant officer" for exposing himself to criticism. Other first hand accounts, such as William Ireland also called into question the exigency of the execution. His service record showed that he had often behaved in arbitrary fashion before, and he had previously been removed from civil duties by the then Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, a man not himself noted for restraint or strict adherence to legal nuance.

Hodson's grave in La Martiniere College in Lucknow

Accusations of corruption

In 1855, two separate charges were brought against Hodson. The first was that he had arbitrarily imprisoned a Pathan chief named Khadar Khan, on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of Colonel Mackeson. The man was acquitted, and Lord Dalhousie removed Hodson from his civil functions and remanded him to his regiment on account of his lack of judgment.

The second charge was more serious, amounting to an accusation of misappropriation of the funds of his regiment. He was tried by a court of inquiry, who found that his conduct to natives had been unjustifiable and oppressive, that he had used abusive language to his native officers and personal violence to his men, and that his system of accounts was calculated to screen peculation and fraud. However, a subsequent inquiry was carried out by Major Reynell Taylor, which dealt simply with Hodson's accounts and found them to be an honest and correct record irregularly kept.

During a tour through Kashmir with Sir Henry Lawrence he kept the purse and Sir Henry could never obtain an account from him; subsequently, Sir Henry's younger brother Sir George Lawrence accused him of embezzling the funds of the Lawrence Asylum at Kasauli; while Sir Neville Chamberlain in a published letter says of the third brother, Lord Lawrence, "I am bound to say that Lord Lawrence had no opinion of Hodson's integrity in money matters. He has often discussed Hodson's character in talking to me, and it was to him a regret that a man possessing so many fine gifts should have been wanting in a moral quality which made him untrustworthy." Finally, on one occasion Hodson spent £500 of the pay due to Lieutenant Godby, and under threat of exposure was obliged to borrow the money from a local banker named Bisharat Ali through one of his officers.


On 11 March 1858 Hodson's regiment was in Lucknow and while storming the Begam's palace (Begum Kothi) he was shot mistakenly. His last words were ‘I hope I have done my duty’.

On the evening of 12 March 1858, 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. His grave bears the inscription 'Here lies all that could die of William Stephen Raikes Hodson'.


Though the British Empire looked upon Hodson as somewhat of a hero, he is remembered in India mostly for his excesses while trying to curb the 1857 Revolt. He is also remembered 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 Queen Victoria.[6]

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."

[7] 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 valour, 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 marvellous. 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 honoured 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".

He features as one of the main characters in James Leasor's novel about the Indian Mutiny, 'Follow the Drum', which describes his part in these events and his death in some detail.


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.


  1. ^ LJ Trotter, A Leader of Light Horse, pages 200-202
  2. ^ Hodson, William Stephen Raikes in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  3. ^ "Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition"
  4. ^ Hansard; 11 December 1857
  5. ^ Illustrated London News; 20 March 1858
  6. ^ Blackwood's Magazine March 1899
  7. ^ Hansard; 14 April 1859

See also

Further reading

  • Twelve years of a soldier's life in India: being extracts from the letters of the late Major W. S. R. Hodson ed. by his brother, the Rev. George H. Hodson
  • Lionel James Trotter A Leader of Light Horse: Life of Hodson of Hodson's Horse (W. Blackwood and sons 1901)
  • Barry Joynson Cork, Rider on a Grey Horse, A life of Hodson of Hodson's Horse, (Cassells 1958)
  • Charles Allen Soldier Sahibs, the Men who made the North-West Frontier, (John Murray 2000)
  • Saul David, The Indian Mutiny, (Vicking 2002)
  • Julian Spilsbury, Indian Mutiny, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2007).

External links

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