17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own)

The success of two 'light dragoon' regiments raised in 1759 (the 15th and 16th) prompted King George II to raise five new regiments. In late 1759, Lt. Col. John Hale (an experienced officer of the 47th Foot) was commissioned to raise a new regiment of 'light dragoons' in Hertfordshire, just north of London. Amongst his Troop Commanders, Hale was fortunate to have some experienced cavalry officers transferred from other regiments, such as Captain Edwards Lascelles from the Royal Horse Guards.

Colonel Hale had formerly been something of a hero, and accordingly he obtained permission from the King to adopt, as the Regiment's badge, the 'death's head' emblem with the motto "or glory". This dramatic symbol, together with huge public interest in the new regiments of 'light horse', enabled recruiting to be both fast and also selective as to choice of candidates. By January 1760, the Regiment comprised six troops stationed at Coventry. Thereafter they marched north to Berwick-upon-Tweed and then on to Scotland, where they remained for three years.

In 1764, the Regiment embarked for Ireland where they were to remain for eleven years. By a Royal Warrant of 1768, the uniform was specified as scarlet jackets with white facings, white breaches and white metal helmets with a horse-hair crest. Horse decorations were white. In 1770, Colonel Hale was appointed Governor of Limerick and Col. George Preston (from the 2nd Dragoons) was appointed Colonel of the Regiment.

On the outbreak of the American War of Independence (1775–83), the 17th Light Dragoons were immediately despatched from Ireland to America, landing in Boston in May, 1775. They were immediately in action (dismounted) at Bunker Hill. Starved out of Boston, the Regiment sailed to Halifax and then New York, where there were a number of significant engagements, and as the Americans withdrew, the Regiment was in the vanguard of the pursuing British. Thereafter they fought constantly in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas until the British finally sued for peace in 1783.

The Regiment embarked for Ireland, arriving home in 1784 at which time the colour of the jackets of all light cavalry regiments was changed from scarlet to blue. The 17th Light Dragoons remained eleven years in Ireland, until 1795. During this period, Irish rebels, inspired by events in France, were especially active.

When slaves rebelled in the West Indies in 1795, four troops from the Regiment embarked for Saint Domingo. Two troops travelled on to Jamaica, where command of the squadron passed, somewhat unexpectedly, to Sgt. Stephenson, who led his comrades in a successful charge against the rebels. (Sgt. Stephenson was subsequently offered a commission in the infantry, an offer he declined). Lt. Oswald Werge was able to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the rebels in March, 1796, although fighting continued in Grenada, where a squadron of the 17th Light Dragoons arrived in March. The rebels were reinforced by French troops and fierce fighting ensued.

The remainder of the Regiment (five troops plus a headquarters troop) had, meanwhile, arrived in the West Indies (Saint Domingo) from Ireland. Fever and disease, however, were rampant, and the Regiment returned to England in August 1797.

During rioting consequent upon the bad harvests of 1799-1800, the Regiment lost several men injured in and around Nottingham - at one point, a musket ball pierced Captain Werge's helmet. The Regiment's establishment at this time was some 1,000 mounted men (10 troops).

In 1803, the Regiment travelled to Ireland (Dublin) and then back to England in 1805 (Northampton, then London). In September 1806, the Regiment joined Brigadier Samuel Auchmuty's ill-fated expedition to South America, where they fought as infantry at Monte Video and Buenos Aires. Within Buenos Aires, the British were attacked by 'the whole male population' (and, quite possibly, by a number of females as well), a demonstration of resistance that put an end to British endeavours. The Regiment re-embarked (without horses) for England and reached Portsmouth in January, 1808.

No sooner was the Regiment re-united with the depot squadron at Chichester, than they received warning orders for embarkation for India. 800 men embarked from Portsmouth in February, 1808, landing in Calcutta in August. Before Christmas, 1 officer and 62 other ranks had died from sickness. From Calcutta they sailed to Bombay, and then marched to cantonments in Surat (on the coast slightly north of Mumbai). In Surat the Regiment purchased horses from a local dealer named Soonderjie - it's probable that these horses were of the Kathiawari breed which was held in high esteem by the British, notably by General Sir James Charles Dalbiac.

1810 saw the Regiment's first action in India, when the Regiment charged insurgents at a small village named Burding. In 1811, the Regiment marched to purpose-built barracks at Ratanpur, where "the officers erected very handsome and substantial houses of stone". Sadly, an epidemic of fever struck the entire population shortly thereafter, and the Regiment lost 4 officers and 73 men within a space of four months. This disaster was followed by famine, no rain having fallen within two years.

As a consequence of border disputes between the British East India Company and the State of Nepal (Nepal War 1814-16), in 1814 the Regiment joined British troops moving north into the Hindu Kutch (now Pakistan). Interestingly, the 17th Light Dragoons were detached from the main army to deal with brigands and pirates around Dwarka, and after completing this task they returned to Ratanpur in 1816.

Their peace was short-lived, however, and in 1817 a tribe known as the Pindarees, often described as 'freebooters and robbers', ravaged northern India and incited other more docile rulers to rebel against East India Company rule. The 17th Light Dragoons marched to Baroda and then joined the army of Gen. Sir Thomas Hislop. Several casualties were incurred in minor skirmishes and intermittent warfare raged for the next five years.

In 1822, the Regiment was re-designated 'lancers' and at the same time received orders for re-embarkation to England. During its fourteen years in India, the Regiment had lost 822 officers and men dead from disease, apart from men killed in action.

The 17th Lancers docked at Gravesend in May, 1823. They marched to Regent's Park Barracks in London, where their carbines were exchanged for lances, and thence to the Cavalry barracks at Canterbury. In 1825 and 1826, they moved back to London and then to Exeter, moving to Hounslow in 1827. In 1828 they crossed the Bristol Channel to Ireland (Dublin). Frequent changes in the uniform followed, facings on the jacket discarded in favour of a plain blue jacket with white collar and cuffs, and the white helmet-plume being changed to black. By Royal Warrant in 1830, the uniform was changed again to scarlet jackets with blue trousers and, bizarrely, the 'wearing of moustaches' was banned!

After four years in Ireland, the Regiment returned to England (Gloucester) in 1832. In 1833 they moved to Hounslow, where they were reviewed by the King (William IV) who afterwards invited the officers to dine at Windsor Castle. There followed postings in various towns around England before the Regiment returned to Ireland (Dublin) in 1838. In 1841 they moved to Scotland (Edinburgh).

The colour of light cavalry jackets was changed back to blue in 1840. Thereafter, the Regiment served in various parts of Scotland and England until, with the outbreak of war in the Crimea, they embarked from Portsmouth for the Black Sea in April, 1854. The establishment sent overseas was 20 officers and 294 other ranks, with 297 horses. A depot squadron, comprising approximately the same establishment, remained at Brighton.

In June 1854, the Regiment, under command of Lt. Col. Lawrenson, disembarked at Varna and joined the Light Brigade under Lord Cardigan. Commanding the British cavalry was a former 17th Lancers officer, Lord Lucan. In common with the rest of the army, the Regiment suffered from cholera, losing 14 men. The Regiment was at the Battle of Alma, but the cavalry took little part in the fighting. Early in the morning of 25th July a Russian force of some 25,000 men moved to attack the British harbour at Balaclava. Their breakfast interrupted, the Light Brigade was ordered to mount.

Thereafter, a breakdown in communications between Lord Lucan, commanding the British cavalry (two brigades comprising the Heavy Brigade and the Light Brigade) and Brigadier Lord Cardigan (commanding the Light Brigade) led to frustration and confusion. Cardigan refused to attack a flank of the Russian cavalry which was hard pressed by a successful charge by the Heavy Brigade (Scots Greys and Inniskillens). Tempers flared. Meanwhile, Russian infantry were removing captured British guns on a separate part of the battlefield (the Causeway Heights), and the army commander, Lord Raglan, ordered "the cavalry to advance rapidly and recover the guns". In error, Lord Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to attack a different battery of 12 guns commanding the valley underneath the Causeway Heights. Cardigan, already angry from the previous misunderstanding, did not question the order.

The 17th Lancers, under command of Captain Morris at this time, had two squadrons (totalling 139 officers and men) in the Light Brigade, of which they formed the centre of the first line, with the 11th Hussars to their left and 13th Hussars to their right. A second line comprised the 4th and 8th Hussars. The Brigade advanced into the valley to cover a distance of one and a half miles (about two kilometres) to the Russian guns.

There are suggestions that Captain Nolan (15th Hussars), aide-de-camp to Lord Raglan, galloped across the front of the Brigade to point out the error. The truth will never been known, as Nolan was killed by shellfire before he could convey any message. The troopers, with Lord Cardigan before them, progressed from trot to canter and then gallop. Casualties soon began to fall in the face of Russian gunfire. About one third of the Brigade survived the approach to carry the guns, only to meet overwhelming numbers of Russian cavalry drawn up behind the guns. Of 675 officers and men of the Light Brigade who charged, 195 returned to the British lines, although a number of stragglers and prisoners were recovered later.

From their total of 139, the 17th Lancers lost 3 officers and 23 men, together with 99 horses, killed. 3 officers and 33 men were wounded. 1 officer and 13 men were taken prisoner. The Commanding Officer, Captain Morris, was wounded and received medical help under fire from Surgeon Muat and Sergeant Wood, both of whom were subsequently awarded a Victoria Cross.

Having lost virtually all their horses, the Regiment received a surprising number of remounts when 100 Russian horses stampeded into the British lines in October. The Regiment was therefore in a position to fight the Battle of Inkerman. The winter, however, took a severe toll on the British, and especially their horses, as they were left without food or supplies due to failings of the high command. The Regiment finally embarked for Ireland in April, 1856.

1856 saw the Regiment in various parts of Ireland. The establishment was reduced to six troops totalling 28 officers, 442 other ranks and 300 horses. As news trickled in from India regarding the Mutiny of 1857, however, the Regiment's strength was increased to ten troops with warning orders for embarkation to India.

The 17th Lancers left Cork in October 1857 and reached Bombay in December with an establishment of 21 officers and 483 other ranks. The Mutiny was far from suppressed in 1858 and two leaders in particular, Tantia Topee and Rao Sahib, were active in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As soon as horses had been purchased (Arabians, Australian walers and Cape breeds), a squadron set off on the 500 mile march from Bombay to Mhow, where they would join British troops under Maj. Gen. Michel - "At whatever hour of the day or night the march might close, [Captain] Sir William Gordon, with or without the help of a candle, inspected every horse's back".

General Michel's pursuit of Tantia Topee's forces, some 10,000 men strong including guns and elephants, was to last over a year and included many forced marches, minor engagements and a major battle at Sindwaho, where for his actions Lieutenant Sir Evelyn Wood of the 17th Lancers was awarded a Victoria Cross. After an exhausting campaign, and deserted by his troops, Tantia Topee was finally captured in April, 1859.

Of the British cavalry horses, the Arabians proved significantly more capable of endurance than either the Australia walers or the South African horses.

After the defeat of the rebels, the Regiment succumbed to cholera in 1859 and 1860, losing a large number of men before settling into cantonments at Secunderabad, where they remained for five years. Total losses from disease (apart from enemy action) were 38 officers and 373 men during the eight years' service in India. In January 1865, the Regiment embarked from Bombay bound for home.

Landing in England in 1865, the 17th Lancers were stationed at Colchester and then Aldershot, Shorncliffe, Brighton, Woolwich and Hounslow in quick succession. Administrative changes were made, the designation of 'troops' being replaced by 'squadrons' and the establishment being set at 553 men and 344 horses.

In 1869, King William IV ordered all lancer regiment to adopt a black plume on their kapskas - the white, occasionally white on red, plume of the 17th Lancers was therefore discontinued. However, the Regiment managed to regain the white plume two years later. The years 1869 and 1870 saw the Regiment march to Scotland (Edinburgh) and then Ireland, where it would remain until 1876.

Although Britain was not involved in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), developments on the Continent led to reforms within the British Army. Significantly, the purchase and sale of commissions was abolished. Also, the rank of 'cornet' was abolished. For other ranks, a 'short service' enlistment was introduced, whereby soldiers could 'sign on' for six years. And with the introduction of the Snider rifle, more attention was given to unmounted drills.

The year 1876 also saw the addition of a white 'plastron', or chest covering, to the Regiment's uniform (an addition based on the European fashion). At the same time, the Duke of Cambridge (cousin to Queen Victoria) was appointed Colonel of the Regiment, which adopted the designation 17th Lancers (Duke of Cambridge's Own). In 1877, the Regiment returned from Ireland to Aldershot and in 1878 Martini-Henry rifles were issued, although the lance was still carried.

In 1879, disastrous news reached England to the effect that British forces in Southern Africa had suffered defeat at Isandlhwana (the Zulu War). Leaving a Depot Squadron at Hounslow, the 17th Lancers embarked immediately for Southern Africa, arriving in Durban in April with a strength of 30 officers, 540 other ranks and 522 horses. The Regiment, together with the 1st Dragoon Guards, marched to Rourke's Drift (previously the scene of heroic British resistance) and buried the bodies left on the field at Isandlhwana before crossing into the tribal lands of the Zulus.

After some brief skirmishing, the British advanced into Zulu heartland at Ulundi where, in the face of overwhelming numbers of Zulu warriors, the cavalry was ordered inside the infantry square. Having repulsed the initial attack, the cavalry formed ranks outside the square and charged, using their lances with effect. The Zulu force was scattered, with losses to the Regiment of 1 officer and 2 men killed, 3 officers and 5 men wounded and 26 horses killed or wounded. This action put an end to the Zulu War.

No sooner was the Zulu War finished, than in October 1879 six troops embarked from South Africa direct to India, landing in Bombay in early November. They were accommodated, as twenty-one years before, at Mhow. After four years, the 17th Lancers relieved the 10th Hussars at Lucknow where they remained for six years, returning home to England (Shorncliffe) in 1890, although a surprisingly large number of men transferred to other regiments in order to remain in India.

A tranquil period of time in England was roughly interrupted by the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Embarking at the commencement of hostilities, the Regiment reached South Africa in March, 1900, where they were brigaded with the 9th and 16th Lancers under Brigadier Gordon (3rd Cavalry Brigade). Their first major engagement was at Diamond Hill in June. Thereafter, the Regiment was divided, with squadrons sent to different columns. The mountainous terrain of Cape Colony severely tested the British troops who were under constant threat from Boer guerrillas. At Elands River in October, 1901, C Squadron was virtually annihilated by the Boers, losing 3 officers and 20 other ranks killed, and 2 officers and 30 other ranks wounded. (The Boer casualties were light).

Since 1759, no less than five Victoria Crosses had been awarded to the Regiment's soldiers up until 1900, the fifth being awarded to Sergeant T Lawrence for his valour in November, 1900.

With peace declared in 1902, the Regiment returned to England.