The Military Army Blog

Russian interest in the Med, and the Indian army in Malta

The artillery and cavalry camp at San Antonio, Attard. Photo: Girolomo Gianni

For a few months in 1878, Malta hosted a contingent of over 8,000 British and Indian troops on their way to Cyprus to support Turkey against a perceived threat from Russia. Denis Darmanin recounts this little-known episode in Malta s chequered history.

In 1696, Peter the Great embarked on transforming the Imperial Russian Navy and changing the Russian tsardom into the Russian Empire. The Russo-Turkish wars of Catherine the Great resulted in the establishment of the Black Sea fleet, with its bases in Sevastopol and Kherson. It was during this time that Russian warships started venturing into the Mediterranean Sea on a regular basis. The Russian Navy was involved in: the birth of the Greek Republic of Seven Islands; in the clearing the French from Corfu and all the Ionian islands; in the blockading of the French bases in Italy, notably Genoa and Ancona, and the assaults on Naples and Rome. Russian control extended to the southern Adriatic, disrupted Dubrovnik s sea trade, and destroyed the Ottoman Fleet in the Battle of Athos (1807). A similar Russian force was intended to assist Malta against the French during the blockade of 1798-1800. During the Crimean War of 1853 and 1856, Russia fought against an alliance between France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Russia lost the war and the Ottomans gained a 20-year respite from Russian pressure.

However, war seemed inevitable in this region, and between 1877 and 1878 another Russo-Turkish war broke out, which resulted in the Russian government entering into the Treaty of San Stefano with Turkey. The treaty called for almost complete independence of Turkey s Christian provinces but the British contested it, as it would place the whole of southeast Europe directly under Russian influence. Russia argued that the treaty merely concerned Turkey and Russia itself and was for them alone to settle. But the Great Powers would not allow Russia to force any terms on Turkey, and the latter asserted that it had been coerced into signing the treaty. Britain had since entered into a defence agreement with Turkey, known as the Cyprus Convention by which terms Britain agreed to come to the aid of Turkey should it be attacked or invaded. Britain had always held that Russia should not be allowed to break out of the Black Sea and secure Mediterranean ports. This was another reason why Russia sought to help Malta during the revolt against the French in 1798. If this had happened, Russia could easily have placed an army of 600,000 men in Malta.

Under the terms of the treaty, the Sultan of Turkey allowed Cyprus to be occupied and administered by Britain. In order to enforce its commitment with Turkey and to counter the perceived threat from Russia, at the end of March 1878, the British government decided to call out its reserves to occupy Cyprus. Britain assembled an occupation force consisting of a contingent of British and Indian troops. Their destination was Malta. Preparations for the embarkation of the Indian contingent were issued as early as April 1878, even though the treaty was not signed until June of that year. Described as the Malta Expeditionary Force, it was placed under the command of Major General J. Ross of the British Service, and consisted of two batteries of British artillery, two regiments of native cavalry, four companies of sappers and miners, and six battalions of native infantry. In order to complete regiments to the full established strength, volunteers of similar class composition were called for, but only men of good character and fit for field service were allowed to volunteer. While the Indian regiments were in Malta they left behind various mementos of their presence, mainly in the form of wall paintings or murals

Men who were about to embark were required to be in possession of the regulation field service kit, and in addition, a free issue was made to each man, including additional clothing. Followers were issued with clothing adequate for the journey and rations were provided to all.

In addition to the array of staff officers administering under Ross, Brigadier General J. Watson of the Bombay Corps commanded the cavalry brigade and Brigadier General H.T. Macpherson of the Bombay Staff Corps commanded the infantry brigade. The composition of the troops was as follows: M. Battery, 1st Brigade and F. Battery, 2nd Brigade, Royal Artillery, Field Pack Train, 9th Bengal Cavalry, 1st Bombay Cavalry, two companies (Queen s Own), Madras Sappers and Miners, two companies, Bombay Sappers and Miners, 2nd (P.W.0.) Gurkhas, 9th Bombay Native Infantry, 13th (The Shekhawatee) Bengal Infantry, 31st Punjab Infantry, 25th Madras Infantry, 26th Bombay Infantry and the Ninth Bengal Cavalry (becoming Lancers in 1885). The embarkation records show that the force consisted of 105 European officers, 126 Indian officers, 343 European soldiers, 5,557 Indian Army soldiers and 2,340 families and followers; a total of 8,471. In addition, 1,384 horses and 526 ponies were embarked to accompany the force.

The movement of an army this size created some problems for the authorities, but the embarkation went along smoothly. The force embarked at Bombay, other than the 25th Madras Native Infantry, which embarked at Cananore. The troops left India on the 12 steamers, towing 15 sailing ships provided by the Indian government, and which had cost the Admiralty 398,000. The first detachment were transported on the vessels Goa, Duke of Athol, Malda, Madura, Maraval, Hospodar, St Osyth, Clydesdale, Helen Scott, Bengal and Oriflamme, while the second detachment embarked on the Canara, Baron Colonsay, Bangalore, Sir Mildred, Hannibal, Suez, Brambletye, Nankin, Kilkerran, Marina, Narcissius, Macedonia, Aros Bay, Citadel, Trinacria and Seaforth. The staff officers were the first to reach Malta, arriving on May 4 and 6 on board the steamers SS Campidoglio and SS Peshawur. The main force arrived in Grand Harbour in late May 1878, and started disembarking on May 27. It was not an easy task to accommodate such a large number of troops in barracks. Some were moved to the glacis outside Portes des Bombes while others were billeted under canvas at the Lazaretto outside Fort Manoel. G Company (Queen s Own) Madras Sappers and Miners were immediately given the task of making new roads and providing additional cover for the troops in the camp at Mrie el, on the road to San Antonio, Attard.

On May 30 at 6.30am, the Mounted Indian Contingent took part in an impressive parade at Floriana for the governor, Sir Charles van Straubenzee. Along with the Malta Division, it again paraded on June 15 for the Field Marshal, the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, who had arrived in Malta on HMS Helicon the day before. On June17, all the troops in Malta were inspected by the Duke of Cambridge. The garrison in Malta at the time consisted of elements from the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, 1st Battalion 1st Royal Scots Regiment, 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment, 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment, 61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment, 71st (Highland) Light Infantry, 98th (The Prince of Wales s) Regiment and the 101st Royal Bengal Fusiliers, as well as the Royal Malta Fencible Artillery. Following the inspection he issued a very complimentary order that was full of praise for the Indian soldiers: His Royal Highness cannot speak too highly of the soldierly qualities. Their uniform, good conduct and smartness reflects the greatest credit on all ranks. Their steadiness under arms and drill and the excellent state of their camps leave nothing to be desired.

While in Malta, the Indian troops visited a number of places of interest, especially Valletta. They were curious about the way of life here, in particular Maltese customs and certain religious activities. Contemporary illustrations show soldiers walking through the busy streets in Valletta, watching Maltese women wearing the faldetta and in particular of the religious processions. Camp life was an active routine as sports and weapon training were important to keep up soldiers morale. It is interesting to note that while on the island, the Indian soldiers, and probably even the Malta Garrison, were issued with the new Martini Henry rifles and carbines, which in later years was reputed to have been one of the weapons that forged the British Empire. A special performance of the Malta Garrison races was held on July 16 with most events given Indian titles. One particular event was the Sowars pony race in which officers of the Indian Cavalry participated. Of particular interest is that Prince Louis Buttenberg entered two of the other races with his horse Snowflake. Many of these events were widely covered by the local and British press.

Although well behaved and much liked by the Maltese, the Expeditionary Force was not to remain in Malta for long as plans were made for it to continue its journey to its intended destination, Cyprus. The advance party was made up of the Madras Sappers and Miners, who arrived at Larnaca on July 16. The main force departed two days later on the Himalaya, Orontes and Tamar, to disembark in Cyprus on July 23. The combined British and Indian force was then placed under the command of Lt Gen Sir Garnet Wolseley. It is alleged that some of the camp followers were left behind and eventually integrated with the Maltese community. Although serving and fighting in various campaigns, the Indian Army was not to return to Europe again until World War I when Indian Expeditionary Force A, under the command of General Sir James Willcocks, took part in the Battle of La Bass e in October 1914. A day or so before departing for Cyprus, the Ninth Bengal Cavalry was prevented from embarking with the rest of the army because 48 men were poisoned

While the Indian regiments were in Malta they left behind various mementos of their presence, mainly in the form of wall paintings or murals, depicting uniforms or other daily routines. One particular painting is on a wall at the Officers Mess of the former Main Guard at St George s Square.

The mural, which is numbered 150 , shows an Indian cavalry Sowar wearing a blue tunic and white trousers, the uniform of the First Bombay Lancers. These murals were restored by the artist Envin Cremona in 1942 when he was serving with the Royal Engineers. Three other interesting paintings depicting the Indian contingents in Malta were made by Girolomo Gianni. Various other prints of the Indian troops in Malta were featured in issues of The Illustrated London News and The Graphic of the time. Some years ago, the late major Albert Abela learnt that during maintenance work in a private residence, a number of faint murals were uncovered under various coats of whitewash and paint. They showed Indian soldiers in various daily routines, such as Armyrats © military drill, cooking, eating, sports and sentry piquets. Above an arch of the main hall were remnants of the effigy of Kali, the Hindu goddess associated with empowerment. It is possible that the house and adjoining grounds had served as a headquarters, an officers mess or even a place of worship for the Indians.

Although it did not engage in any fighting, the force suffered a number of Armyrats © military casualties both in Malta and in Cyprus. A day or so before departing for Cyprus, the Ninth Bengal Cavalry was prevented from embarking with the rest of the army because 48 men were poisoned. Their regular dose of lime juice had been replaced by disinfectant fluid; whether this was done by accident or design is not known as the perpetrator was never discovered. Three men died in agony and the rest were permanently disabled. As a result, the regiment stayed in Malta until October when they sailed back to Bombay. Fever was prevalent in Malta and two men, presumably members of the Madras Sappers and Miners, died while on the island. Although cremation is part of the Hindu and Sikh rites, a monument in the form of a grave was erected on the grounds of the former Rifle Ranges in the then Pembroke Encampment. The grave consisted of four pozzolana plinths, one at each corner, and it was covered by loose gravel chippings, surrounded by a decoratively twisted, wrought iron fence. A headstone of the same material read:

In memoriam. This stone marks the place of interment of two men of the Indian Expeditionary Force who died 22 July 1878. Until 1979, the grave was maintained by the British Forces, but in later years, the area was included in a home ownership scheme zone, and after a long period of neglect, the structure suffered considerable damage and was eventually lost. The grave was the only known monument of the Victorian Indian Army in Malta and possibly in Europe of the time.

It seems some British soldiers had also died while in Malta as a memorial at Ta Braxia Cemetery, Piet , commemorates the men of M Battery, 1st Brigade, Royal Artillery.

Since the departure of the British Services in 1979, Pembroke has become one of Malta s flourishing towns with many new streets, yet it is ironic that none were named after the Indian Expeditionary Force of 1878.

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