21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers

This article on the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers will provide you with an overview of the Regiment’s activities during the First World War and will help you to research those who served with it. I have also written a series of guides to help you research British soldiers who served during the war:

The 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers in the First World War

Location in August 1914: The 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers was stationed at Rawalpindi in what is now the Punjab Province of Pakistan. The Regiment had arrived in India from Egypt on 10 October 1912.

The 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers, usually abbreviated to the 21st Lancers, was a British cavalry regiment which served in India for the duration of the First World War. The Regiment had achieved widespread fame in 1898 for a charge at the Battle of Omdurman which saw the award of three Victoria Crosses. Winston Churchill also took part. The 21st Lancers also made a charge, though now largely forgotten, at the Battle of Shabkadar on 5 September 1915. In my opinion, it is the hardest British cavalry regiment of the First World War to research as it has left few records.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers was serving as part of the 1st (Risalpur) Cavalry Brigade in the 1st (Peshawar) Division at Rawalpindi in what is now in Pakistan. In the October 1914 Indian Army List, the unit was under orders for Risalpur on the North West Frontier in what is now Pakistan. Despite the war, a strong Anglo-Indian garrison was stationed on the frontier. Risalpur is a town thirty-three miles east of Peshawar. The withdrawal of large numbers of British and Indian units had led to unrest among the tribes of the frontier. One of the most serious pieces of unrest occurred in 1915 when Mohmand tribesmen (a Pathan tribe) began to gather in strength near Peshawar.

A Jihad (Holy War) was declared and a series of small skirmishes took place before the Battle of Shabkadar was fought by a Moveable Column on 5 September 1915. On the 28 August 1915, B and C squadrons rode from Risalpur to Shabkadar Fort, 15 km (9.3 miles) from Peshawar. British cavalry serving in India was organised on a four squadron basis so only half the Regiment was present. On the 4 September 1915, an estimated 2,500 Mohmand tribesman were seen on the hills around Shabkadar. The next day an assault was ordered in what would be the largest battle fought on the North West Frontier since 1897.

During the battle, a Mohmand force used a sand ridge as cover to occupy a village which threatened the British artillery. The two squadrons of the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers were ordered to clear the village. C Squadron, led by the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Barclay Scriven met disaster when it ran into a hidden nullah (watercourse) fourteen feet wide and six feet deep. The Squadron was completely disorganized with many struggling in the nullah while others continued on to attack the village. However, it was at this moment of chaos that the Mohmands attacked out of the surrounding maize fields.

Fortunately, B Squadron which had attempted to reach the village via another route arrived and managed to provide heavy covering fire and rescue C Squadron. Though the charge had ended in disaster, the battle itself was a success and inflicted heavy casualties on the Mohmand forces. The 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers suffered seven dead, including Lieutenant-Colonel Scriven and Lieutenant Neville Rudd Thompson and at least seventeen men wounded. The battle also saw the award of a Victoria Cross to Private Charles Hull whose citation, published in the 3 March 1916 London Gazette read:

For most conspicuous bravery. When under close fire of the enemy, who were within a few yards, he rescued Captain G. E. D. Learoyd, whose horse had been shot, by taking him up behind him and galloping into safety. Shoeing-Smith Hull acted entirely on his own initiative, and saved his officer’s life at the imminent risk of his own.

The following letter was written by Private Clifford F. Dench, who was served with the 21st Lancers during the battle and appeared in the Surrey Mirror on 8 October 1915:

C and B Squadrons were ordered to ——- as all the tribes are out and were coming down from the hills. It is the biggest expedition known since 1897. The other day we went into action, and it was not long before the bullets were flying about us. We were holding a hill when one of our officers was shot through the chest, but he is going on all right now.

We had to retire from the hill, and then came the order to form line and charge, as the enemy were getting all round us. So we charged, but the ground was awful. We lost our Colonel and Squadron Leader and six men in the charge, and had about 16 wounded. There were thousands of the enemy.

The devils hid themselves in the river over which we charged. All one could see were horses falling down shot, and men falling off them either wounded or dead. I killed two of the enemy with my sword. When we rallied we found all our wounded had been dragged away by the enemy to the hill.

We sent out a search party of native infantry, and they brought in the dead. Yesterday we went out and raided all the native villages after the artillery had shelled them with their guns. The enemy have been so frightened that they have gone to the hills to bury their dead, who we think number about 6,000. All of them have got rifles: some of them are elephant guns, but I think the old Kaiser has got something to do with it. The General says our charge was like riding into a death trap, but we save two British infantry regiments from being cut up, and we are being praised for what we did.

By August 1916, the 21st Lancers also had a detachment at Murree, a hill station where British soldiers were often sent during the summer. The unit was still at Risalpur in October 1917 but had moved to Meerut by December 1919. During the war, the Regiment remained with the 1st (Risalpur) Cavalry Brigade of the 1st (Peshawar) Division. A service squadron composed of reservists was sent to the Western Front in the summer of 1916. This squadron was combined with the 2nd King Edward’s Horse and served as part of XIV Corps.

Percy Hume Allfrey Anderson 21st Lancers

This photograph of Captain Percy Hume Allfrey Anderson who was killed at Shabkadar was published in The Sphere on 16 October 1915. There is no service record for Percy at the National Archives but as a cavalry officer, it wouldn’t be hard to trace his career.

Researching those who Served in the 21st Lancers during the First World War

If you are researching a soldier who served in the First World War I would suggest starting by looking at my generic research guides. Those on service and medal records are a good starting point and my page on abbreviations and acronyms will help with the jargon. The 21st Lancers is a difficult regiment to research compared to other British cavalry regiments as it left few records to consult. There is no war diary for the Regiment which makes it hard to add detail to a soldier’s service in India. However, there is a variety of information concerning the Regiment and the men who served with it in contemporary newspapers. There is a short chapter on the Regiment’s activities in India with some great photographs in The Last Charge: The 21st Lancers and the Battle of Omdurman by Terry A. Brighton. This can be a difficult book to get hold of and I looked at a copy at the British Library. Below is an extract from the December 1918 Distribution of the Army in India which shows the location of the Regiment. Distribution lists, held at the British Library in London will record the location of the Regiment each month and the formation it was serving in.

21st Empress of India's Lancers Distribution List

Officers: A service record is the most important document to find but not all have survived. If a service record has survived, then it will either be held by the National Archives or if an officer served past April 1922, then by the Ministry of Defence.  When “21 Lancers” is searched in the National Archives catalogue for its officers’ files, ten appear. However, there will be other officers who had transferred to different regiments. If an officer served past April 1922 then their service record should be with the Ministry of Defence. I have written an article about ordering these files on my Second World War website: Ordering a Service Record from the Ministry of Defence. It is a straightforward process which requires two short forms to be filled out. Other important sources of information for officers are Hart’s Army List, the London Gazette, the Indian Army List and contemporary newspapers.

Other Ranks: Start your search by looking for a service record and medal index card. If a soldier served past January 1921 then their record will still be held by the Ministry of Defence. The process to order these files is straight forward, as no death certificate is needed or the permission of the next of kin. I have written an article about ordering these files on my Second World War website: Ordering a Service Record from the Ministry of Defence. Two good resources to check for post-war service are the Royal Tank Corps enlistment records 1919-1934 on FindmyPast and the Military Discharge Indexes, 1920-1971 on Ancestry. The latter resource has a lot of errors and is not complete but still useful. Soldiers who appear in these resources will have had their First World War regimental number replaced by an army number by 1920/1.

An enlistment date can often be worked out, even if a service record is lost, from a soldier’s regimental number. You have to be careful, as there are two numbering series for the 21st Lancers. Prior to December 1906, each lancer regiment numbered their own men. After this date, all the regiments numbered from a single block. If you know when a soldier was born, you will usually be able to work out which number series he belonged to. For other rank casualties at the Battle of Shabkadar, The Times casualty list can be consulted.

Clifford F Dench 21st Lancers

This photograph of Clifford Dench was published in the Surrey Mirror and County Post,  on 8 October 1915 along with his account of the Battle of Shabkadar. The British newspaper archive which is available on FindmyPast is a fantastic resource not only to research a soldier but also a unit during the war. The newspaper was digitized from a microfilm copy which is why the image is poor. Clifford has an entry in the Royal Tank Corps enlistment records 1919-1934 which shows that he enlisted on 16 November 1911 at Guildford aged 19. The document is full of useful information and shows that he remained in India throughout the war, qualifying for the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. Clifford’s regimental number of L/3670 was replaced by an army number of 311672.

If you’re researching a soldier who served in the First World War, then you’ll need to search the records on Ancestry and FindmyPast. Both sites offer free trials and if you’re in Britain, then you can usually access them for free at your local library. Clicking on the banner below will take you to FindmyPast.

21st Lancers’ War Diary 

A war diary was written by an officer of a unit and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of maps, battle reports and orders. There are no war diaries concerning the Regiment’s activities in India. However, there is a war diary for the service squadron which joined XIV Corps in France in 1916 which can be downloaded for a small fee by clicking the blue link below. Extracts from the war diary have been transcribed at the bottom of the page.

  • Date: January 1916 – August 1917
  • XIV Corps Troops
  • Reference: WO 95/919/1
  • Notes: A good war diary which covers the 1st Service Squadron, 21st Lancers on the Western Front and 2nd King Edward’s Horse and has been digitized and is available to download from the National Archives’ website. I have transcribed a few entries below.

Further Sources for the 21st Lancers

Unfortunately, there is no regimental history for the 21st Lancers covering its service during the First World War. There is a short chapter concerning the 21st Lancers in India in The Last Charge: The 21st Lancers and the Battle of Omdurman by Terry A. Brighton. This book has some great photos of the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers in India but is difficult to find.

Extracts from the War Diary of the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers

January 1916 – August 1917, XIV Corps WO 95/919/1

21 July 1916: Proven: Rainy. To riding horses evacuated mobile section. A draft of 50 Non-commissioned officers and men arrived for duty from No.5 General Base, and 25 Non-commissioned officers and men arrived for duty with the 1st Service Squadron 21st Lancers.

8 October 1916: Etinehem Road: 1623 Private Shaw 2nd King Edward’s Horse wounded and sent to Hospital. Four lancers and three K.E.H. evacuated to Base Hospital sick.

1 November 1916: Etinehem Road: 4387 Sergeant Watkins C and 8241 Sergeant Day 21st Lancers evacuated to Base and struck off strength 31 October 1916. 6709 Sergeant Harris F. F. 9th Lancers joined 21st Lancers for duty 30 October 1916.

16 November 1916: Etinehem Road: 6374 S.S.M. Ware 21st Lancers, was transferred to the North Somerset Yeomanry and struck off strength.

2 December 1916: 2nd Lieutenant H. H. Kilby 1st Service Squadron 21st Lancers transferred to Royal Flying Corps struck off strength 1 December 1916.

25 December 1916: Etineham Road: Christmas Day. A liberal commissariat had been arranged from Paris for the men in Camp, and well-filled hampers were sent round to the eighteen distant detached posts which the Regiment was holding. A very pleasant quiet day with little rain.

The following telegram was received from the Commander in Chief “I desire to convey to all ranks under my command my hearty good wishes for Christmas and the New Year. It is indeed a privilege to command such officers and such men, and I fell confident that the magnificent qualities they have shown in the face of the enemy will carry our armies to ultimate victory”.